Bern: Home of the Bear and the Brilliant
Updated: Oct 26
With the international hub of Zurich to the east and the beauty queen Luzern to the south, it might seem easy to bypass Switzerland’s capital city Bern, but that is a mistake. On my too-short trip, Bern was a delightful surprise and a place where I wanted to linger. From the elaborate French gardens overlooking the river and the old city, to the delightful clock tower, to the shops lining the old arcade along its main street, Bern has a unique flavor that combines all its historical influences with a timeless flair.
Not all of Bern’s history deserves civic pride. Bern means bear, and the historic Bear Park, now a stone pit on the outskirts of the city, was once the site of a small enclosure for an unlucky chained namesake. Now there is a small gift shop, below which is a metal bear and a few stone benches for tourists to take photographs. I hate to think of the years when a live bear, captured from the surrounding area, was forced to live out its life in such confinement.
Unlike the poor bear, residents could stroll the French-inspired Rose Garden that overlooking the medieval city. The original 12th century city rapidly expanded during the 13th and 14th centuries, with new city walls and impressive buildings. It was after the devastating fire of 1405 that the city changed to take on the characteristics that survive today. To protect Bern’s prominence, and avoid further catastrophes by fire, it was decreed that all buildings in central Bern must be built from the local sandstone. To avoid the drab dullness of uniform grey-brown buildings on either side of the wide, main cobblestone street, owners added individual decorations to their buildings. The effect now is a charming street of shops and cafes, with remnants of the old water wells in the middle of the street. The most famous address now is the Einstein House, where his four most-famous papers were written.
The great clocktower, at the main intersection of the old town’s first city wall, is arguably the most magnificent and intricate clock in all Europe. No matter how hard one concentrates, it is impossible to see all the details happening when the hour is struck. Everything is represented: time of day, phases of the sun and moon, signs of the zodiac, and more. Even the crowds of gawking tourists and the interruption of passing vehicles cannot diminish the very grand effect.