Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bern to Vienna: Zentrums, Zytglogge and Zurich

In the morning all seems well with the trains. Apparently the Swiss, horrified by the lapse of rail order worked all night not just to restore the power, but also to make sure that everyone has been shipped to his or her destination – even if they had to transport them by rickshaw. They’ve also cleaned the stations, returned all the trains to schedule – basically you’d never know there was a disaster at the station when you walk through in the morning.

We check out of the hotel Marthahaus, and drop the bags in the lockers at the station. Thank goodness we won’t schlep all that around all day.

Zentrum Paul Klee

We’re planning to head out to the outskirts of Bern to see the Zentrum Paul Klee. We have been exceptionally lucky in our timing the whole trip and the zentrum just opened the previous Monday, amidst much fanfare. It’s the largest collection of Paul Klee in the world and had been established at the Kunstmuseum –some 4000 pieces that pretty much cover his entire life’s work. The museum’s already extensive collection has been augmented by the donation of hundreds of works from the artist’s family, which they gave to the city with the proviso that the city build a big museum.

The place they chose is in rolling hills up above the river and the Italian architect, Renzo Piano echoed the landscape with three gently arching semi-hobbit holes into the ground. That sounds like it’s small and cute, but in fact, when you enter, it’s apparent that this is a huge soaring triple space, with an airy café and auditorium for public performances at one end, an enormous permanent exhibition of Klee works in the center, and a library in the third. Downstairs, there’s spaces for more exhibitions, traveling and permanent, and also workshops for educational programs for the kids. It’s so new that the wood floors still smell like they just cut them and the fittings sparkle with even more than the usual cleanliness and the best part is that it’s air-conditioned.

We’re so stunned with the overall effect we almost forget to use our museum cards to get in, and start to pay the admission fees. I wonder how many tourists do that.

The collection itself is immense, laid out in a hangar-sized space and tracing the development of the artist’s work chronologically– which probably would have made sense had we followed it chronologically, but the collection sort of sucks you in organically and you find yourself wandering from painting to painting looking at the oddly dreamlike shapes or attracted over there by colors, or distracted by that one’s geometry.

Throughout the place, there are kids, not lounging around like bored troublemakers in the corner, but rather sprawled on the floors with paper and colored pencils, working hard at making their own interpretations of the Klee designs. Two girls compare fish drawings and giggle. A college-age student sneaks in amidst a group of ten-year-olds while the teacher explains something to them, and crouches down, pretending to be a part of the class, to the kids’ amusement. Everywhere people are pretty much enjoying Klee. Wow, not much like how they go through the Legion of Honor back home.

Barengraben: grab those bears

We leave the cool museum and get back on the bus headed for the Barengraben, or bear pits, where two bored-looking troublemakers of brown bears are skulking around in the open pit just across the bridge from the city center. People are staring at them, and they’re staring back, a little sadly, I thought. They’ve got to be dying of heat because I’m dying of heat and I don’t have a thick fur coat on. The bears are a mascot of the city though, and despite some efforts to have them moved to a more reasonable larger exhibition place, the people “love” them so much that they want to keep them right there. In the pits. They at least have a little pool a rock cave thing in the center and plenty of branch-y things to play with, but still, the pit looks pretty small to me.

I don’t much like the pit, and we get back on a bus and head into town. Near the station there’s a old-fashioned tearoom with a confiserie in the front called Eichenberger’s where a lot of older Bernese are sitting having lunch. It looks like fun, so we wander in, and the waitress is very chatty and nice and tells us that the place is world famous for its truffles and chocolates which have been hand-made on site for decades.

We order omelettes and something cold and sit to enjoy the atmosphere. After lunch we get a box of truffles for one of Dad’s friends and he buys a pipe next door.

Kunst, kunst, kunst

We’re not far from the Kunstmuseum, so we pop in there next, and they turn out to have a small but very choice collection of paintings, from early Flemish right into impressionist and modern works. There are a few fine Monets and a Blue Period Picasso, but the great extent of the place’s space is taken up with three floors for traveling exhibitions.

There’s a questionably avant-garde exhibition of Chinese artists since the end of the Cultural Revolution, though it does have some very humorous pieces, including a giant diorama of troops marching through Tiananmen Square. The artist has used plastic toy soldiers and toy tanks, little saluting officials, all painted the same icky tan color, but if you start to examine the parade, at the end you see, he’s started to include waltzing couples, then little alien dolls, dinosaurs, spaceships and the creature from the Black Lagoon, also painted icky tan.

Back to the platzes

We have some time to kill, and figure maybe we can fit in a tour of the Zytglogge’s mechanism, but it turns out that they only do one tour a day, at 11:30. We wait around to see the clock strike five though, beside scores of Japanese tourists.

The minutes tick by and as we get closer, suddenly we hear the little gold rooster crow, and he creakily flaps his wings – it’s so subtle you can barely see them move. We wait, for music, or a parade of little figures or something, but there’s silence.

Then the King sitting next to the rooster, moves his hands slightly, tipping the scepter and raising the orb a little bit. Then nothing.

Then, suddenly the guy up above begins to strike the bell that’s hanging over the clock face. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Then it stops.

