Travel to Bern, Switzerland

I slept in this morning until 8am and rolled over on the couch, grabbed my camera and looked at pictures from the previous night. I laughed out loud constantly as I realized some of the stuff that went on. A huge field full of trucks with a banner reading “beach party”, a couple hundred Swiss kids smack dab in the middle of a dairy farm decided to imagine they actually lived near a beach, hilarious. I also recall spending a great deal of time at dinner explaining the whole North American Credit Card “thing”. NO one in Switzerland owns a credit card. They just have funny paper money that comes in a variety of neon colours featuring zero famous politicians or important national animals or monuments (one of the bills has a random man with his glasses falling off and he looks in shock). Legal tender gone wrong. They were all making fun of me as I only had a credit card and was desperately hoping the restaurant accepted it. Then I turned the tables and explained that a country known for its banking should get with the times. I called a few of them troglodytes trading their goods with beans and they realized I had won. Thank God for credit cards.

I hopped on the 2 hour train to Bern from St.Gallen via Zurich at ten after ten. The train was unbelievably, literally a hotel lounge on wheels. I arrived at the station looking for my new local housemate Patric. He was a bit elusive with regards to how we would recognize each other as we had never met (another friend through a friend). He said he would wear a special “hat” and I picked him out instantly as he was wearing a red Santa hat on the platform floor. I have never met anyone so wonderful, he walked me to his apartment and continued to insist that I always feel at home, enjoy the apartment, eat whatever I want and do whatever I please (I could get used to this). I am spending a total of one week in Bern but will be taking day trips to use up the rest of my euro rail travel days. Exciting times ahead.

My first day in Bern, Patrick took me on a nice walking tour of the city. We walked around the famed Aare River which smells of nature (moss) and is the colour of Lake Louis as its source is mountain water. It is hilarious to see the locals with their air filled dingy boats and others swimming. The river is full of bobbing heads as you walk along the downtown, people zipping by as you go shopping. This is the best lazy river I have seen yet (a close second to Munich’s). We walked down the main street and saw the famous clock town and glockenspiel. Took a walk down the famous arcades to the cathedral and then found the Bear pits (two big grizzly bears playing in a pond). The cities name actually comes from the word Bear as the first settlers here caught a wild bear and decided to name it after this heroic hunt. We popped into the tourism office and heard about a 20 minute “presentation” called the Bern show. It didn’t start for 20 minutes so we walked to the local brewpub and had a three glass sampler of lager, sweet ale and wheat beer. The Bern Show was hilarious. You walk into a small room and there is one little bench and space for standing. The show begins with an elaborate disco ball and a narrator explaining the history of the city on screen. It looked like a normal tourist show. THEN it became interactive, chairs popped out of the floor, mannequins playing the drums (Napoleons army apparently) came out of the theater from both sides, a huge 3D map of the city rotated in front of us and described the huge city fire from the 1400’s as smoke rose from the map. I could not stop laughing the entire time, it was genius. We then walked back along the river to the Parliament and main square where many children were running around naked or in their undergarments screaming as mysterious water jumped from the cracks in the rocky pavement. Back down the river we found a neat upscale restaurant which actually hovers over the river rapids. You can stare down from your table as you are eating and watch the water run by your feet. Our final stop before returning to the apartment for dinner was the “alternative” area of town right near the drug drop in center. Here I saw some of the most incredible graffiti street art of my life, madly taking snap shots.

Dinner was fantastic. Patrick made moitie moitie (half and half) Swiss Cheese Fondue with bread. The two cheeses were Vacherin Fribourgeois and Le Gruyere. He set up a lovely little table on the small patio he has outside of his room overlooking the city. We had a nice ice cold bottle of Swiss white wine and chatted about the nasty history of the Swiss Bank and Fondue culture. I found his rambles about fondue fascinating. It is a huge uppity ordeal in Switzerland…many locals have “favorite cheese shops” that make their own secret fondue recipe (rarely do locals make it from scratch as the cheese shops have amazing cheap take it home renditions). Then the room mate Michael arrived. He is a character to say the least…balled headed and very very loud…he was in Interlaken all day as he is in school to get certified as a national licensed sky diving instructor. So he spent 4 hours today in the sky over the Swiss alps and told me I have to jump out of a plane before I leave Switzerland. I doubt that will happen but well see. In walks friend number two. A small little guy who works as a waiter at Bern’s number one eating establishment. He says the food is amazing and every day they are booked solid with reservations. Perhaps its because the menu changes EVERY day…as a front of the house guy that must be a lot to memorize, but change is always good. The chef only uses the freshest produce, butcher meat and dairy products. Every day the local dealers show him what they have and he writes up a menu…brilliant. The evening became a night on the town as the three guys asked me if I wanted to go to a local “alternative bar” for a beer and chat. We walked to the graffiti spot and had an Appenzeller beer and chatted for an hour amongst the punks, liberals and “people who want to save the rain forest”. It was a really nice night chatting and laughing with a couple of locals…the wabble home was interesting.

