The shrill ringing of the alarm clock wrenches us from the embrace of Morpheus at an unusually early hour for what is a day off. We emerge rather blearily from laundry-fresh five-star sheets and cross the luxurious deep-pile carpet to the balcony window. We open the curtains, and as our eyes adjust to the bright morning light we are greeted by a vision of perfect beauty: the Bernese alpine scenery in all its glory. The reality of this confrontation with a supposedly kitsch picture-postcard view is in fact incredibly overwhelming. Although it originally seemed an extremely indulgent idea to book a hotel room no more than half an hour’s drive away from where we live, we can now understand what Martin meant when he insisted: ‘If you really want to experience my Bern then this is the place where you absolutely must wake up.’
Freshly showered, dressed and smartened up, we make our way down to the grand hotel foyer to meet our personal tour guide for the day. The Art Nouveau walls have something magisterial about them. Martin Bürki greets us with a smile, saying: ‘The place you’ve just spent the night is often used by the Swiss government to accommodate state visitors. The Bellevue Palace is owned by the Swiss Federation and is only a short walk away from the Bundeshaus, the Swiss parliament building.’ This interesting snippet makes us feel very grand. ‘During the First World War the building was used as General Wille’s headquarters. And nowadays the bar is one of the places where electoral tactics are hammered out during the “night of the long knives” before Federal Council elections – so this is where the composition of our state government is unofficially decided.’
On the track of coffee
For breakfast, Martin takes us to the up-and-coming district near the goods station. ‘The Rösterei coffee bar is dedicated to coffee from the cellar to the rafters. It is owned by the Blaser Café, the oldest roast-house in Bern. See over there?’ says Martin, pointing to a display shelf in the corner. ‘You can buy our automatic machines here.’ Invigorated by excellent coffee and fresh pastries we drive back to the city centre, to the railway station. A wave-shaped glass roof keeps the rain off the passengers and links the station entrances with the bus and tram stations. Our attention is drawn to an old-fashioned alleyway under this impressive structure, its corner dominated by an imposing building. This is the Loeb, Bern’s oldest department store. ‘The imaginative window displays are without equal,’ says Martin. He proceeds to tell us a true story to back up his claim: ‘In 1998, one of our current Federal Council members spent the night in a Loeb store window.’ A leading politician spending the night in public view – it could only happen in Switzerland.
JURA’s foothold in Bern
At the entrance to the store, we are met with a blast of warm air. We wend our way past the alluring displays and take the escalator up to the home appliances section, where an attractive JURA sales outlet is showcasing our current product range. Before we move on we say a quick hello to our colleague in Niederbuchsiten via JURA LIVE and, naturally, sample a coffee: ‘A flat white, please.’
Back outside, a few short steps take us to the Bundeshaus, the seat of the Swiss government and home to the National Council, the Council of States and the Federal Council. The forecourt is a sea of market stalls with local producers promoting their wares. ‘This traditional market is held every Tuesday and Saturday. Many of the city’s residents come here for their greengroceries and their bread and cheese,’ says our inside expert. ‘By the way,’ he adds with a mischievous grin, ‘show a little respect as you cross this square. There’s a very strong rumour that beneath this very spot, many metres below ground level, Switzerland’s entire gold reserves are stashed in a giant vault. And over there,’ he adds, pointing with a conspiratorial look at a smart building to our left, ‘is the home of its guardian, the Swiss National Bank.’ Perhaps we really are standing on top of Helvetia’s answer to Fort Knox! If we are, the locals seem completely unconcerned: they stroll casually through the market, pausing to look around and chat.
Bern is the epitome of easy-going
There appears to be no shortage of time in Bern: the clocks simply tick more slowly here than elsewhere. Switzerland’s capital city is pleasantly relaxed and relaxing. Even in critical situations, the soft, sonorous tones of the Bernese dialect remain reassuringly measured. And scientists have provided the hard facts to confirm what is, essentially, a gut feel. They timed how long it took people to walk along a 60-foot (18.3-metre) stretch of payment in 32 cities around the world. Bern was in 30th place.
We slowly amble through the covered alleyways of the arcades. ‘There are six kilometres of these passageways in the old centre of Bern – the longest covered shopping strip in Europe. There are some very quirky shops to explore here, and even when it rains, you can enjoy a shopping spree without getting wet.’ In Kramgasse, he points to the doorway of number 49, where a bronze plaque indicates that this was once the home of a very special occupant. ‘Albert Einstein lived upstairs on the second floor when he was still a junior clerk at the patents office.’ We are struck by the many fountains everywhere, topped with artistically sculpted figures. ‘The scariest one is the Childeater Fountain near the corn exchange,’ Martin informs us. ‘It portrays a terrifying man who carries children off in his satchel.’ Bogeyman characters like this were a medieval teaching aid and live on today in fairy tales and myths.
