Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bloggo Bern-o: Only one Day, Sad to Say, in Beautiful Bern

Fairly early on our recent European adventure, Dottore Gianni and I found ourselves in Switzerland, in Bern to be exact, on the second day in that country. The first was spent in Basel, which I confess left me fairly cold. So I prefer to focus on Bern, and will in this very pictorial blog. 

Let's start with a little history. Don't like history? Tough - Dottore Gianni does! Bern (in the US it's usually spelled Berne - why on earth I know not) was founded in 1191, but even before then there was probably a castle there, as it was in a strategic position, on the high ground, and nearly surrounded by the River Aare. Why the name Bern? Legend has it that the founder named the city after he went hunting in the vicinity. His first victim was a of course he thought to name the city after the Swiss/German word for bear (Bär). Dottore Gianni is chuckling at the very idea of that story, but ever since Bern's coat of arms was first in evidence, 1224, a bear is central to the design. And bears are central to Bern, as we'll soon see.

While the river below Bern accounted for 3/4 of its defenses, the fourth side was protected by a wall, some of whose towers can still be seen today. One of these is the Käfigturm, dating from 1256 - have a look:

The Käfingturm - note its red clock - there is only one hand on it - in the old days
it seems, people didn't require the exactitude of minutes! 

Rick Steves claims the 
pointer of the hour hand is actually shaped like a hand,
though I confess I don't quite see it
In 1339 Bern won a major victory by defeating Burgundy at Laupen. The Bernese were led by Rudolf von Erlach, who is honored in Bern by this statue.

Rudolf von Erlach statue, high above the River Aare - note that he is protected by a quartet of bears (trust Dottore Gianni, there's a fourth - out of sight here behind the statue)
Bern thus gained its independence, and not long after, in 1353, it joined the Swiss Confederation. Even though 
Swiss Parliament building in Bern
forces of the French Revolutionary army took it in 1798 it regained its freedom upon Napoleon's decline and in 1848, probably because of its fairly central position among the Swis cantons, it was made the capital. In spite of the fact that, at least according to the receptionist at my hotel, most people think of Zurich as the capital, the honor goes to Bern. 

Relatively small for a capital, a prettier city could not have been chosen! It is well preserved, and there is enough of its heritage obvious in the towers, buildings and squares of the old town that the U.N. has named it a world heritage site.

I stayed at a plain but wonderful hotel called Marthahaus, between the rail station and the old town. I probably could 
have walked, but being new to the city I chose the tram instead, only just up a few steps from the hotel. Bern has an excellent system of public transport. In Basel (where I'd stayed the night before) Dottore Gianni feared that every time he crossed the street he was going to be run down by a tram. Here the trams are efficient, not oppressive. That's one reason the good doctor and I are so fond of it.

I got off the tram just across the river at Kornhausplatz, first stop in the old town, and the first building I saw was the city theatre. Perfect for this drama buff! It, like other public buildings of the city, share a gray-green coloring, because they are all built from Bernese sandstone, quarried nearby, and naturally this color. 

Stadttheater, Bern

The theatre is located just next to the bridge across and high above the river.
Looking to my left along the river
Looking to my right along the river - one sees less of the river here, buy you can find it
Next to the theatre is the old granary of the city, the Kornhaus. Now it houses offices, an apparently excellent exhibition space, and on its ground level a much-recommended Italian eatery. The theatre and the Kornhaus are just across the street from the statue of Rudolph and the bears, pictured a paragraph or so above this one.

The nighty Kornhaus.
Also near both buildings is a statue atop a fountain. There are several of these, dating from the sixteenth century, many of them (and all the ones I will include here) were sculpted by Hans Gieng, placed around town. This one is unusual in that it is positively macabre! 

Kindlifresser statue

The subject is Kindlifresser (also spelled Chindlifresser), an ogre who eats kids! The reasons for its existence are 
Kindlifresser, up close and all too
obscure, though The Rough Guide (my favorite tourist guide to places in Europe, because it covers more than mere tourism), corroborated by other sources, states that while the officials in Bern would have us believe it's merely a carnival figure designed to frighten disobedient children, it may possibly represent a Jew. "Blood libel" was an ugly custom dreamed up by Christians, who imagined that their children might be murdered by Jews so that their blood could be used in Jewish religious rituals. Other possible rationales include Kronos eating his children, or Krampus, an Alpine folk figure who gobbled them up at Christmas time to punish them for being naughty. Whatever the meaning, Kindlifresser's almost cartoonish appearance goes a long way in making it even more terrifying, to my eyes at least. Still, in spite of that (or possibly because of?) tourists flock there in droves. Why, even Dottore Gianni insisted upon a visit - so visit we did.  

