• Old City of Berne

Visit: 21st June 2015


Having comprehensively ticked off the Lavaux Vineyards, Natalie and I were left with a clear day in Switzerland before having to head home at the end of our one-night weekend trip. I had realised only a couple of days before setting off that this gap could afford us an opportunity to visit a second WHS before returning to Geneva Airport. Two options in western Switzerland presented themselves: the watchmaking towns of La Chaux-de-Fonds & Le Locle, or the Old City of Berne – which has more of a clock heritage. I went for the latter, as it was slightly easier to reach and would allow me to brag of having been to one of the more obscure European capitals.


Unfortunately I was knocked off course on a technicality: although we succeeded in making it to Bern, it turns out that Switzerland has no official capital! Its founding fathers – if you can call them that – were so keen to entrench a federalist model that they stated the country would have no capital, in order that the canton in which such a capital were located would not be able to dominate the rest of the country.

In reality, Bern is of course recognised as Switzerland’s de facto capital – but nobody would accuse it of dominating the country. It is a relative backwater compared to the twin titans of Zurich and Geneva to its east and west. But most government institutions are located here in Bern, including the parliament building – pictured, above.


It took us about an hour to reach the city on the train from Lausanne. On arrival at 11am we stopped off for some coffee and chocolate whilst I ascertained which language was spoken here. We hadn’t fared particularly well in French-speaking Lausanne, so it was a relief when I was told that the Bernese speak German (I remember a few words of that language from my GSCEs). After the eye-wateringly expensive and rather hoity toity experience of eating and drinking in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, I was grateful to Bern for introducing me to a genuinely new experience (to channel Blackadder): being pleased to be among a Germanic culture! We ordered a potato rosti with local sausage and enjoyed some local beer.


Bern is on the WHS list for being an example of a classic medieval city which, although restored in the eighteenth century – has retained its original character.

Construction of the 100 metre-tall cathedral began in the 15th century and took over 400 years to complete. You can see its tower in the first photo, behind the flag-festooned street scene. It was intended as a Catholic cathedral, but early in its construction the Reformation took place and – under the stewardship of churchmen close to Zwingli (one of the leading figures of the reformation) – the cathedral became a Protestant one.


The arch over the main portal showcases one of the most complete sculptures of the Late Gothic era, depicting the Last Judgement. These were the only of the cathedral’s sculptures to survive the iconoclasm of the Reformation.

The city is built on a bend in the River Aare – surely the first river you will find in any encyclopedia – which goes on to flow into the Rhine. Like everything in Switzerland, the river looks organised and placid, making for pleasant views of the Old Town’s periphery.


Bern was the home of Albert Einstein for a while, when he worked as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office. He lived right in the heart of Old Town, in the kind of place I might choose if I were to live in a WHS. His house (now open to the public) is located within view of what seemed on our visit to be a more popular tourist attraction: the Zytglogge. Older than the cathedral, the clock dates back to the 13th century, and has historically served as the time-setter for all other clocks in Switzerland – important because Bern was for a long time a key logistics centre of Europe. Einstein – who would have heard the Zytglogge’s distinctive chimes every hour, once told his wife: “In my Theory of Relativity clocks exist everywhere in space”.


It so happened that on the day of our visit the Tour de Suisse cycling competition was passing through Bern. This meant (smallish) crowds of people, dozens of promotional cars handing out free stuff (we bagged some Gruyère!) and the even the odd cyclist, passing over the cobblestones of this medieval town.


According to legend the city’s name comes from the word ‘bear’ – as in the animal. The city’s founder, back in the 12th century, is supposed to have said that he would name the place after the first animal he came across on a hunt. A more credible theory is that it was named after Verona, which was called Bern in the German language at the time. But nonetheless the city sticks to its affinity for bears, apparently keeping some in a zoo-type attraction and retaining statues – such as this one, below, of a bear in armour.


Bern didn’t take too long to look around because its centre covers quite a small area. We therefore had time to visit the Kunstmuseum, which holds works by a surprising number of well-known artists: from Modigliani and Miró to Rothko and Rodin. It was the first time, I think, that I have seen a Giacometti sculpture – and I was impressed by what I saw.

Having spent six hours in the city it was time to take the two-hour train journey back on Geneva Airport, on the reliable Schweizerische Bundesbahnen. We had managed two WHS in two days without feeling rushed, and seen Switzerland in the summer for the first time.


2 thoughts on “• Old City of Berne

  1. Pingback: • Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces | Tom's World Heritage Site travel blog

  2. Pingback: • City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg | Tom's World Heritage Site travel blog

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