Bern : The eastern Old Town
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From the Zytglogge, the atmospheric lanes of the old town branch out in all directions. The meandering walking tour outlined below covers notable sights, but what’s just as appealing is to follow your nose and explore unremarkable alleys and passageways that cut through and around the main routes.

The impressively wide main cobbled thoroughfare of the old town stretches away on both sides of the Zytglogge – Marktgasse (the heart of Bern’s shopping district) is to the west, while elegant Kramgasse runs east, also with its fair share of commerce, and featuring many Baroque facades stuck on to the medieval arcaded buildings early in the eighteenth century. At no. 49 is the Einstein House (Tues–Fri 1–5pm, Sat noon–4pm; closed Dec & Jan; Fr.2), the apartment and workplace of the famous scientist, who developed his Theory of Relativity in 1905 while working in the Bern Patent Office, having graduated fom the Zürich Institute of Technology a few years before. It’s also on Kramgasse that you’ll come across the first of Bern’s many ornamented fountains, an armoured bear holding the standard of the city’s founder, Berchtold von Zähringen (dating from 1535). Halfway along the street is another, with a copy of a 1545 statue of Samson, and just before the Kreuzgasse junction is a statue-less fountain dating from 1779. At this eastern end of Kramgasse, and above head height, you’ll also spot several eighteenth-century oversized figures mounted on pedestals, which indicated the location of Bern’s various craft guilds: the Moor represented the clothworkers, the ape stonemasons and bricklayers, and the axe-wielding carpenter graphically demonstrates his own trade.

While the main street continues ahead, changing its name to Gerechtigkeitsgasse, the small Kreuzgasse heads left (north), past a quaint little shop which has been a pharmacy since 1571, to Rathausplatz, dominated by the double-staircased Rathaus. Although the building dates from 1406–17, it’s been much altered over the centuries – not least in 1939–42, when the ground floor was entirely rebuilt. Opposite is a 1542 fountain sporting a Bernese standard-bearer in full armour. Next to the Rathaus is the St Peter und St Paul-Kirche, built in 1858 as the first Catholic parish church to go up in the city since the Reformation. It’s a cool, musty place in a mock-Gothic style which since 1875 has belonged to the heterodox Old Catholic church.

This is one of the most peaceful and atmospheric corners in the Old Town. Rathausgasse to the west retains its facades, but has seen much cautious interior redevelopment in recent years for conversion of the old upper floors into luxury apartments, while to the east, tiny Postgasse, with a handful of endearing little cafés and antiquarian booksellers, trickles its way down the slope towards the oldest part of the city around Nydegg.

The three quietest and most characterful streets in the Old Town – Postgasse, Gerechtigkeitsgasse and Junkerngasse – all meet at the Nydeggbrücke (nee-dek), the easternmost point of Bern’s peninsula and the location of Nydegg Castle, built probably before the 1191 founding of Bern and the spur to the city’s construction. It was destroyed in the mid-thirteenth century and its location is now marked by the Nydeggkirche, although parts of its massive stone foundations survive here and there. The church is a mishmash of elements added to an original 1341 building, and it’s worth stopping to savour the tranquil atmosphere of the courtyard outside, with a well which originally stood within the precincts of the twelfth-century castle and a picturesque view of the medieval houses clustering on the slopes all around. The covered Burgtreppe steps lead down from the courtyard to Gerberngasse; at the bottom, if you cross the street and walk 20m or so left, you’ll find more steps leading down to the riverside, through a thirteenth-century arch which originally belonged to the Ländtetor, landing stage for the first ferry across the river. The wall fresco beneath the arch shows the neighbourhood in the early nineteenth century.


Emerging back onto Gerberngasse, to the right (northeast) is Läuferplatz, its fountain-statue of the city herald standing at the head of the low Untertorbrücke, one of the oldest bridges in Switzerland (1468). To the left (southwest), Gerberngasse follows the bend of the river down into one of the most appealing districts of the Old Town, Matte. For many centuries this was a self-contained district of craftspeople and dockworkers which long retained its own dialect, related to the Jenisch language of the Swiss gypsies (see here) and dubbed Mattenenglisch by the other Bernese, to whom it was an incomprehensible language (as obscure as Englisch) spoken in a meadow (Matte). Gentrification of the neighbourhood in the 1970s brought sweeping social changes. The river is still channelled into an open canal along the main street, and there are plenty of crooked half-timbered houses all around, but a look at wall plaques will turn up more software companies, Internet consultancies and design partnerships than you could shake a stick at. The fact that the district now has its own Web site (www.matte.ch) speaks volumes. You’ll find a great deal of graffiti down here too, a legacy no doubt of the presence of the Wasserwerk, Bern’s premier techno club. During the disastrous floods of 1999, Matte spent several weeks underwater, and you may still see evidence of high-water marks here and there.

From Matte, the least energetic way to get back to the Old Town is to continue southwest along the riverside Schifflaube until Badgasse, where there is a lift (Mon–Sat 6am–8.30pm, Sun 7am–8.30pm; Fr.1) to whisk you up to the Münsterplattform overhead. Many flights of steps wend their way up the hillside all around too. Otherwise, you could continue a riverside stroll under the Kirchenfeldbrücke into Marzili, a peaceful residential district with a handful of old industrial buildings on the riverbank now converted into music venues and arts centres. The Aare is particularly fast at Bern, and the locals have come up with a novel idea to go with the flow. Summer sees hordes crowding the riverbank lawns, and many people leave their possessions at the pool complexes at Marzili or Lorraine and walk or take public transport south to a convenient jumping-in point to let the strong current float them back north again. Cheapskates wrap their clothes up in a plastic bag and tie it to their wrist as they float along.

Across the Nydeggbrücke

There are few attractions on the eastern bank of the Aare. At the bridgehead across the river is the rather sad Bärengraben (bear pits; daily May–Sept 8am–6pm, Oct–April 9am–4pm; free), two large sunken dens which have housed a collection of shaggy brown bears – the symbol of Bern – since the early sixteenth century. The current occupants may look as if they’re struggling to find a reason to go on with life, but don’t be fooled; late one night in 1998, an unfortunate beer-happy individual fell into the pit, was welcomed by its occupants and didn’t survive to tell the tale. The tourist complex adjacent has a restaurant-bar and city information booth. Heading left up the steep hill next to the Bärengraben will bring you to the Rosengarten (Rose Garden), with a marvellous collection of flora and breathtaking morning views of the town.

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