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February 2019

Issue: February 2019

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
 
 
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Old Town, Bern

1 February 2019

Truffles, rösti, gelato… this Swiss medieval escape combines 15th-century charm with seriously good eating

A popular spot for a sundowner picnic, the views from Bern’s Rosengarten park are romantic and far-reaching. They stretch from snow-capped Alps in the south to the rolling hills and mountains on the border with France to the northwest. Unusually, though, people don’t come for the sweeping landscapes. They come to watch the sun’s last rays tickle the fairytale rooftops and spires of Bern’s Old Town.

The rose garden stands above the river Aare, which loops around Bern’s medieval centre. It provided natural defence on three sides of the city back in the day, at a time when this region had more warring dynasties than there are holes in a mousetrap cheese. Foun-ded in 1191, the original settlement was mostly wooden – but was all lost during a devastating fire in 1405. It was then that the townsfolk decided to rebuild using sandstone, their vision now realised as the fifteenth-century Old Town that sits on the hilly, river-embraced peninsula today.

It’s no wonder that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The shoulder-to-shoulder stone buildings and narrow cobbled alleys seem to have trapped in the echoes and atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Walk around the Old Town at dawn, or when geranium-filled window boxes are lit by lamplight, and every step seems to carry you back further in time.

During the day, though, take a stroll along the elevated arcades – the medieval equivalent of a shopping mall – and hop between chi-chi boutiques, artisan chocolatiers, cafes and bric-a-brac stores. This is how townsfolk have done it for centuries: enjoying some retail therapy while staying high and dry, unconcerned by winter’s icy cobbled streets below, and shielded from summer downpours.

In the mornings the sun peeks from behind the hill Rosengarten sits on, and its rays shine straight up age-old main street Kramgasse to light up the ancient clocktower that stands at its end. This is Bern’s hallmark Zytglogge – or ‘time bell’ –with an astronomical clock dating back to the fifteenth century. Sightseers gather around the tower each hour to watch its historical automatons and clockwork bellstrikers.

None can fail to be enchanted by something you’ll find only in Switzerland: an oversized cuckoo clock.

Start at Berner Münster

The views over the higgledy red-tile rooftops of the Old Town (and of the contemporary city beyond) are as breathtaking as the climb up Bern Minster, the tallest place of worship in Switzerland. There are 312 stone steps to the viewing platform that collars the 100m-high bell tower, and from there both capitals – old and new – look refreshingly tree-filled. Peer straight down past the Gothic embellishments of the tower and fifteenth-century basilica beneath to Münstergasse where a fresh food street market sees local farmers, bakers and cheese-makers offering fresh fare each Tuesday and Saturday. (The Minster often opens at 10am during weekends, but check online in advance of your trip.)
Münsterplatz 1, +41 31 312 04 62, minsmuenster.ch

A five-minute walk to Old Town Arcades

Bern’s iconic arcades line several of the medieval Old Town’s ‘gasse’ (or alleys) and provide a total six kilometres of covered walkways. As well as a succession of tempting opportunities to empty your purse while filling your boots, elegant and broad Kramgasse is punctuated by a series of unique sixteenth-century fountains decorated with religious and allegorical friezes and figurines including blind justice and armour-wearing bears. Albert Einstein may well have stopped to refresh his thoughts by one of these intriguing fountains, because it was here (during a two-year stay starting 1903) that he established his Theory of Relativity. His apartment, frozen in time, is open for viewing.
Einsteinhaus Bern, Kramgasse 49, +41 31 312 00 91, einstein-bern.ch

A two-minute walk to Einstein Café

The Swiss have smartly slipped two extra meals into their schedule: one called znüni, a mid-morning snack (usually about 9am), the other zvieri, equivalent to British afternoon tea. Located directly below Einstein’s one-time pad, this eponymous café presents an opportunity to sample one or both of these bonus bites. Chattering marketgoers rendezvous with a local favourite of kaffee-crème and croissant, and the buzz doesn’t flag until neighbouring Bern Minster’s bells strike midnight. Einstein Cafe is a good choice any time of day for a snack: from a pick-me-up gateau zvieri-style, to a late-night vegetarian sandwich made with the delicious house bread.
Kramgasse 49, +41 31 312 28 28, einstein-cafe.ch

A thirty-minute walk via Marzilibahn Funicular to The River Aare

For many Bernese, a dip in the river Aare is a daily duty. A kickstart before breakfast, as a midday refresher, or while others are trapped in the evening rush hour, the great and the good take time out to ‘drift’ in the Aare’s fast-moving stream – ensuring they don’t miss any of the exit points and end up in one of the weirs further down the river. Some folk head 28km to neighbouring town Thun where they set out on a raft with picnic and mood music for the two-hour journey back to Bern. Most stay local, strolling upstream a kilometre or two for a gentle and safe entry into the turquoise glacial waters via riverside steps, or a heroic leap from the adjacent iron footbridge, Schönausteg. Whatever category you fall into, be sure to read, then re-read, all safety advice.
Schönausteg at 46.9342°N 7.4456°E, bern.com/en/detail/the-aare-river

A five-minute walk to Gelaterie di Berna

With four locations (and the occasional pop-up), any urges for on trend, off-radar gelato are soon satisfied at this stylish ice-cream parlour. Pannacotta, chocolate fondant, pineapple and basil, pepper grapefruit… even fermented cream with tree resin. Yes, some flavours seem way out there, but most are irresistible. There’s only one problem: the flavour inventors spend the winter working on new combos, meaning the shops won’t re-open until mid-March.
Marzilistrasse 32, gelateriadiberna.ch

A twenty-minute walk via Marzilibahn Funicular to Confiserie Tschirren

Confiserie Tschirren, located at a sweet spot close to Zytglogge clocktower has been making praline, biscuits and chocolate truffles for a century. Try their champagne truffle, which is the store’s signature, as well as the sublime ‘pruneaux’ of dried plum, nestled in a creamy ganache. Their hazelnut gingerbread makes a good present too, embossed as it is with the city’s symbol of a bear (should you want to see more of them, head down the street over Nydegg Bridge, to the 19-century Bear Pit). If you don’t have a sweet tooth the shop also sells sandwiches, or, a few doors down, Chäsbueb sells 101 unctuous regional cheeses and several Bernese varieties, including the black truffle-coated Bärner Küssli.
Confiserie Tschirren, Kramgasse 73, +41 31 311 17 17, swiss-chocolate.ch Chäsbueb, Kramgasse 83, +41 31 311 22 71, chaesbueb.ch

A ten-minute walk to A Taste of Bern

If you’re hankering for classic Swiss cooking – think dinner-plate-sized röstis [fried grated-potato cakes], health-giving sauerkraut, racks of grilled meats – two restaurants which fit the bill happen to be just minutes apart on foot, yet seasons apart in style. ‘Old-skool’ Kornhauskeller occupies a glorious vaulted cellar, decorated with high baroque murals and paintings. If you cannot face its speciality, ‘Bernese Plate’ (tip: approach it with the zeal of a Matterhorn mountaineer), the restaurant wisely offers fish dishes and even a vegetarian paella. At Restaurant Lötschberg the mood is turn-of-the-century hipster, with formica-topped tables and vintage nicknacks. Here, diners can easily eschew meat to focus on raclette or fondue.
Kornhauskeller, Kornhausplatz 18, +41 31 327 72 72, bindella.ch/de/kornhauskeller-galeriebar.html Restaurant Lötschberg, Zeughausgasse 16, +41 31 311 34 55, loetschberg-aoc.ch

Words and Images: Mark Parren Taylor

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