Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-06-02
Halfway between Basle and Lausanne, the Swiss capital appeals for its beauty, relaxed way of life and mediaeval townscape that has earned it a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But Bern is also 6 km of arcades, 11 historic fountains, a bear pit, a swimming pool on the banks of the Aar and the Paul Klee Centre designed by Renzo Piano...
“Of all the Swiss cities we have seen, Bern is the most beautiful” (Goethe, 1779.) The first thing to do when you arrive in Bern is to go for a swim. Seriously! After leaving your bags at the hotel (I recommend, for example, the 4-star Allegro hotel, very modern and in an ideal location, 10 minutes from the city centre), slip on your swimsuit or trunks, grab your towel and run down to the banks of the river which, in summer, carries melted snow from the Alps!
Situated near the old working-class district, the “Marzili” is considered to be the most beautiful river pool in the world: it is a sort of free “natural swimming pool” where you can dive straight into the river, its clean water presenting no risk. People have been bathing here for 700 years, and in summer its lawns attract 10,000 people per day…
Bern is captivating for the purity of its air and the omnipresence of its green spaces bordering the Aar. In summer, be sure to visit the splendid rose garden (Rosengarten), which boasts 200 varieties of rose, as many irises and 28 sorts of rhododendron. The view of the old town is also magical. Above all, Bern, whose symbol has been a bear since the 15th century (you can see some real ones in the bear pit (Bärengraben) situated at the foot of Nydegg Bridge), is famous throughout Switzerland for its “slowness”… Its inhabitants like to take the time to enjoy life. As Hermann Hesse wrote in 1912: “Nowhere is life as peaceful as here”.
The old town, rebuilt in yellowy green sandstone (molasse) since the terrible fire of 1405, remains a model of adaptation to location, its streets winding around in a loop and its terraces dominating the Aar. You can wander round it on foot and follow its 6 km of arcades housing countless boutiques, which form one of the longest “shopping centres” in Europe. Bärenplatz, where cafe and restaurant terraces stand side by side and where a market is held every day, together with the neighbouring Waisenhausplatz, form an immense esplanade dubbed “Die Front”. At the entrance to the square, the 13th century Prison Tower (Käfigturm) is one of the oldest vestiges from the Middle Ages. On the left, the 17th century Dutch Tower (Holländerturm) is also a picturesque monument with its timber-framed upper floor; it was named after the Dutch mercenaries who came to smoke here in secret (smoking was forbidden at the time…).
As for Kramgasse, it is the liveliest street in Bern, with its 17th and 18th century residences and their string of arcades, its boutiques, restaurants and fountains such as the Zähringen Fountain (16th century), decorated with a bear dressed in armour, and the Samson Fountain (16th century), depicting the strong man opening a lion’s mouth. You must, above all, visit the Clock Tower (Zeitglockenturm), which is the most popular symbol of Bern and a favourite meeting place of tourists, who can spot it from afar…
This tower, built between 1191 and 1250, houses a clock dating back to the Middle Ages whose mechanism still works perfectly! Four minutes before each hour, figurines painted in the 15th century commence a curious ballet: the cockerel sings while flapping its wings, the procession of bears parades to the sound of the jester’s bells, the god Chronos turns over his hourglass and the big bell indicates the hour, struck by Hans von Thann, a knight dressed in golden armour…
It is very easy to get out of Bern, thanks to the tramway. It will take you in around 15 minutes to the Paul Klee Centre, built in 2005 by architect Renzo Piano. Seen from the outside, this building of glass and metal represents 3 waves or hills, whose undulations blend in perfectly with the landscape and bring to mind Klee’s paintings. Inside, you will discover the world’s largest collection of works by the Swiss painter: 4,000 paintings, watercolours and drawings, i.e. 40% of the artist’s entire output.
