We saw that we had about a half day of sunshine on Saturday (day 2 in Switzerland) before rain was forecast to move into the area (also about the amount of time we can get the jet-lagged kids to play along), so we decided to take our first day-trip of our career break out of Basel to Bern. Bern is the capital of Switzerland with a population just under Basel’s and we have long admired its Altstadt (old town) and giant clock tower (Zytglogge).
Getting there was easy, only about an hour on the train, and free with our new train passes. We didn’t have any maps and our phones were of little use on our U.S. service plans with roaming turned off, but we still found our way from the train station down to the Barenplatz (Bear Plaza) by following the flow of the crowds.
The streets in the old town are lined with flags from all of the Swiss Cantons, giving them a festive feel. There was a good-sized crowd walking around and visiting shops and outdoor markets beginning in the Barenplatz and stretching all the way through the old town. The main landmark of the old town is the giant clock tower (Zytglogge), which was originally built in the early 13th century (hard to imagine things that old, coming from Colorado where clocks didn’t start popping up until 1850). What makes it such a draw for people is that it chimes every hour with a series of animated characters, including a rooster, jester, dancing bears and bell ringers.
There is also a detailed astronomical clock, which dates from the early 15th century shows the date, month, sunrise and sunset as well as moon phase. Crazy detail for 600 hundred years ago! We got there around 10:30 and had some time to kill before the 11 o’clock chime, so we found a shady picnic table on the river just around the corner and ate some lunch. The adults enjoyed the clock tower more than the kids and there is a tour you can take of the inside, but it wasn’t until 2:30. We knew we didn’t have that much time (pun intended).
After wandering through a farmer’s market and grabbing some delicious strawberries and carrots, we found ourselves in front of an impressive cathedral (Bern Münster). Construction began on it in 1421 and the tower was completed in 1893—talk about patience. The tower reaches to 330 feet and is the tallest in Switzerland (for 5 francs, you can go up in it). We wandered inside and sat down to appreciate the massive arches, intricate stained glass, awesome pipe organ and ponder why all churches smell the same. Unfortunately, the three year-old let us know that these activities were “boring” in un-hushed tones, so we soon had to move on.
Our final destination, after meandering down the rest of the main old town drag and popping into a few stores along the way, was the Barengraben or “Bear Pit.” It was an easy stroll down a gently sloping grade. Luckily, there are trams and buses you can take back up to the train station at the bottom. The bear is the symbol for Bern and they have been kept in the city since the early 16th century in various public enclosures. Even if they really look like they need it, they don’t let you hug the bears—Jana asked. By this time the kids were pretty tired (it had been about 3 hours since we arrived) and didn’t appreciate my narrative on how the bear pits used to be where parents threw whining kids back in the 17th century. It was time to head back to the train. Perhaps we will come back another day and see the rest of this clean, friendly, capital.