This is the capital of the Swiss Confederation and of the canton of Bern. It is the fourth largest city in Switzerland, with 145,000 inhabitants. Its geographical situation is lovely, on a looping bend of the river Aare in green and hilly surrounds with the Alps of the Bernese Oberland far away in the distance to the south. The elevation is 1,800 feet.
The following is a brief introduction to Bern's history and a suggested walking tour.
A Little History The city of Bern was founded in 1191. According to the rather daft story the foundation was as follows. The master of the hounds of Duke Berchtold of Zähringen recommended this site to him when the Duke said that he wished to found a new city. Duke Berchtold agreed and said that he would name the city after the first animal he shot while out hunting that day in the vicinity. He shot a bear and so named the city Bären or Bern. This is why a bear appears on the cantonal coat of arms and why the image of the bear is to be found all over the city.
Bern joined the Swiss Confederation in 1353, one of the Eight Cantons that formed the early nucleus of Switzerland. Soon its size and power and a highly successful policy of conquest and annexation brought it to a position of supremacy among the cantons. Bern's international power was severely rocked during the Napoleonic Wars but the canton remained strong in a local sense. In 1848 in the aftermath of a painful civil war between the Catholic and Protestant cantons, Bern, which was the leader of the victorious Protestants, was elected capital of the country and the seat of the federal authorities.
The Status of Bern It is important to remember that Bern is really only the capital of Switzerland in the administrative sense, as the base, for example, of the Swiss civil service. The profile of the national government is minimal. In Switzerland generally, local politics, organised from the individual cantonal capitals, assumes a much greater and more visible role than national politics as run from Bern. (For the nature of the idiosyncratic Swiss political system, see introductory pages.) In terms of international politics Geneva is infinitely more important. In terms of industry and commerce Basel is the nation's leader. Zurich is the financial heart. Psychologically and culturally a good case can be made for the Lake Lucerne region, the Waldstätten, as the true essence of Switzerland.
The real focus of interest in Bern is not political but historic and architectural. It is a perfectly preserved late medieval and renaissance city of great beauty. It has been declared by UNESCO a world heritage site. The early medieval city, made mainly of wood, burnt down in a disastrous fire in 1405. The subsequent rebuilding in sandstone has given the city a uniform urban outlook. Almost everything you see dates from the C15, C16 and C17. It is one of the most picturesque cities of the German-speaking world.
A Walking Tour This walk is about a mile, mostly along one extended street. It runs slightly uphill. Afterwards the group can return down the same street to the bus, stopping at will en route in the various shops for souvenirs and bear paraphernalia, cafes and Konditoreien under the arcades. (The latter are highly recommended.) Park the bus by the Nydeggbrücke opposite the Bärengraben.
Bärengraben: Depending on the mood and condition of the bears and the sensibilities of the group this can seem quite charming or utterly barbaric. Bears have been kept in Bern continuously since the C15 with the exception of a few years in the early C19 when Napoleon took them with him to Paris. They are, of course, a reminder of the legendary origins of the city. They are much loved. Behind the bear pits are automatic carrot-dispensing machines (there may also be human carrot sellers) which you should use to feed the bears. (If you can't see the bears, throw the carrots on to the ground to try and entice them out.)
Nydeggbrücke: Over the river Aare. The views to the left over the river and the houses built upon the steep-sided slopes are lovely. The initial continuation into the old town is by the Nydegasse which soon become the...
Gerechtigkeitgasse: Here the classic feature of Bernese architecture becomes apparent, the arcades or Lauben. In Switzerland wherever you see these arcades it is evidence that the town once belonged to the canton of Bern. Here the arcades run for 3.5 miles. The perspective created by the succession of arches sloping away from you is very grand and impressive, but at the same time manages to be thoroughly picturesque. The effect is enhanced by flags, decorative fountains and well-kept flower boxes of geraniums.
The fountains appear every 150 yards. Ten of them, including the ones you will see, date from the 1540's, though many are copies whose originals live in the Bern Historical Museum. You should look out for the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen or Justice Fountain in which a victorious female figure of Justice tramples on the severed heads of assorted wrongdoers. At the Kreuzgasse turn left into the...
Munsterplatz: This is dominated by the huge but very delicate church tower, 328 feet high, the highest in Switzerland. It belongs to the Cathedral of St. Vincent, built mostly between 1421 and 1573. (Later, if anybody wants, they can climb up the 270 steps of the tower for a fantastic view stretching as far as the Alps.) Before going round to the west front you should look out over the river from the Plattform terrace to the Aare locks and the museum quarter behind. The west front of the church has a remarkable, if over-restored, tympanum depicting the Last Judgment. It is crowded with 234 vivid and realistic figures of the Chosen and the Damned, some of them still with the original C15 painting. Pass the medieval Moses Fountain and go through the little covered alleyway back to the main street, now called the...
Kramgasse: No. 49 on the left hand side was where Einstein lived from 1903-05 when he was working at Bern University. This was the period when he first began to formulate the theory of Relativity.
There are two more fountains here, one of Samson fighting a lion and the other, called the Zähringerbrunnen, of a helmeted bear wearing armour and holding the Zähringen coat of arms in his paw. The bear's name is Mutz.
Zytgloggeturm: At the top of the Kramgasse. This is Bern's best known monument. Here in 1530 on the old eastern gate of the city a decorative astronomical clock was installed. If possible try to get here (on the Kramgasse side) just before 4 minutes to the hour when the chimes start pealing. The little 4-minute glockenspiel performance is very cute, played by a jester stroking bells, a crowing cock, a knight in armour and a parade of bear cubs, all under the watching eye of Father Time.
Kindlifresserbrunnen: (Fountain of the Child Devourer) on the Kornhausplatz just to the right of the Zytgloggeturm. This is an extraordinary fountain showing an ogre eating one little boy and holding other children in his hand ready for eating later. Perhaps it is just a warning about talking to strangers but there is probably a far most sinister explanation. Originally this fountain was painted yellow, which all through the middle ages and later (cf. Nazi Germany) signified Jewishness. This C16 fountain — and the following is partly conjecture — depicted a specifically Jewish monster devouring innocent little children. It is a classic example of the anti-Semitic hatred that was rife all over medieval Europe.
Marktgasse: This is the beautiful continuation of the Kramgasse beyond the Zytgloggeturm and is the main street of Bern. It is full of smart shops. The houses are mainly C17. There are two fountains of which the better known is the Seilerbrunnen, dedicated to Anna Seiler who founded the first city hospital in 1354. The tower to the left is the Käfigturm or Prison Tower. In the middle ages this marked the western edge of the city. It housed the town prison until 1897 and is now a small exhibition centre.
The walking tour ends here. To get back to the bus just walk straight back down the street. If the group wishes to see more of Bern the most interesting places within easy reach are: The Bundesplatz and Bundeshaus, the home of the Swiss Parliament; the beautiful Rathausplatz with the external double staircase on the Town Hall; the cathedral interior with some lovely C15 stained glass and the ascent to the tower, and the Rosengarten near the bus parking, which in May and June is the best thing in Bern.
Some famous Bernese:
Paul Klee (1879-1940), modern painter, founder, with Franz Marc and Wassily.
Kandinsky, of the "Blaue Reiter" movement. The art museum here has the world's largest collection of this work.
Johann Wyss, the author of "Swiss Family Robinson."
Marie Tussaud, (1760-1850), A Swiss wax modeller who went to Paris to practice modelling the heads of guillotine victims before moving to London to open a museum of her work.
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