A Good Turn for Bern

Lucerne may pack a beauty wallop and Geneva may be petite, squeaky-clean and international, but it’s Bern and the Emmental region that jolted our senses. For a capital city, Bern is surprisingly eclectic, yet has a lot of soul. It’s not just gorgeous and functional; it also has a bit of a bold attitude in the form of ancient yet ferocious-looking public fountains, very modern spaces and a purposeful mix of old-meets-new.

This being Switzerland, any city is bound to be a knockout, and Bern is no different. The Aare River, a summer spot for cooling off, is the “U” around which Bern was built. Old Town Bern stretches from the loop of the Aare westwards to the site of ancient fortifications that date back to the High Middle Ages. Bern’s famous Clock Tower, complete with astronomical clock and gilded bell striker, was the city’s first gate, begun in 1191. It’s also where we found the biggest cluster of tourists, but for our money, it’s the devilish touches around the city that pack the largest naughty punch.

Old Town Bern’s streets are loaded with medieval architecture, for which Bern was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. The Munster of Bern, the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, has to be its most fascinating, with a collection of figures depicting the Last Judgment over its main portal. Look closely and you will see a clear difference between the virtuous and the wicked, with the latter engaging in all matter of fiendish behavior and some burning in hell for it. Inside, there are beautiful stained glass windows, with the Dance of Death—Death, in the form of a skeleton, pouncing on assorted individuals—a macabre standout. Visitors are allowed to climb the cathedral tower for a small fee to get a bird’s-eye view of the city.

Throughout the city, you’ll find more than 80 fountains, some regal and some downright weird, offering drinking water for locals and visitors. Our favorite is the Kindlifresserbrunnen, the Child-Eater Fountain, which depicts just that and which dates back to the 16th century. It is located at Kornhausplatz.

But don’t let Bern’s long history fool you. Modern-day bars, cafes and great stores are tucked away beneath roughly four miles of arcades that stretch along main streets in the city-center. Even the “scientific” part of Bern is engrossing—Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity while living in Bern and his former apartment is available for a quick peek just a couple of blocks away from the Clock Tower. There’s also the Einstein Museum, a beautifully confectioned space filled with memorabilia, film interviews, photos and records of his life and work. Visitors get a self-guided tour with iPod Shuffles that lead them through the intriguing life of this revolutionary genius. This is a must when visiting Bern.

Another necessary stop here is the Zentrum Paul Klee, outside of Old Town, which houses more than 4,000 of Klee’s works. Housed under three steel “waves,” the museum is beautiful inside and out, with a lovely activity area for kids and adults, a sculpture park and a research center.

Bern is easily explored on foot with a good map or even an iPod audio guide available for rent from the Bern Tourism Office, which lets you choose between two routes or listen to individual commentary on some of the city’s most fascinating sights. The office also offers tours by bus or scooters; don’t forget to stop by BearPark to see the iconic bears for which the city is named. Keep in mind that Bern may also be navigated by tram or bus, which are easy to hop on and off.

swiss scents Imagine spending each day amid the aromas of cookies and cheese. These are the cheery smells of the Emmental Valley, about a 40-minute drive from Bern. A vision of happy cows, emerald rolling hills and pastoral bliss, this is a slice of the bucolic Switzerland that is not merely a postcard set-up but a daily reality.

The smell of the friendly Kambly complex alone is indescribable—like stepping into a scratch-and-sniff fairytale. The Kambly family has been making biscuits, crackers and cookies for more than 100 years, when Oscar Kambly used his grandmother’s recipe to bake thin, round bretzeli. With the third Kambly generation now in charge, today the brand is found in more than 50 countries yet still uses only local ingredients. Visitors can see how confectioners make an array of yummy cookies and sample and purchase any of them, or else reserve time for making and baking their own—but make sure that clients book well in advance, as the experience is extremely popular. The price for a hands-on lesson is around $123 per group of up to 14 and about $6 per child. A train stop is just a minute away—from Bern, travelers can take the Bern-Lucerne RegioExpress and get off at the Trubschachen stop.