At an archway, our progress is halted for a moment: a group of Asian tourists is blocking our path, staring upwards, their cameras, phones and tablets held aloft. Martin grins: ‘Zytglogge Tower – one of the landmarks of the city. The astronomical clock and the musical bell chimes date back to the Middle Ages. They probably feature proudly in millions of photo albums around the world.’
Into the Minster for a view over the city
‘Now for a bit of a workout,’ our guide announces. ‘But you’ll be rewarded with a superb view over the city.’ Thus we find ourselves climbing the steps up to the viewing platform in the tower of Bern Minster. And Martin was not exaggerating – from above, the old city centre of Bern is an amazing treasure: ancient roofs wherever you look, some with look-outs and small towers, all crisscrossed by a network of narrow cobbled streets and the whole city divided by the omnipresent River Aare.
Back at ground level, we push open the heavy cathedral door. The interior is astonishing. ‘Construction work on the Minster was suspended during the Reformation. The magnificent Catholic vaulted ceiling above the choir stalls had already been completed by then. It is thought that the city of Bern exempted it from the iconoclasm organized by the authorities because it had been financed out of the city purse – or perhaps the beautifully painted masonry figures were just too high up to reach. But it means that the choir of Bern Minster is unusually opulent among Reformed churches.’
In Bern, the bear is omnipresenent
We take a little refreshment beneath the horse chestnut trees on the Minster terrace and enjoy the view of the Aare and Kirchenfeld Bridge. ‘Look over there,’ Martin says. There is a bustle of activity. People of all ages are involved in a game. Some are smoking. ‘Bankers, students and politicians all meet up to play pétanque here.’ We watch for a while, pondering on the ability of public figures to mingle freely here. We move on. We use what must be the weirdest form of transport in the city: for 1.20 francs a head, the ‘Senkeltram’, a historic lift, lowers us 31 metres in a matter of seconds to the Mattenquartier district, from where we walk to the bear pit, now known as Bear Park. ‘The people of Bern were already keeping the animal that gave the city its name and coat of arms in a pit at least 450 years ago. What we’re looking at now is the fourth version of it, inaugurated in 1857 and replaced in 2009 by a park with an area of more than 6000 square metres,’ Martin explains, a fount of local knowledge. That’s good, we think, because as amusing as it may once have been to watch the antics of Bruin in his prison cave, it reminds us of the degrading and unnatural conditions the animals were kept in for centuries.
The fresh air gives us an appetite. Martin suggests going to the Rosengarten restaurant. Its elevated position affords a breathtaking view of the bend in the Aare and the lower part of the old town.
A must for every genuine Berner
While the Aare babbles in the background, Martin bubbles with anecdotes and insider tips. ‘The Marzili is definitely worth a visit. Every summer, this legendary riverside swimming pool directly below the Bundeshaus attracts vast numbers of sun-seekers who bask in rows on their beach towels like sausages on a grill. And you have to have a swim in the Aare,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s so refreshing, an absolute must for every true Bernese native!’ Martin tells us about the many atmospheric cellar bars and the culture that is to be found all around. As his pièce de résistance he takes us to the Paul Klee Centre on the outskirts of the city. This unique building, designed by Renzo Piano, houses around 4000 pieces by Klee, making it the most significant collection of the artist’s works in the world. The address says it all: Monument im Fruchtland (Monument in the Fertile Land). The Centre is also an ideal setting for temporary exhibitions, music, literature, theatre and various accompanying programmes. It would be worth a whole day out in itself.
‘Aperitif, anyone?’ asks Martin, pushing at an open door. Parched, we enter the charming Biercafé Au Trappiste, where we are saved from dehydration by an excellent brew. And as if the day had not provided enough highlights already, Martin surprises us again at dinner. ‘The Casa Novo feels just like home to me,’ he says, and we were indeed most warmly welcomed. ‘Top Spanish gastronomy combines with Bernese friendliness and hospitality here.’ On the loveliest Aare-side terrace in Bern, we are overtaken by a warm Mediterranean holiday atmosphere. We pay our respects to Lucullus and Bacchus until late into the night before leaving as friends the restaurant we had entered as strangers. On the way back we enjoy a final nightcap in the stylish Du Théatre club. After all, it just happened to be on the way back.
On this one day Martin succeeded in making his Bern our Bern, or as the locals say: ‘üses Bärn’ – so, many thanks to him for that. His list of insider tips is a long one, and tomorrow we will explore more of them. Before that, however, we will sleep like statesmen once again at the Bellevue Palace!
Images: Jonas Spengler