A rainy day in the Swiss capital
I arrived at Zurich HB (the train station) just in time—the rain started pounding down right when I set foot in the station. This was the first time I took a train in Switzerland, and it certainly was a swift one. The scenic train ride to Bern (the capital of Switzerland) took just an hour, and it felt even faster as the sway of the train put me to sleep in the comfy, spacious seats. After arriving in Bern’s gigantic multi-level train station (Figure 1), I suggest you to take a look around. Not only is this a shopping center and transportation hub, it is also a historical site. Inside colorfully lit glass cases, the remains of Bern’s medieval walls are preserved (Figure 2). This reminded me of the History of London course that I had taken while studying abroad in London. Our professor had excavated sites from all around the city, and he would take us around to see them, including structural remains just sitting inside a parking garage!
Unfortunately, the rain still had not let up by then. Thankfully, though, Bern is prepared with covered walkways all over the city. So I speed-walked over to the nearest one and began window shopping. It almost started to seem as if all you can do in Bern is shop! There were all sorts of stores, from clothing stores to electronic shops to enticing bakeries. A particular pastry shop, Confiserie Beeler, caught my eye because of a cute little pastry with large eyes in the window (Figure 3). It sort of made me think of a porcupine, a sea urchin or a fat sea cucumber with eyes… In any case, I just had to go in and check out the place. The shop had a little café in the back and sold all sorts of snacks, from chocolates to small sandwiches. I purchased a chocolate meringue that made my mouth water (Figure 4). It was flaky and just as delicious as I imagined it to be!
As I made my way to the Parliament (this is the major attraction to see in Bern), I came across a farmer’s market in Barenplatz (Figure 5). Everything looked so fresh! Walk through the market and check out the goods—many items may be things you have never seen before! If you are not really into the market, you could play a game of chess on a gigantic chess board (Figure 6).
At the end of the market is Parliament (Figure 7). Check out the statues out front representing freedom and peace, and go around to the back where the visitor’s entrance is located. Go on in and make a reservation for the next free English tour (look down to tips). Since the earlier one was already fully booked, I reserved a ticket for the afternoon tour. I walked back outside and took in the view (Figure 8). The Parliament is located on a “cliff” with the rest of the old city. Thus, the rest of the city and the river lie below this plateau. Wander around a bit in the back. There is a row of trees that bloom gorgeous fuchsia-colored flowers in spring and another giant chessboard (Figure 9).
By this time, you may be a bit hungry for lunch (I certainly was). Rick Steves’ Switzerland recommends a superb diner on Zeughausgasse called Restaurant Lotschberg. The place is lined with a wall of wine bottles, showcasing all the restaurant offers. I ended up ordering a green salad, vanilla tea and Gruyere/Vacherin Fribourg fondue. The green salad was a surprising mix of vegetables (Figure 10)—the Swiss really know how to make a salad! I was unsure about the tea (since I’m not a big fan of hot, flavored water), but the waiter insisted that this was different. When it (Figure 11) was set in front of me, I smelled the strong aroma of vanilla, and when I tasted it, I actually loved it! This tea tasted as if a tablespoon of sugar was added—just how I like it! Then came my pot of cheese (Figure 12). I think this was supposed to be for at least 2 people (but you pay for it by person) because I really do not think it is healthy for someone to ingest this much cheese. At some point, the underlying lactose intolerance must kick in, even if you express the lactase gene. As I started dipping a piece of bread from my colossal bread stock (Figure 13) into the pot, I was awed by the smoothness of the cheese! It looked like a white chocolate sauce! And it tasted phenomenal – savory with a twinge of sweetness from the Apricotine schnapps (the waiter said it made the cheese taste better).
With my stomach stuffed with bread and cheese (definitely could not finish the entire pot), I decided to take a walk around town before heading back to the Parliament for the tour. I walked past the towering Bern Cathedral (Figure 14) toward the Aare River, where I was met by a picturesque view (Figure 15). There is a large courtyard that overlooks the river—do not stand too close to the edge if you are afraid of heights… You will be able to get to see the spectacular architecture of the Kirchenfeldbrucke (the Kirchenfeld Bridge) over probably the cleanest river you’ve ever laid eyes on from here!
Walking back into the center of the city, I realized that there was some sort of event going on as I hear a ton of cheering and loudspeakers. Apparently I came to Bern on the day of the famous Bern Grand-Prix, the largest racing event in Switzerland. People of all ages run a 10 mile stretch while others line the streets cheering them on (Figure 16). To me, it looked sort of miserable since it was still pouring, and these people were running 10 miles, with mud splattered all over their lower half! Yet, most people looked energetic with smiles on their faces, and the crowd definitely loved it!
As I followed the path of the run, I finally came to the east end of the city where the curvy end of the horseshoe-shaped Aare River is located. There, you can see a bear sanctuary right on the river where Bern’s bears are kept (Figure 17).
Back in front of the Parliament, look to the left (while facing Parliament), and you will see the Swiss National Bank (Figure 18). Supposedly, half of the Swiss gold is buried under the square in front of the bank (Figure 19). I then went inside for the Parliament tour, and it was quite educational, and our tour guide was able to hold our attention with his quirky personality. Be sure to note that the main hall is VERY symbolic (our guide emphasized that with every statue he pointed out) of freedom, diversity and the people. In fact, all the stone used to build the hall is from each of the cantons in Switzerland. The only stone from outside Switzerland was that used to carve the statues of the three founders who were actually Italian, according to legend (thus the stone is from Italy). This tour of the Parliament is definitely worth it—you learn a lot about the Swiss government and the peculiar traditions they have in the building.
- Carry an umbrella with you pretty much everywhere you go—you never know when a spontaneous rain storm is going to happen.
- If you are going during a busy touristy season or really nice day, make sure you make reservations ahead of time by calling 031-322-8522. Otherwise, you can try going the day of and making a reservation right when you get to Bern. But it’s probably better if you make a reservation since there are only 2 English tours per day (11:30 am and 4 pm).
- Try the fondue at Restaurant Lotschberg– it was definitely one of the best I’ve ever had.