Bern's bears and chess battles bring fun and frivolity to the Swiss capital.
Is Switzerland a serious travel destination? The images of the stoic Swiss banker or the studious clock maker certainly don't suggest a fun and frivolous destination. But the Swiss capital of Bern is a city of charm, whimsy, and wry good humor - and I've had more fun here than just about any other spot. Whether it's discovering a cheeky giant flower arrangement designed to mimic a Christmas tree (above) or a jaunty frolic with make-believe bears, Bern has amusement and diversions for every traveller.
Public games and superb people watching.
Public games like chess and boule are beloved pastimes across Europe but nowhere did we see chess taken so seriously as in Bern. At one point, a heated argument broke out between the elderly gentlemen at the public chess square (hmmm.... make that elderly rogues. I'm not sure how gentlemanly they were!) We weren't entirely sure they weren't going to resort to blows! Happily the moment passed without further incident and, judging from the bland expressions on the faces of everyone at the market, these little scuffles were part and parcel of public life.
People watching made for a less intense experience for us. Seniors, students, and professionals alike packed the market. Everything, from small treats of cheese and chocolate to more substantial looking grocery orders, was neatly packaged and tucked into bags and briefcases. And everywhere we went, we saw people perched on the edges of public fountains, benches, and monuments, happy and animated as they socialized with friends and kept an eye on restless kids. (Speaking of those monuments, keep an eye out for one featuring children being eaten. Really!)
With all due respect to the fine folks of Zurich, I can't imagine the same level of joie de vivre in Switzerland's financial heartland. Everything in Bern was just a little more relaxed, a little less hurried.
This easy-walking city seems especially designed to make people slow down and smell the roses (and a good thing too, since Bern is home to a famous rose garden which we loved!) Case in point was this fun water fountain located by the Bundesplatz.
Maybe you're looking at the photos wondering "What water fountain?" What looks like a flat, plain set of paving stones conceals a cheeky set of water jets, perfect for energetic kids to run through, just daring another hidden stream of water to erupt from the staid looking square. You never know when dozens of water jets are about to emerge and soak everyone in the vicinity. The kids were going nuts - and the adults and dogs seemed to love it just as much!
Bern's bears are friendly than you think.
Bern's mascot and namesake, the bear, may seem like a stern and imposing animal (and those who roam Bern's Barengraben certainly are). But should the bears of the Barengraben be feeling shy and not up for visitors, their stone and fiberglass cousins are always happy for a visit. With a keen eye you can spot more family friendly bears who welcome human interaction, even tummy rubs. Bear statues (and posters and logos and artwork) adorn the city. If you have a keen eye, you can even spot a bear in the Toblerone chocolate logo. It's a local company and keen to showcase it's Bern pride (but no spoilers here - you're going to have to squint at it yourself!)
Medieval clock, modern performance art.
Even what's arguably the city's most famous and popular attraction, the Old City clock tower, has a whimsical and merry side. Known as theZytglogge, its roots date back to the 1200's and, in more recent history, it influenced how a young Albert Einstein thought about time. Most visitors aren't contemplating physics however when the clock chimes and a parade of sculpted bears come out to dance in a circle. Keen an eye out as well for the gilded gold bell chimer - as well as some gilded "living statue": people dressed and made up to look like statues and who stand frozen for long periods of time. Both are sure to delight.
Our only regret: Not taking the plunge (into Bern's Aare River that is....)
As I can attest from my first trip to Bern many years ago, the absolute best thing to do in the city is to take the plunge into the Aare River (along with all the locals - this is a beloved summer pastime) and bob with the current through the city centre. Like a natural "lazy river" from a water theme park, swimming in the Aare is one of my most beloved travel memories and I was so eager to do it again but, alas, the weather was uncooperative this time around.
Thankfully, cooler temperatures didn't stop us from sampling chocolates (Tschirren is our favourite), exploring food emporiums and shops, exploring the rose garden, and strolling along cobblestone streets. We'll simply have to put swimming in the Aare on our list for next time - because we're definitely coming back!
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