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.

Continue reading

A Day at Vitra

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 day at the Vitra Campus:

Many countries and cities have heritage villages with a sampling of buildings drawn from the region and collected in a park-like setting. It’s a convenient way to portray local history, expressed through built heritage, in an educational, tourist-friendly way. Vitra, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, has done something similar for contemporary architecture, the reason we have made today’s pilgrimage to the Vitra Campus.   

Founded in 1950 as a shopfitting enterprise, Vitra moved into furniture production based on designers Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and, for a while, the Herman Miller collection. A major fire at the campus in 1981 caused a paradigm shift for the company. A new era of architects were drawn into the rebuilding process, starting with a master plan and industrial buildings by Nicholas Grimshaw, but blossoming over time to include factories and pavilions designed by a who’s who of contemporary architects.

A thirty minute tram ride takes us from Barfüsserplatz in Basel, Switzerland across the unpatrolled Swiss-German border to the Bahnhof in Weil am Rhein, Germany. From there, a one-kilometre walk to the Vitra Schaudepot deposits us at the start of our three-hour guided tour through the Vitra Campus.

Continue reading

Two Days in Basel

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 Basel:

It takes but a few hours and three trains to transport us from ancient Besançon to modern Basel. We step out of the train station—Europe’s busiest international border station—and into a bustling square packed with buses, trams and suitcase-totting pedestrians. 

While Basel does have an old town, it is a city largely informed by the modern world. In some respects, the city is not unlike many North American cities. In places, the roadways are formidable barriers. Big pharmaceutical corporations, Roche and Novartis, are headquartered here in sleek campuses. The architecture is resolutely modern. In fact, we are here because of Basel’s contemporary architecture as well as the nearby Vitra campus (more about that in my next post). 

There are good guides to Basel’s contemporary architecture available online and we had ambitious plans to walk the city in search of as many as possible. Of course, Gail’s limited mobility impacted those plans. Fortunately, hotels in all of the Swiss cities we visited offer free transit cards for buses and trolleys. Even so, we could visit but a small number of the possible sites the city has to offer.

Our architectural tour starts with our hotel, The Passage. The name refers to its position between the old town, accessed by an attractive pedestrian passage behind the hotel, and the broad thoroughfare it faces, lined with slick modern commercial buildings. Designed by local architectural firm WyssSantos, the exterior is distinguished by a grid of minimalist coffered  modular panels with contrasting decorative screen insets. And, being a chic hotel, only a glass wall separates the shower from the bedroom. Thankfully, there are curtains!

Mario Botta, a well known international architect, is well-represented in the city. His Bank for International Settlements (BIS) sits by a busy intersection. It’s a tall drum-shaped structure clad in contrasting shades of grey stone. Punched-out rectangular and round porthole windows, together with an area carved out of the street level façade, play against the building’s cylindrical form. It’s formal and a little severe, an example of the New Rationalist style.

Botta is also represented in the Museum Tinguely. Again, the rationalist exterior is clad in contrasting stone courses, this time pink. Hard edges face unattractive motorways on two sides but it opens up with large windows facing a park and a sweeping gallery of glass suspended over the Rhine River. However, the real highlight is the (literally) lively mechanical sculptures of world-renowned Basel artist, Jean Tinguely. I’ll leave it to you to play the video/soundscape below, a compilation of his fascinating whirligig concoctions.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are based in Basel but they have an international portfolio. Winnipeggers visiting Minneapolis, Minnesota will recognize Herzog and de Meuron’s hand in the renovated Walker Gallery. The firm has multiple projects in Basel. I will highlight their Roche Towers. Buildings 1 and 2 are tall glass towers (Building 2 is the tallest in Switzerland at 178 metres) straddling yet another big motorway, the Grenzacherstrasse. 

This is but a small sampling of Basel’s contemporary architecture. Works by Renzo Piano, Richard Meier, BIG and many others can be explored. And a visit to the Novartis Campus would be worthwhile. Another trip, I suppose.

I will leave off in the older town. More of a small district within the larger, thoroughly modern city, it offers quiet pedestrian-oriented shopping streets, a bohemian vibe with small craft-oriented stores and many sidewalk cafes and restaurants. It’s a comfortable space where locals come to hang out. Not to be outdone by its contemporary neighbours, there are many historic buildings to be found here, the highlight being the city hall, or Rathaus. Its deep red façade, with elaborate 17 C. frescoes by artist Hans Bock, stands out on the rather innocuous Marktplatz. Passing through the Gothic-arched portal, the inner courtyard continues to amaze. Every surface is touched with frescoes and architectural detail.

Read on to view the day’s photos and video/soundscape.

Continue reading