The Bears of Bern

From what I can tell, Bern is famous for three things: its live bears, the clear cold water of the fast-flowing Aare River, and for being the place where Albert Einstein first developed the theory of relativity. It also happens to be the capital city of Switzerland.

For a capital city, Bern is surprisingly small and quiet. The Wikipedia entry on Bern cracks me up with its numerical accuracy: there are 133,920 residents, of whom 171 speak Romansh (the fourth national language of Switzerland, a Latinesque language), and 259 are “employed in the primary economic sector.”

Some Bernese number-cruncher had a lot of fun with this one. Well, as the birthplace of all of Albert Einstein’s theoretical breakthroughs, I guess Bern has a fair claim on mathematic precision?

The central part of the city is on a small peninsula carved out by the bends of the Aare River. There’s a large public swimming pool off to the right, though out of view, in the picture above. And apparently it’s a popular local pastime to hike up the river, hop in and let the current carry you downstream. The current is strong, though, so there are poles that you have to grab on to and then make it to shore from there.

To quote my Rick Steves guidebook, if you miss the poles, you’re a goner. We didn’t bring our bathing suits, and I wasn’t feeling quite brave enough to try it, so we passed on that experience.

The other thing Bern is famous for is the green sandstone used to construct all of its buildings. The color of money, perhaps, given that underneath this building is half of the nation’s gold reserves.

To be more historically accurate, after a fire swept through Bern, the city regulated that all buildings should be made of stone.

The astrological clock tower in the distance.

Though that greenish color does seem a bit drab, there are daubs of color here and there to liven up the city, such as picturesque windows, flower pots, charming courtyards, and the city’s 11 fountains:


The 11 fountains are historical sites, commissioned in bygone days from I don’t remember when. This city was first founded in 1191, so it could have been anytime since then. But the most recent fountains are these fun ones in front of Parliament.

There are 26 fountains to represent the 26 Swiss cantons (akin to states), and it’s hilarious to watch the kids playing here, waiting for the fountains in tense silence and then running around with giddy screeches once the water shoots up.

I repeat. Does anyone actually work in Switzerland? A main attraction of the day was watching these riveting chess matches. Seriously, they’re intense. No one says anything. One guy took a quickie bathroom break. The match lasted as long as it took me to eat my sandwich. It’s really one continuous match between the two, with the next match beginning as soon as the last is won. The gentleman in the blue shirt won the match that we stayed to watch.

Afterwards, the Einstein Museum. I was more riveted than I expected to be. For one, I was flabbergasted by his ultimatum to his wife for him to return home: do the washing, the cooking, bring the food to me in my study 3x a day, do not talk to me, when I tell you to shut up, cease speaking immediately, expect no affection or sexual relations, etc.. I mean, why even go through the pretense of offering to come home? No one would agree to that.

And after she refused, he went on to have quite a few affairs. The iconic face of scientific genius… was a Casanova? Cannot.. compute..

But beyond that, the museum was just so detailed and put his life and work in all of the historical context—for example, facsimiles of his correspondence with FDR alongside the fallout of the atomic bomb. And educational videos attempting to explain his theories, which I glossed over. To my shame, there was an Indian family with young children (between the ages of 8 and 12) who watched all the videos start to finish. Haha. Those kids are going to be some smart cookies when they grow up.

Einstein’s house while he lived in Bern.

The Munster is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, though I didn’t include the spire in this photo because it was covered by scaffolding. Behind the Munster is a terrace overlooking a sharp drop to the Aare River. The terrace was charming, with benches and seesaws and ping pong tables.

Entry to the church is free, and we were lucky enough to catch the organist practicing. Though sparse, the cathedral is beautiful nonetheless with its high vaults and stained glass.

Bern must be a very safe city, as there are parking spots for bikes, no rack, just a simple bike lock. Call me a New Yorker, but I don’t trust this system. At all.

Across one of the city’s high bridges is the Bear Park! Apparently as early as the 1440s, live bears have been kept in bear pits across the Aare River from the central peninsula. Their habitat was pretty dismal until 2009, when an activist group successfully lobbied to get them out of these dank bear pits.

So the bears went from living in a stinky pit to a happenin’ pad carved into the hillside, with a fishing river and everything.

In close-ups, it almost looks like they’re really living in the wild!

Right next to the bear park is a bank where you can dip your toes into the river.

And so I did.

Not pictured is Movenpick ice cream, which we bought in a hurry to catch the train. But it was seriously delicious. Switzerland’s happy cows make good milk, and Swiss people make good ice cream with it. Yum!


8 thoughts on “The Bears of Bern

  1. What an entertaining post, and what lucky bears! Can’t remember ever reading anything abou Bern so that was a big incentive.
    Your photos remind me of so many places that I’ve been- Fuschl in Austria, the chess; Evora in Portugal, those lovely arcades; Gorlitz at the Polish border for the style of architecture, and those fountains, Belchatow in Poland and Peterborough in England. Kind of an international post- I enjoyed it.

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