Thursday, August 28, 2008

Postcards from Bern

Even though I was to meet Maggie and David in Bern on a Sunday to start our trip to the Swiss Alps, there was not much point in hanging around in London on Saturday, so I got to Bern a day early to do some exploring on my own. I took the train from Geneva to Bern, a roughly two hour ride along the north shore of Lake Geneva and through scenic Swiss countryside.

I made the dubious choice of reading Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith while riding by myself on a mostly empty train. The book is even eerier than the Hitchcock movie version, and certainly more so than the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito remake Throw Momma From The Train. Luckily the scenery was so beautiful that I quickly put the book down before I got too creeped out.

The Bahnhofplatz in Bern

Bern itself is a charming, historic, and very Swiss city, built on a high steep-sided ridge overlooking the Aar River and with views of the high Swiss Alps in the distance. For a capital city, Bern is very mellow and turned out to be a very pleasant place to spend a day.

Scattered around the streets of the old town are numerous tall columns topped with brightly colored figures. As best as I could tell, each one was a representation of a folk tale or legend, although I couldn't place most of the imagery. Almost all of them included a bear doing something (firing a rifle, suited up for war, doing more normal bear activities); one had no bears, but more than made up for this ursine omission by featuring a man eating babies.

Mmm, babies

The capital building at night

I really enjoy the occasional trip by myself, and my day in Bern was no exception. I definitely made the most of my time in Bern:
  • I watched people play big-chess, and sneakily took their picture

  • I saw more bear statues and bear art than I can even begin to describe

  • I was shocked to find Mexican food in the outdoor market in the Barenplatz, and even more shocked that it was authentic, made by actual Mexicans, and amazingly good. If you go to Bern, be sure to check out the Don Porfirio stand in the outdoor market and try their tortas - one of the best versions of a torta de carne I've had anywhere.

  • I watched a marimba duet on the street

  • I ate pistachio gelato

  • I saw Albert Einstein's house

  • I treated myself to an amazing gourmet dinner at Casa Novo just feet from the rushing Aar River. I didn't realize quite how fancy it was until I was seated - see amazing beef carpaccio dish below as an example of level of fanciness:

  • I amused myself by noticing that my hotel had elevators made by the manufacturer Schindler — yes indeed, Schindler's Lift (I can't possibly be the first person to notice this).
Even though I was only in Bern for a day, I squeezed in a lot of activities (if you count being a big-chess spectator as "activity"). I even watched a musical puppet show and a German funk-rap band at the Buskers Bern music festival. Before I met Maggie and David the following day, I had an engrossing conversation with a complete stranger (he spoke Italian and a few words of English, I did the opposite - after about 2 hours we had managed to convey that London is expensive, George Bush likes to play with bombs, and that bolognese is better than pesto), and I watched some more big-chess.

As much fun as I had by myself, I did miss sharing the experiences with others, like the excitement and surprise of finding Mexican food in Bern, and having a gorgeous riverside dinner. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't have had a long conversation in Italianglish, I wouldn't have busted through two whole books, and, even if someone else had been with me, I wouldn't have shared my pistachio gelato for the world.

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