It took me almost one year to get myself to Bern from Zurich, and when I finally did, I found that my expectations couldn’t have been kicked harder in the butt. For ages, I had heard about the legendary Bernese – my partner had told me that a study had shown that they, among all Swiss, walk the slowest (how this study was conducted and who had gone around calculating a Bernese’s average distance covered per hour I cannot imagine). I had also personally met quite a few specimens back in the classrooms of my English language school in Malta who spoke with unbearable slowness and seemed to not even have enough energy to properly open their eyes. Nothing, however, was to be seen of this in the capital itself – people seemed to walk at a pretty normal pace, and all the conversations in Swiss-German I eavesdropped also had a perfectly acceptable tempo. I was baffled to say the least. The city didn’t feel slow at all.
I had also imagined the city itself differently. Having grown accustomed to the pastel shades of Zurich’s old town and its collection of small, winding lanes filled with meticulously and exquisitely set-up shop windows, the muddy colour of many of Bern’s buildings coupled with the grey sky which hung heavily that day as I walked for the first time through Switzerland’s capital made me ironically long for Zurich.
Then there were of course, the six kilometres of covered arcades which the city is famed for, but which I imagined to be somewhat of a more traditional nature. Instead, these arcades were lined by brand-spanking new stores occupied by generic international brands, a little bit like Zurich’s bahnhofstrasse, and decorated with annoying advertising signs hanging off the covered walkways’ ceilings, one after the other, and so on until infinity (or rather till you reach the end of the walkway). As I walked through them, I could see almost nothing of the old buildings which lay above the arcades themselves (except if I peered across the street and squinted upwards) since the whole thing had been designed in such a way as to envelop you in an unrelentless wave of modern consumerism.
As I headed further down the walkways, emerging from them briefly to look at the famed Zytglogge clock under which the expected small crowd of Japanese had congregated and was waiting for its little mechanical-figure-twirling show on the hour, the artificial quality of it all started to thin out somewhat – the plaster in the walkways started looking a little bit more weathered, the false ceilings disappeared and let the old structures breathe, shops became smaller and more particular, the annoying signs almost vanished completely and I was no longer made to feel as if my happiness depended on stepping into a store, any store, and purchasing something.
Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to look for little cosy streets like the ones in Zurich’s old town (of which I’m becoming increasingly fonder and fonder), where shops are more particular and it’s actually pleasant to simply walk around and window shop. Are there such streets in Bern? I’ll have to discover that another time.
The part of my trip to Bern which I remember as being the most pleasant is when I reached the ‘tip’ of the city, that point where the U-shaped bend of the Aare river becomes visible and neon signs bearing shop names give way to beautiful houses with thatched roofs built out of earthy and weathered tiles. The river looked so clean with its translucent aquamarine tint, and so so pretty, lined by forest on one side and houses on the other. What brought me here was the wish to see the famous (or infamous) Bern pit overlooking the river, where two adult bears and their two cubs live, the latter fooling around periodically to the delight of the ever-present crowd. Some people call this a cruel spectacle, but if it is to be considered such, it’s certainly not as much as it used to be in the past when the bears were kept in a ridiculously small circular piece of land just above their present home.
Before leaving the city and paying a whopping 17 chf for a few hours of parking at the main station car park, I took a quick look around the Bundeshaus (the Federal Palace of Switzerland) and watched as children played among the jet fountains in front of it. A half-drenched woman, clasping the hand of her ecstatic child, ran through the jets every couple of minutes to the delight of her daughter. From the palace’s grounds themselves, I enjoyed a view stretching out across forest, houses and the hills beyond the city.
Was the whole trip worth it? It was a bit expensive, but yes. I still think Zurich is more beautiful though. But that isn’t really the point, is it?
-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @ www.theartofslowtravel.com