Bern, Switzerland

When I began researching where to travel in the Alps, one of the places that kept appearing in the guide books was the city of Bern. This is Switzerland's capital city, not Zurich or Geneva, and its small size makes Bern an easily walkable, thoroughly beautiful city. Between the Swiss government buildings, the riverfront walking paths, the historic museum collections, and the city's live bear mascots - seriously, Bern has bears on public display for visitors - this was a place that I wanted to explore. I had another full day of touring on my hands.

I woke up early again on this Saturday morning and headed back to the big bubble of a train station in Strasbourg. My initial train was taking me to Basel, a city located just across the Swiss border in the northern part of the country. This initial trip took me through more farming country, long fields of green and brown set amid forested rolling hills. Everything looked much the same as it had on the previous day during this first leg of the journey. In Basel, I had a short period of time to transfer onto my next train heading further south to Bern, which fortunately went smoothly for me. After leaving Basel, the terrain outside became noticeably more elevated, with some of the hills beginning to be replaced by small mountains. The true alpine country lay further to the south though, and I wouldn't be heading there until the following day. While this was a noticeable change from before, I was still in the foothills for the moment.

The first thing that I noticed in Bern were the flags. These seemed to be hanging everywhere along the main thoroughfares of the city, draped out of the sides of buildings in a bewildering array of shapes and colors. The Swiss national flag was the most common, but there were literally dozens of other flags, with Bern's black bear design appearing frequently alonside a host of others. I'm guessing that many of the other flags were for Swiss cantons or other Swiss cities, although that's just a guess. The proliferation of flags seemed to be a Swiss custom, as I would see them again in other cities over the next few days. There were also public fountains sprinkled liberally throughout the downtown, with colorful painted figures and flowers adorning each one in unique fashion. I noticed plenty of people drinking from them, which made them a kind of super fancy drinking fountain. My guess is that the city of Bern has preserved these fountains from an earlier period of history where they were necessary due to a lack of indoor plumbing. They make for great tourist attractions now, and were refreshing to use on a hot summer day.

The first public building that I came across was the Swiss Parliament (Bundeshaus), which was holding an outdoor market in the surrounding square this morning. For once the timing luck of the calendar was on my side, as the Parliament building only conducted public tours on Saturday, and this was indeed a Saturday! I had reserved a spot on a tour for later in the day, and I would be back again later to see the interior. The outside of the building was constructed partly in Neoclassical fashion, with those pillars and the Latin inscription on the front giving this a feel somewhat similar to the federal buildings in Washington DC. The central dome was more of a Baroque touch, however, and this building represents a blending of several different styles of construction. Back behind the Parliament building, there was a viewing platform that looked off to the south and offered a sweeping view of the city. The Aare River can just be seen off to the left; I would have better views of it later on. Note as well the open fields on the undeveloped hill in the distance - Bern is not a large city with a population of only 130k. I could have walked from this spot to a point outside the city boundaries in less than an hour.

Since there were relatively few places open this early, I decided to head first to the largest church in Bern, which I knew would be welcoming visitors. Bern Cathedral (Berner Münster) is located on the southern side of the city's central core, overlooking the hill that slopes down to the riverside below. Bern's geography is similar to Luxembourg City, with the oldest part of the city located on a head of land that juts out to the east overlooking a river below. Unlike Luxembourg City, the cliffs were a lot less steep here. Bern Cathedral similarly lacked the raw size of the massive structures that I had visited in Cologne and Strasbourg, and was built around one central tower instead of the dual towers common in larger Gothic designs. I wish that I had taken a better picture of the structure than the one above cast in shadows, but sadly that was the best one I could find afterwards. The cathedral's tower stands about 330 feet in height and is the tallest church in Switzerland. Like Cologne cathedral, the tower wasn't finished until the modern era, with construction finally ending in 1893. The sculpture above the main entrance depicts a scene of the Last Judgment, and these statues were the only ones in the cathedral to survive the iconoclasm of the Reformation. The statues currently adorning the cathedral are replicas, with the originals located in one of the museums that I would visit later. The colorful depiction of humans being saved or condemned was rather uncomfortable to view, which was likely the goal of the original crafter.

The interior of the cathedral looked more like the standard Gothic design, with the familiar arched ceiling, stone pillars to each side, and stained glass windows adorning the walls. It was built originally during the 15th century, and would have been filled with statues of various saints in its original configuration. Bern Cathedral was converted to a Protestant house of worship during the Reformation, however, and most of the religious depictions were destroyed. What was left in their place was this more abstract form of religious architecture, mostly concentrated around white sandstone blocks and wooden pews without much else. The benches were individually carved and a product of great age, with some of them dating back hundreds of years according to the dates inscribed on their sides. The overall effect of the interior remains austere. Unfortunately the altar of the cathedral was under construction and covered with scaffolding, making it difficult to know what the cathedral looked like under normal circumstances. The stained glass was another surprise, depicting some religious figures but also more Swiss flags and these heraldric banners. I don't know if these symbols were for the houses of wealthy individuals, or if they represented other towns or cantons, or whatever else. But they were definitely not religious in nature - Bern's red and gold bear flag was clearly visible at the top of this picture. This was different from most other churches I had visited.

