Bern: Switzerland’s picturesque capital
Not long after that very first trip to Switzerland in the summer of 2000, my father showed me a picture book on the natural and man-made wonders of the Alpine country. One of the photos that stood out to me most was taken in the medieval heart of Bern, showing a cobbled street that led to the Zytglogge, a whimsical yet stately clock tower capped by a curving pyramidal roof and spire.
Ever since then I’d always wanted to visit, though I never did make the effort when I lived in England and Spain. On my Swiss junket last year, Bern was not supposed to be on the itinerary, but unseasonably warm weather had brought a sudden change in plans by the time I reached Interlaken in the Bernese Highlands. An email from the local tourism bureau was deeply apologetic: “I am terribly sorry to tell [you] that I have bad news… most of the snow is gone and we won’t be able to do all the activities we planned initially.” But the disappointment evaporated a few lines later, when I realized they were sending me off to Bern on the final day before flying out from Zurich airport. I was ecstatic.
Bern’s history is as colorful as it is long, and the birth of the modern city began with a medieval tale. In 1191, legend has it that Duke Berthold V of Zähringen, the founder of Bern, vowed to name his new city after the first animal he encountered while hunting in the woods where it would eventually be built. His party caught a bear, and so began a long-running association with the animal. The word for “bear” in Bernese German is bär, while the name of the city is Bärn. From the beginning, a black bear has featured prominently on Bern’s coat of arms (along with that of its canton), and in a tradition that has endured since the early 16th century, the city has kept a small number of bears as a local attraction.
Perhaps the bear is an apt illustration of Bern’s historic strength. The growing town became a self-ruling city under the Holy Roman Empire, and a permanent member of the Old Swiss Confederacy after forging an “eternal” alliance with the other cantons in 1353. Through a series of land purchases and military conquests, Bern eventually grew to become the largest and most powerful city-state north of the Alps. Thun, the gateway to the Berner Oberland (Bernese Highlands), was bought in 1384, and over the next two decades Bern would consolidate its control over the rest of the Alpine region. In 1415 the city-state’s armies marched into the fertile lands of Aargau to the northeast. By 1536, newly Protestant Bern annexed the French-speaking region of Vaud, accelerating the conversion of its Catholic villages, towns, and cities (including Lausanne). At its greatest extent in the 18th century, the Bernese realm stretched in a U-shaped arc from the far western shores of Lake Geneva to the high Alps and the lower reaches of the Aare, just shy of the modern frontier with Germany.
But the French Revolutionary Wars witnessed the occupation of Bern (and the rest of Switzerland) by foreign troops, and the once-proud city-state was stripped of its major territorial gains. Vaud became an independent canton, as did Aargau. The Bernese Highlands were briefly split off to form the canton of Oberland with Thun as its capital, though they were reunited with Bern after the re-installment of the Swiss Confederation in 1803.
Bern’s fortunes would change forever in 1848. That year, Switzerland became a federal state following the short-lived Sonderbund War, in which seven Catholic cantons tried to break away from the confederation. The two chambers of parliament each held a vote to designate a federal capital, with three predominantly Germanic cities in the running: Luzern, Zürich, and Bern. Despite its importance throughout Swiss history – and its location close to the country’s geographical center – Luzern had recently served as the rebel capital. Zürich, on the other hand, was too far north and too economically dominant. Bern was a natural choice, being much closer to the western French-speaking cantons in an area well-protected by the Swiss Army.
Fast-forward to the present, and Bern’s past glory is plain for all to see. Anyone arriving by train, as I do, will be struck by its dramatic location atop high ground encircled on three sides by the Aare River, a trait that made it easily defensible in medieval times. You can spend hours wandering the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city, where the cobbled streets are lined with sturdy stone arcades called lauben. Bern largely owes its current appearance to a great fire in 1405 that almost completely destroyed the town; its wooden houses were rebuilt in sandstone.
An easy walk from the train station brings me to Bärenplatz (“Bear Square”) and the imposing Swiss Parliament. Constructed in stages from 1894 to 1902, it’s a palatial series of buildings, done in a mélange of neoclassical, Renaissance, and other historical styles. The lettering engraved below its pediment explains a common acronym used in everything from the currency code of the Swiss Franc (CHF) to Switzerland’s top-level internet domain (.ch). Despite the appeal of its two most famous edible exports, CH does not stand for “cheese” or “chocolate”, but Confoederatio Helvetica, the Latin phrase for “Swiss Confederation”. In a nod to the very Swiss idea of neutrality, the acronym was chosen because it does not show a preference for any of the country’s four national languages.
At an open terrace beside the Parliament buildings, my self-deprecating tour guide Beatrice Dähler tells me about Bern’s easygoing character. “Switzerland has eight million people. One million of those live in the canton of Bern. We have a reputation for being slower, and people joke that national decisions take longer because everyone has to wait for the Bernese.”
But Beatrice doesn’t seem slow at all, and we are in a hurry for an appointment at the Zytglogge, the 800-year-old clock tower that captured my imagination all those years ago. Formerly a gateway that marked the western boundary of the city, it gained its current function in the 15th century, after another chain of walls was built further out to accommodate a growing population. Much to my surprise, Beatrice has a key to a small door at ground level, and I am ushered up a spiral staircase and into the cool interior. It is a fascinating look behind the scenes, and I’m awed by the original mechanism with its “cannonball” pendulum, not to mention an ingenious system of ropes, cogs, and all sorts of moving parts. There are even bellows to create the sound effect of a crowing rooster, one of many mechanical figures that include a procession of bears in medieval dress. Upstairs, a series of models show the Zytglogge’s architectural evolution, and then we venture into the attic, where two windows open onto the rooftops of the old city.
After a long, relaxing lunch on the opposite bank of the Aare, I have just enough time to visit Bern’s impressive Gothic cathedral (or Münster). Inside, the nave is pared-down and bereft of any colorful decoration. It has a strict Protestant feel that seems to persist even in modern times – after I take a few pictures, a clergyman warns me that no photos are allowed despite there being no religious service. But I am really here for the view, and so I ascend the 344 steps from the souvenir shop to the steeple, Switzerland’s tallest at 100 meters. Like many great medieval churches, the Münster stood unfinished for centuries until 1893, when the spire reached its final height. The soaring bell tower bears a striking resemblance to that of Ulm Münster in Germany, and this is no accident: Bern cathedral’s master builder, the gifted Matthäus Ensinger, was the youngest son of the architect behind Ulm’s ambitious steeple.
Making several slow circuits at the spire’s upper gallery, I take one last look at the Bernese Alps before descending for a brisk walk back to the train station. After all, I have family friends to meet for dinner outside Zürich, and then a 13-hour flight to catch. The next time I come to Bern, I’m sure I will stay the night. ◊