Room for two more bears?

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Friday, August 24, 2007

· Bern, Switzerland
· GMT +1:00 hour

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock
- Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, in The Third Man (1949)

It is all new
Hear yee, hear yee. We're somewhere neither of us has ever been to before. Great. This is what travel is all about; seeing new places. While I'd been to France before, albeit for a single night some 3 years ago, neither of us has ever been to Switzerland. Until yesterday.

All Swiss
Switzerland, the small, immensely wealthy landlocked country in the middle of Europe. A place famous for its mountains, secretive banks, fine chocolate, cheese, fondue, William Tell, expensive watches, The Red Cross, The IOC (International Olympic Committee), cuckoo clocks and army knifes, the last one being somewhat ironic considering the country's neutrality (it hasn't been involved in a foreign war since 1815). Do you want more stereotypes? How about those of the alpine ilk - skiing, muesli, Heidi, yodeling, cow bells, droopy-roofed chalets, accordions and goat headers. Probably best to leave them until we actually get to the mountains. But, first things first. Bern, the capital.

We arrived into Bern's train station early yesterday afternoon from Dijon in France. Considering the relatively short distance between the two locations it took us quite a while to get here - 3 hours all told. But that's neither here nor there as it's not like we were in a rush. Bern, as you already know, is the Swiss capital. But did you know that it is also the name given to one of Switzerland's 26 governing cantons, canons that, in 1848, volunteered to join together to create a unified Switzerland (prior to that Switzerland had been governed by France, a country they only gained independence from following Napoleons defeat to the Brits at Waterloo)? And did you also know that the city is named after a bear? Yep, it is. Legend has it that the founder of the city, a guy called Berchtold von Zähringen, went hunting in the surrounding forests and named his new city after his first kill of the day, which turned out to be a poor innocent bear, a bear that can still be seen today adorning the cities coat of arms. Not surprisingly bears remain, to this day, indelibly associated with the city.

We found our accommodation without much hassle or walking, as distances in Bern's UNESCO listed Old Town are small. It's actually hard to believe this place is a capital city of a European country (kind of like the feeling I got in Tallinn, the small, UNESCO listed, Old Town capital of Estonia). With only 130,000 inhabitants and a compact downtown there is a real small town feel to the place... I guess that's a large part of its charm. And charming it is; its medieval street plan with its arcades, street fountains & doughty towers set amongst quiet, traffic-free, cobbled lanes, lined with sandstone arcaded buildings, have changed barely at all in over five hundred years but for the adornment of modern shop signs and the odd car or tram rattling past. That the town looks so good is partly due to the fact that it, and Switzerland itself, escaped any damage in World War II. The reason for this is partly because the Nazis never actually got around to attacking them (seemingly they had a plan drawn up but got distracted fighting the Russians) and possibly because Hitler needed the strong Swiss economy to help fund his war effort and its banks to store the fruits of same (the country is infamous as one of the safest places to stash a fortune, hard-earned or otherwise). Of course, that the Nazis directly used Swiss bank accounts in any way is strongly denied by the Swiss, and has been in the 60+ years since the war ended. But regardless, commentators agree the Swiss banking system may have had played some part in the country being spared the destruction reaped on its neighbours.

Anyway, less of the speculative history. Having gotten rid of the bags off our bags we set about having a look around, spending the afternoon wandering the cobbled lanes of the Old Town, taking the usual copious amounts of pictures and, for once, enjoying the sun. We spent a few hours looking around a little apartment that was inhabited by none other than Albert Einstein in early 1900. He was a little known clerk in a Bern patent office at the time and, as every tourist information office around the town will be quick to point out, it was here in Bern that he came up with his groundbreaking Theory of Relativity, a theory that turned the Physics world on its head. We seem to be on a bit of a 'remember-what-you-learnt-in-school/university' trip, with Meg's art and my physics background (a few days ago in Paris we visited the Louver and I stood over Andre Ampere's grave). No doubt in the coming days, when we hit Italy, I'll be exposed to Galileo's exploits, saying nothing of the renaissance art overload Meg will have to deal with. But I'm getting ahead of myself once again. Before that we've the Swiss Alps to look forward to, and look forward to them we are. We leave Bern later this afternoon (we're gonna take a quick hike up the spire of the Bern Cathedral before leaving the city) and will spend the next two nights in a small village of Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps. We then head to Italy, where our first stop will be Venice. But there I go again, getting ahead of myself. Make sure you check out the pictures from Bern and you'll find us next time in the Swiss Alps, looking for all the stereotypes I listed earlier. They are sure to be there, right?

