Bern : The Zytglogge
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An imposing presence at the centre of the old town, the Zytglogge (tseet-klok-uh), Zeitglockenturm or Clock Tower, is as much the symbol of Bern as the bear. The focal point of public transport and walking routes within the Old Town – and both the benchmark of official Bern time and the point from which all distances in the canton are measured – its squat shape, over-sized spired roof and giant, gilded clock face will imprint themselves on your memory of the city.

The tower was originally constructed partly in wood as the westernmost city gate in 1218–20, but by 1256 the city walls had moved west to the Käfigturm; the stranded tower was then converted into a prison for those prostitutes who made a living servicing the clergy. The devastating fire of 1405 razed the tower and it was rebuilt in stone with a new, squat design, a turreted staircase to one side (still used today) and a clock mechanism. The clock soon broke and stayed broken for 122 years until one Caspar Brunner designed an intricate and elegant new mechanism which has functioned since he installed it in 1530, and which is still complete with nearly all its original parts. Below the main east face of the clock is an intricate astronomical and astrological device, which, in one small diameter, displays a 24-hour clock, the twelve hours of daylight, the position of the sun in the zodiac, the day of the week, the date and the month, the phases of the moon and the elevation of the sun above the horizon throughout the year, everything kept accurate by linkage to the main clock mechanism. The external appearance of the Zytglogge as it is today dates from Baroque embellishments of 1770–71.

The main draw of the thing is generally touted to be a rather underwhelming little display of mechanical figures – a crowing cock, a parade of bears, Chronos with his hourglass and a dancing jester – which is set into motion four minutes before every hour on the clock’s east face. What’s far more interesting is to see close-up (and have explained) the actual inner workings of the mechanism as the pendulum swings and linked cogs turn gracefully. It’s possible to go inside only as part of the tourist office’s exemplary and fascinating one-hour guided tour (May–Oct daily 4.30pm; late Dec to early Jan daily 11.30am; Fr.6), which also lets you explore the rooms inside the spire and take in the romantic rooftop view.

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