Walking through Bern – Europe 2012

This is part of a set of pages describing our trip in March 2012 to Europe.

Saturday, March 24th

Our couchette-mate was the best example of travel companion you could possibly have.  She was a grandmotherly sort who was very warm with the children and – naturally – spoke English quite well.  I’d started off in German – she’d joined us in Wels and seemed to be native – and offered her a bit of the chocolate that I was passing around to the two children who were awake and a bit peckish.  She responded in English and we stuck with that the rest of the morning.  The boys retreated to the top bunks and the rest of us took in the view.

The delay meant that we had much more time to watch the scenery than we would have otherwise had, as well as a longer lie-in.  This was our most flexible day, built-in to give ourselves an opportunity to get across the continent from Vienna to Paris with a stopover.  The only reason we chose Bern was because we wanted to visit a smaller city and a friend had said this was a particularly beautiful place.  For us, the delay had no negative impact, except to cut short what was already just an overnight stop.

We arrived in Zurich just before 11am, or 210 minutes late as it was marked down on our ticket.  Since the train was exceptionally late, the railway gave passengers refunds on the tickets.  In our case, there was no refund for the Eurail portion of our trip but we might be able to get a refund on our couchette reservation as well as our the missed connection from Zurich to Bern, on which we also had a reservation.

Unfortunately, since we had purchased the reservations with Deutsche Bahn, we had to seek our refund with them as well.  At the same time, the customer service representative noted that reservations are not required on Swiss high speed trains.  This was good news, since it meant we could just hop on the next high speed train to Bern without having to reserve seats.

The City of Bears

We rode an Intercity (not the famed ICE, unfortunately) at 11:30 that got us into Bern soon after lunch.  It was our first opportunity to use the first class portion of the Eurail pass and the train was quite plush.  It was a bit like riding in an airplane, although perhaps it was just that the train was far more modern than the other trains we had been in.

As in previous cities, I had used Google Map to orient myself so that when we got off the train, we could immediately head for the youth hostel.  The train station has a large square outside – the Bahnhofplatz – and it took us a moment to find the street that we needed to take off the square.  Then we were off and were soon at the top of the hill, at the bottom of which was the Bern youth hostel.

The directions had shown a path to the hostel as well as a funicular railway.  Since transportation was part of the experience, we took the funicular down the hill.  The 1 minute ride was hardly worth it except for the enjoyment of riding something new!  At the bottom, we walked down the street and, as the river Aare came into view, we arrived at the hostel.

The hostel was quite large and, just as in Munich, we had reserved a room in advance.  In this case, it was a 5 bed room, which was ideal.  There was a shower and bathroom immediately adjacent to the bedroom, accessed by a key.  What we didn’t realize at the time was that a second bedroom also had a key to the bathroom.

We arrived before the reception was open at 2pm so we placed our bags in the luggage room and went for a walk.  First, we headed back up the hill and started to look for somewhere to have lunch.  Bern is home to Switzerland’s parliament and supreme court and we walked past the front of these buildings and came out onto a large square where there were restaurants and a large market.

The buildings had an unusual green color that made them very striking in comparison to the typical stone building.  The parliament had some lovely flower arrangements out front but otherwise all the government buildings were quite understated.  We continued through the market and didn’t really see anything that grabbed our interest.  We saw a Merkur market – another good source for quick food shopping – but kept on a bit to see if we could find a place to sit and eat.  In the end, we came across a large chain store called Migros that had a cafeteria.  It was perfect and, although crammed on a Saturday at lunch time, had plenty of choices.  We all chose something different – including some interesting desserts – and had a leisurely meal.

Then we started out for a wander around the city.  The one sight we had planned to find was the city’s bear park.  Originally, it had been a concrete bear pit but the pit had been eliminated and now the city’s bears lived on the side of a hill on the banks of the Aare.  The city had a bear park because the city’s emblem is the bear.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t bothered to find where on the river this park was.

