Friday, July 10, 2009

That Aare River and its journey through Bern


We left the Engelberg Youth Hostel quite gladly this morning. Seersucker sheets are not conducive to a good night's sleep - nor the thin matresses on a slat base - memories of nights in some scouting accommodation! We figure that some tablecloth manufacturer won the contract to supply the sheeting and thought it was a good opportunity to use up excess fabric stock! And to add insult o injury, they are made as a sleeping bag into which you have to manouvre the mattress, but they are about 18 inches too wide - so you cant get a taut fit very easily! But the shower was hot and hard, so not all was bad! When we first go up to the breakfast room the clouds are lifting to a bright clear day, but before we had finished our breakfast, down the clouds were descending again! Ah, the mountain climate.

There is an incredible amount of roadworks being undertaken in Switzerland. Our WH&S guys back home in Australia would have kittens - the workers are on the kerbside separated from the traffic by only a rubber mounted thin sign. There are new tunnels being constructed and additions being made to existing tunnels. The longest we have been through in the last couple of days is 5.2kms! We guess the cost of maintaining the roads that are through tunnels is so significantly cheaper than those roads exposed to the elements here. All traffic through them goes at a constant speed, including the trucks, so there is less wear and tear with braking. It seems that the closer we get to the capital (Bern), the more roadworks there are and once we are in the city, poor Kate struggles to keep up as I follow detour after detour after detour. However, the detours take us through the Embassy area, somewhere we probably wouldn't have bothered to visit otherwise - nice to see where part of our collective money goes - NOT. The roads are all too well grafittied and we are stunned at the risk some of the artists take to display their works - like high over the autobahns!

Bern is very well signposted and it is not long before we find ourselves in the inner city. There is so much that I remember from my first trip here and want to share with Michael. Parking is almost impossible though. It seems all the street parking is for periods of 20 minutes to one hour maximum. Michael is trying to decipher one of the parking meters when a local kindly helps him, telling him that all day parking is only possible in the 'parking houses'. And we are not keen to go down that path given the price of things here in Switzerland. So I head for the river and the part of the old town that hugs it, well below the terrace on which most of the city sits. This too I remember from 2006 - seems that the memory is working remarkably well - obviously I have yet to drink those cells!!!

The Aare River looks amazing close up here - it is full and flowing very quickly. We struggle to find parking here as well, but finally come upon a car park that does not have any signage. It is near to a station and post office, and half empty so we park the car and set out to explore on foot. Now, remember I said most of the City is on an upper terrace? Well, like it is way up there higher than us. We pass a number of sets of steps that disappear into the heavens on their way up. Ahh, but I have a secret. I know where there is a lift that will take us up. Only about 200 m from where the car is, we find the lift. Thanks Michael (brother) - you saved me this time too!!!

The lift deposits us in a beautiful park overlooking the river and the old town houses below, and just across the park is the entrance to the Munster (Cathedral). This park also overlooks the private gardens of the well-to-do mansions that overlook the river from the edge of the terrace. It is in its full glory at the height of summer and there are lots of people, locals and tourists, enjoying the breeze from the river in the shade of regularly spaced mature Chestnut trees, and Box hedges surrounding lush, green lawns. There are kids on play equipment and bikes, business people enjoying a beer at the cafe overlooking the river and even a couple of young men playing ping pong at concrete tables.

The Munster has the most amazing Final Judgement scene above one of the entrances - known to be one of the finest examples of Gothic sculpture in Europe. The entrance itself is now closed, presumably to preserve the carvings that have been restored since we were here last. It is an amazing piece of carving and artwork in such detail that we have not seen before. And with its restoration, it is so much more vivid than I remember it! In fact the whole church is undergoing a major restoration programme - again, something else that seems to be taking place all over Europe. Part of the impressive tower is shrouded as they work to restore fine stone carvings. But you can still go up the tower - 227 to the first level and then a further 90 up to the top landing on one side and 90 back down on another - all together 634 steps up and down. And no, I don't go but Michael does of course. The view of Bern from on high is amazing. I just love looking out across the roofs of a city (I didn't need to go up the tower to see them all - some are visible from the park).

And while the inside of the Munster seems small by comparison to some we have seen, it is probably more because it is packed with seating of all forms. There are amazing examples of carved choir cells and canon stalls - one in particular holds special interest - dating back to 1663, it is carved with the initials BLG interspersed with a carving of a branch - forming the word BLOG!!! I have a great photo and will probably use it as on the cover of the edition of the BLOG I will have printed on our return. The Munster itself (in its current form) dates back to 1411. There are also beautiful stained glass windows, the best in Switzerland.