Bern Cathedral has its own tower climb, and I was eager to ascend up the stairs to get a view of the city from 150 feet in the air. This was an easier task than the previous tower climbs due to the lower elevation, and it was mostly empty of other tourists at this early hour. The sights from the top were magnificent, with the city of Bern spreading out around me in every direction. I could see the green dome of the Parliament building off to the west, rising above the turqouise expanse of the river flowing at its foot. The bridge that spanned the water nearby was almost comically scenic, looking like something out of a model train set moreso than an actual functioning work of engineering. To the north, I could see the neat rows of houses leading off to the distance, with the city's astronomical clock peaking up above the rest. The city's houses here in the oldest part of Bern were uniformly built from the same materials, sandstone brick structures of three or four stories capped by red tile roofs. The pattern continued off to the east, where the streets sloped down towards the river. Everything was neat and orderly, very much in keeping with the Swiss national character. On this sunny day, it was a beautiful vista to behold.

After departing the cathedral, I headed back through the streets again, passing more colorful banners and public fountains. My destination was the nearby astronomical clock that I had spotted from the tower of the cathedral, known officially as the Zytglogge, that serves as one of the city's most famous attractions. The tower itself was built in the early 13th century and originally served as part of the city's western fortifications. The structure has been remodeled numerous times over the centuries while serving as a defensive wall, a clock tower, and even as a prison at times. The astronomical clock dates to the late 15th century, and it remains fully operational today. When I was there, a big crowd formed every hour to watch some of the small figures move when they chimed the riging of the new hour. Even the drug store located next to the clock tower was a historic building in its own right, with the modern advertising in the ground floor windows contrasting with the old stonework. When I was putting this page together, I found that there are guided tours of the inside of the Zytglogge, and I wish that I had taken one while I was visiting Bern. I guess that you can't do everything though.

This was one of the places that I did visit in the city, the Einstein House museum. As the name suggests this is the apartment in Bern where Einstein lived while working for the Swiss patent office, at the time when he wrote his famous paper in 1905 that formed the basis for the theory of special relativity. The small museum was full of Einstein memorabilia and details about his life, furnished to look as it would have been decorated at the time. As the view out the window indicates, this was a pretty nice place to live, right on the Kramgasse main street in downtown Bern. Einstein wasn't a starving artist - he was doing rather well for himself at the time. This was a neat place to visit, although it was indeed quite small since it was built into an actual apartment building. The Einstein House is more of a quick stop than a place where someone would spend all day.

I continued walking east through the city streets, soon reaching the Nydeggbrücke bridge over the river Aare. The pictures above were all taken from that bridge, and the only word that I have to describe them is stunning. The water running past the city had this brilliant greenish-blue color to it, something that I've only seen in alpine areas where the water picks up some of the runoff from glaciers. The houses ran right up to the water's edge, and with their uniform tiled roofs they looked like miniature dollhouses in a model train set. There was also another lower stone bridge spanning the river off to the north, and a series of small boats carrying pleasure seekers out enjoying the fine weather. Later I saw some swimmers relaxing in inner tubes, letting the current carry them downriver at a lazy pace. It was a breaktakingly pretty sight to behold, the perfect image of a historic riverside European town.

This was the view from the other side of the river looking back at the city proper. Bern sits atop this gentle hill with the river surrounding it on three sides, again similar to Luxembourg City but much less steep. The cathedral was the highest visible landmark, much as it would have been in centuries past. Down below, a newly-constructed walkway took pedestrians out into the river, where there were small landings that gave access to the water. That walkway also provided excellent views of the city's living mascots:

Bears! There's a long tradition in Bern of keeping bears as a symbol of the city; the flag that I had been seeing everywhere had that bear insignia on it, after all. According to city lengend, in 1191 a local duke vowed to choose the first animal his hunt met in the wood as his namesake. His group came across a bear and caught it, thus giving rise to the coat of arms that Bern has used ever since. Records indicate that live bears have been kept in the city since at least the 16th century, and likely since earlier times. The location of the bear pit (Bärengraben) has shifted over time, with the current location situated across the river from the city center. The accomodations of the bear pit have also improved substantially over time. The initial pit was just a hole in the ground, and an earlier version from the late 19th century can also be seen nearby, an unattractive pit of stone and concrete. The current enclosure lets the bears roam up and down this hill and reach a small part of the river at the bottom. It's pretty nice as far as these things go. There were several bears in the enclosure, and they were close enough that I was able to capture some good pictures of their facial features. The bears made me think of our dog back at home, who was being watched by my parents during this trip. That first bear sitting on its haunches was making almost the same facial expression that Sidney does when he wants something to eat! It was very cute.