Bernese bears!
If the top of the statue is nightmare-inducing, the bottom is sort of cute - populated by the Bernese  symbol, bears! So if you're queasy about such matters, don't look up - look down at the parade of bold looking fellas!

Kindlifresser is, fortunately, the exception to the rule in the statuary of Bern. Most of them expound visually on civic or religious themes. While we're on the subject, let's take a look at a few more of Gieng's sixteenth century statues, focusing on those above fountains.

Have a look, for example at the Schützenbrunnen (shooter fountain) depicted just above and below. It depicts a Swiss musketeer, holding a flag that bears (no pun intended) the arms of Bern. He seems ready for action, in defense of his city. And if you look between his legs a bear cub is raising his musket!

Quick Sidebar: This and other fountains in Bern are not the kind in which water sprays spectacularly. The water in Bernese fountains comes from constantly running spigots which are literal water fountains in that you can get a drink of water here (even fill your plastic bottle). Not only is the water safe, it's said to be purer than bottled water.

Another of the statues from the sixteenth century representing justice and is named the Gerechtigkeitbrunnen (easier to type than to pronounce - "brunnen" means "fountain" the rest means "justice").

While she is somewhat backlit, if you look close you should be able to see the symbolic scales of justice. She also carries a sword, symbol of justice. She is blindfolded, representing objectivity, impartiality, as justice should be. In fact this statue is thought to be the first in which "justice" is seen with a blindfold.

Continuing with our statues, the following is a depiction of Anna Seiler, an enterprising and caring woman who in the year 1354 set up the first hospital in Bern in her own home. As you see, the statue is a stone's throw from the above-mentioned/pictured Käfigturm.

You'll observe that Anna is pouring water into a small basin, most likely in order to soothe an ailing patient.

Still another, set appropriately in Cathedral Square (on which more later) depicts Moses.

As you might be able to make out, Moses is transfigured, and is pointing directly to the second commandment.

What is the second commandment, and why is he pointing towards it as opposed to the fourth, for example? Depends on whose commandments one cites. For Roman Catholics the second commandment reads: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in Vain." For most Protestant sects it's different: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." The more radical figures in the Protestant Reformation, (including Switzerland's own Zwingli) which began in the early 16th century (shortly before these statues were erected) were against all the statues and images of saints and the Virgin Mary evident in Catholic church, some including Zwingli against any religious plastic art. In cases where Protestants took over Catholic churches or cathedrals (which were many in Germany and Switzerland, including Bern's cathedral), they destroyed the "graven images." I suppose that it could be argued that since the statue of Moses on Münsterplatz (or Cathedral Square) was built in 1545, after the Reformation, he is pointing to the Protestant version of the commandment, which reinforces the concept of "no graven images." But, as Dottore Gianni has pointed out to me, it's a bit ironic that a graven image should be seen damning graven images. 

I've got more statues for you, but by now I'm a bit tired of them myself, and Dottore Gianni is just plain sick of them! I'm saving one or two more, of a different sort, for later, but for now, let's continue our look at Bern.

Anotther gray-green building with a sort of turrent
increasing its interest. Also note the arches all
along it
We've looked at some of the public buildings, characterized by their gray-green color, and the fountains, whose colorful statues, some say, brighten the city from the drab hues of its architecture, as do the colorful flowers in the windows on the buildings (albeit many of the flora are plastic). Another relatively unique aspect of Bern is the many arches you'll see as you walk along the street (see just above). These arches allow you to enter arcades.

One of Bern's many arcades
Bern's arcades run for three miles through the city. The only other European city that compares to it (in Dottore Gianni's experience, which, granted, is limited) is Bologna, in Italy, which actually beats Bern with over 20 miles of arcades. For tourists, especially on a rainy day, this is a real boon, as it is for the good citizens of Bern as well, because it's an opportunity to keep dry. One can also dine al fresco during a rain shower, as while some of the tables of cafes are outside the arcades, others are inside the arches and under their protection. 

