My favourite place: Bern, Switzerland

For the latest in our historical holiday series, Seán Williams visits the understated Swiss capital, once home to Einstein and Hegel

The city of Bern, Switzerland.

This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Bern is a capital city with a small-town feel. The Bundeshaus, or ‘Federal House’, stands on a hill looking out across the old town in stately fashion, onto the Alps in the distance. Parliament Square is flanked by national and regional banks, though there are rarely financiers or politicians rushing about. In summer, the real crowds are down by the River Aare.

Bern has been Switzerland’s political centre since the formation of the Swiss Confederation in 1848. Even back then, Bern couldn’t match the size, infrastructure or flair of Zurich, but Swiss federalist culture was against having a ‘main’ city. Bern sits in the middle of the country, between German- and French-speaking Switzerland. The canton of Bern is bilingual, whereas (Bernese) German is spoken in the city.

I lived in Bern as a young lecturer, and I still feel positive about its effect on my life and writing. Hegel lived here, too, in the 1790s, when he worked as a private tutor. He later became the most influential modern German philosopher. Einstein resided with his first wife and their son in a second-floor apartment in Bern’s Kramgasse, where he wrote the ‘Annus Mirabilis’ papers that radically reformed our understanding of physics. (You can visit the Einsteinhaus today, furnished as it would have looked in the early 20th century.) And Walter Benjamin, a significant avantgarde cultural critic, submitted his doctoral dissertation to the university here.

A cynic might point out that none of these characters stayed in the city for more than a few years, but Bern was nevertheless an early way station for their thought. When Goethe – Germany’s greatest poet – paid a fleeting visit in 1779, he declared it the most beautiful city he’d seen. He was taken with the uniformly greyish sandstone buildings, now enlivened with window boxes of red geraniums – matched by the red trams. The city centre is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

If the weather’s fine, explore Bern on foot. Near the Einsteinhaus is the medieval tower called the Zytglogge, with its astrological clock. To the side of it are the different regional units of measurement, used at market into the late 19th century. Centralisation in Switzerland has long been contentious, in both political and everyday life.

Wander over to the fountain depicting an ogre gobbling a child. Note the pointed Santalike cap, which problematically resembles a Jewish hat from the statue’s early-modern era. Then stroll down to see the bear pit. Unlike the one in my current home city, Sheffield, Bern’s historic bear pit is still in use – though it connects to a proper enclosure on the banks of the Aare. (I can remember all too well the stench as the bears emerged from hibernation one spring.) From here, head up the hill to the world’s largest collection of works by the artist Paul Klee, who was born locally.

This image of Bern may seem too bourgeois, too clichéd a picture of Switzerland as neat, beautiful and quiet, but it is actually a city (and country) of contrasts. You may be struck by a large 19th-century building covered in graffiti near the train station; if you pass it in the evening, you’ll see and hear a vibrant party spilling out on to the car park. This is the Reitschule, or ‘Riding School’: a venue for techno nights, a radical press, an avant-garde cinema and socialist-oriented action groups. When a wave of youth riots spread across Switzerland in the 1980s, the Reitschule was the site of unrest in Bern. Over 30 years, the building has turned from a squat into a centre that brings together diverse artistic, political, and cultural-critical organisations under one roof.

Despite Bern’s diversity, there’s an obsession common to all Bernese, and to which most conversations with locals will sooner or later turn: the temperature of the Aare. You can check online, but the feel wields greater authority than actual fact. The peaceful, turquoise-blue river is perfect for wild swimming, and here the tradition is exceptionally civilised. Pack a ‘dry bag’ with your clothes, a towel and a bottle of Swiss wine. The local wine is not exported, so is Switzerland’s best-kept secret.

Jump in below the parliament building and, using your dry bag as a float, allow yourself to be swept around the edge of the old town before swimming sideways against the current to get out.

There are steps every few metres, and showers near the (river-filled) public lidos. Check the conditions before swimming and follow the safety advice on bern.com/aare-swimming.

Finish the day drying off on the bank with a glass of Heida, your wine bottle having been suitably chilled by the water of the river running down from the mountains. Proscht!

Seán Williams is vice-chancellor’s fellow in the School of Languages and Cultures at Sheffield University, and a broadcaster on German topics.

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Advice for travellers

Best time to go

Bern is best in the late spring and summer, though it was allegedly the world’s most Instagrammed city last winter. I have swum until early October, but by then did not swim very far! Swiss National Day falls on 1 August; note that in Switzerland, shops are closed from early the night before a public holiday, as well as on the day itself.

Getting there

Bern airport is small. You can fly direct from London City with Skywork. Otherwise, fly to Zürich or Basel then take the train (about an hour). In winter, a Bernese city break is best combined with Alpine hiking or skiing.

What to take

Swimmers should pack a ‘dry bag’ if you have one – or buy one from the tourist information office at the railway station.

What to bring back

Pick up a couple of Mandelbärli – almond sponge cakes in the shape of the city’s honourable residents, the bears.

Readers’ views

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There are 11 Renaissance fountains hidden throughout the Old City that are really fun to find. I recommend getting lost for an afternoon and discovering the narrow cobblestone alleys. @Secoco75