Bern: walking city

Update, 2016: In praise of the tram – it’s time to follow the Swiss model, which has led to Zurich having “the lowest modal share of car transport of almost any global city of comparable size”.

We recently spent eight days in Switzerland. Being fans of the whistle stop tour the original plan was to visit a city in each of the three major language regions, but our itinerary kept shrinking and in the end we only visited the German speaking part of the country, spending time in Bern, Basel, Zürich and Luzern.

Our journey started on New Year’s Eve with the overnight train from Copenhagen to Basel. The fireworks were already starting in Hvidovre as we left, having delivered the beagles to the safer haven of Roskilde. After sustenance of a sort at CPH station we boarded our two person sleeper – more private than a couchette, but a little claustrophobic. My partner chooses to retire early, which left me perched on the lower bunk looking out at the fireworks at midnight in Hamburg and beyond.

As a German graduate there’s something magical for me in travelling the length of Germany through the night. I was awake at Frankfurt, where I studied, and we had breakfast in Freiburg, travelling through the Schwarzwald and over the border to Basel. We then hopped on a train to Bern, arriving there around an hour later.

In common with Scotland both 1st and 2nd January (Berchtoldstag) are public holidays in the German speaking part of Switzerland. This meant limited shopping opportunities, however the slick modern station, like many in Germany, had a wealth of shops and supermarkets of the everyday variety so this was not really an issue. With a branch of ace vegan buffet restaurant Tibits just outside the station we were well set. Our hotel was a little way out of town but it was easy to take a tram outside the station. On the second evening we walked back, getting more of the feel of the suburbs. All in all, despite it being a holiday period, the impression we got was of a lively well functioning city.

Bern’s centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes 6km of arcades, the largest in Europe. The weather was clement, but I can imagine that it wouldn’t really be an issue to get around when cold or snowing. There were plenty of reasons to be out and about – for example the small park behind the cathedral was historic, not an artificial construction, and included a mini-library. All over the city there were people simply sitting and reading, no longer warding off TB, but probably old habits die hard. As it stays lighter longer there’s more of an impetus to sit out, plus glimpses of the Berner Oberland, the Eiger and the Jungfrau, don’t really hurt.

All around town were yellow Walk your city style signs with the walking time to particular locations. Turns out that these are standard Swiss hiking signs – perhaps Walk your city got some inspiration from Switzerland. There were also cycling signs and a city bike depot, but these did not seem over-used.

Bern is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, of taking a line for a walk fame, and the city fathers haven’t shirked on building on this connection (see article auf deutsch | video). 54 Wege zu Klee signs connect streets and landmarks to Klee and his works, leading you onward:

(pics from the Wege zu Klee Facebook page)

Three routes around the city and beyond (see trail maps for Zentrum Paul Klee circular walk | station to ZPK), plus street names further underline aspects of walking:

With many Klees currently on show at Tate Modern the main exhibition at the ZPK was on Klee’s life and work, making the man himself come alive. Of particular note was the letter signed by the Bauhaus professorial team after Paul went AWOL – it was easy to picture Walter Gropius going round getting everyone to sign it. A second exhibition with paintings from the collection of Frankfurter Hanne Becker included lots of highlights for Expressionism fans.

Klee update, July: clearly a fan, three sections in Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz, are set in the Bauhaus, and he wrote a lengthy piece around the Tate exhibition as well as a nice entry in the Guardian’s my hero series: “Somewhere in the afterlife, I am going to accompany [Klee’s] violin in the Brahms G major sonata.”

More Bernese walks and related:

Update: several holidays later I’m forced to concede that planned photo essays on Basel and Zurich aren’t going to happen. Both cities were great sources of inspiration – Basel for its border town position in a triangle between France and Germany and multiple railway stations, the Rhine, its stress on walking the city and trams creating life even on a Sunday…we went on two guided walks, at the Vitra Design Museum across the border in Germany and at Rudolf Steiner’s unique Goetheanum in the nearby village of Dornach.

Zurich, jockeying with Copenhagen in the liveable city lists, was more elusive. Stand-outs were our first James Joyce Museum, Umsicht, an urban development exhibition we found by chance in the university, and Zurich West, with the house which refuses to give way to shiny new things. Need to go back!

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