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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Bern and Gruyères

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The city of Bern originated in the 12th century as a castle fortress at the tip of a peninsula created by a sharp bend in the river Aare. The goal of its powerful builder, the Duke of Zähringen, was to control that strategic section of the river from a high vantage point. Over the next few centuries Bern expanded both its city borders and its sphere of influence, becoming a major regional power broker along with the Burgundians and the Hapsburgs. As the city grew outward the peninsula remained largely unchanged as the center of government and trade. The concentration of the interesting sights of the city in such a small area made the prospect of exploring Bern in a short period of time less overwhelming.

We parked near the casino on the south side of the peninsula and began our tour with a stroll halfway across Kirchenfeld Bridge. From the elevated span we could see the Aare all the way to the beginning of the curve around the peninsula as well as our first view of Bern's famous cathedral. It was a tantalizing preview of the delightful walk we would have through the old town.

Bern Minster is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland and towers over the rest of the old town. The Gothic belltower once had the dubious distinction of attracting a large number of suicidal individuals to throw themselves into the cobblestone square below, much to the consternation of pedestrians. This phenomenon has largely abated since the construction of a suicide barrier in 1998 but a sign is still prominently displayed indicating that solitary visitors will be denied entrance to the tower.

Even at an ambling place it only took us ten or fifteen minutes to reach the Nydegg neighborhood at the end of the peninsula. The dining scene was slow on a Monday evening but there were still plenty of full tables on the cobblestone streets outside the restaurants. We were pleasantly surprised by the atmospheric porticos that hid the storefronts behind arches of white limestone. Up to this point we had remained on the high ground of the old town but as we reached the end the streets began to slope downward and we soon found ourselves in Matte, a crescent-shaped neighborhood at the level of the river. This flood-prone strip was once a working-class neighborhood but in modern times it has been revitalized into a popular residential and commercial area. We walked out onto the Lower Gate Bridge for a more intimate look at the Aare and an orderly residential neighborhood that occupied the hillside on the other bank of the river.

The final order of business for the evening was locating a restaurant for dinner, not a trivial task on a Monday evening. The best option in the old town among the minority of restaurants that was open was a tapas place. We walked back towards the center along a different avenue which rewarded us with new sights such as a fountain with an incongruous metal staircase leading to a pedestal. I imagine the idea is for the pedestrian to become the statue atop the fountain, although at first it appeared to be encouraging a suicidal dive into shallow water.

The tapas restaurant was located at Rathausplatz which adjoined some of the most beautiful buildings we had seen in Bern. One was the medieval Town Hall fronted by an impressive double staircase and another was the impeccable neo-Gothic Church of St. Peter and Paul. We couldn't have asked for a better atmosphere as we ate at one of the sidewalk tables. The tapas was excellent although the limited Monday menu meant we had to double up on some of the dishes.

Towards the end of our meal I took the kids on a short walk to see the Zytglogge while Mei Ling waited for the check. This former guard tower has a large conventional clock and below it an astrological clock and a mechanism of figurines that move every time the clock strikes the hour. Of course there wasn't much point in visiting the clock except on the hour, which was the reason for our early departure from the restaurant. The tower and the clock faces were beautiful but the activity when the clock struck nine was disappointing. A couple of pieces moved in time with the chime but the carousel of figurines at the bottom never budged. It wasn't much compared to what I'd seen on previous trips to Munich and Prague.

When we were ready to drive back home we encountered what would be a recurrent issue throughout the road trip. One of the major streets in the old town was closed and both the car GPS and Google Maps insisted on routing us back through it no matter which direction we turned. Eventually I had to drive in the wrong direction for about five minutes before Google Maps relented and provided us with an alternative route back to Zollikofen.

I was particularly excited about the markets in Bern because according to my research they filled nearly every street in the center of the old town on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Tuesday morning we packed up and drove back to the center. The closest market to the casino parking lot was at Bundesplatz, which was filled with stalls offering produce similar to the markets we had visited in Zürich. Behind us was the regal Bundeshaus, the seat of the Swiss parliament. We stocked up on fruit as usual and then wandered through a series of stalls around Bärenplatz. The majority of vendors were offering products we had already grown used to such as cured meats, cheeses, and bread. We allowed ourselves to be convinced to buy some expensive game sausages again st our better judgment. One of the most interesting stalls had a large variety of salad greens in a series of bins. Some of them were quite colorful and spicy and we couldn't resist stuffing a bag with an assortment.

There were supposed to be more markets in the cobblestone streets around Bern Minster so we crossed over the tram line on Kornhausplatz that marks the beginning of the peninsula, pausing to admire a gigantic golden foot that has been installed on the front steps of the Stadttheater. It was a remarkable sculpture with every crease of a flexed foot faithfully replicated and a space underneath the arch where one could crouch to imagine the feeling of being crushed like an ant. Across the street was a small park where four bronze bears guarded a statue of local medieval hero Rudolf von Erlach. Bears have been the mascot of Bern since the age of the Zähringens and urban legend holds that the name of the city is derived from Bären, bear in German. The city has kept captive bears intermittently since the 16th century. Originally they were in pits in Bärenplatz although they are now housed much more humanely in a park on the other side of the Aare.

