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The giant Canton Bern is one of the country’s largest, taking in a swathe of diverse countryside from snowy Alpine peaks to gently rolling farmland. The north of the canton is focused around the small city of Bern itself, Switzerland’s low-key and attractive federal capital. With a grand and glorious history at the fulcrum of Swiss history, Bern has often dominated the economic and political fortunes of the populated west-central heartland – or Mittelland – of the country. This arc of territory stretching from the Lake Geneva shores to Zürich holds, and has always held, the most fertile country, the densest population, and the greatest wealth of all the diverse areas of Switzerland. The Reformation may have begun in Zürich, and flourished in Geneva, but it was the Bernese army that seized hearts and minds in the countryside between the two. For centuries after the Burgundian wars, the patrician nobility of Bern controlled a wealthy city-state covering the entire Mittelland; it was only a French-backed revolution in 1798 that saw Bern stripped both of its Lake Geneva breadbasket (carved out to form Canton Vaud) and the rolling farmland of the north (Canton Aargau). Nonetheless, Bern was a natural choice for Swiss federal capital under the 1848 constitution, and with overwhelming economic and political clought, Bern can still to this day call the shots in its home region.
Every Swiss values his or her home canton above all the others, but the Bernese seem to be able to draw on a particularly deep wellspring of nationalistic pride in celebrating their own identity, culture and language. They’re famous around the country for their slow, deliberate manner, and you’ll pick up a sing-song tone in the lethargic Bernese dialect of Swiss-German that sparks inevitable associations with Welsh or Texan accents of English. Parallels with Wales or Texas don’t stop at language: like them, Bern – once an independent state – is now bound into a larger polity but has a relatively static, self-assured population who tend to feel little affinity with the people over the border. Luzerners and Fribourgeois are strangers, with whom the Bernese share a nationality but neither a cultural nor a religious identity. The slow-talking Bernese traditionally decry Zürchers for being big-city hotheads, and Baslers and Genfers for being snobs – and the compliment is returned, with the Bernese dismissed as hair-splitting dullards.
Around Bern, the lush hills and tidy, picturesque farming communities of the Berner Mittelland hold plenty of rustic charm, not least in the Emmental region to the east. (The Berner Oberland, or Bernese Alps, in the south of the canton, has its own chapter.) Two cities near Bern well worth making time for are Solothurn to the north, and the much-overlooked town of Fribourg to the southwest.
To the west and south, the Mittelland merges into the lakeside country of Canton Fribourg and the Broye, with the extremely attractive and much overlooked city of Fribourg set in gorgeous countryside southwest of Bern on the French–German language border.
You can get information on the whole Mittelland region from the Schweizer Mittelland tourist office, which is based in the same offices as Bern tourist office, in Bern’s main train station (031/328 12 28, www.smit.ch). They have plenty of contacts with companies running multi-day adventure packages in the area, and can put together any kind of itinerary covering hikes or long-distance cycling or inline skating on the hundreds of trails through the Mittelland, often throwing in extras to tempt you, such as canoeing on the Aare. A two-day package including riding, hiking and a night in a farmhouse costs from Fr.223, a canoe weekend from Fr.159, and a five-day cycling trip through the Emmental from Fr.535, including half board for four nights.
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