The Beauty of Bern: Springtime in Switzerland
Out in front of our hotel along the river Aare, we mounted our two-wheeled kick scooters and set out across the bridge into the medieval center of the city of Bern. Giggling like Pee-wee Herman and giddy with exhilaration, we glided over the bridge as the Swiss stopped in their tracks. What to make of this impromptu parade of American tourists on scooters? What else could they do but smile and wave?
It was the Saturday morning of the Bern Grand-Prix, a road race described as "the ten most beautiful miles in the world" - and more than 25,000 runners were warming up. We breezed through the cobblestoned streets, passing pedestrians and marching bands in medieval costume. We took the hairpin turns and sailed down the hills like school kids on holiday. It was Saturday; it was spring - and we were in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, as the city burst with civic pride.
Consistently ranked among the world’s top ten cities for quality of life, Bern was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Its medieval city center (established in 1191) is most famous for its Zytglogge (German for "Time Bell"), a 13th-century clock tower whose mechanical figures turn the changing of the hour into a crowd-pleasing puppet show with bears, a jester, and a cock-a-doodle-doo.
Lest anyone think, however, that Bern is a featherweight composite of Heidi and Maria von Trapp, there’s the Kindlifresser ("Child Eater"), a somewhat macabre 16th-century statue of an ogre stuffing a baby into his mouth. Three toddlers at his feet await their fate in the ogre’s stomach. Imagine your parents pointing that out when you were a child: "Sweet dreams, kiddies."
Switzerland has never been only sweetness and light. Bern’s coat of arms, established in 1224, is charged with a black bear, with talons, tongue (and phallus) in bright red. And just as two lions guard the entrance of the New York Public Library, the front of the Historical Museum of Bern (Einstein Museum) is guarded by two bears, fangs bared.
Less than twelve miles from the Alps, Bern (from the German word "bär," for bear) has had a bear pit since the 16th century - and the current incarnation of BearPark is one of the city’s more popular attractions. Completed in 2009, more than two million visitors have visited the nearly two-acre riverfront park with its winding footpaths and staircases, to witness its four bears - Bjork, Finn, and their cubs, Ursina and Berna - at play. Your teddy bear fantasies from childhood, however, might get a rude awakening watching these massive animals frolic with each other - and for your own health, don’t linger too close to the glass barriers. (Ask a local to tell you the story of one who did...)
Bern contains more than four miles of arcades, which front the baroque sandstone facades of Old Town, making it the longest covered shopping arcade in Europe - and a breeze for shopping, even in inclement weather. We skidded to a stop on our scooters and wandered through one of the city’s bountiful produce markets, gorging on artisanal cheeses and marveling at bouquets of spring wildflowers. The peonies were in bloom, as were the calla lilies, bursting with color. Bunches of lavender permeated the air, as did freshly-baked pastries. Across the way was Einsteinhaus, where Einstein lived from 1903-1905 when he published his theory of relativity.
Along the river Aare, with its hairpin turn around the city center, we passed into the red light district, where centuries before, Casanova had frequented the Bern baths - and where centuries later, Bern’s gay disco was located in an old warehouse. In other words, the entire trajectory of Bern’s sexual history displayed along the waterfront. Or as Cicero wrote, O tempora o mores!
Switzerland is a country roughly the size of the state of Maryland, with a population less than New York City (with less than 150,000 people living in Bern, the country’s capital) - and yet, what an inordinate amount of influence this one country has had on European and world culture. As the birthplace of the Red Cross, Nestlé, Swatch, among other multinational corporations, and one of the richest countries in the world, Switzerland has had 113 Nobel Prize winners (including nine Nobel Peace Prize winners). Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1942, and gay people are allowed to serve in the military as well as register their partnerships for the same rights as heterosexual marriages.
As the rain fell over the city, the Bern Grand-Prix runners continued racing through the wet, while up at the Rosengarten with its panoramic vistas of the medieval city, the restaurant was full of Bernese eating and drinking their way through a lazy afternoon. And when the rain intensified, we watched as an entire table ordered another round, another bottle, and continued their conversation, laughing and enjoying the opportunity to linger longer with each other.
"The most beautiful place we have ever seen," wrote Goethe about Bern - and it would be hard for most people to dispute his comment. For it’s not only Bern’s architectural and cultural treasures that make Bern so appealing: there’s also the Bernese habit of deceleration. Similar in spirit to the Italian philosophy of "la dolce vita," the Bernese recognize that life is often lived best when it’s savored the most.
(Feature story continues on next pages: What to Do, Upcoming Events, Where to Eat...)