A Bernese cafe, tables under and outside the arcades
In the center of the old town is a tower that dates even earlier than the Käfigturm, called in Swiss the Zytglogge, in German Zeitglockenturm - either translates to clock tower. Originally built of w ood, for some time it was used as a prison for prostitutes who made a living servicing the clergy! This juicy information from the Rough Guide to Switzerland. Do you see why I like it so much? You won't find this in Fodors of Frommers or Rick Steves! 

The Zytglogge
A second sidebar: Dottore Gianni admits that he is fascinated by the word Zytglogge (which is pronounced "tseet (not as in "sight" or "zit")-klok-uh) - just fyi...

In 1405 a a huge conflagration destroyed much of the city, including the tower, and soon after the city and the tower were rebuilt wisely in stone. A clock was incorporated into the tower, but alas it broke down and told no time for more than 120 years. Then in 1530 a new clock was installed. It's what you see today, and nearly all of its original parts make it run today. And this clock is something! By the way, Dottore Gianni wants me to remind you that I've been borrowing from the Rough Guide here, and will continue to do so, though I can't guarantee anything else as spicy as the prostitutes and the clergy. 

If you look at the photo of the Zytglogge you'll see a very large clock face with two hands (looks like since the 13th century the citizens of Bern needed more than an hour hand on their clocks. In case you can't remember, see the Käfigturm just past the beginning of the post - and pay attention!) This is not the real focal point, unless all you want is the mundanity of knowing what time it is. I'm going to quote directly now from the Rough Guide: "Below the main east face of the clock is an intricate astronomical and astrological device, which, in one small diameter, displays a 24-hour clock, the twelve hours of daylight, the position of the sun in the zodiac, the day of the week, the date and the month, the phases of the moon and the elevation of the sun above the horizon, everything kept accurate by linkage to the main clock mechanism." Is that ALL??? Okay, it's quite a lot.

The lower clock face is the dazzler, but what brings tourists to the Zytglogge is to the right of it as you face the clock. At four minutes before every hour mechanical figures pop out and offer what both the Rough Guide and Rick Steves describe as underwhelming - a show that features "a crowing cock, a parade of bears, Chronos with his hourglass and a dancing jester." (Rough Guide again.) Apparently the guided tour of the workings is much more interesting than the show, in fact after panning the show the Rough Guide calls the tour "fascinating." I believe it, but I hadn't the time to see the show or take the tour, so I cannot verify the pan or the rave. 

One of the most interesting buildings in the city is its cathedral...well, its former cathedral. The first thing you'll notice, even before you get to Münsterplatz (cathedral square) is its steeple, the highest in Switzerland. As you can see from the photo just below, the steeple is encased in scaffolding, part of a major renovation project. 

Once in Münsterplatz you can get a look at the cathedral proper. If you stand opposite the central door of the west front you can look to your left and see the statue of Moses, mentioned above, but let's look at the wonderful central opening of the church.

The central door of the cathedral's west front
Here is another graven image the Protestants did not take down: a dramatic depiction of the day of judgement. As you face the front, on your left (and to the right hand of God) are the saved, clothed, happy, peaceful. Good for them!

But it's the right side (on the left hand of God) that is the more dramatic, and that is worth a detailed examination. The first thing you'll notice is that everyone here is naked, ashamed, perhaps even mortified. And of course many of them are being tormented by the devilish denizens of hell. It's been noted that the Protestants might well have liked the very graphic depiction of what happens to the elect, versus what happens to the damned, and so left it alone (thank the Gods of art!) While it is not the most ornate Cathedral west front in Europe, nowhere near in fact, it is one of the more colorful I've seen, and therefore attention-grabbing. At least it grabbed Dottore Gianni's attention.

The interior is. like most Protestant churches, fairly stripped of ornament. Still, I like the tracery on the ceiling of the nave, much more complex than earlier constructed cathedrals,offering quite beautiful patterns.

And the organ loft is a bit flashy, wouldn't you agree?

After my visit to the cathedral I walked down one of the streets that lead toward the river, and the Nydeggbrucke. This bridge was constructed in the nineteenth century twenty-five meters above the river and looks down on sections of the old town.

