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Colorful flags flutter above the arcades on the Kramgasse in the heart of Bern, adding a festive flair to the city.
Colorful flags flutter above the arcades on the Kramgasse in the heart of Bern, adding a festive flair to the city. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
Colorful flags flutter above the arcades on the Kramgasse in the heart of Bern, adding a festive flair to the city.
Colorful flags flutter above the arcades on the Kramgasse in the heart of Bern, adding a festive flair to the city. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
The steeple of Bern's cathedral towers over the city's red-tile rooftops.
The steeple of Bern's cathedral towers over the city's red-tile rooftops. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
Visitors admire one of Paul Klee's paintings in the new $86 million Paul Klee Center.
Visitors admire one of Paul Klee's paintings in the new $86 million Paul Klee Center. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
A Bern bear casts a sorry glance at visitors from the bottom of the Bear Pit. The animals are the city symbol, and the source of its name.
A Bern bear casts a sorry glance at visitors from the bottom of the Bear Pit. The animals are the city symbol, and the source of its name. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
Bern's old buildings are well-preserved. The city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
Bern's old buildings are well-preserved. The city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)

This has been a busy year for Bern, the charming Swiss capital surrounded by rolling hills and distant peaks.

In June, the Paul Klee Center, a striking structure dedicated to the artist who spent much of his life in Bern, opened on the outskirts of the city. The same month, a fascinating exhibit on Albert Einstein that traces his life and explains his theories was launched at the city’s historical museum.

July saw the inauguration of the Stade de Suisse, Bern’s state-of-the-art national stadium. It has a solar power unit that is intended to provide energy for nearby homes and a shopping complex.

But not all of the activity was positive: August brought heavy rain and flooding that threatened centuries-old buildings in the old town and forced residents to temporarily evacuate.

Through it all, Bern continued to seduce travelers with its medieval ambience, lively city center and playful bears — the city’s symbol and namesake.

Bern was established in the 12th century by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen. According to legend, he was looking for a strategic site in the middle of a turbulent area. He selected a bend in the Aare River and, because of the region’s abundant game, said it would be named after the first animal killed in a local hunt.

That animal was a bear. The city took a version of its name, put it on the coat of arms and continues to honor it with a bear pit that is one of Bern’s most popular sites.

Much of the city was destroyed by fire in 1405. It was rebuilt, mostly of sandstone, and it’s that medieval structure that today gives the city a special flavor. Just walk through the center of the old town, full of ancient fountains, towers, arcades and sandstone facades. The appearance is definitely Middle Ages.

With nearly four miles of arcades, Bern has one of Europe’s longest covered shopping areas — with cool shade on summer days and protection from the elements when the weather is foul.

Check out downtown Bern on a Thursday evening when the stores are open late. In summer months, it’s like a huge street party. Crowds mill about, eating and drinking at restaurants and bars that, especially in the Kornhausplatz area, have moved into the plazas and onto the sidewalks. Even during the day, the city’s numerous outdoor cafes and eateries are hot spots.

Bern is not that big. You can see it all in a day, and mostly on foot. A tourist office representative said last week that all parts of the city, including the old town, have reopened after the flood and visitors can go anywhere within its borders.

Begin a visit at the Zytgloggeturm — or Clock Tower — in the center of the old town. It is more than 400 years old but still works, almost perfectly, telling not only the time but also the day of the week, date of the month, position of the sun and phases of the moon. It puts on a show at four minutes before the hour for crowds gathered at its base. Mechanized characters including a bell-ringing jester, an armored horseman, a bearded Father Time, and of course, bears, parade by.

Continue down Kramgasse, the main street of arcades with all sorts of interesting shops, from designer clothes to antiques to kitchen paraphernalia. Have your camera ready. You might see a mother hold her child up to one of the street’s many fountains for a drink of cool water. The city’s red trams pass by under colorful flags fluttering from the ancient buildings.

Number 49 on Kramgasse is the Einsteinhaus, home of the genius and the place where he wrote his theory of relativity in 1905. The home, a small second-floor apartment, contains documents relating to Einstein’s work, the desk where he is said to have worked standing up and other items relating to his stay in Bern from 1902 to 1909.

Take a detour to Rathausgasse for a look at the city hall with its double staircase and covered porch, one of the city’s typical old buildings dating back to 1406.

Rathausgasse becomes Postgasse, which leads to the Nydeggbrücke, a bridge over the Aare. There are lovely views of the city from the bridge, which leads to the Bear Pit and a nearby city tourist office that shows continuously a fun and free, multimedia film on the history of Bern. You may need to wait for the film in English as it alternates with showings in other languages.

But it’s the bears that are the star attraction here, and both kids and adults delight in watching the playful animals roll on their backs, lumber around and peer up at visitors.

Cross back over the bridge and pick up Junkerngasse, another street of arcades that leads to Münsterplatz and the city’s cathedral. Just look up for the steeple and head in that direction. The church, a fine example of late-Gothic architecture, is noted for the carvings over the main portal. Figures, 238 of them, some still painted, depict the Last Judgment. It’s a vivid scene with prostitutes — and even nuns and monks — in hell. A guide pointed out that during the Middle Ages Bern’s monks had too much fun with the city’s nuns, and thus the portal sculptor damned them to hell.

“It was a story for the people who couldn’t read,” she said. “Notice how tranquil paradise is with saints, angels, bishops and the pope. There’s more action in hell.”

From the cathedral, follow Herrengasse to Casino Platz where a right turn will take you across another bridge and on to Helvetiaplatz, where several museums are located. The Einstein exhibit is in the Bern Historisches Museum. The exhibit is spread out on two floors, with one devoted to the life of the man who is probably the best- known scientist and humanist of the 20th century.

