Long weekend: Bern

Elegant, historic and at times eccentric, the Swiss capital is one of Europe's best kept secrets.

By Nigel Richardson
Published 8 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:18 BST
River Aare in Bern.

River Aare in Bern.

Photograph by Getty Images

It's reassuring to know that Albert Einstein was once a bit of a duffer. In 1901, at the Polytechnical School in Zürich, he scraped a teaching diploma in maths and physics. Yet only four years later he became a certified genius with the publication of his Special Theory of Relativity.

What on earth happened in the intervening years? Did he discover a special brain elixir? No, he went to Bern, a dark horse of a place if ever there was one. So, hoping for a galvanic leap in my own intellectual capacity, I followed suit. The brain-gain didn't happen, but I did unearth a gorgeous truffle of a city in Europe's heartland.

I didn't even know that Bern is the capital of Switzerland, chosen over Geneva, Lucerne and Zürich for what it is not: too French, too German, too full of itself; and that, being the capital, it's the seat of parliament, which happens to be in session —  the twin Swiss flags flying above the golden-green cupolas of the Federal Palace are a giveaway — when I arrive during a gloriously sunny week in late summer. This accounts for the buzz in the Bellevue Palace hotel, a belle époque gem next door that serves as a collective sofa to crash on when the politicos are in town.

It's some sofa, of course. The Bellevue is one of the grandest of Europe's grand hotels, with stuffed peacocks in the lobby and bulletproof glass in the windows of the Presidential Suite. As the hotel's director, Urs Bührer, shows me round, he breaks off to shake hands with a man in a hurry ("That's one of the members of parliament") and then reveals a refreshing truth about Bern that is already dawning on me: "It's very low profile, there's no security."

Now he mentions it, I've been strolling around the neighbourhood of the Federal Palace (the equivalent of Parliament Square) prior to popping into the hotel to rub shoulders with the Swiss equivalent of Cameron and Corbyn, and haven't seen a single policeman, gun-toting or otherwise. I've suffered no bag checks nor felt the slightest paranoia. I'm beginning to understand what a friend who lives here has told me: "It's like being in your own front room."

She was referring to the Old Town, the high peninsula formed by a loop of the River Aare, that was settled in medieval times and veneered in beautiful baroque in the 18th century. You can walk it end-to-end in 20 minutes — the traffic is limited to deliveries so the pedestrian holds sway (just watch out for the trams), and there are four miles of arcades to keep you cool in summer and sheltered in winter. Best of all, there are cafes everywhere. So, resisting the temptation to stop off for a very early evening Martini in the Bellevue's famous bar — a hotbed of Cold War spies in the 1950s, according to writer John Le Carré — I head back out into the elegant outdoor salon that's the core of historic Bern.

Bern's belle époque

I've tried out Bern's sofa, but what about the grandfather clock? Bern has the mother of them all — it's 180ft high — and I hurry to get there before 5pm so I can witness the hourly show. The Zytglogge, which features both a standard clock face and an astronomical dial, was one of the wonders of medieval Europe. As the minute hand on the clock face clicks along to five, and a crowd of tourists from all over the world stand patiently below, all hell breaks loose: a gilded rooster crows, Chronos (the Greek manifestation of time) counts the hours (actually his beard jiggles up and down), a carousel of bears and lions spins madly round and, high up in the bell tower, a 6ft tall golden man strikes the bell five times. The crowd ooh and aah, point and click, then drift off with smiles on their faces. But they'll miss a trick if they don't return to do the guided tour of the clock tower, which takes place every afternoon at 2.30pm.

The stone tower itself, which once served as a women's prison, is a preserved capsule of medieval Bern, built and braced with massive timbers over several floors and featuring twisting staircases and wooden stepladders. But this is merely the skull. The brain within is the clock mechanism, which looks like a stack of iron bedsteads and is both fantastical and orderly — presumably, like the mind of the man who conceived and made it. His name was Kaspar Brunner and he fixed a plaque with his name and the date — 1530 — to the mechanism, which is festooned with pulleys and levers, cogs and wheels, and a large pendulum that ticks as it swings. On the hour it bursts into surreal activity like a device out of Wallace and Gromit. Brunner was a gunsmith, not a clockmaker, my guide, Beatrice Lang, tells me: "Outside, the Reformation was going on. There was a lot happening. But instead I imagine him in here, working quietly away."

There's no proven connection between the Zytglogge and Albert Einstein but Lang, for one, believes that the great man must have been inspired by it. From a small upper window she points down to the streets that huddle at the base off the tower. "Einstein had a Stammtisch — a regular table — at the Restaurant Harmonie in Hotelgasse," she says. "He walked past the clock every day."

It certainly seems plausible that the extraordinary timepiece he must have glanced up at a thousand times set him thinking about time, and its devillishly complex relationship to space, astronomy and the speed of light.

What's more, for 18 months he lived just a stone's throw away. After my tour of the Zytglogge, I walk a few steps down Kramgasse to visit the second-floor apartment at no. 49 that he occupied with his wife Mileva and son Hans Albert from late 1903 to May 1905, when he was working at the Bern Patent Office as a 'technical assistant level 3'. As I'm looking at family photographs and learning how he was once considered an average student, there's a kerfuffle on the stairs and a group of Chinese tourists appear, whizz through the handful of rooms at the speed of light (he'd have appreciated that) and vanish — leaving me wondering if I'm seeing things.