Back out in the Munster Square we see the first of the many fountains throughout the City, and the many statues - this one of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. There are also a lot of Japanese tourists gathering and about to enter the Munster - ah yes, it is well and truly tourist season! But there are not only Japanese - there are also a growing number of Eastern Europeans noticeable - though today we have not come across any other Aussies.

From here we walk up the streets of colonnaded shopping areas - in the shade and off those hateful cobblestones - oh how they hurt my feet. (Yeah I know, soft little twinkle toes!) We pass bookstores, clothing shops, cafes, bars until we reach one of the two main streets and turn left to face the famous Astronomical Clock. This is huge and elaborate and a real tourist trap. Crowds gather for the last 15 minutes of each hour so they can watch the figures turn and perform on the hour. But it is just 10 past the hour, so we go a-wandering. Funny, I don't think I took a photo of the reverse of the clock when I was here last, but I make sure that I get one today.

Bern is well served by trams, trolley buses and buses, so the streets around here are very busy as one of the main terminus' is just around the corner. Everywhere you walk in the pedestrianised area you need to keep a careful lookout for any of them cos they share the roads with you. Consequently, the air above us is a tangle of wires - in fact it is hard to get photos in this area without including a healthy bundle of them!

Water fountains are to be found on every corner and part way down every block in Bern. The water is very drinkable, although I think that I would always take it from the running spout as I have seen people holding dogs up to lap from the pooled water! And in between all the fountains, along the three main streets in the old city are various statues that reflect the history and folklore of Bern.

We are in need of some sustenance and go searching for a cafe to eat at. In the distance we hear lively, bright music playing and so head in that direction. We come across an ensemble of musicians - the Molotow Brass Orkestra busily playing some great catchy tunes that has people's toes tapping and kids jumping. They are young and funky and much fun to watch as they are to listen to. A fairly good audience is listening to them and applauding their work, but there is precious little money in their collection bag. Pity. We contribute a healthy €7 to their cause. The street where they are playing is filled with cafes and bars, so we decided to take a seat at the one closest to the band. But their food appears extremely limited, and the wait staff very indifferent so we take ourselves off in search of more appetising pastures. We eventually stop at a restaurant in the main pedestrian street where we hungrily devour:
Spaghetti Bolognese (Michael in homage to my brother Michael and his perchance for trying this staple in every European city we visited in 2006)
Rösti mit Käse (Potato cake with Cheese) Maria

Lunch done, we take a stroll through the markets operating in one of the main squares today - a good variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, regional produce, fast food sellers, clothing, souvenirs and the general goods found in many of these street markets - much, much more vibrant than the Maryborough markets! There are squeals of delight as a water fountain in front of the Swiss Congress building shoots jets of water high into the air, dousing children and young people who are (or not) expecting it! And across the road at the edge of the Market square, a couple of men are engrossed in a chess game with a healthy crowd of onlookers helping out by maintaining a hush.

I am not leaving Switzerland without finding and buying some good chocolates to share with Steph (another confirmed chocoholic) and luckily we walk straight past Laderach Chocolatier Suisse. We walk in passed all the chocolate barks with lots of nuts or dried fruits embedded in them. But I am headed for that Swiss speciality - the Praline chocolates! Oh my god, what a choice! Bugger, can't choose! So I ask Astrid (while watching Michael's horrified face - bugger the cost, it is for Steph) to pack one of each one in a box. She is astonished and although her English was not perfect, I soon make it clear to her that yes, one of EVERY one is what we want.

Chocolate safely in hand we head back towards the car. Back through the colonnaded streets and past the Munster, we head back to the lift through the Park. Here, police were leading a dog sniffing for contriband in the Munster Park - oh, hang on, the dog is in training. The officer standing near us is friendly enough and seems a little surprised with our wanting to take a photo, and with our asking if it is ok to do so. But he couldn't give us any other information - "you will have to ask the dog manager" was his response - and he is a little busy at present!

Tonight we are booked in to a Best Western Motel that is close to the airport and the autobahn. The roadworks through the city leading us a merry chase to find our accommodation which we later find is actually at one of the road stops on the Motorway - and only accessible off the motorway itself. I have programmed Kate with the address on their website, but she cannot get me on to the motorway and continues to lead me into pasture land. We have to stop and ask directions a number of times and after heading almost 30 knm in the wrong direction finally make it there after wasting an hour searching. Certainly all the roadworks don't help, but we tell the receptionist on our eventaul arrival that they need to put a very specific address, or much clearer directions on their website. Dinner tonight is at the restaurant adjoining the Motel in the service station stop. A limited menu and when Michael orders the steak with pepper sauce we do not expect the hamburger steak patty. Still, too tired to be bothered by now, so we devour it and head back up to the motel and bed. Luckily for Michael the Motel has a free 24 hour coffee bar and he can indulge before we retire oh and he makes me a hot chocolate - I am bound to sleep like a babe).

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