The other floor focuses on his theories, complete with interactive displays including a virtual- reality bike you can ride through Bern. Pedal faster and faster, as if you are approaching the speed of light, and the buildings begin to melt into surrealistic forms.

Across the street from the history museum is the Schweizerisches Alpines Museum. It lets you visit Switzerland’s Alps, 60 percent of the country’s total area. There are models of mountains and glaciers in relief, a slide show of spectacular mountain scenery, videos of mountain wildlife, exhibits of the stuffed mountain critters, and, upstairs in the museum, displays of antique skis and carved carnival masks.

Back on the other side of the bridge, head left to the Bundeshaus, Switzerland’s parliament. Just last year, the parking lot in front of the parliament building was replaced by a popular and fun fountain built directly into the square. At unpredicted intervals, water spurts into the air from 26 holes representing each of the Swiss cantons.

You’ll need to hop on bus No. 12 to reach Bern’s newest pièce de résistance, the Paul Klee Center. The $86 million building, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano who helped design the Pompidou Center in Paris, is as interesting as its contents. Three waves or hills of glass and steel undulate in a grassy area surrounded by fields. They’re said to represent the three basic tenets of Klee’s semi-abstract work: line, form and color.

Inside is the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works in open, spacious galleries.

The new stadium is in the suburb of Wankdorf. It is billed as more than a home field for Bern’s Young Boys soccer club, and one of the sites for the 2008 European Cup.

It is also being called “a multifunctional arena for sport and cultural events and a venue for national and international meetings,” a convention center, shopping and business center and a “gourmet temple.”

It has more than 86,000 square feet of solar panels to provide electricity for the stadium as well as 200 households. If there is sufficient demand, annual power output could be boosted by 50 per cent by adding more panels.

For great views of the city, head to the Rose Garden, which tops one of the surrounding hills. From there you can see how the Aare loops around the cluster of red roofs in the heart of Bern.

In 1779, author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a letter to a friend describing the city as “the most beautiful we have ever seen.” More than 200 years later, Bern is still a beauty that is a delight to explore.

Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, is a journalist living in France.

If you go ...¶Getting around: The best bet for seeing Bern is the BernCard, which covers use of all city trams and buses plus free admission to the museums of the Bern Museums Association — including the Paul Klee Center and the Schweizerisches Alpines Museum — and a 20-percent discount on guided city tours.

A card for 24 hours costs 17 Swiss francs (about $14) for adults and 14 Swiss francs for children between ages 6-16. Cards can be purchased at the city tourist offices, located at the train station and at the Bear Pit, as well as at several museums. The card does not include admission to the Einstein exhibit at the history museum.

Another card, Bern ³, at a cost of 48 Swiss francs, buys admission to the Einstein exhibit, entry to the Soleil platform and a display on solar energy in the Stade de Suisse stadium, and entrance to the Paul Klee Center.

¶Hours: The Klee Center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.

The Einstein exhibit is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Admission is 24 Swiss francs for adults and 12 Swiss francs for children 6-16.

The Schweizerisches Museum is open 2-5 p.m. Monday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Admission to the stadium and solar energy exhibit is 20 Swiss francs for adults and 15 Swiss francs for children 6-16.

¶Where to eat: One restaurant not to miss is the Kornhauskeller at Kornhausplatz 12. Deep steps lead into this vaulted candlelit cellar, a warehouse from the 18th century that was converted into a village hall. Its ceilings are painted with scenes of Bernese and German history. At one end of the vast hall is a gigantic barrel that holds 41,055 liters. Food is pricey, with main courses at about 30 Swiss francs, but you can wander in for a look without eating.

Another special place, especially for an outdoor lunch, is the Schwellenmätteli restaurant in what is known as “Bern’s Riviera,” a platform of wood, metal and glass on the edge of the river next to the rushing waters of the Aare’s floodgates and below the city’s old houses, which top the opposite hill. Main courses are from 29 Swiss francs. To reach the restaurant, cross the Kirchenfeldbrücke and follow signs down the hill to the riverbank.

For more reasonable meals, try the Altes Tramdepot, a restaurant and microbrewery adjacent to the Bear Pit with an outdoor terrace offering lovely views of the river and the city. Spaghetti carbonara goes for 14.50 Swiss francs, and the daily menu is priced at 19.50 Swiss francs.

Another reasonably priced restaurant, good for Swiss specialties, is Zum Untern Junker on Junkern Strasse. Try Roschti, a Swiss favorite of shredded fried potatoes topped with melted Raclette cheese and a fried egg, plus grilled tomatoes and pickles for 18.50 Swiss francs.

For dining outside the city, try the Gurten on a hill overlooking the town with super views, not just of Bern, but also of the surrounding mountains. Take tram No. 9 to the Gurtenbahn station and then a funicular up the hillside to the restaurant.

There’s an outdoor market with fruit, vegetable and flower stands on Waisenhausplatz and Bärenplatz on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.

¶ Where to stay: Many hotels in Bern offer reasonable package plans. For example, the Best Western Hotel Bristol offers a two-night weekend stay with buffet breakfast, glass of champagne, sauna admission, and 48-hour BernCard for 178 Swiss francs per person. For details, see www.bristolbern.ch.

¶ Info: City tourist offices can supply a free city map and other helpful brochures. English is widely spoken. Find more information on Bern at www.berninfo.com or ask for it by e-mail at info@berninfo.com

— Leah Larkin

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