Nydeggkirche on the left, and the medieval houses that surround it
One of the buildings easiest to identify is the Nydeggkirche (the Nydegg church), dating from 1341 with many elements added in later eras.  Nydegg is the the oldest section of town, in fact even before the town was built a castle very likely stood in what is now the courtyard of the church, and some remains are evident. The church is surrounded by medieval houses built on the slopes leading down to the river.

The Untertorbrücke, on the left - it's a very pretty area.
If you look down from the Nydeggbrücke you'll see all that, and also the oldest bridge in the city, the Untertorbrücke, also called the old stone bridge. It was built of wood in 1256, burned and was rebuilt in stone beginning in 1461, the latter the bridge you see today. For centuries - until the nineteenth actually - it was the only crossing of the River Aare into Bern. Dottore Gianni and I love looking down into history - the Nydeggbrücke is a perfect platform from which to view it.

The roofs of old Bern, from the Nydeggbrucke
Almost immediately after crossing the Nydeggbrücke you will see, on your right the former Bärengraben (bear pits).

And across the river, the old Bärengraben 

Next to the pit there is this - not sure if the real bears can come here -
they might get frightened by the sculpted bears!
Recently the pits have been extended into a large area called the Bärenpark. The old section is small and was not terribly kind to the bears, but the extension includes a wide area for the bears to roam and even to swim and fish in a protected channel, separate from the river proper. The bears can still access part of the pits, but I'm guessing they choose to spend most of their time roaming the park.

The Bärenpark - you can see where the bears can fish and swim

The area at the top of the 
Bärenpark consists of an out-of-use tram depot turned tourist information center and a restaurant. There is also something called the Bern Show, what the Rough Guide calls "a valiant attempt to bring history to life, but...just too cheesy for its own good." Rick Steves disagrees, calling the show "excellent."

My only bear siting
I trust both sources generally, but did not bother with the show (I'm guessing it IS cheesy). I did spend some time walking along the ridge above the Bärenpark, looking for bears (found only one, asleep) and at the great views of Bern across the river.

Great view of Bern from the park - note how the cathedral tower (the larger one in the center) dominates the city. I love the curve of the river here.
Then I asked the friendly fellow at the tourist info desk how to get to the Zentrum Paul Klee (Paul Klee Center), and was very lucky to find out that the number 12 bus had a stop just outside of the park. It was only minutes before I had caught a bus which was making its way through the university area to the end of its line, the Klee Center. 

Renowned architect Renzo Piano's physical setting for the Klee Center 

Paul Klee introduced me to abstract art, as much as any other artist, and for that I thank him. In days of yore, when I was even more of a pauper than I am now, I used to love going to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. You can visit free of charge, and on Sundays they used to have (perhaps they still do, who knows?) free concerts of classical music at 7 pm. And while there wasn't an overwhelming supply of Klee's work there it certainly caught my eye. I loved his imagination, his sense of humor, as well as his ability to balance in what may look to be unbalanced compositions. Of course early influences sometimes lose their luster, or like a child's old toy, can be consigned to the back of the closet. I never really moved away from Klee, but nor did I search him out, as there were so many other artists that caught my attention. On this journey however, I returned to him and I'm very happy that I did.

Senecio, by Klee - this was a favorite of mine, and in fact
I owned a poster of it for many years in my youth.
I did not remember the title: Senecio - it means
"old man" - I think I may need that poster again!
Klee is Swiss, born near Bern, and I'd read that a respectable number of his paintings could be seen at Basel, in the Kunstmuseum, but that the Zentrum Paul Klee was the place to go to really experience his art. When I was in Basel I had a look at his paintings, and was delighted. He almost always brings a smile to my face, even when his work may be sad. 

Zentrum Paul Klee - great sign!

The exhibition of his work at the Klee Center that I saw is a dazzler. When I arrived and checked in at the desk - the entrance fee is waived for Swiss Pass holders, hurrah - I was told by the young woman who gave me my ticket that there is no permanent collection on show at the Center. I experienced a brief moment of panic, as I had come here to see KLEE and no one else. But she told me that there was an excellent exhibit of many of his paintings, along with video footage. She also noted that I was just in time, as it was the last weekend of the exhibit! I'm still not sure if there are times when one can go to the Klee Center and see no Klee. I really hope that's not the case, but if ever there is such a time, it would be while the curators are changing exhibits! Whew! There were two or three other exhibits that looked interesting enough, but I made a beeline to the Klee.

