So it might be news to you that Bern(e) is actually the capital of Switzerland, and not busy, bustling, bankcentric Zurich. The canton of Bern is also one of the largest and the whole region is the victim of jokes about the people being very slow, in their speech, in their thinking, in their actions. But it is true that, in fact, that slow, savouring vibe is actually very encouraging in a small city that governs the whole country!
Here, politicians arrive by train and make their way on foot through the charming old town streets to parliament or pop out for a coffee or lunch nearby without bodyguards and without being molested in any way. Even the seven who form the head of the country (they take it in turns each year to be President) have this freedom, despite busy lives running the place. Parliament itself is a pretty open place with a large piazza in front of it with some fun fountains set into the ground that tempt children, dogs and adults alike…
Bern(e) is geographically in the west of the country, and though Switzerland is very small, there is a distinct feel to the area. Very nearby is the language “border”, the Röstigraben (= the rösti trench), separating the German and French speaking parts of the country, so that you could easily be hearing either of those languages as you stroll through the cobbled streets, past decorative 17th century fountains and under shady arcades covering the pavements, and there is something about that combination that brings out the best in both. The shops are the same as in any town in Switzerland (or probably Europe and the World, these days) and yet being housed in these old buildings there is a certain cachet to shopping there. Last time I went to browse, I found myself in a tiny wool shop, long and thin, just the width of a single window and door and stretching through the building to a tiny workshop at the back. The walls were densely lined with shelves but they weren’t stuffed to the gills. Instead, they showcased a few brands and special yarns, a few exquisitely knitted garments – you can order almost anything, but in true Swiss style, what is sold is well-priced quality which some would call expensive, but then, that could lead to a long argument!
The city is set into a curve of the Aare river, nestling neatly into it and covering the hill that the river has cut into the landscape. Those who live down on the shores run the risk of flooding at regular intervals, but it’s so pretty that I can understand that they do. In summer, there are riverside or town cafés where you can stop for a coffee or a beer, maybe order a sandwich or some local specialities, of which there are many, including the famed Rösti and the Berner Platte: a dish of sauerkraut, potatoes and various salted meats/hams and sausages, popular and hearty fare. Gastronomically, you can go anywhere (this holds true for all of Switzerland!) and there is little more inspiring that to sit on the terrace outside the Casino over a delicious lunch in the sunshine and looking out over the Aare river below and across to the museum quarter, elegant buildings that house such marvellous exhibitions as that on Captain Cook or the Qin dynasty, all very understated, of course! Oh, the Einstein museum is over there, too, but I have never visited… Lucky are those who work for one of the embassies or consulates in Bern(e), situated in the smart and leafy green parts of town!
Another sight well worth seeing is the Münster, the large Gothic cathedral, a Unesco world heritage site (although the wonderful colourful ceiling is being extensively refreshed, so wait until 2017 to go!). You’ll find the open areas behind the main streets a lot quieter and more refreshing, if you only go in search of them…
Perhaps the Berner Oberland is something you’ve heard of? The area around Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen or ski resorts like Wengen are all very well known and popular with foreign tourists and there is an appropriate industry – which is a shame, since it hardly represents what there really is to see! Another B – Ballenberg, a living history museum near Brienz, gives a very good look into the history and culture of the whole country: farmhouses and workshops from all the cantons have been rescued and transported to a hilly area and reconstructed to show what life was like not so very long ago (and to be honest, there are still remote places where life is still that way) in the different cantons.
Typical Bern architecture is not, in fact, the chalet thought to be so very Swiss, but is in fact more likely to be a large farmhouse with an enormous roof that hangs down low over the upper storey of the building. A central corridor through the building often divides living quarters into two, rather like a semi-detached house, with either two different families or multiple generations occupying the two halves (or one side used to house animals), the corridor with its impressive fireplace and meat hung to dry above forming a common kitchen area. The Bernerhaus at Ballenberg with its “bonnet” roof!A “real” chalet?! Also in Ballenberg!
Seen not only in Ballenberg but all over the country at various events is the beautiful costume, still highly prized by many – there is a distinct difference between town and country attitudes in Switzerland – and showing the affluence of the individual, much like in Appenzell (or the Valais, for instance).
And how could I resist showing one of the most important exports? 🙂 The Bernese Mountain dog, of course – one of the loveliest, cuddliest, friendliest family farm dogs you can imagine, always cheerful, patient, smart, capable and fully responsible for his herd!
The thing about Ballenberg is that if you’ve spent any amount of time in Switzerland and among the Swiss, you realise that although it’s supposed to be a living history museum, you will have been in plenty of homes that are just like it, just in a slightly more modern way… 😮