We were disappointed to find no markets whatsoever on the peninsula despite roaming through every arcade and alley in the small area. Perhaps Tuesday is the lesser of the two market days or perhaps the entire scene had contracted due to aftereffects of the epidemic. The market in the center had been decent but not spectacular so it was an unsatisfying ending to a highly anticipated morning. On the southern side of Bern Minster there was a sunny park where mothers played with their toddlers and men played animated boules matches on the gravel.

We still hadn't eaten most of the food we'd bought at the market and the obvious place to picnic was the Rosengarten across the river. This time we crossed the Aare on the elevated Nydegg Bridge from which we could see the Lower Gate Bridge from the previous evening far below us. The parallel existences of the upper and lower levels of the city on either side of the river reminded me of Porto, although on a much smaller scale.

The Rosengarten is more than just another city park. The former cemetery has been a major gathering and recreation area for the citizens of Bern for over a hundred years. For us a major draw was the opportunity to see the entire old town from a high vantage point in order to appreciate our explorations of the last two days from a new perspective. A cobblestone path led up the hillside from the town to the park with progressively more awe-inspiring views of the peninsula nestled within the sharp bend in the Aare. It was easy to see why the Zähringens had been drawn to this uniquely defensible location to begin building their domain. Partway up the path a bronze statue of Einstein seated on a bench allows visitors the opportunity to pose with him with the old town in the background. Although Einstein lived in Bern for only eight years this was arguably the most important period of his career. It was during that time that Einstein was transformed from an academic nonentity working at a patent office to one of the most celebrated young physicists in Europe.
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Once we reached the park Mei Ling resourcefully collected some scattered chairs and a small table and we set to work laying out our purchases from the market. Since we had mostly been buying on impulse it wasn't a very well-composed breakfast but we had built up prodigious appetites during our walk. I alternated mouthfuls of raw greens and bites of gamey sausage as we attempted to corral the kids from the playground long enough to provide them enough nourishment until our next stop. We found that the pea pods were occasionally colonized with wriggling larvae but the remaining peas were so sweet that we brushed the infested ones to the side and ate the remainder.

I timed our return to the parking garage so that we would pass by Zytglogge at noon, thinking that the mechanical display might be more impressive at that hour. I underestimated our walking time a little so we had to run the last block as the clock was beginning to chime. This time there was more to see as the carousel of figurines rotated and the jester at the top rang his bells but is was still rather unimpressive. The crowd was much larger this time and there was a sense of anticlimax as people kept filming with their phones at the end of the display, expecting that there would be more to the show. I stitched our two visits to the clock together in a video for purposes of comparison.

The road to Lausanne took us through lush green valleys dotted with idyllic Swiss towns. Every town had its own small church. Jagged hilltops always obscured the horizon and the skies were streaked with the contrails of small planes. We took a detour from the highway to visit the medieval town of Gruyères, a place that has very little to do with contemporary life in Switzerland. The old town occupies the top of a hill whose sides are largely covered by parking lots for visitors. From the parking area we could see the modern villages where people went about their regular daily routines with minimal disturbance from the tourists who flocked to the medieval city.

The town consists of a single wide cobblestone pedestrian street with a solid line of picturesque hotels and restaurants on either side. There appeared to be some residential apartments above the restaurants but probably only enough to house their owners and perhaps some people who worked in the town. One thing I noticed immediately is that while the town was certainly beautiful it did not look old. Everything from the cobblestones to the buildings looked as though it could have been constructed within the last twenty years, albeit in an older style. There were no crumbling stone buildings as one might see in the medieval villages of Italy or France but rather immaculate plaster facades with relatively modern windows and shutters. I had a strong sense of Epcot Syndrome, my term for places which exist only to create an artificial atmosphere for tourists but are no more authentic than the country pavilions at Disney World. The preponderance of storefronts displaying arrays of souvenirs and knickknacks did nothing to dispel this impression. I decided to put aside the illusion that I was in a place that was medieval or historic and focused on the charm of the town and the views of the green hills that surrounded us.

The pedestrian street ends at the 13th century Château de Gruyères. After skipping the interiors of the castles in Thun and Spiez we decided to finally check if we were missing anything. We spent about an hour touring the castle although I'd have to say we weren't sophisticated enough about period furniture and decorations to really appreciate our visit. Some of the panoramas from the upper level were quite impressive, including a pleasingly geometric garden with a chain of rocky hills in the background.

The old town is also close to a chocolate factory and a cheese factory that manufactures the famous Gruyère cheese. We avoided these since I got strong vibes of tourist trap from the reviews and we were too late to see the daily cheesemaking activities. It was a far better choice to make an early arrival in Lausanne as we would only have one day to explore this heralded city. On the way out of town we once again came to a complete road closure where we could see some workers resurfacing the asphalt. We reversed course but no matter which directions we turned the GPS kept trying to direct us back to the closure. Eventually I pulled over and blew up Google Maps to the max, eventually identifying a detour that would take us back to the main road a short distance downstream of the spot where our progress had been halted. The entrance to the detour was a turn I would never have considered taking if I didn't have the map. It looked like the driveway to a farm house and I wondered if I was being led astray. Sure enough the one lane road continued past the farmhouse and intersected with another which eventually dropped us just a hundred yards down from the opposite side of the road closure. I had never driven in Europe before the advent of the internet so I can't imagine what that must have been like, but I'm sure that without Google Maps every road closure we encountered would have been a nightmare of frustration.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:21 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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