Bern might not be the first place one would think of for a short city-break. In fact, Switzerland probably isn’t a country one would list first for a quick holiday. It’s all Alps, chocolate, or chocolate in the shape of Alps, isn’t it? Well, no! And it’s easier to get there than one might expect.
Southend Airport is fast becoming my airport of choice …and I live on the opposite side of London. It has easy connections from Liverpool Street Station and the railway station is right at the Airport, not a shuttle bus ride, not a taxi ride and not a healthy hike – it is actually just a few steps from train to terminal. There is just one thing missing – crowds of people. SkyWork operates convenient services from Southend, which makes Bern more accessible than some other cities in Europe. Read more about Southend Airport here.
The Old City of Bern, founded in 1191, is the medieval heart of a more modern town. “It is the most beautiful that we have ever seen,” wrote Goethe in 1779. It is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site and has been since 1983. It sits atop a hill skirted on three sides by the River Aare. It’s easily walked and well defined following the lines of its 12th to 15th-century constructions. There was a major fire in 1405 and much of the city was rebuilt but this time the wooden homes and businesses were erected in stone. Despite various changes the city has retained much of its original charm. Many buildings in the Old City have been designated as Swiss Cultural Properties of National Significance.
One can stroll through its 6 km of wide streets and along arcades which now house contemporary boutiques offering chic fashion instead of vegetables. There is plenty that reminds one of local history, culture and legend. Every intersection seems to sport a fountain. In fact Bern is famed for its Renaissance water features. There are over 100 public fountains and eleven are crowned with iconic allegorical statues. The statues were created during the 16th century and were originally built to decorate conduits to supply fresh water to the general public.
The celebrated Clock Tower (Zytglogge) was Bern’s first western city gate but is now one of Bern’s most visited attractions. The name Zytglogge translates as “time bell” and this was one of the earliest public clocks, one of the three oldest clocks in Switzerland. The Zytglogge building was converted into a women’s prison at one point in its long life. It’s said to have been used to house Pfaddendirnen or “priests’ whores”, ladies found guilty of having sex with clerics. Nowhere is mention made of the punishment meted out to the lusty men of the cloth!
The astronomical clock is indeed something of a mechanical wonder. It achieved the state which we see today in 1530. In addition to the clock, the Zytglogge features a group of amusing figures. At three minutes before each hour the characters – a rooster, a fool, a knight, a piper, a lion and bears, come to life: the animals chase each other, the fool rings his bells and the chicken crows.
Albert Einstein lived in Bern from 1903 to 1905 and it is here that he developed his Theory of Relativity. The Einstein House is small and decorated for the period when the Einsteins were in residence. Not all of the furniture was owned by Albert but there are plenty of photographs on display and guides who, if you get a good one, will tell stories of the great man’s life. One can learn some surprising facts that might change your mind about Einstein.
The Granary (Kornhaus) is stunning but its unprepossessing entrance can easily be missed. The Kornhaus is considered to be one of Bern’s finest examples of High Baroque architecture. As it was no longer serving as a grain store, it was turned into a festival hall in 1893. The Kornhaus is in the middle of Bern on Granary Square (Kornhausplatz) next to the City Theatre. This cellar, now a restaurant, is one of Switzerland’s most impressive public spaces, astounding just for its size alone and seeming more like a subterranean church than a dining room. Perhaps ‘church’ gives a misleading perspective: it’s a culinary cathedral and a must-visit for the gastronomically-minded.
Perhaps the most famous spot for a luxurious stay is The Hotel Schweizerhof. This was known as “Hotel Fetzer” or “Zähringerhof” in the 18th century but was given its current name in 1859. In 1911 the Hotel Schweizerhof was torn down, rebuilt and reopened in July 1913. A comprehensive, two-year renovation started in 2009 and it’s now open for business again. It has that appealing melange of contemporary and classic décor. Its restaurant is just what any visitor would want from a European eatery: dark wood, gleaming glass and impeccable service. If you go over winter and spring there might be a sumptuous afternoon tea on offer.
Bern has so much within a small area. The visitor won’t feel compelled to hire a car. Everything to fill a short vacation is within a few square kilometres. There is history at every turn, food to tempt and tease, and suites to pamper. Bern is classy and chic and worth exploring.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018