Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Bern - capital city

          Even before leaving the train station at Bern, its perfect blend of history and contemporary culture is startlingly obvious. With the preserved remains of the old Christoffelturm, the tower that formed part of the wall marking the Westernmost point of the city for most of the 14th Century, being used as the perfect setting for The Rock Garden, a train station restaurant like no other. Passing through a glass frontage, which keeps out the hubbub of passing commuters before entering under a rock archway, with it’s neon under-lighting and walls adorned with decorations that you would expect to see in the Hard Rock Café, wide range of cocktails and a rather superior menu, all set among the 700 year old stone.

            One of the great things about Bern for a first time visitor, and part of the reason for its listing as a UNESCO world heritage site, is the well laid out manner of the city. Compared to capitals such as London and Paris, it is very easy to navigate the city, with all the key sights within walking distance of the station, it would be possible to see most things in just one day, however, in order to appreciate the museums, restaurants and some of it’s more fascinating night life spots, a weekend or at least overnight visit would be recommended. One such restaurant/bar would be the fabulous Kornhauskeller, built in 1711 when the lowest floor was used as a market place and the top three floors a granary. This was until the agricultural situation changed in the 19th Century and it went through various uses over the next hundred years or so before finally being converted into a space where ‘festivities could be held’ and gained the décor we see today, as pictured below:

            Outside the Kornhauskeller, on the Kornhausplatz, you can see the Kindlifresserbrunnen, probably the most famous of the 11 Renaissance allegorical statues, created in the 16th Century and placed atop fountains around the city. Kindlifresserbrunnen which translates as ‘Child eater fountain’, like a lot of Bern’s history has much conflicting folklore surrounding it, ranging from it being a Fasnacht figure that scares disobedient children, to the belief (founded on the shape of its hat) that it is an expression of Blood libel against Jews, Other theories place it as Cronus the Greek God, or the Roman Saturn, however the number of children on the statue do not correlate with their tales.

            A two minute walk around the corner brings you onto Kramgasse, the street upon which the Zytglogge and Kafigturm stand, the two towers that marked the western boundaries upon two successive expansions of the city’s boundaries, built in 1218 and 1270, Zytlogge (below) being one of the cities most famous landmarks. Now famous due to its impressive clock faces, and bell ringing figure of Chronos, added in the 1400’s after centuries of varied use, including a women’s prison, and a complete rebuild after a fire.

            Continuing along Kramgasse, on the covered walkways that line the pavements along the arcades of this and the surrounding streets, you find yourself once again amazed by the wealth of remaining late Gothic architecture mixed with the facades and interiors of most of the townhouses that were rebuilt in the Baroque style between 1705 and 1745, as well as another three of the 16th century fountains. So much so, that you may miss Einsteinhaus on your right hand side, the theoretical physicist may have only resided here for a couple of years, but it was in that time he wrote the Annus Mirabilis papers, which contributed substantially to the foundation of modern physics. Inside is a small museum dedicated to him, with his living conditions at the time accurately presented on the second floor, and his biography and life’s work on the floor above.

            If you continue right the way along this street, you will come to Nydeggbrucke the 2nd bridge to be built crossing the Aare, and another Swiss heritage site of national significance, which leads you across to the Barengraben, the Bear Pit. The Bear is of great significance within Bern, as it has been its heraldic animal since at least the 1220’s, and bears kept in a bear pit within the city since at least the 1440’s. The bear pit itself has changed location four times, with the current ‘pit’ opening in 1857, however in 2009 the Barenpark was opened, between the pit and the riverbank, giving the bears (of which there are four at present) far greater space, and better living conditions. Part of the reason for this link between the city and the animal is one of the widely believed reasons behind the name Bern is that the founder of the city, Berchtold V, duke of Zahringen, vowed to name the city after the first animal he met on the hunt, which happened to be a bear or Baren.

            It is worth heading over to Helvetiaplatz on the south side of the city, just across the river to the casino and parliament building, as this is where most of the major museums are situated. Among others you will find Bern History Museum, Kunsthalle Bern (the major art gallery), The Swiss National Library and The Swiss Alpine Museum. Back across the river you will find the aforementioned parliament building, or Bundeshaus, another example of Bern’s stunning architecture, built during the second expansion of the city in the 1250’s.
            Much like the Rock Garden restaurant previously mentioned, it also has been known to display stunning examples of the city’s ability to intertwine it’s art and contemporary culture with it’s UNESCO worthy attributes, with it’s now annual Lightshow, a 25 minute nightly display that takes place in the weeks leading up to the 1st December. Below is a video of the most recent one. On top of this it plays host to a number of festivals throughout the year, covering film, jazz, ‘Gurtenfestival’ with world famous, mainstream acts, as well as Bernese Fasnacht, the annual carnival held nationwide.

            Aside from its history, art, music, bars, restaurants and shops, Bern also does very well on the sporting front, providing some excellent teams within Football (Young Boys Bern), Ice Hockey (SC Bern), Baseball and Softball (Bern Cardinals), American Football (Bern Grizzlies) and Rugby (RC Bern). It has also played host to a Football World Cup final (1954), European Figure Skate Championships (2011) and Ice Hockey World Championships (2009).

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