Swiss capital Bern is breathtaking

Jul 28, 2013, 05:34 IST | Vijaya Pratap

There is magic at every corner of the Swiss capital, whether you are taking a quiet stroll by the Aare River, visiting the old city or being mesmerised by modern marvels, finds Vijaya Pratap

I am awestruck by Bern’s beauty. While walking from my hoteltowards the old city, I come to a bridge. About to cross it, I slow down, then stop and look below, at the strikingly blue and beautiful River Aare flowing gracefully. Paying a tribute to its splendour are lovely buildings on either side. If all strolls were this beautiful, one would surely walk more. 

Switzerlands Old Town
Switzerland’s Old Town is graced by medieval architecture, including the country’s tallest Cathedral and oldest clock tower. Pics/Vijaya Pratap

I click pictures from every possible angle and still want to click more. How can you contain the city’s magnificence in a mere few frames? Situated in the heart of Switzerland, the nation’s capital makes an ideal hub for trips all around the country. It is a wise choice to take a guided tour through the Old Town to see Prison Tower, Parliament Building, the Cathedral, Clock Tower, Town Hall, Einstein’s House and the unique fountains, each with a story of its own.

The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower, known as Zytglogge with its Baroque architecture, is the centre of attraction for tourists

On the riverside are some of the most upmarket neighbourhoods and exclusive bungalows with stunning gardens. Bern has a special way of combining the traditional with the modern. This had earned for the city, the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its unique Old Town is graced by medieval architecture, including Switzerland’s tallest Cathedral and the oldest clock tower. In Old Town I have a special shopping and cultural experience, buying modern marvels in the midst of history.

Aare river
Bathing in the Aare River is one of the main summer attractions for locals and tourists alike

Old town and Underground treasures
The Kramgasse forms the centre piece of Bern Old Town. This alley was once Bern’s busiest trade route for marketers and shopkeepers who loudly advertised and sold their goods here, and swapped latest news. Over three miles of arcades allows visitors to stroll and shop in any weather.

The Bernese love laid-back, long shopping trips -- and will do so come snow or rain. Thanks to the longest weather-protected stretch of shopping promenade in Europe, this is in fact, quite feasible. The “Lauben”, as the Bernese call their arcades, areadmirably suited for a jaunty stroll among the historic city scenery.

working of a clock
A guide explains the working of a clock from the interior of the clock tower

The history of this passage reaches back to the earliest city development (1191 AD), and even then served to accommodate market stalls and businesses. Traders could, thus, trade and earn their living in any weather. For tourists too it is a pleasure, going around these arcades and peeping at the lovely exhibits on the windows.

The Bernese also demonstrated their practical sense in putting the nether regions to good use. They built vaulted cellars under every house in order to be able to store their goods. Nowadays, entirely different treasures are hidden in these cellars. I descend the steep stone steps, and find myself in a different world.

The underground reveals trendy and traditional bars, clubs, theatres, cellar cinemas and special fashion shops. Very interesting shops abound here, and one day, as I explore these areas with my friend, we find some of them a bit mysterious and retreat in haste. But later, as we recollect our experiences, we burst out into laughter. There's no other place that offers such historic settings for a shopping excursion!

An underground tunnel shop in Bern
An underground tunnel shop in Bern

Magic everywhere
I take a guided tour around the city, to appreciate and understand the city better. The Clock Tower, known as Zytglogge, with its Baroque and Gothic architecture, is the centre of attraction for the tourists and the citizens. Being the oldest working clock in the country, it is respected by all. People throng this place at specific hours, to hear the chimes manually struck by the figure on the top and the various small marvels that happen during this chiming.

In the year 1405 AD, the clock tower was gutted. Thereafter, the fourth side, which faces the city, was rebuilt in stone. The tower-bell, originally had to be struck by hand to announce the hours. Rebuilt in 1530 AD by Kaspar Brunner, it has since been a calendar clock with a delightful mechanical figure-play -- still a much-admired showpiece.

Three minutes before the hour strikes, the rooster crows and lifts its wings; then, the procession of the armed bears starts; at the same time, the jester sitting above rings two bells and moves his left leg.

After the procession of the bears has ended, the rooster crows a second time, whereupon, at the very top of the tower, the quarter-hour bell is struck, at which time Chronos turns his sandglass. Only now does the larger-than-life figure of a knight in golden armour made of linden wood and known as Hans von Thann, strike the full hour on the large bell. The performance ends with a third crow of the rooster. I am totally awestruck by all drama and the technical brilliance behind this.

Gabriella, the guide takes us around the clock tower and explains every aspect of its working. It is amazing to note the kind of inputs that have gone into its making, hundreds of years ago, when technology was still in its nascent stage. The view from the clock tower is equally fascinating.

The old city with all its stunning structures looks fabulous from here. During the guided tour, Gabriella adds essence to the incomparably gorgeous picture presented by the medieval streets of Bern. After the great fire of 1405, most houses had to be rebuilt and instead of wood, sandstone from nearby quarries was used as building material. The houses were replaced in the 16th and 17th centuries by new buildings whose harmonious appearance and richness of detail delight visitors even today.

Highly fascinating are the fountains from the middle Ages, whose colourful pillars and statues greatly enliven the surroundings. These very artistic Renaissance fountains were erected about 1550 AD in place of earlier wooden ones, and they reflect the practical mind of the Bernese, combining utility with art. For the benefit of posterity they made these fountains into memorials to the city’s heroes and historic events. Out of the hundred fountains, 11 still feature the original statues with their symbolic figures, the fountain of the Child Eater being the most popular.

Close to the clock tower The Einstein House, attracts anyone remotely interested in his Theory of Relativity or curious about the Nobel Laureate’s life. Albert Einstein lived in this rented flat from 1903 to 1905 with his wife Mileva and son Hans Albert. The second-floor residence features furnishings from that time period as well as photos and texts presented in a modern exhibition system.

Bern today is a modern city but its magical past lives on in its old streets. The world-class examples of contemporary design and architecture -- the Zentrum Paul Klee Museum, the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf Stadium and the new Westside Shopping and Leisure Centre, designed by Daniel Libeskind. The new Bear Park on the edge of the Old Town gives visitors a first-hand glimpse into the life of Bern’s symbol, the bear. A very common thing to do in Bern these days is Urban Swimming -- bathing in the Aare river. This is one of the main summer attractions.

Every single corner of the city invites me to look inward, to observe, and to be inspired by the treasures of the city’s history. The wonderfully preserved renaissance fountains, the historic sandstone buildings, the Gothic Cathedral, the Bear Park and the beautiful view from the Rose Garden, they all instigate and widen my horizons.

I find a quiet beauty in the city of Bern that combines so wonderfully a wealth of culture, leisure, and pleasure. I am impressed by the unhurried pace of the Bernese. With ‘haste’ and ‘hectic rush’ out of their dictionaries, they find time to enjoy life, savour every moment, be it a brief chat under their antique arcades or to stop and smell a rose in their pretty rose garden!

Getting there
>> Swiss Air and many other international airlines operate daily flights to Zurich and Geneva.Bern is a short time from either.

>> One can also travel to Bern via Eurorail if arriving from elsewhere in Europe

>> In Bern, it’s best to travel on foot or get on a bus

Best from: Geneva
You need: 3 days
Type: Heritage 

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