Day 10 & 11 Observations (August 23rd & 24th 2007)

· Switzerland has nicer weather than France
Now there is a generalisation if ever there was one. It was raining when we woke yesterday morning in Dijon (we weren't expecting anything less considering the poor weather we've been having lately) & it was still raining on the train to Switzerland. Then, just after entering Switzerland... voilà... the clouds rolled away and out came the sun, illuminating the lush green valleys we were passing through. And about time too. Where have you been the past 9 days? Hiding behind clouds in France, no doubt.

· They all speak German
Well, it's actually a Bernese German, but to the untrained (us) it all sounds like, well German. Meg doesn't like it (not forgetting she's a French snob). She says it sounds too coarse and harsh, not as beautiful as 'la belle langue Francaise'. I agree, but it's German after all and that's how it sounds. Btw, Switzerland is quite multilingual - it has not one, not two... nope, not even three, but FOUR official languages, they being German, French, Italian and Romansh (no idea what that is but hardly anyone speaks it anyway). Most Swiss are multi and even trilingual. A smart lot.

· €, EU not
Switzerland is not y are not in the EU and don't use the Euro. Nope, they still have their Swiss Franc, the CNF (€1 = CNF1.6), and more power to them for NOT jumping on the 'lets-raise-the-price-of-everything' Euro bandwagon. Their much-vaunted neutrality led them to decline EU and UN membership and has them being economically aloof from their EU neighbours harmed them in anyway? Nope, not bit - on a world scale they have one of the highest standards of living and are one of the richest countries, in the world with the average Joe (or Hans) earning more than €40,000 a year (CND$65,000), and that's after paying whopping taxes of some 30%. Come to think of it though, with the cost of things here they are gonna need every bit of that salary. Btw, the Swiss 5 Franc coin is huge (kinda like a small saucer). Would make a good weapon, if you were that way inclined.

· Patriotic
The Swiss are a very patriotic bunch. That is if the abundance of Swiss flags flying is any indication as to their level of patriotism. The flags are everywhere. It might have something to do with the neutrality thing again. Either way I like it; the flag is quite photogenic, I find.

· Nobody J-walks
Not a problem in France. But here? Nope. The Swiss are a law abiding race and see no need to even bend, never mind break, the rules. That even carries over into the etiquette of crossing the road. And of course us, as tourists, follow suit. It was weird to be standing at the side of an empty road this afternoon just because the little red man on the other side was telling us to do so. But he saw the error of his ways and eventually let us cross.

· They all ride bicycles
So they are multilingual, patriotic, rich, law abiding... and fit. The fact that everyone rides around on bicycles is something we noticed but sort of expected. Not sure why, but we just did.

· The churches here pews
Yep, Europe sure is the place for churches. We were only here a matter of a few hours when we found ourselves in Bern's late-Gothic Münster (cathedral). The impressive stained glass windows, organ, granite pillars and vast cavernous interior already seem all too familiar..... and we haven't even hit Italy yet. One thing we noticed however is that the Swiss obviously values their knees more than the French. Or vice versa.

· It's expensive
Of course it is. It's Switzerland. But we knew that before coming. €15 (CND$20) for a burger, hot dog and coke.

· It's picturesque, even here in the city
Of course it is, it's Switzerland and we knew that before coming also. We just can't wait to get to the mountains. We're expecting nothing less than jaw-dropping views at every turn and mountains that look like they'll swallow us whole. Please do. Yodel-eh-i-ho

· Einstein sure was a smart cookie
Obviously. But it takes one to know one.
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