Where to eat
In the city centre, I recommend a rather exciting and highly unusual little place: the Tredicipercento Weinkeller. It is a wine bar, opened in 2000, situated in a cellar and entirely dedicated to Rieslings from Germany and Barolos from Piedmont. The boss, Serge Berger, justifies his choices: “Riesling gives the greatest white wine and Nebbiolo the greatest red wine!” Why not? The wine list contains 290 selected wines, sourced exclusively from winegrowers using environmentally friendly methods. To accompany these wines, served by the glass, there is charcuterie, cheese, bread, and raw vegetables. It is very simple and inexpensive, and you can also purchase bottles at wine merchants’ prices (reckon on €20 for a bite to eat).
Still in Bern, if you are staying at the Allegro hotel, don’t hesitate to dine at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, the Meridiano: here, chef Fredi Boss creates tasty and inventive French cuisine with an Italian flavour (reckon on 60 euros for a meal). What’s more, the view of the city is superb! Other star-rated restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide will give you satisfaction (like the famous Wein & Sein), but I recommend going off the beaten track and exploring the Canton of Bern in search of authentic, picturesque inns such as the Métairie de Pierre-Feu in Courtelary (a delightful mountain village 65 km from Bern): rustic specialities and mountain pasture Gruyère guaranteed! In Sonceboz (56 km from Bern), the Brasserie of the Hôtel du Cerf is also a place worth noting, with simple, fresh dishes such as preserved leg of duckling in lemon peel (€15 for a main course).
Another picturesque place that I recommend is one of the region’s oldest inns, run by the Lüdi family since… 1340! Loewen Heimiswil, in the heart of Emmental country, is a place the like of which you no longer see, with its old furniture, lavender scented tablecloths and bourgeois dining room… Here the cuisine is 100% traditional, as illustrated by the sauerkraut with potatoes and veal from Emmental.
Whilst roaming the green valleys of Emmental, scattered with traditional chalets, I recommend, lastly, paying a visit to Michael Spycher, whose Gruyère was this year voted “world champion cheese” in the United States. Living in the village of Wasen on the border between German-speaking Switzerland (famous for its Gruyère) and French-speaking Switzerland (renowned for its Emmental), this farmer produces both cheeses! Go on, have a taste and spot the difference: Gruyère is stronger to the taste, more fatty and matures for longer, whilst Emmental is more flowery and recognisable by its holes!
UEFA Euro 2008
Stade de Suisse Wankdorf
The Stade de Suisse, built in the shadow of the Federal Palace, is the pride of the Swiss capital. It stands on the site of the legendary Wankdorf, built in 1925, where the World Cup final was played in 1954, witnessing the 3-2 victory of the Federal Republic of Germany over the firm favourite, the legendary Hungarian team. At the time there was talk of the “miracle of Bern” and the Wankdorf and its two large corner towers (over 14 metres tall) went down in history.
In the late 1990s, the constraints of modern football and the dilapidation of the place caused the question of renovation to arise. And it was the people of Bern who settled the question in 1997, approving reconstruction by a large majority. Works commenced in 2001, and on 3rd August explosives were used to demolish the old stadium.
The new, open and airy enclosure freed up a vast surface area beneath the stands and pitch. This is where a large shopping centre with restaurants and bars, a hotel and even a state school were to be built. The immense underground car park is also an asset of this multi-functional centre. The roof, rising to a height of 24 metres, is surmounted by a photovoltaic installation (a solar unit), the biggest in the world ever to be integrated into a stadium: its total energy production can reach around 1.2 million kWh, which corresponds to the annual consumption of a small village, i.e. 400 households. Officially opened on 30th July 2005 after four years of works, the 32,000-seat Stade de Suisse Wankdorf was Switzerland’s biggest elevated building site, costing a total of 370 million Swiss francs.
Lastly, the famous clock of the old Wankdorf has been reinstalled on the square adjacent to the stadium. As for the scoreboard, it has remained fixed on the final score of 1954.
CH-3000 Bern 25
Tel: +41 (0)31 339 55 00
Paul Klee Centre
Tredicipercento Wine Bar
Tel: +41 (0) 31 311 80 31
Métairie de Pierre-Feu
Tel: 032 489 19 51
Brasserie at the Hôtel du Cerf
4, rue du Collège
Tel: 032 488 33 22
Loewen Heimiswil Inn
“World Champion Gruyère”
Michael Spycher Family
Tel: 034 437 17 12