Monday, June 20, 2005

Bern: Smiley's City

Once in the train station in Bern, it seemed like countless businessmen and residents were rushing past us as we tried to find the tourism office, which I had read was on the street level. As it turned out, everything is remarkably well-labelled, although matters are definitely simpler if you read German. Then you don’t miss little details like “Express bus” or “for employees only.”

Still, we found the office where a very nice woman answered many random questions like, how much is the cable car ride to the top of the Schilthorn in the Alps, can we see Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes died, and where is a good place to get dinner? She also gave us a nice clear map of the city -- I learned from previous trips that you should never leave the train station or airport without obtaining a one. I can ask for a map and a bathroom in at least six languages.

She also directed us to the hotel via the public bus service, which is very quick and efficient, but could benefit from air conditioning. The Pension Martahaus, which I’d read as catering to a range of clients from backpackers to businessmen, turned out to be a lovely quiet little place in a more residential area. And indeed, we ran into a pair of backpackers and a businessman in the lobby as we checked in.

I had been worrying about whether or not it was convenient to the city, since it looked a little outside of the Old Town or Altstadt, on the maps. It turns out to be a moot point, though, since everything in Bern is pretty much walking distance. If we hadn’t been dragging fifty kilos of baggage, and totally not known which way to go, we could easily have walked from the train station to the hotel.

The one thing that maps don’t tell you, though – and this is true of maps in San Francisco too – is the elevation. That would be really helpful. Really helpful. After freshening up in the hotel, we decided to head into the Altstadt for dinner, and I took us along a road that seemed to make a nice path close to the botanical gardens and then across the Kornhausbrucke bridge. What it didn’t note is that it took you down all the way to the riverside, which was several hundred feet down, sweeping nicely past the foot of the bridge to a pedestrian bridge, from whence you had to climb all the way back up on the other side.

Still, it was a lovely, shady walk and we were amused, but also a little alarmed to see that city denizens apparently swim in the river on hot days – “swim” here, meaning “get carried by a pretty darned swift current around the bends in the river at a fairly good clip.”

When we got up the other bank though, we found we were next to the Stadttheater and in the heart of the town. Everything in this lovely little town is neat looking, even the graffiti – what little there is. Red geraniums are hanging out of window boxes everywhere you look and that grey stone of the houses looks as clean as if the place had been just built last year. But it’s all so nice, and quiet and charming that it’s hard to believe that this is the capital city of Switzerland.

The restaurant, called Harmonie, turned out to be quiet and pleasantly out of the way of too much street traffic. It serves Swiss specialties, which is what I had asked for from the tourist office agent. She looked at me as if I were nuts when I asked about fondue and said, “It’s a little too hot, I think, for fondue…” but then gave me the “Do as you wish, you crazy tourist, you” shrug and handed me the map.

I guess everyone thinks it’s a bizarre request in summer – why would you want a heated thing on your table – and when I order it, I have the distinct impression that the people at the next table keep turning around to see if the nutty American will spontaneously combust. Nevertheless, it’s yummy. They bring me a basket of bread and the booziest fondue I’ve ever had in my life. I’m happy.

For dessert I go with the summer specialties though, and submit to Suessmoschtcreme, a local dessert, I am led to believe, which looks like a vanilla crème but has been liberally laced with apple cider.

Rolling ourselves out of the restaurant, we walk about the old town a little, and see the Zytglogge and spot some of the fountains – all very brightly painted. Apparently Swiss German is a little like Dutch, in that I will never figure out how to properly pronounce anything. The word “Zytglogge” looked to me like “Ziteglogger” but when we get on the bus later and they say the name of the station, the manicured Swiss voice says something more like, “Zeet-clocker.” Well, a clocker it certainly is. With a little mini zodiac and all kinds of little figures, it’s less impressive than the one in Munich, but still a lot of fun.

Walking back across the river, my Dad calls up memories of “Smiley’s People” in which master spy Alec Guinness walks the bridge in Bern. With the Milanese yellow moon suspended next to the spire of the cathedral, I think, I could be a spy in this town, but I’d have to be a very relaxed spy.

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