My first full day in Bern was an early morning staring out my window at the rainy day outside. Michael, the crazy sky jumping instructor was supposed to take me jumping in Interlaken today but since the weather was inclement he decided to go to the super market with me. As I was putting my shoes on in his room I saw a large collection of Cook Books. I asked him about them and his eyes lit up (A good sign). He is my Swiss twin, I swear, minus the smoking habit. He is absolutely obsessed with food. Little did I know (as I was ill informed) he was a chef for about 6 years before deciding to jump of of a plane for a living. Here I was sleeping right beside a total nut case chef…lucky me. He started talking a mile a minute (like me) and flipping through his cook books…Patrick came in and started laughing as he realized we were meant to be…constantly both talking about food. With passion in his eyes he ran with me down the stairs, ran onto a bus and took me to the largest super market in the city. He initially planned on making a Thai dish tonight but as I saw him throw things in the basket I realized the menu was changing before my eyes. He had not one ounce of organized route throughout the store. We ran from the meat section, to the cheese ROOM (by far the largest cheese selection I have ever seen in my life, and that includes the Cheese Shops in Toronto, Paris and Florence). We then darted to pick up some dairy (all the milk is in small cartons and not refrigerated, also a vast selection of yoghurt’s are available; chocolate, rhubarb, coffee…). The bakery was a memorable stop as today is Nations Day and many many colourful breads, cakes and bus were topped with little Swiss flag toothpicks. As I have learned in Europe, the Europeans love their Tubes of food. An entire aisle in this shop was dedicated to tube foods; flavored mayonnaise, mustard, bouillon, tomato paste, mustard, fish paste, bacon and cheese paste…so much paste (almost too much). As we left the shop he chimed “merci” to the supermarket checkout girl and that is when it clicked in my mind how unique Switzerland is. It has four official languages and locals (Swiss Germans for example) use a bit of Italian (they always say “ciao” when saying goodbye) French and German. It is a culture based on four languages, a really neat way to express yourself as you see fit. We walked to the main bus station where Michael talked to a really shady character who looked homeless, drinking a huge bottle of beer at 9am. I didn’t interrupt and as the bus pulled up we jumped on…he told me that guy was called “the king” as he is known in the entire of Switzerland for having the best hashish. Never would have thought of him as a king…

Breakfast consisted of fresh orange juice, Swiss bacon, hard boiled eggs, croissants, Ementaller cheese, chocolate coconut yogurt and great discussion. Michael told me all about the restaurant he worked at, which is 2500 meters above sea level at the top of the Alps. A popular tourist spot the restaurant is located right beside a famous glacier. The restaurant staff live in a little cottage for the entire season, shower once a week on their day off when they can go down the mountain into town. There is no running water so fresh water is melted from glacier ice and snow through the use of wood burning stoves. The best story was when he reenacted his grocery trips. He would be in charge of going down the mountain to pick up different food items. One day he took the cable car up the mountain with 250 eggs in his back pack. At the top of the mountain he had to snowboard (with the eggs) for about 30 minutes straight down a steep cliff. Talk about dedication at the dinner table!

I walked around town in the afternoon with Michale which was nice, he insisted we take bikes as it is faster and “more fun” to see the city that way. I thought it a good idea until I was introduced to the bikes which were built for giants. I tried my best to get onto the incredibly high seat which, when on, did not allow me to touch my feet to the ground. I tried my best, so we started up the hill to the Rosegarten where I realized I hadn’t used a bike in years. I had no clue how to change gears, and we had to stop half way up the hill so I could get a quick briefing on how to use the bike properly. Then the horrible happened, I tried to get up the hill and my peddle slipped and I fell into pavement scraping my knee and ankle. He laughed SO hard, had a field day, called me sissy and I said “none of this, we are walking.” So we walked our bikes back to the apartment and then walked back up the hill past the Swiss Army camp to the famous Rosegarten.

