Bern, pronounced Behhhrrn

Telling any Swiss person that we were travelling to Bern (burn) produced puzzled frowns. Now we know why. We were saying it all wrong. We would feel bad about this, but how can the Swiss expect us to grasp place-pronunciation when they themselves can’t make up their minds what to call anything.

Bern: This clock tower was once a gate in the town ramparts, however, the city outgrew its boundaries twice.

We are sitting on a French-German cusp, and to keep everyone happy, every place has both a French and German name, such as our current place of residence Biel-Bienne.  Murten is also Morat. All along the train tracks are villages and towns with German names such as Mongbratzverstenspiel and a corresponding French name that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the German counterpart, such as Le Bleu. Okay, I just made up both those names, but if I had the strength to look at a map, I could pull out a few excellent examples.

Bern, happily, seems to run along on a single name, perhaps because it is the nation’s capital and they can’t afford to have a Franco-Germanic squawk about it without creating terrible unrest. I don’t know that. I am still making up things, owing to the linguistic spaghetti forming inside my brain.

Dave seated at Albert Einstein's desk when he worked at the patent office in Bern. Einstein is said to have made his greatest discoveries while living in Bern between 1901 to 1909. Then he left his wife and married his cousin. Ugh. In the meantime, Dave developed several new theories while seated at Einstein's desk.

A 30-minute train ride from Biel (pronounced Beeeel), Bern’s historic quarter covers over a peninsula formed by a bend of the Aare River. It was founded in 1191 and is built of porous green-grey sandstone that, like Spain’s famous golden sandstone buildings, can be scrubbed away rather easily, hence the Swiss have built into the walls to create what they call “arcades,” broad covered walkways drawing pedestrians behind the exterior, theoretically preventing them from touching the sandstone portions.

Of course, the first thing we did on our arrival to Bern was to head to the sandstone walls and scrub away,  just to see if our guidebook was right. It was. I should say, Bernese sandstone is not as delicate as Spanish sandstone. Nor is it as pretty. The entire town is a murky gray-green, but this does not take away from its impressive architecture.

While there, we saw a large group of dark-skinned people filling the town square as Swiss police took positions and parked paddy wagons around.  I approached the Swiss police as though they were Saanich police*, ie. friendly, non-combative and wishing something would happen.

“Is this a concert?” I asked. They laughed heartily while tasering me a few times before throwing me into the paddy wagon.

No, they did not do this, but can you imagine if they did? Now this would be one heck of a blog. In fact, they gave me some evasive answers (a la Victoria police, aka VicPD**), so I did the only thing I could and that was walk into the midst of the protesters and look for someone who did not look away as I approached.

Bern Munster Cathedrale, dating back to 1421. While we were inside, the organist kicked the massive pipe organ into gear. Stunning.

This is what retired reporters do – look for trouble. Although, we don’t know it, because years of angling to get as close as possible to ground-zero of any event has numbed our common sense. We are in a stupor.

I found an affable 35-40-year-old man, rather pudgy who looked like someone I could possibly outrun and asked him “what’s up.” He very kindly explained this was the Swiss Tamil community and they were demonstrating to dissuade the Swiss government from deporting Tamil political refugees, also sometimes known as terrorists.

My sons later scolded me, saying that walking into a large group of black people surrounded by police never ends well, but they are wrong. It ended well, with me unharmed, except for my arm which is a little sore from my  husband dragging me out of the crowd.

Bern is, by the way, highly recommended as a must-see on any trip to Switzerland. It is truly outstanding.

* Saanich Police is one of the many police departments covering the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Their area is generally considered a low-crime one, but I don’t actually know for sure. Because of this, they are constantly getting teased as “soft” by …

** Victoria Police, the department that covers the urban centre of Victoria, which is full of gritty stuff – drugs, homeless, homicides, and the like.

Blisters and Biel

Wearing new sandals on a day that we would walk 16,538 steps was not really such a great idea, but it is too late to talk about it now. All I can do is soak my feet in saltwater, wrap them up and head out for another hike.

Farmer's market in Biel. Endless volumes of fresh produce, happy farmers, hordes of shoppers all packed into a medieval town setting. Not so bad.

I am in Switzerland. It is required I see new things everyday, even if there are blisters on top of my feet. This is true, by the way. I am afflicted with 360-degrees of blisters.

But enough about that. We  began our day by visiting Biel’s allegedly famous Nidaugasse farmer’s market. Nidaugasse may be the name for Biel’s old town, but I am not sure about that, just as I am unsure about everything owing to my cramped German/French language skills.

About 70 farmers and vendors transform Nidaugasse’s sloping grey cobbled streets into avenues of colour, while the air is filled with the aroma of apples and flowers. Maybe living in Switzerland will not be so bad. We stocked up.

Prices were relatively in line with North American farmer market prices, that is to say: They were high. The pain of the pay-up, however, is mitigated by the freshness and flavor of the produce. Real fresh vegetables are pretty much the same anywhere, but every region seems to have something that brings its own something to the table.

Banks of tulips fill the cobblestone streets of Biel's old-town.

In Manitoba, it is the acidic sweetness of giant beefsteak tomatoes, in Northwest Ontario wild blueberries are the jewels, in Victoria it’s Michell’s sweet strawberries and Silver Rill corn, and everything in Georgia. It’s true, Georgia, U.S.A. farmers markets kill in every produce category. Yum. But we’re not in Georgia now. We’re in Switzerland.

I have not determined the stand-out vegetable here, but it may be their giant red-leaf lettuce that is bowling-ball shaped with an apple-crisp base tipped with gossamer burgundy leaves. It tasted as though I had pulled it from the earth only moments before.

We avoided the line-up at the cheese wagon, however, learned later that was a mistake. As Regula, a local Swiss woman told us, “There’s a reason for the line-up,” and that reason is apparently “Corgemont Special” cheese. The market was packed with locals, probably the best indicator of the quality of the offerings. We decided to make the market a Saturday tradition.

After unloading our stuff at our apartment, we hoofed out to the train station for a 30-minute ride to Switzerland’s capital, Bern.  I’ll write more about that later. For now, I have to figure out how to bandage up my feet before today’s trip to Murten, a small medieval town about a 45-minute train ride southwest of Biel.