|Bern : The western Old Town|
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Some 100m west of the Münster is Casinoplatz – the actual Casino sees more concertgoers than gamblers – from where trams head south to the Helvetiaplatz museums. The Zytglogge is a few steps north, and just beyond it is the nightmarish Kindlifresserbrunnen, or Ogre Fountain (1544), which shows a man devouring a struggling baby. The Bernese authorities would have you believe it’s a light-hearted carnival scene, but the statue was once painted yellow (the colour used to vilify Jews) and may possibly be an unusually graphic representation of the suspicion held throughout medieval Europe that Jewish religious ritual involved the murder of children. Whichever, Bern’s happy shoppers of today seem unfazed by images of cannibalistic infanticide in their midst.
A little north is the large Kornhaus, or Granary, now occupied by offices and a chic bar. Just behind is the Französische Kirche (French Church), the city’s oldest, which originally formed part of a thirteenth-century Dominican monastery. The compact but beautiful interior (Mon–Sat 9–11am & 2–5pm) has been much renovated, but retains its stalls (1302) and a rare frescoed rood screen (1495).
From the main Kornhausplatz, trams weave their way west along Marktgasse, heart of the city-centre shopping district, neatly avoiding the fountain statues of a musketeer in full armour and Anna Seiler, founder of Bern’s first hospital, who’s been set up to serve as an allegory of moderation. Just beyond the Seilerbrunnen is the Käfigturm, an early city gate (1256–1344) which was used as a prison from 1642 until 1897. The broad, sunny marketplace of Bärenplatz opens beyond, and a little further west along hectic Spitalgasse, with its bagpiper fountain, lies the late-1720s Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Spirit Church; Easter–Oct daily 11am–3pm), acclaimed as Switzerland’s finest example of Protestant church building, boasting a gorgeous Baroque pillared-and-galleried interior. It stands alone, trams, buses and people weaving a cat’s cradle all around it. The train station – metres away – marks the limit of the medieval city, with several sections of excavated city wall on display on the lower concourse.
Immediately south of Bärenplatz is Bundesplatz, dominated by the Bundeshaus, or Federal Assembly building, built in Renaissance style in 1902 and inscribed Curia Confoederationis Helveticae (Assembly Building of the Swiss Confederation). When the parliamentarians are not in session, you can join a free 45-minute guided tour (on the hour Mon–Sat 9–11am & 2–4pm, Sun 10am, 11am, 2pm & 3pm; 031/322 85 22), which takes you through the various chambers, decorated with coats of arms, statues and paintings commemorating events in Swiss history. When the assembly is sitting (the flag overhead will be flying), you can watch proceedings from the public gallery. The building sits on a cliff edge above the Aare, and the Bundesterrasse behind rests on a massive retaining wall; this promenade has rather ironically become the heart of Bern’s flourishing drug market, and is often scattered with glazed-eyed characters shooting up literally under the noses of the lawmakers. On one side, a quirky funicular runs down to the riverside district of Marzili (daily 6.30am–9pm; Fr.1).
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