Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bern Baby, Bern

A rainy day in Bern, Switzerland

Bern, the capital city of Switzerland, although large and modern, will capture the imagination with its whimsical public fountains, animated Zytglogge clock tower, and its medieval covered shopping promenade through Old Town.  On a peninsula formed by a loop in the river Aare, the city is easy to navigate.  Exit the train station, take any street straight ahead, and walk right through the center of town to the end, or head for the river and stroll around the perimeter of the peninsula.

We arrived in Bern by train from our home base in Adelboden and walked down Marktgasse with some urgency since it was almost noon, and I figured that would be an excellent time to watch the Zytglogge glockenspiel chime the hour.  The Zytglogge tower was built around 1218 as a gate tower to the city, and every full hour the great bell, unchanged since the tower's reconstruction in 1405, is struck by a large clockwork-operated hammer appearing to be held by a larger-than-life gilded figure.  Other colorful mechanized characters such as a bear, a jester, a rooster, and a king then dance and play music for the crowd.

The most dominating features of the landmark tower, however, are the enormous clock faces on both the east and west sides of the structure, including a 15th century astronomical clock which displays relative positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

Usually there are crowds in the square awaiting the hourly chimes, but the day we visited Bern it was raining, cold, and a public holiday in the Canton of Bern (January 2nd) so the tourists were sparse.  Unfortunately, because of the holiday, the churches, stores, shops, and Einstein-Haus were all closed.  (The ever-reliable McDonalds was open, which is where we got our Toblerone McFlurries!)  I must say the window shopping along Kramgasse was eye-candy though.  Very expensive eye-candy.  And one advantage of visiting Bern on a rainy day is that the Old Town has a 6 kilometer long - one of the longest in Europe - covered shopping promenade with low-vaulted roofs extending to the edge of the sidewalk.  We barely walked in the rain at all.

Pulling on the front doors to find them locked.

We avoided the famous Bern bear pits since we figured bears hibernate in the winter and the equally famous Bern Rose Garden, because we thought it might well look like the roses in the Münster Cathedral Terrace Park:

Rose garden on the terrace of the Münster Cathedral in winter.

We enjoyed the many historical buildings in Bern including the Rathaus (city hall), constructed from 1406 to 1415, and the very grand Parliament Building, which houses the Swiss federal government and parliament.

City Hall building in Bern.

Federal Parliament Building in Bern.

Do you know what the eight teenage girls I was traveling with were truly fascinated by?  The many (over 200 in the city!) steeply angled cellar doors at street level below the medieval buildings.  Where do they lead?  Why were they built?  Can we go in?  Many references to Dorothy and the tornado were made.  (We do not have cellars where we live on the west coast.)

After researching these cellar vaults sometime later, I learned that they were built in the Middle Ages for storage of goods to survive the cold winters.  Now these spaces contain fashion shops, restaurants, and wine taverns.  Too bad the whole city was closed for the holiday, it would have been very interesting to step inside one!

Read about the beautiful Renaissance fountains of Bern in Part II of Bern Baby, Bern here.


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