Recently, Travis and I had the chance to tour Bern, Switzerland’s capital city, which is frequently listed among the top ten best cities in the world to live. Not only that, but our tour guide was the best kind – a local.
Our tour guide was none other than the helpful Swiss Customs official who answered my email inquiry about Customs fees nearly a year ago. Since then, he’s popped in occasionally to read a blog or two, we’ve continued to exchange emails, and he’s fielded other questions that in hindsight would more appropriately have been directed to other administrative offices. Without fanfare, our knight in a button-down dress shirt has been helpful, informative, and unexpectedly funny for someone in his position. (Government employees are supposed to be grumpy and incompetent.)
Through our emails, I found myself intrigued by this mysterious, intelligent, clever gentleman who repeatedly fielded my inquiries promptly, intermingling advanced Customs policy with poetic metaphors about ancient Athens. When he offered to give us a personal tour of Bern, we enthusiastically agreed.
(In the name of anonymity, let’s just refer to our friendly Customs official as CG, Customs Gentleman, since the last thing he probably needs is every wayward expat flooding him with emails about such things as the requirements for shipping alcohol.)
Leaving the car at home for the day, Travis and I trained to Bern and met CG at the train station. We spotted each other immediately, made introductions, and without hesitation, CG set off at a spry walk with us perpetually half trotting to keep up.
Almost immediately upon exiting the train station with its modernized glass arched covering, we arrived at the University of Bern.
Though much newer than schools such as the University of Basel which was founded in the 15th century, it’s the third largest in Switzerland with nearly 18,000 students and has grown in popularity since it was founded in 1834. In 1908, it drew Albert Einstein to teach theoretical physics there.
As seems common for European universities that have expanded in areas with limited space, many of its buildings are non-centralized and consist of old buildings that have been purchased and renovated in an ecological way. For example, several of the institutes are housed in the remains of an old chocolate factory.
Very near the train station, CG stopped to show us a plaque on the wall near the entrance to Loeb, Bern’s famous shopping district. The plaque highlights notable groups of Swiss immigrants who settled in the United States with the distance traveled.
We were proud to see that one of these groups settled in our home state, and it was this group that traveled the furthest before reaching their new home in Bern, Idaho.
We entered the famous Loeb shopping district owned by the 5th generation Loeb family. With multi-level malls and an entire network of shops accessed through cellar doors, it would take weeks to investigate all the little shops. Stunned at some of the store-front prices (high even for Switzerland), we were content just to window shop. I can’t say that I really have any desire for a 20,000 chf necklace anyway.
We got a laugh when we passed the Schmuck Cafe. Though our German translator states that schmuck can mean jewelry, smart, or natty, most American English speakers would define schmuck as “a foolish or contemptible person”, implying that this is a special café that caters to these sorts.
Most sites we ended up visiting during our tour were located in the Old Town of Bern, the city’s medieval center which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. One of the sites I was most anticipating was a visit to Zytglogge Tower, the landmark medieval clock tower that was built in the early 1200s and still draws large crowds when the clock strikes the hour. At one time, the tower was used as a women’s prison specifically for those who had committed sexual acts with clergymen. Now that was a specific prison for a specific offense! I wonder if just flirting with a priest would have warranted a visit to ye olde slammer.
The city also has over 100 public fountains, 10 of which are topped with Renaissance symbols created by Fribourg artist Hans Gieng. We passed a handful of these statues, of which the Kindlifresserbrunnen is probably the most famous. Known as the Child Eater Fountain in English, the statue shows a giant devouring a naked child with a bag of children at his feet. Morbid? Uh, yeah. Fascinating? Definitely. Though theories abound, the exact meaning of the fountain is unclear.
Another fountain, the Zähringerbrunnen, was created in honor of the founder of Bern, Berchtold von Zähringer. According to CG, a grand hunt was held while Zähringer was scouting out land for the city. Vowing that the new city would be named after the first animal killed during the hunt, a bear became the city’s sigil when the unfortunate animal was slain and is still displayed on numerous flags, paintings, and statues throughout Bern (which also means “bear”).
CG also quickly took us to the Bern Münster, or Cathedral, encouraging us to come back later and climb the tower stairs for a superb view of the city. Because it was a weekday and he had taken an extended lunch break for our tour, he had limited time. We continued on to a pair of old bridges over the incredibly blue River Aare snaking through town before doubling back to rest at a nearby cafe. Ordering drinks, CG recommended a panaché (also called a shandy) which is a light beer topped with a citrusy soda like 7-Up. Since I typically prefer wine but wanted something lighter on what had turned out to be the hottest day so far of the summer, I ordered one as well and didn’t regret it. It was wonderful – light, fruity, and refreshing!
After drinks, we thanked CG again and parted ways as he went back to the office and we made our way over the nearby Nydegg Bridge to a shady set of stone steps along the river below.
Tired from the heat, we enjoyed brown-bag sandwiches with our feet in the refreshingly cold water. After a short nap under the cool trees with the sound of the rushing river, we were ready to hike back up the hill to tour the church.
The Bern Cathedral is a Protestant Gothic church initially built in 1421 but not completed until 1893. At 100 meters, it’s the tallest cathedral in Switzerland.
The entryway is notable for its complete set of Gothic statues showing the Last Judgement.
Just inside the entryway, a set of stunning stained glass windows is purported to be the country’s most valuable.
We walked around the perimeter, admiring what we could see of the statues and stained glass that wasn’t blocked by scaffolding and plastic drapery for remodeling.
Paying the few euros to climb the tower steps, we clambered up the steep, circular stairs to a walkway above the bell tower.
CG was absolutely right in that the tower offered superb views of Bern with a nice 360 panorama. We stayed for quite some time talking to the informative employee at the top and admiring the views. I loved the endless rows of brownish red rooftops, compactly squished so close together that the streets in between were nearly invisible.
Content that we’d seen the best of Bern and grateful we’d had such an intimate experience because of our personal tour from CG, we headed back to the train station for our 30-minute ride back to Fribourg. Still warm even late in the evening when we arrived home, we cracked a bottle of chilled Swiss wine we were unable to ship to our friends and toasted them in their absence.