The rooster crows again, and flaps wearily.

That’s the show. The Japanese tourists applaud politely, and we all move on.

Subtle, very subtle.

We walk over to the Bundeshaus. This place is so homey and intimate that I totally keep forgetting it’s the capital of Switzerland. It doesn’t seem like a capital. Capitals are supposed to be noisy and dirty and teeming with masses of people.

The terrace behind the Bundeshaus is lovely though, with a view over the river and lawns of sunbathers outside of a large pool. Up near us there are guys playing on the ubiquitous oversized chessboards as we all quietly enjoy the view and breeze from over the river.

Marking time until the train to Zurich, we wander into a Loeb bookstore and collapse onto the couches in the cool basement, and in no time at all, it’s time to head to the station and catch the train to Zurich. Which is right on schedule. These people are amazing.

Zuricher pasta

The trip to Zurich was pleasant – traveling in first class definitely is nicer than when I backpacked across Europe in second class.

We arrived in Zurich, tossed our stuff into a locker like experts and headed on out to the town. It was fairly bold to step out of the train station since we didn’t have a map, and the tourism office was closed by the time we got there, but adventure is our middle name.

Actually this entire trip I’ve noticed has begun to revolve around the food – how do we find it, how do we get there and when is the next meal? I’ve decided that if I ever had any advice for travelers in foreign lands, it would be, plan lunch and dinner, then plan the rest of your day. Oh, and also figure out where your nearest bathrooms will be.

We walked down a promising pedestrian zone street directly away from the station and found a nice Italian restaurant though, where the waiter was willing to let us stumble along in German. The food was unexceptional, but sitting outside was quite nice with more of a breeze in our faces than we’d had in Bern.

Late night trains

The hardest thing about rail travel though, is that overnighter train trip. Whether you’re a backpacker or you’re going first class, you still have the exhaustion of being out all day sightseeing and marking time until you can reasonably think about moseying back for your train, which in the case of overnight journeys, is often at 11 or 12 midnight. And often you’d rather have fallen prone on a bed at 10.

The hotel train or Euronight costs about the same as a night in a hotel, which I think is why Rick Steves, the travel expert, pushes the couchette system. Couchettes are the reclining easy chairs that you can get cheap reservations for in an open style train car instead of a compartment. You throw your luggage in the overhead rack, secure your moneybelt around you and push back for the night.

In some ways I can see the appeal, because the actual private compartments give you the illusion of being in a room, but it’s a room that’s about nine feet by nine feet, whether it’s for one, or for two or even three people. Everything is cleverly design to fold away, or swing aside, but let’s face it, in a double which is set up like bunk beds, one of the two of you has to have the agility of a monkey to get to that upper bunk, stash away your suitcase and change into PJ’s. And no matter what, only one person can really stand at a time. I couldn’t imagine three people in one compartment.

Still, if we felt a little cramped and uncomfortable (“Are they kidding?” my Dad says on seeing the room, “Is this made for midgets?”) A walk through second class, which is NOT air-conditioned, and always has three bunks to a compartment, quickly makes us grateful for the space we have. I do notice that there are luxury “suites” available in the upper level of our hotel car, which seems to mean you get a desk as well as beds, and it’s a little more roomy, but frankly, as I said, one might as well just take away the illusions – you’re all getting to Vienna at the same time, and everyone is going to need a shower when you get there.

I clamber up into my top bunk though, and feeling slightly nauseous from the swinging of the train and trying to check off my breakfast choices on a card written in German while traveling backwards has made my head explode. Dad and I tuck into bed as soon as possible, and actually sleep quite nicely all the way to Salzburg.

In the morning, we wake up and politely negotiate who will stand up first. Somehow we manage to get dressed and I signal the porter, a nice guy, who has been helpfully telling me about festivals in Vienna – apparently there’s one called Insel on the Donau canal—and he comes in to fold away the beds and pop out the bench and table. Now this I love. The beds just fold up and swing out of the way,and then the compartment seems actually quite luxurious for two.

We had asked him the previous night if we should go to the restaurant car for breakfast, and he gave us the “rabble in the restaurant car” kind of “no.” So we opted to be served – this felt kind of pleasantly silly – and sipped coffee and had our croissants as the countryside went by.

Arriving in Vienna, we had no trouble locating a taxi, and got straight to the hotel to relax and clean up before Eric arrived.

We had gotten in a tad early and the reception desk guy seemed a little non-plussed and told us our room wasn’t quite ready –but then gave us, I think, a nicer suite than we had reserved, for the same price.

The Konig von Ungarn, or King of Hungary, which I’d chosen mainly for its location – “right behind the Stephansdom in the heart of Old Vienna” – but also for price and recommendations, turned out to be, I think the nicest hotel we’d ever stayed in. It was very old world classic, in a building next to where Mozart composed the “Marriage of Figaro.” The rooms we had were a “family” apartment, with one room upstairs and one downstairs, but common bathroom, and entrance area. Both sets of rooms though, had a TV and radio and little sitting room, and we quickly flowed into and spread throughout the place with luggage and carry-ons.

I could have been the King of Hungary as I got into the sparkling shower, then collapsed on the 400 thread-count duvet to wait for Eric to arrive…

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