February 25, 2013 by Jools Stone
‘Imagine a country where the trains always run on time.’
Now you’re just asking for trouble if you put messages like this in your marketing material, aren’t you?
After all, what’s more fun than pricking at a dearly held national stereotype? Swiss trains are so Goddamn reliable that you can set your Tag Heuer by them, no?
Well, not today they’re not.
Our train from Zurich to Bern is some 30 minutes late, detaining us for our appointment with the tourist guide, a prune-faced lady of indeterminate years, tutting and tapping her clipboard impatiently on our arrival in the lobby of the swish hotel. She somewhat begrudgingly allows us to grab a bite to eat in a vaguely modish wine bar-cum-deli while she talks at us about the city’s bridges and 15th century redevelopment for what feels like several millenia.
She wasn’t quite as dull as the guy who well and truly put the bored into Bordeaux, but she more than made up for it with sourness and military stroppiness. (Mr Bored? OhYesWeWere regaled us as with three hours on the city’s underground parking, building cleaning programme and the origins of the ctiy’s former mayors.)
Honestly tourist boards and PR peeps, your guides are your ambassadors and often the first faces a group of tired, weary and hungry travel writers encounter, so make sure you only unleash the best ones!
It’s absolutely chucking it down with relentless glee, but our tour guide is unperturbed, her face having been soaked in vinegar for several centuries already. We battle the elements with brollies gamely in hand, observing the stout, distinctive olive sandstone buildings with their huge latchdoor cellars and the city’s many chi-chi boutiques and high end jewellers.
Fortunately, Bern has six kilometres of arcades under its belt. We sure are grateful for those as we shelter under them at regular intervals while feigning interest in some roundels.
Fountains of Rain
Among Bern’s more interesting features – and handy orientation points – are its colourful medieval fountains. Several of them portray some fairly gruesome scenes, baby-eating kings and the like. All of them are festooned with the city’s ubiquitous emblem – the rearing bear. We grimly fill our obligatory Bern Tourism cycling flasks at one of them, as instructed by prunce-face. They would probably be filled quicker if we simply held them aloft into the pissing rain for a few seconds, but there you go.
Now I have a confession to make. I like big clocks and I cannot lie. Which was lucky, as Bern has the mother of all clocktowers, with bells on, the Zytglogge, which is pretty hard to miss. We get taken up the turnpike stair and into the belltower to poke about in its rusty innards. The pendulum was quite something, being one of the oldest surviving of such mechanisms.
The cute carousel of clockwork bears which does a little turn on the hour with the chimes was intriguingly powered by a set of steam bellows. It reminded me a bit of master Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s film Faust. Seek it out. It’s ingenious and more than a little bit creepy.
By the way, anyone who thinks that big clocks cannot possibly be interesting should check out the Millennium Clock in situ at the National Museum of Scotland, a fantastic kinetic sculpture created by genius Russian artist Eduard Bersudsky, documenting several hundred years of human sufferance and overcoming adversity. Nippers are often found transfixed at its feet on the hour and with good reason.
E-bikes and Rickshaws
Ok, here’s another confession. I am 38 years old and cannot ride a push bike. Yes, really. This means I’m the only one in the group not to be trusted in possession of one of Bern’s whizzy new electric bikes. Although I didn’t get to saddle up myself, I’ll admit there’s something slightly thrilling about being ushered into the massive underground bike lair, like something from a low rent Bond film. Ahh, I’m easily pleased, me!
So I get a rickshaw and personal chauffeur instead. Not too shabby. My rickshaw even has an ipad bolted to its spindly white frame. The Scottish Sun’s supersub Paul sniggers at me for my chaperoned ride, but I have the last laugh when he comes a cropper on a tramline and nearly flails directly into the path of a speeding tram. (He survives with barely a scratched knee though, so my conscience is clear.)
Rose Garden and Bear Park
Mr Rick Shaw (possibly NOT his real name) learned the ropes in his native Mumbai, so what passes for the late afternoon rush hour in Bern is a doddle for him and we soon outstrip the e-bikers. He even finds time to stop and shoot the breeze with a group of Indian tourists in the Rose Garden, a tranquil and beautifully conceived Japanese-themed space with lilly pond and fragrant blooms aplenty.
Eventually we pedal our way to perhaps Bern’s star attraction: the Bear Park. You can still see the two original 19th century bearpits in all their gory, inhumane glory, but thankfully now there are just a few wooden statues demarcating the place where the bears once ate their porridge.
A little way past these, in a sizable enclosure on the bank of the River Aare is today’s actual bear habitat, home to four brown bears, who nose curiously about for carrots in the undergrowth, seemingly untroubled by the human gawpers snapping them from a safe distance above.
It’s a far nicer – if slightly surreal – environment for them than most zoos, plus the cafe with extensive beer terrace looks like a pretty darn inviting place to nurse a stein or two, while you watch those furry critters happily ambling about below.
The one thing I meant to do but somehow missed due to the vagaries of press trip scheduling was a stroll along the Kirchenfeld Bridge, quite ironic given our grumpy tour guide’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the bridges. I planned to make a pilgrimage here as it features in a key scene from the cult novel Night Train to Lisbon, the film of which with Jeremy Irons is hitting screens soon.
It’s the spot where the donnish protagonist Raimund Gregorius encounters an enigmatic Portuguese lady who scrawls a phone number on his forehead, beginning his quest. If you go there yourself, do me a favour, hang about for a bit and let me know if you have any portentous encounters yourself.
Getting to Bern
Like most Swiss cities, Bern is well placed on the generally excellent public transport network. It’s (normally) just a few hours by direct train to Zurich Airport and city centre, plus Interlaken and the delights of those mighty Swiss mountains are just an hour or so away.
I visited Bern as a guest of the Swiss Tourist Board. But you know, even Mussolini couldn’t make the trains run on time all the time.