Fortunately – for me – everyone was okay with a long walk.  We walked across the river on a very high bridge and then followed stairs down to the river below.  You can see on the map below our route from the youth hostel up to the center of the city, then up across the river and along its banks.  The map is created using Mappedometer, which I used to figure out how far we’d walked.  It’s not entirely accurate (it doesn’t catch the hill next to the funicular that we walked up, and the stairs down to the river go immediately below the bridge we’d crossed on) but you get the idea.

It was a lovely warm day and it was nice to have nothing to do and nowhere to be.  We headed along the path in what seemed the most likely direction and soon came across the bear park.  It was snug in a corner next to the Alter Aargauerstaden bridge and had a large crowd both at the top and bottom.  The bears amble about on the tiered levels of grass in between.

Our youngest was getting tired so I carried him on my shoulders – until a security officer stopped me and indicated that I could only carry him on my chest, not on my shoulders.  I suppose there’s a real chance of someone falling into the bears’ territory if they’re up high.  On the river bank, there are some concrete benches set out, almost like an amphitheatre with the river as the entertainment.

We continued past the bear park and I had oriented myself to make an educated guess that, if we kept going, we’d come to a river crossing that would bring us up back outside our hostel.  It was increasingly wooded as we walked along the river and, sticking as close to the river as possible, we headed towards a large weir at the Dalmaziquai.  We could now see the hostel on the other side and continued along until we reached a bridge to cross and then headed in to grab our bags and settle in to our room.

Bern is a medieval city and you can sense it walking around.  We’d noticed a change in architecture when we left Innsbruck and were heading into Switzerland.  Mostly it was a change in colors used on buildings that was most noticeable but also we started to notice the gingerbread-style wood on houses, and the inevitable balconies everywhere.  Walking around Bern you can see a real assortment of old and new.

There are covered walkways all over the place, giving the city a feeling of nooks and crannies.  It was the one day I had hoped for rain, since it would have been fun to explore the city under the many covered sidewalks.  The streets are all higgledy piggledy as well, rarely going straight or connecting in any sort of noticeable grid.  At the same time, it was easy to navigate.  I found that we arrived far sooner at our destination, a feeling perhaps made stronger by passing so many alleyways and little offshoots.

We had a bit of a rest – and our eldest tried out the piano in the common room much to our amusement – before heading back up to the city.  The other sight we had wanted to take in was the Zytglogge.  Like the clock in Munich’s Marienplatz, the Bern clock had figures that moved on the hour.  We headed up the hill at 5:30 to see the clock at 6 and then to find dinner.

By now we had decided to use the funicular to go up the hill and to walk down on our own power!  Even for such a short ride – and for 5€ a bit pricey for the five of us – it was still fun to watch the other, very narrow car come down the hill and, just before we collided, veer to one side or the other as we continued up to the top.

The clock was worth seeing although it felt quite touristy to be standing with a small crowd of people looking at the clock.  Early morning would probably be better, as the sun was setting on the opposite side of the clock tower at 6pm and natural light would have made it easier to see what was going on.  You first get a sense that something is happening when the small rooster by the clock face hoots like some rather ailing kazoo.  Then a moment passes and the figures move.  Then the rooster again and the clock chimes – there is a golden figure at the top of the tower with a hammer that rings the hour – and the figures move again.  Then there is another pause and the rooster hoots once more.

We continued down the street and looked in at the Münster.  It is under repair or renovation at the moment but we loved the gargoyles in the front as well as the depiction of heaven and hell over the front doors.

No sugar coating what happens to the unbeliever (or believer who sins!) in this place!  We found that most of the restaurants had now closed or, if they were open, were more geared to the alcohol drinking adults than to families.

We decided we would picnic and found a small convenience store near the train station and grabbed some food.  It was the typical European fare that we had found everywhere: bread, cheese, meat, and something sweet for after!  We found a lovely cheese called St. Paulin that had a nice flavor and the firmness of a Gouda.  Our eldest son, the cheese aficionado, wolfed it down!  We sat on picnic benches by the Aare in a park across from the hostel, as the sun went down.  Soon it was quite cold and, after a quick run around the park in a game of chase, we all headed back to the hostel and to bed.

Tomorrow we would have a slow start and then be on the road for our final destination:  Paris.


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