East Anglian-based travel writer Tony Cooper takes a trip to the Swiss capital

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If you ask anyone “What is the capital of Switzerland”, more often than not the answer would be Geneva or, possibly, Zurich. Wrong! The capital (since 1848) is Bern, a medium-sized city with a population of about 130,000.

The comparatively small group of citizens who live there can count themselves lucky as the city – built on the banks of the river Aare – is quite remarkable. For a start it’s very clean, plus it boasts a host of elegant Neo-Classical-designed buildings that are pleasing to the eye, while for modern-day living the city’s gifted with a good choice of shops as well as lots of stylish bars and restaurants. And one of the hip places to enjoy the food-and-drink culture of Bern is at the beautifully-restored Kornhauskeller, featuring a lovely and detailed hand-painted vaulted ceiling. (www.kornhauskeller.ch)

But for such a pleasant and inviting city as Bern one has to turn the clock back to the 12th Century and thank those responsible for the course of its development. Whoever the people were, they showed remarkable flair for intelligent and careful planning, as Bern is regarded today as one of the most extraordinary and best-preserved examples of medieval town planning in the whole of Europe. And that alone speaks volumes!

Eleven decorated fountains, a central focus of the city’s well-maintained granite-sett streets, date from the 16th Century, while the gothic Cathedral of St Vincent completes what is a mightily impressive picture. All of these treasures are enclosed by the bend of the river Aare, curving round the Old Town like a protective shield.

And to aid the pedestrian in inclement weather, one need not reach for that brolly as the arcaded walkways of the Old Town – which made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 – stretch for over four miles, while the town’s pride and joy, the Clock Tower, houses an astronomical clock which ticks every visitor’s box.

Built around the turn of the 13th Century, the Clock Tower stands proudly in the Old Town centre and the best time to be gathered round it is for the midday striking. But you need to be well on time as the astronomical clock sets off a few minutes before the appointed hour with a little song-and-drumming act by a jester atop the clock, while, on the hour, a bear (the heraldic symbol of Bern), together with an old bearded king, gets into the act as well.

Apart from its main function of telling the time, the clock chronicles the month, the day, the sign of the zodiac and the phase of the moon. And if you want to see inside the tower and the mechanical workings of the clock you can enjoy a guided tour which has to be booked in advance at the tourist office. If you’re mechanically minded, it’s for you, but from my standpoint, I was more than pleased to be out front watching the show.

Bern, I feel, is all about being out and about. There’s a lot to see and do and there’s an excellent portfolio of museums and galleries to check out.

I managed to get round to Albert Einstein’s house, where the great man lived with his wife while working at the Swiss patent office. Their first child, Hans Albert, was born here and it’s also the place where Einstein cracked the special and general theories of relativity. (www.einstein-bern.ch)

Being a lover of visual art, too, I also made it to the Museum of Fine Arts and found it very much to my liking. The oldest art museum in Switzerland, it boasts a permanent collection housing works covering eight centuries. Globally-known 20th Century artists represented include Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Ferdinand Hodler and the German-born Swiss surrealist artist/photographer, Méret Oppenheim.

Oppenheim, incidentally, was an active member of the surrealist movement of the 1920s, along with André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. Besides creating art objects, she famously appeared as a model for photographs by Man Ray, most notably in a series of nude shots interacting with a printing press.

Paul Klee, I found out, is rather special to Bern as he moved here with his wife and family in 1880 and to honour him the city authorities built a gallery devoted to him and the works he left to the city. Therefore, at Zentrum Paul Klee – innovatively designed by the imminent Italian prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, responsible for the recently-built Shard standing tall by London Bridge – you can view over 4,000 of the painter’s works on a rotating basis from The Paul Klee Foundation. (www.zpk.org)

However, any visitor to Bern will know that the big attraction – and one that everyone takes in (along with that clock) – is a visit to the Gurten Hill Bear Garden nestling by the banks of the Aare.

What would the city of Bern be without its bears? Unbearable! (Forgive the pun.) The Bernese people have had a close relationship with this shaggy animal for centuries. They love their bears and to keep the current ones happy and content a new bear park was opened in 2009. And to launch it Björk and Finn (mum and dad) timed it just right. They became proud parents of female twins (Berna and Ursina) born in December of that year. A new home, a new baby.

According to legend, the city owes its name to its founder, Duke Berchtold von Zähringen. He’s said to have slain a bear as his first animal on the Aare peninsula and with this deed the name Bern – taken from the German word der Bär – was born. A good story which visitors lap up like a cat with its milk.

To sum up Bern – Berne in French – the great 19th Century German writer and philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I think, hit the mark: He wrote in a letter to his friend Charlotte von Stein in 1779 that “Bern is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” Few, I think, would argue with that.

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