These are a few more pictures of the waterfront. There was a walking trail that curved around to the south, following the bend of the river against the flow of the current towards the next upstream bridge. I spent a little while sitting on the shore, relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. The water itself was a bit on the chilly side, coming down from mountain streams at higher altitudes. It looked clean enough to drink, although I didn't put that theory to the test. Eventually it was time to get up and continue walking. There was a power station of some kind near the bridge in the distance, I presume located there to generate power as the river flowed over a small series of rapids below the cathedral. There was even a restaurant located here that jutted out in the water, which would have been a fun place to have a meal. Instead I continued walking, climbing another trail until reaching street level above, and then crossing over the bridge back towards the center of Bern. The view from the top was once again magnificent, catching the sweep of the river as it curled around the city. What an amazing place to live on a daily basis, even if it wasn't always as pretty as this.

I was headed back to the Parliament building, where my afternoon tour was getting ready to begin. I was fortunate that I was able to join an English-language tour, and that I had been able to reserve a spot in advance. After passing through security and waiting in a reception area, my tour group was shown into this tall open space in the center of the Parliament building. Located directly below the dome, it was a gleaming expanse of marble and white sandstone that symbolized different aspects of the Swiss nation. For example, there were four statues located at the corners of the two main staircases in this room, one for each of the four national languages of Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansh, with that last one being a rather obscure mixture of German and Italian spoken in a few mountainous parts of the southeast. The architectural design reminded me of a lot of the federal government buildings in the United States, with the arches and columns seemingly inspired by classical designs. There was also an elaborate stained glass design on the underside of the dome, with flags representing Swiss cities and cantons. Bern was visible on there with the by now familiar red and yellow bear insignia. All in all, it was an impressive sight.

Our tour then entered the two parliament chambers themselves, where the guide discussed a little bit more about the history of the chambers and the makeup of the Swiss political system. Switzerland has a bicameral legislature that functions similarly to the American Congress in practice. The first chamber that we entered was the Council of States (Ständerat), the smaller of the two bodies with 46 total members. Switzerland has 26 cantons, and 20 of them are represented by two councillors each, while the other 6 cantons are known as "half cantons" and only get one representative. This is naturally similar to the American Senate, although with everything done on a tiny scale. The smallest half canton only has a population of 18,000 people, making elections there more similar to a municipal election than the selection of a national figure.

The second chamber that we visited was the National Council (Nationalrat), home to a much larger assembly of 200 representatives. These seats are distributed on the basis of population, again forming the obvious comparison to the House of Representatives in the United States. It looks like the Swiss were borrowing a few ideas from across the pond when they were writing their constitution. Both of these chambers were elegantly constructed, having the appearance of a fancy opera house with those arched viewing galleries on the second floor. The tour let us sit right in the chairs of the representatives while the guide was providing her explanation, and that was a fun touch. (I've been on the United States Senate tour, and they won't even let visitors get near the desks, much less sit in the actual chairs.) This was a great experience, and I was glad that I finally managed to see one of these national parliament buildings.

After the tour ended, I crossed over the bridge once again and visited the Bern Historical Museum (Bernisches Historisches Museum). The structure itself dates from 1894, and was inspired by castles built during the Renassiance. I passed through the gates flanked by two statues of bears and proceded to get lost inside the museum for the next few hours. If you've made it this far in reading about my travels, then you know by now that I love visiting these places, and the Bern Historical Museum did an excellent job of presenting information and artifacts about the city's history. The highlight of the collection was probably the original statues depicting the Last Judgment scene from Bern Cathedral, the only statues in the cathedral to survive destruction during the Reformation. They were preserved here in their own special room, looking much more faded than the modern reproductions that currently adorn the cathedral. Compare this picture to the one of the reproductions taken earlier this day at the cathedral to get a sense of what they would have looked like when they were new.

Elsewhere, there were displays about the past history of the city of Bern, and how it was carved out along with the rest of Switzerland from the Holy Roman Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries. There were life-sized displays of Swiss pikes holding off German knights, something that I've taught in my military history class. There was also a beautifully illustrated medieval book, a model of the historic city center, several wood-paneled rooms that were preserved from the early modern period, a family tree that traced the lineage of one family through eight centuries, and even a guillotine-like structure that had been used for public executions. The collections continued right up to the present day, with information about Switzerland's tense period completed surrounded by Axis territories in World War II, the formation of Bern's local professional hockey team, and the recent development of those tiny Smart cars with involvement from local Swiss groups. For anyone who enjoys history museums, this was a great place to visit.

That was my last stop for the day, and I headed to the above hostel thoroughly worn out. These madcap days of travel were starting to wear me down, and I still had a long way to go yet before this grand tour was finished. The next day would offer up a real treat, however, as I headed into the mountains to visit Zermatt and the Matterhorn. It was time to do some serious hiking.