- - Monday, December 12, 2016

Switzerland is a feast for the eyes.

Look anywhere and there’s something to take your breath away — the majesty of the snow-capped Alps, a pristine lake or a meadow where cows share their space with wild flowers.

Villages from storybooks and red-roofed towns abound. The occasional evidence of industry in the valleys and apartment blocks crowding the suburbs are but negligible distractions.

Bern, the capital, is a city of 130,000 built on hilly terrain near the imaginary line where French and German speakers mark the division of the country.

From high up on Bern’s Rose Garden, once a cemetery and since 1913 a public park, there’s a spectacular view of the city spread out to the west. On a clear day, you can see forever to the Alps.

The residents of Bern are proud of their three bears, the symbol of the city, living in a grassy enclave by the River Aare below the Rose Garden. Legend has it that the city’s founder — Berthold V, Duke of Zaeringen — vowed he would name the city for the first animal he encountered on a hunt. That turned out to be “baeren,” the German word for bears.

The heart of the city, the Old Town, lies on a tongue-shaped peninsula with the Aare curving around it. Here Duke Berthold built his town in 1191 around an 11th-century castle at the tip of the peninsula as a military post on the frontier between the German-speaking Alemanni and the French-speaking Burgundians. In 1353, Bern joined the Swiss Confederation of eight city-states (cantons) and, by the 16th century, it was the largest city-state north of the Alps.

In 1848, Bern became the capital of the new Swiss federal state, modeled after the U.S. federal system.

Today, the Swiss parliament building, the gothic Town Hall, the cathedral, the two remaining tower gates and patrician sandstone mansions with gardens on the steep slopes above the river are located on this hilly peninsula. The lower town along the riverbank, the ancient “Matte” quarter, was once home to craftsmen.

The inhabitants of the Matte neighborhood had a secret language, “Mattenenglisch” (it had nothing to do with English), brought from Hamburg by Bernese boatmen. It’s Switzerland’s fifth language, along with French, German, Italian and Romansh, and is still spoken by a handful of people.

The busy harbor and the public baths (where Casanova is said to have amused himself with the local girls who would join a bather for a fee) are long gone. Matte’s workshops have been replaced by cafes, artist studios and small shops.

What remains is the metal elevator, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel himself, that has linked the upper and lower towns since 1897. The ride takes only 30 seconds, but it would take considerably longer to climb the 183 steps of the adjacent stairway. A female ghost is said to haunt the steps by night.

Both the elevator and the landing at the top of the stairs open onto a plaza in front of Bern’s 15th-century cathedral, where 234 depictions of the Last Judgment adorn the portal.

The Old Town’s main street climbs about a mile from the river to the railroad station. Arcades of shops and cafes line both sides of the street. Sixteenth-century fountains, each capped with a statue representing a figure from the Bible, a craftsman and the woman who built the first hospital in Bern in the 14th century, stretch along the center of the street. Albert Einstein lived for two years in a house on the main street.

Originally, the city ended at the Zytglogge, or clock tower, which has served as a guard tower and women’s prison. Built in 1530 on what was the original 13th-century western gate of the city, the clock features mechanical figures, including bears, that emerge just before the clock strikes the hour. Tours of the clockworks inside the tower can be arranged with the Bern Tourist Office.

Clocks and chocolate are synonymous with Switzerland, although the center of the Swiss watch industry is not in Bern but the nearby town of Biel/Bienne, a bilingual city on the border of French and German speakers.

Bern is famous for chocolate. Rudolph Lindt established a chocolate company here in 1879, and began improving the gritty chocolate consumed mostly as a drink. Lindt invented the conching machine, a type of mixer that constantly stirred the chocolate to give it a finer consistency. He added cocoa butter to make it into a smooth, delicate, melting confection that could be molded into bars and other delights.

But not just chocolate teases the Bernese tongue. Other specialties include a dish made of smoked pork and beef tongue, and a traditional onion tart, celebrating the town’s annual November onion market. Meringues, served with whipped cream, although hardly unique to Bern, are a popular dessert.

Then there’s Swiss cheese. The beautiful Emmental valley and its many cheese manufacturers are only 20 miles northeast of Bern. At the Emmentaler Show Dairy, a visitor can learn how the cheese is made and how the holes get into the cheese.

The contemporary Paul Klee Center in the eastern suburbs houses the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work. It’s also a venue for concerts and theater performances.

Bern is not far from Switzerland’s other cities and picturesque villages. Trains, trams and buses make travel easy.

Cheese, chocolate and scenery. What’s not to like?


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