Two Days in Bern

Gail and I have just completed another portion of the Via Francigena pilgrimage which started in Canterbury and will eventually take us to Rome. This year, we walked 575 kilometres from Tergnier to Gy in France. Although we planned to walk about 40 kilometres further to Besançon, an unfortunate fall that severely limited Gai’s ability to walk, cut our journey a tiny bit short.

However, we had also planned a post-walk holiday that would take us from Besançon and through Switzerland by train, before returning home to Winnipeg. We resolved to continue with our plans, as carefully and as slowly as Gail’s ability required, minimizing our walking and using buses, trams and trains wherever possible. Here’s a day-by-day account of our progress.   

Notes from our stay in Bern:

For a capital city, Bern is surprisingly diminutive. With a population barely pushing 140,000, its core can be easily traversed on foot in less than an hour. It helps that the Aare River loops around the city on three sides, limiting expansion. And, of course, the city has expanded beyond its natural boundaries over the centuries, bringing the true population to 360,000, suburbs included. For the most part, sights to be seen are confined to the bustling city centre or hug the pleasant, treed banks of the Aare River.

Owing to lessons learned from a massive fire in 1405, Bern is entirely built from a locally harvested limestone, lending an overwhelming uniformity to the city’s appearance. What’s immediately noticeable, though, are the continuous building façades with street-level arcades running the length of the road. Car traffic is almost non-existent—most streets are instead populated with buses and trams—so exploring the arcades, filled with interesting shops, bars and restaurants makes for a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly stroll. 

The premier arcaded street is Kramgrasse, which stretches over half the length of the city centre from the Zytglogge (Clock Tower) to Nydegg Bridge crossing the Aare River to the Bear Park and Zentrum Paul Klee (more on those in a moment). Unique to Kramgrasse are the cellar doors leading directly from the street down to shops lying under the arcade. It’s an intensely shopaholic experience, perusing shops within the arcade and dipping down narrow stone steps to explore those that lay below.

As expected for a capital city, there is a parliament building, simply referred to as the Parliament or Bundeshaus. To a North American used to sprawling monumental structures set on expansive landscaped grounds, this one comes as a surprise. It’s tucked into the city fabric with no grand vantage point other than a distant view looking up from the banks of the Aare River. This lack of awe and majesty is, I suppose, reflective of Switzerland’s consensual approach to government with authority delegated to cantons (provinces or states) and a central government consisting of just seven representatives and a ceremonial president. It’s a statement of fitting in rather than an expression of power.

Instead, it is nearby Bern Cathedral that has the greatest visual impact on the city, with an ornate spire rising high above the city. However, any sense of commanding power that it may once have had as a Catholic cathedral was chastened by the Reformation, which stripped the interior of its icons and richly outfitted side chapels.

Crossing the Nydegg Bridge leads to the Bear Park, perhaps the oddest urban monuments to grace a city. The bear has long been the symbol of Bern and is a prominent motif in its coat of arms. To commemorate Bern’s mascot, two concrete bunker-like pits housed live brown bears from 1857 to 2009. Local activists finally brought about much needed improvements. Today, there are three bears living a relatively better life in a much more expansive, natural riverside environment.

Travelling further out from town, a bus takes us to Zentrum Paul Klee. Designed by Piano Rogers (co-architect of Paris’s famous Centre Pompidou), the building’s undulating form cuts in and out of the ground, creating three connected arched spaces set in the suburban countryside of Bern. The central portion houses two gallery spaces. On a rotating basis, the below-grade gallery presents thematic installations drawing from the gallery’s four thousand-plus collection of Paul Klee works. The space is a traditional white box suited to the scale of Klee’s work. Above, the exhibition space is defined by the buildings monumental arches, creating a vaulted auditorium-scaled space. It worked well for the show we saw, a retrospective exhibition of American artist/designer Isamu Noguchi whose signature paper lanterns filled the gallery volume with light.

It’s our last evening in Bern. We stroll along the terrace behind the Parliament. Locals lounge on benches, taking in the expansive view over the Aare River and the mountains beyond. Others play chess at oversized boards or enjoy a beer with friends. A funicular drops us down the steep slope behind the terrace to the lower town. Crossing the Dalmazi Bridge, a riverside promenade takes us to views looking back to the Parliament and forward to the Cathedral, now lit by a raking October sun. We come to a dam crossing the Aare with water loudly pouring over a series of sluices and, perched right above, is the Schwellenmätteli Restaurant, our dinner destination. It’s a little chilly and there’s a comfortable, warm-looking dining room. But it’s hard to resist the riverside patio with views to the river and the cathedral, both accompanied by the roar of water passing directly below our table. A remarkable finish to our two days in Bern.     

Read on to view photos from our stay in Bern.

Click the images below to view a full-screen slideshow.

4 thoughts on “Two Days in Bern

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  1. Merci, Pilgrims, for my vicarious visit to Bern. Nice to see Gail working out her broken knee!

    The patio meal made for an interesting pic. If I am not mistaken, steam is rising off the river.

    A la prochaine, Rob

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