The garden has over 150 varieties of roses and is perched on a cliff, the best view of this UNESCO World Heritage city! We walked down the hill and on the way stopped at a famous graffiti site where a poet drew a heart and wrote in German “A Heart is just Meat.” Further down the hill we found a nice restaurant between two bridges that overlooks the river damn. I peaked over and saw a huge metal net. Michael explained that Switzerland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. People try to jump off the cliff every year so they have put up nets as a deterrent. We walked into the old town and I found the infamous street dungeons. On the side of the street there are dungeons that have entrances on the side walk (wooden doors with thick metal fencing.) These were used years ago to hold criminals and now are the coolest of the cool night discos. The doors open at midnight and you can dance around drinking cocktails from cell to cell. We walked past the Parliament and he told me all about the adjacent building which is a huge famous cafe and restaurant where “people make politics.” We walked even further into town to the huge Historical Museum which has a special exhibit on Albert Einstein (his face is plastered all over the city). There is a special outdoor Physics Park as well as the history of Bern can be found inside. Einstein lived in Bern for many years and it was here where he developed and published the Theory of Relativity. We walked back into the center of town so I could take a picture of the cities most famous fountain; a man holding a bag of babies and shoveling a baby head first into his mouth. Brilliant. We walked down some stairs into the train station food court where we bought big and juicy doner kabobs. It is a great spot to eat as there are excellent people watching opportunities and there are many ruins of the “old city” as the train station was built on the city fortress walls (that’s what I call ambiance). On the walk home we popped by a really cool beer and wine store. The store has beers from all over the world, organized by country flag. I walked over to Canada which was represented by Molson and Moosehead. It was interesting to stroll the aisles to see what beers look like from across the globe. On our walk home I asked Michael what all the nude posters were about across the entire country of Switzerland (I have noticed them in train stations and walking around on foot). He said they are AIDS awareness campaigns. They are really excellent as they feature naked people doing sports: my favorite is the poster of a bunch of naked men playing hockey and it says something to the extent of “shouldn’t they be using protection?”

In the afternoon I shocked myself by actually successfully enjoying a nap. I logged onto Pandora and selected my random Bjork station and fell right to sleep. Two hours later I woke up and felt the urge to eat something. I went into the fridge and peeled off the metal lining of the Rhubarb yogurt Michael bought me (he says I must have it as it is “traditional”). First spoon full and I went “wow” in my head, this stuff was like heaven. Yogurt in Canada sucks, 0% fat what a sham, and the diversity of flavours could put anyone to sleep.

Tonight is the Nations Day celebration fiasco. As on Canada Day, big parties and fireworks at night make it special. But in Switzerland Fireworks are being lit all day. From my window at 4pm it sounds like war outside. The three of us (two Swiss and moi) huddled in the kitchen and made a fantastic meal from Zurich. We peeled and sliced potatoes for a gratin that consisted of cream, spices, shallots, leeks, bouillon, garlic and cheese. The main course is called Zurich Geschnetzeltes which consists of fried onions, mushrooms, thin slices of steak, cream, sour cream and special spices. We drank the Galopper ever so malty beer that I bought for our Nations Day dinner celebrations as we waited for the huge pot of gratin to finish browning. I decided I wanted cheese on my gratin and the Swiss boys freaked out as it “was not traditional” (like I care at this point). Traditional or not I grated four Swiss cheeses and sprinkled them on top the squeaking and crackling gratin (Le Gruyere, Apppenzeller, Emmentaler, Tilsiter), perfectly traditional by my standards. They spent much of the meal commenting on my lack of bicycling abilities (in Switzerland they have to take a bike driving test, similar to a G test for us. How hilarious is that, a license to drive a bike).

I sat in my room on the computer after dinner when the fire works really started going off. At 9pm the seven cathedrals in the city all went off and it was a real gong show. Sparks actually flew into my room so I ran to the window and saw fire painting the sky’s all over the city. Patrick and I walked into the city, every turn there is another beer party with flames everywhere. Passing into the city every corner had at least three groups of huddled Swiss folks lightening up the sparklers in the air. Past a huge park we saw over 15 separate fire cracker clusters going off. Over the bridge you could see the colourful fire shinning over the glassy water. In the main square of the city the entire place was packed and full of smoke. Hooligan kids were throwing fire crackers under peoples feet to freak them out, it almost happened to me and I would have cried surely. We made it to the main bridge that looks over the river and Cathedral. For the next 30 minutes I witnessed one of the most intense fire work shows of my life. Michael didn’t come with us because he hates it. He says it’s basically “my money falling from the sky” as the government pays for the huge show with tax dollars. On the walk home I made my way through the smoky fog like air and felt as though I was in a war zone. I was on pins and needles, anxious, arriving back to my room I thought I would find solitude. Head on pillow, staring out the window, I had an incredible front row view of the best light show from any bed in Switzerland.

I left the apartment in Bern, which I had become so comfortable after seven nights and headed to the train station for my trip to Geneva Airport. On the train I thought about how fabulous the Swiss everything is. The people are lovely, the food is extraordinary, everything is incredibly clean, chick and on time. I expect when I die, and wake up at the gates in heaven, everything will look like Switzerland, perfect.

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