Bern : some history
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A castle probably stood at Nydegg, on the eastern tip of Bern’s peninsula, from the eleventh century, before Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, chose the strategically ideal spot to found a new city in 1191. He had the oak forests covering the peninsula felled, using the timber for the first houses, and then – legend has it – went hunting nearby and named the new city after his first kill, a bear (Bär in German). Bern’s coat of arms, sporting a bear, first appeared in 1224, and to this day bears remain indelibly associated with the city.

The Aare encircles Bern’s Old Town on three sides; Berchtold’s fourth defence was a wall, which initially ran through the Zytglogge tower. Under the Zähringens, and by virtue too of being in close proximity to the wealthy and powerful kingdom of Burgundy, Bern expanded rapidly. By 1256 it had a new wall at the present Käfigturm, and a century later the city reached as far as the Christoffelturm. In 1339, at the battle of Laupen, Bern defeated the united nobility of Burgundy, and asserted its newfound independence by joining the Swiss Confederation in 1353.

Shortly before 5pm on May 14, 1405, fire broke out in Brunngasse and tore through the timber-built city, killing one hundred and razing most of the town. The subsequent programme of rebuilding (this time in the local sandstone) gave the city much of its present character, including the street arcades, the surviving town plan, and monumental public buildings such as the Rathaus and the Münster. In 1528, Bern enthusiastically accepted the Reformation, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a programme of upgrading the city’s streets and arcades. Meanwhile Bern’s nobility gathered greater and greater power, successfully putting down a series of citizens’ revolts before finally falling prey to French invaders, who ransacked the city’s treasury in 1798. Shortly after, the Congress of Vienna in 1814 forced Bern to surrender its eastern and western territories, thus creating Cantons Aargau and Vaud, donating the Swiss Jura to Bern as a consolation prize. Nonetheless, the city retained its old prestige enough to be a popular choice for federal capital in 1848.

In 1864, after six years of fierce controversy, the communal authorities voted by 415 to 411 to demolish the medieval Christoffelturm to make way for construction of Bern’s new railway station (the tower’s foundations survive on display in the train station’s lower level). Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in Bern in 1905, and Hermann Hesse spent the World War I years in Bern, when the city was already known as a hub of politically progressive ideas, hosting the anarchists Kropotkin and Bakunin.

During the twentieth century Bern continued to expand enormously, its new, arching bridges linking suburbs over the Aare such as Kirchenfeld, a planned district to the south characterized by many grand 1920s–30s mansions, a lot of which are now used as foreign embassies. To the west, Bümpliz has mushroomed to accommodate most of the city’s rapid new growth, its low-income housing and high proportion of Arab, South Asian and Slavic immigrants contrasting dramatically with the settled affluence and ethnic homogeneity of the city centre.

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