Many things tend to be a little different in Switzerland - instead of a capital they have a federal-city. And in it you encounter some strange creatures: dwarves, bears and child-eating ogres - making Bern unique.
According to the local legend, Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen, vowed to name his new town after the first animal he met on a hunt. It turned out to be a bear, which is how Bern, the Swiss city founded in 1191, eventually got its name.
Bears, which adorn the city’s coat of arms, have been housed in the city's bear pit since the 16th century, and the current open-air bear park Bärengraben opened in 1857. The four bears, who bask in the sun most of the time, are just as relaxed as the people living in the city. “I don't know who copied whom, but I suspect we imitated the bear’s behavior first,” says animal keeper Thomas Zurbuchen about the city's laid-back attitude.
The “Seven Dwarves” without the Snow White
Bears are what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris and the Statue of Liberty for the NYC, so you'll find them everywhere: the animal symbol decorates the city's cabs and they even gave the name to the local newspaper. They also welcome visitors to the Federal Palace of Switzerland, the country's parliament building guarded by two bear statues.
The impressive building with its domed hall, ceiling frescoes and stunning wall paintings is very popular among tourists with more than 100,000 people visiting annually. It is the home to the “Seven Dwarves,” which is how the seven federal councilors, who form the Swiss executive power, are known affectionately. They ensure that all political parties are represented and that no single person gains too much influence in the country.
The capital of fountains
“Other cities have the sea or lakes, but we have our river,” says city guide Carmen Schürch, pointing out that the river Aare plays a pivotal role in Bern. And not just the river, but water in general: Walking in the Bern’s old city center, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, is like visiting the capital of fountains. They are everywhere and decorated with colorful figures.
On most famous one, the “Kindlifresserbrunnen,” features a statue of a man devouring a child. This tongue twister, which translates to English as “the Child-Eater Fountain," or the Ogre Fountain, depicts a common scene used to scare children in the Middle Ages.
But just outside the town hall stands its modern counterpart, a fountain designed by the former left-wing town councilor and artist Carlo Lischetti, which is deliberately plain. This stone plinth intended as a sort of a speaker’s corner allows anyone to climb up and speak out against governmental policies.
The only problem is the "podium" was built facing the opposite direction, away from the town hall...
Protests, graffiti and controversial masterpieces
Political events are still plentiful in the city, nonetheless. Most of them take place around the graffiti-covered “Reithalle” ("The Riding Hall"), Bern’s autonomous culture center, which has been occupied by local squatters since 1981. The now protected complex houses a theatre, a bar, a cinema and a concert hall, and despite being the place of frequent unrest, the people of Bern have voted five times already in favor of maintaining this "beloved eyesore."
The popular location for the alternative Swiss art scene attracts visitors from all around the world, but it is not the only art institution in the city by far. The Zentrum Paul Klee and the Bern Museum of Fine Arts both participate in the worldwide art discourse.
In November, for instance, the latter will put on display the controversial private collection of German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt. It consists of works by artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Emil Nolde, whose art pieces were deemed as “degenerate” and confiscated by the Nazis from many German museums during the Third Reich.
The romance never dies
But not everything in Bern is as heavy as heated as the debated around looted avant-garde pieces. The Federal square with the majestic parliament building turn into a picturesque, almost impressionists landscape thanks to the many lights of different shapes and colors that illuminate the Parliament in the evening.
Groups of people flock to the square after the sunset to experience the everyday show. They are not all tourists, as Jean-Marie Macheret tells me. ”For someone from Bern, this is very much the daily life here,” she adds.
Many parts of the old city are pedestrian areas with no traffic, so it's easy to enjoy the atmosphere of the medieval streets, alleyways and shopping promenades, or the richly ornamented Gothic cathedral built in 1421.