In search of a Swiss weekend break, Chris Court follows the bear prints to bustling Bern.
More than 900 years ago the founding father of a Swiss city went hunting and shot the first animal he came across – a bear.
The legendary hunter, Berchtold V, Duke of Zahringen, named the city Bern, after his prey, and centuries later the symbolic animal seems to be everywhere in the Swiss capital.
During my stay in buzzy, beautiful Bern I have to admit that spotting the bear symbols in the medieval streets of the World Heritage Site old town becomes a mini obsession. Perhaps because I am staying in the city centre Baren Hotel – complete with a large golden bear above the entrance and just a short stroll from the huge Barenplatz (‘bar’ is German for bear), with its bustling daily market and outdoor cafe culture.
The creatures, which centuries ago would wander the city streets, now not only appear on the city flag, public transport, clocks and buildings, but there’s also a bear statue, a bear fountain, and you can even wear a bear tie.
I sample bear-shaped sponge cakes in many flavours, and spot a bear incorporated in the mountain-shaped logo of the Bern-made Toblerone chocolate bar.
Even the cartoon character in my hotel room, urging me to turn off the lights to save energy, is a bear.
Then there’s the popular 24 million euro Bear Park, with its grassy slopes, caves and pool alongside the fast flowing, clear waters of the river Aare, home to a pair of bears, Bjork and Finn, and their two offspring, Ursina and Berna.
Naturally, there’s a special bear tour through the fascinating historic city, which flight times from London make a feasible weekend break.
The compact old town, built on a peninsula formed by the Aare, is a maze of streets with sandstone buildings and red tiled roofs, ideal for leisurely exploration, dotted with outdoor cafes where you can watch the world go by.
The Bernese are said to lead an unhurried lifestyle; with so much to catch the eye and explore, you can see why.
I sample just a fraction of what the city and surrounding area has to offer, but find myself easily agreeing with the view taken by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe in the 18th century when he declared “this is the most beautiful place we have ever seen”.
From certain vantage points, snow-capped mountains line the horizon (the mighty Jungfrau, one of the highest summits in the Bernese Alps is just an hour away), and idyllic, open countryside is on your doorstep, thanks to Switzerland’s extensive, on-time public transport network.
In the old town itself, the 16th century Clock Tower – once a city gate – draws huge crowds.
I climb a well-worn stone spiral stairway to marvel at the centuries old mechanics, still hand-wound to this day, and ascend as high as I can into the tower’s beams, to take in fantastic 360-degree views of the region.
Bern’s Parliament building, in the city centre, is also worth a visit. As the sun glistens on its three gilded domes, 26 fountains set into the square in front of the building shoot jets of water into the air, as youngsters in their swimsuits splash and play.
Just a short stroll away, set in its own square, is the towering Gothic Cathedral with the tallest spire in Switzerland and more than 200 painted wooden and stone figures.
Albert Einstein lived in Bern for seven years from 1902. This is celebrated with a fascinating exploration of his life, housed in the city’s Historical Museum, which you can enter through a spectacular hall of mirrors.
The Aare plays a key part in city life; locals and visitors enjoy pleasant waterside walks, while others drift downstream on inflatables.
A popular gathering place is the Marzili river pool, in use since the 18th century, where locals cool off in the Aare, or the nearby 50 metre pool.
I cross the river and walk up to the Rose Garden – home to more than 400 species of rose, irises and rhododendrons – a large park with wonderful elevated views over the Old Town peninsula from the terrace, a perfect spot for lunch.
The riverbank is also the setting for one of Bern’s most stylish restaurants, the Schwellenmaetteli, where I dine on the open air decking, the river thundering over a weir just metres away.
Another night, in the Old Town, I enjoy a traditional meal in the spectacular 18th century Kornhaus, a cavernous former vaulted cellar.
There is also a lot to do and see outside Bern, including learning how the country’s famous Emmental cheese is made.
Back in Bern, before flying home, I learn that the city has another claim to fame, apart from bears.
Bern – said to have the most beautiful girls in Switzerland – was home to the young Dr No Bond girl, film star Ursula Andress.
Ursula, of course, means ‘female bear’.
Chris Court was a guest of Thomson Lakes & Mountains, which offers three nights’ B&B at the three-star Hotel Baren in Bern from £569, including flights with Swiss ex-Heathrow into Zurich, and train transfers.
Reg departures incl Manchester (£60), Birmingham (£40) and Glasgow via-Heathrow (£80).
For reservations call 0871 230 8181 or visit thomsonlakes.co.uk.
For more information about Bern visit www.bern.com and www.mySwitzerland.com.