My favourite place: Bern, Switzerland

In the July 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine, Seán Williams selects Bern, Switzerland as his favourite place. History Extra caught up with him to find out more

The city of Bern, Switzerland. "I loved the pace of life in Bern, and the nature – the river, the alps, the great-quality dairy products," says Seán Williams. (Photo by Chinnaphong Mungsiri via Getty Images)

When did you last travel to Bern and why were you there?

I lived in Bern for just over a year, and so I return semi-regularly to visit former colleagues and friends. I would like to go back more often than I manage to, of course. Because the city is home to the Swiss national library and I’m a lecturer in German Studies, I can combine river-swimming with days reading in the archives.

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Why do you love the city?

I have lived abroad a few times, and whenever I return I often have an odd emotional relationship to a place where I’ve experienced everyday life. I become nostalgic for all the good times, and the sense of adventure I had. But I am also reminded of the points at which I found Switzerland in particular very foreign, and when I missed home.

I loved the pace of life in Bern, and the nature – the river, the alps, the great-quality dairy products – but the “good life” also felt repressive at times. Too comfortable, perhaps. I don’t have a rose-tinted view of the city. Perhaps that’s why I feel so relaxed there now.

What top three sights would you recommend people visit in Bern? 

It’s less a city for ticking off sights, and more one in which you should sit in a small café, have a milky coffee, watch the world go by — and then move onto wine.

During what period of its history would you have most wanted to visit Bern?

Since I write mostly about the 18th century, I should say the end of the 1790s, when Bern was occupied by revolutionary French troops. German authors at the time captured the dramatic events in prose. But actually, I’d like to have been in Bern in the 1980s: to have seen the counter-cultural youth movement at its height. I was in a babygro back then!

Where else in the world would you most like to visit, and why?

I recently went wild ice-skating in Sweden. I like holidays that involve water, and Germanic countries.

One Germanic country I’d like to visit is Lichtenstein, because it’s so bafflingly small. Its 18th-century political structure is surprisingly still in place to a large degree. And Swiss German is spoken there, too.

Seán Williams is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Sheffield. He broadcasts on German topics on Radio 3, as a BBC New Generation Thinker.

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You can read more about Seán’s Swiss adventures in the July issue of BBC History Magazine – on sale from 14 June.