Another look at the center

The title was Paul Klee: Space Nature Architecture. I started on the right of a very large hall divided into three spaces, with architecture. Along with the many paintings on the walls were also quotations from Klee that go some way to illuminate the theme of each section. I moved to the center where the focus was on nature, and from there to the final section, on space. I have no words to explain what I saw - the viewing was all. But I loved my time there, and ended my visit with a suggested walk along the grounds of the Center. The place is in a large open area, not far from a residential district, beyond which lie in the far distance, the Alps. So while I walked I was experiencing a mix of architecture, nature, and space. Aaaaahhh...the perfect end to a perfect visit. 

Part of the "nature" aspect of my walk at the Center - my first glimpse of the cloud-beshrouded Alps, where I'd be heading the next morning!
I returned to the center of town at about 3 pm and realized I'd had nothing to eat since breakfast. So while I continued to explore the city, a good part of my mission was to get myself some food.

A confession: I fancy myself a good traveler, but one area in which I fall down is choosing restaurants. I keep reading menus but it takes forever to make up my mind! Time can be wasted in this manner, but fortunately in this case there were sights along the way of my restaurant search.

I headed to a very busy part of the center, because I'd only glimpsed at it before and had seen many restaurants. On my way I came across a few statues NOT attached to fountains, very bright and unusual. I discovered that they represent the medieval craft guilds - the guilds are long gone but if you look up as you stroll down Kramgasse you'll see several, including...

This apish creature represents the stone mason and bricklayer guild
Then I came across one more statue, this one much more recent than the others I've shown, created by a female surrealist named Meret Oppenheim in 1924. This one, the Tour-Fontaine, IS a fountain, though you can barely see the water, except as the unattractive puddle spreading out below it..

To say that this column cum flora was not popular at its unveiling is an understatement. In fact many citizens hated it and wanted it torn down, but the city fathers stood their ground and still it stands. It is said that it symbolizes life and growth. Hmmm... You know, Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower at first...but I'm not sure they'll ever get used to this. 

The building behind it is a former gymnasium (school) now I believe a bank. And to the right just off the above photo is the building below:

The Meret Oppenheim statue and Police Headquarters
A former orphanage, the building is now the police HQ. Strange juxtaposition, a disorderly statue next to the paragon of order. 

On I went towards Spitalgasse, where I'd noticed the restaurants. Near them I spotted another ancient tower, this one the Holländerturm (Dutch Tower). Its origin is unclear - an inscription dates it back to the year 1230, but it it out of place with the line of the former town walls, and it is not depicted visually until 1623. Old enough for me, at any rate!

the Holländerturm is the white building in the upper right -
look below it and you'll see the first of several restaurants
I passed up
Near that tower there are at least four or five restaurants in a row...hungry as I was, true to form I rejected all of them and kept walking. This was getting to be more a forced march than a pleasant stroll.

I ended up back near the river. I noticed a landmark I'd missed earlier in the day - the Casino. This casino, however is not for gambling (at least no longer) - it is a venue for among other things, Bern's symphony orchestra. 

The Casino
But still I needed food! I'd passed through arcades filled with shops, even a Casino, but had chosen no place to eat...and then...I found it!

Finally my restaurant! Well, why not follow a pretty woman while searching for food?
Mainly a place known for its excellent wine selection, Schuler's Bella Vista (that means beautiful view and you'll soon see that it has one) also serves light meals. I chose the European cheese platter, and a delicious platter it was!

My cheese plate at Bella Vista
I know, it's a lot of cheese, but hey! I was hungry - cheesy, maybe, but not the wurst choice I've ever made (ba-da-bing!)
It was a lovely day, but there was no shade in the outdoor area, so I sat, almost alone, inside. I received great service and then to my shame I forgot to tip the friendly server.

After I ate I strolled just a few feet to the palisades above the river. THIS is why they call it the Bella Vista!

Not only that, but the Alps!

A great way to end my day in Bern, and to end this post - hope you liked it...Cheers all!