Later, I spot a rogue detachment of them in the Smoking Room of the Einstein Café, which shares premises with the apartment-museum. Einstein was, of course, one of history's great pipe-smokers, which is presumably why the smoking room exists. Why it's labelled 'Le cercle officiel de la grande société des fumeurs informels' is less immediately obvious, but that's Bern for you — surprisingly, eccentric for such an apparently conventional city.

The apartment is a preamble to the main experience, the Einstein Museum, housed within the Bern Historical Museum, which lies just across the Kirchenfeld Bridge. The entrance to the museum is dramatic: a vault of steel and mirrored glass that leaves me feeling as if I'm floating around in a space-time continuum.

The audio guide fills me in on Einstein the man as opposed to the rarified genius. Did you know he liked "dominant women"? Those he fell for apparently included "a physicist" (which computes) and "perhaps even a nightclub dancer." By means of video screens featuring a figure bouncing a ball, there's an attempt to explain his relativity theories that's pitched at idiot level — it's still way over my head. But the displays are particularly good at contextualising the pre-First World War era that is truly Bern's belle époque.

In 1905, when Einstein published his Theory of Special Relativity, the city was lit by gas while flushing lavatories were already common (the one on display is "from the motherland of the water closet" — Great Britain) and there were nearly 700 shops and grocery stores. There's mesmerising footage of Bern in 1910, a year after Einstein left, some of it taken from a moving tram. The Zytglogge is visible, as are the arcades, known as Lauben. And I realise, looking at this flickering old film, that the experience the visitor enjoys today is very similar. Of all Europe's cities, only Venice feels as changeless as the historic heart of Bern.

View from above

Also fascinating is Hermann Völlger's 1894 photographic panorama, taken from the tower of the Minster, up which I puff after lunch in what is possibly Bern's chief hipsterish hangout, Lötschberg restaurant on Zeughausgasse. "Dry sausage on a board" is far better than it sounds and fortifies me for the climb of over 300 steps to the top of the tower. The panorama has changed little from  when Völlger balanced precariously here with his bulky 19th-century camera. There are breathtaking views south-east to the Bernese Alps (including the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau) and the green bowl of hills that surrounds Bern is shimmering in the golden light of Altweibersommer (literally, "Old woman's summer"; what we call Indian summer). I scan the waters of the River Aare for swimmers — it's a Bern tradition in the summer months to leave your stuff at the Marzili swimming pool, walk upstream and drift back down on the current — but it's late in the season for that.

Ten minutes later, I'm at the base of the tower, strolling through the gardens known as The Platform, where students are playing table tennis and pétanque and catching those golden rays. From here, I drop down to the riverside via an alley that I'm startled to see, from the name on the street sign, is called 'Bad ass'. Then I realise the sign has been altered from 'Badgasse' — 'Spa Lane'. It's the first sign of rebelliousness I've come across in Bern; it's just too comfortable in its own skin to get edgy — even the dodgy-looking youths that hang around the railway station are model citizens. Waiting for my train back to Zürich I watch one with regulation tattoos and nose studs drink a can of beer then carefully deposit the empty can in the correct recycling bin.

The shadows are lengthening as I follow the river, past the old Bear pit (bears have been kept in Bern since medieval times, but now reside in the spacious Bear Park) as far as Nydegg Bridge. I cross it and climb the hill on to the Rose Garden in time to look back and watch the sun setting over the Old Town. The low rays pick out the spires, domes and chimneys, which are smoking contentedly. It's the perfect image of old Bern, safe on its peninsula for a thousand years and planning to stick around for a thousand more.

Insider tips

Get around for free
Overnight visitors are entitled to a Bern Ticket for free public transport in and around the city centre (ask for one from hotel reception). Or buy a card for access to 20 city museums: Sfr28 (£19) for 24hrs, Sfr35 (£23) for 48hrs. Available from Bern Tourist Information and some hotels.

Use the buses and trams
This is a leisurely, stress-free way to move around the city and take in some great tourist attractions. Take the no. 12, which terminates at Zentrum Paul Klee (zpk.org), a world-class museum dedicated to the Bernese artist who became
one of the leading figures of 20th-century art. Take the no. 9 to Gurtenbahn, followed by a funicular to the 2,800ft summit of Gurten for great views and walks.

Feast like a don
Have dinner at Kornhauskeller — not just for the Italian-Bernese food, but the spectacular setting: a sumptuous vaulted cellar in the old city granary dating from the early 18th century and decorated in the High Baroque style.

Take your time
Don't miss the inside of the clock tower on a guided tour, which costs SFr15 (£10) and runs daily at 2.30pm for 50 minutes, April to October, and between Christmas and New Year. For more information, email citytours@bern.com.

State of the art
Set aside a couple of hours for the Fine Art Museum with its superb permanent collection of more than 3,000 paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Rothko and many more (only a fraction are on display at any one time), as well as stimulating temporary exhibitions. 

More info

Published in the Bern guide, distributed with the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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