An Afternoon In The Altstadt

The air was filled with light from all directions. The cathedral – ancient and magnificent – glowed, as if ablaze. Children played as parents chatted or fiddled on smartphones; the sound of laughter hung gently on the breeze. Water crashed on water, green in to white, adding white noise to the distance. We munched grapes and watched the world go by, taking pause from the exploration. A small child nagged us to let her play on a wooden horse with the other children. Welcome to Bern Altstadt.

We only had a few hours in Bern, so we stayed in the Altstadt, the Old Town of Bern. There is no way on earth that the old town of any world-class city is representative of the city itself; we knew that this would apply to Bern as much as it does to any city we visit. Nevertheless, we threw ourselves in.

The city of Bern, much in common with the rest of Switzerland, is abundant with water. Every corner seems to come together at a fountain, full of fresh, clean, Swiss water. The outflow from the largest flows in to a smaller trough for horses. There is a smaller trough again, which we decide is for the benefit of dogs. A small bird pecks at the water running from the tap; we look again, and it is gone.

I’m not sure if you know much about Switzerland, but there are periods of the year where it really is rather snowy. Rather snowy indeed. Whereas Thun lifted their paths above the road to keep the pedestrians on something easily swept, Bern covers it all up. The old town of Bern is a network of covered walkways and galleries, all interconnected, and allowing for miles of walking without any thought to the outside weather. In the summer it is a place of shade; in the winter a place of safety.

The problem with covered walkways is that they are all you end up seeing: arches above and before you; a world of shop signs filling the air. The architecture of the world outside, however, is but a mystery. As soon as you set foot out in to the street you are greeted by magnificent old buildings, wondrous churches and flag after billowing, colourful flag. The city is resplendent, yet it seems intent on hiding its face from view. The shop signs mimic the fluttering flags, but they are no substitute.

We were looking forward to having our lunch in Bern; a welcome stop off on the way home. The joy of locking up the bags for the day blinded us from our haste. At least we still had the grapes with us.

In the centre of Bern there is a beautiful old clock, which comes to life at midday. We scheduled our visit and our route so that we could be in the vicinity when the clock struck. We walked down to the theatre to kill time, and made our way back. And we stood: patiently we stood. We waited for time to tick forward and looked at our watches. Twelve struck and the clock did nothing. Then we noticed the crowds on the other side of the clock: a huge crowd, all looking up at a face we couldn’t see.

I’m not bad with languages. I can pick up enough to cover the basics, and get by: I can read menus and signs in Icelandic; I can order food and drink in Italian; I am polite and well-mannered in French. I don’t speak German, but I do have enough to buy a sausage or a pretzel. Actually, no: that’s shite. I really wanted a sausage; I was in the heart of a classically Germanic Swiss city. It should not have been a problem. I panicked: I’m normally way better in other languages when I panic. This didn’t go well at all. I wanted a sausage, but got a hot-dog; I didn’t want bread, but got a pretzel. I wanted the condiments a local would choose, but got ketchup and mustard. Even getting that was a sorry farce.

I needed to stretch my legs, and I needed to find us some more food. What I really wanted was a sausage with a pile of local mustard, but the café in the corner of the square might offer some kind of sustenance. We had left our salad and bread in the main bag, back at the station, and we were not about to pay twice for a locker. So I took a walk around the square. The café only served beer and coffee – perfect on a day like this, but I needed filling, so I looked over the walls. I’m glad I did.

Bern is a high up city, with steep banks leading down to the Aare. We had followed the path of this river through a gorge, two lakes, two fine old towns and now found it here. The colour of the water was no less majestic after its long journey; its power was no less diminished since we had seen it carving out the Aareschluct; it was no less joyful since we had seen it entertaining surfers in Thun.

Seen from above it took the breath away, crashing through wears and under the high arches of softly curving metal bridges. The Aare had clearly defined this region in ways that I had not expected to find: I had thought that mountains had been the driving force of this land. Rivers will conquer all.

Turn another corner, pass another fountain, and enter another covered street. This time, rather than the bustle of tourism and advertising there is only austerity. White walls, objects on display by their designers, rather than their owners, darkened entrances to drinking establishments. This is colder: a welcome retreat from the vigorous life we had drifted through earlier. A corner is all it really takes.

Separating the covered walkways from the roads beyond is a series of arches. On some streets these are open, if raised; on the main streets these arches are filled: flower sellers; toy carts; a sausage stall (sadly missed). Commerce extends below; hatches slide down the stairs and under the street: a stairway down to the dark interior of a sweetshop, a hairdresser and an outlet of novelty items.

The street cracks open and we are in a wide piazza; Altstadt and Neustadt face each other with the eyes of time. Both have weathered countless harsh winters, but this is Summer time, and winter is long forgotten. Such is the way of their life. People recline on a five-a-side football pitch while others take snaps and eat ice creams. This is a beating heart, through which working life passes endlessly.

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