Diccon Bewes: 10 interesting facts about Bern
Did you know that the Swiss city Bern is named after a bear? Travel smart with these top ten essential facts about Switzerland's non-official capital city.
The New York Times recently had a great little article about 36 hours in Bern, with 12 things to see and do in the Swiss capital. It included some of my favourite places: Confiserie Tschirren and Adriano's café, the covered arcades and Bear Garden, and of course the view from the Rosengarten (pictured below). Rather strangely the beautiful cathedral didn't get a look in, possibly because they spent two of their 36 hours cycling out of the city to a farm. Not a normal thing to do on a city break, but then again Bern is no normal city.
I realised today that Bern has now been my home for 2,000 days, or 48,000 hours, give or take a few. In celebration of that fact, I'd planned to write something about my favourite spots; trouble is not only have I already written about some (such as the fabulous Gelateria di Berna), but then the New York Times beat me to it and chose lots of the same things. Easy to do, given how small Bern is. So instead, here are a few fascinating facts about the city where I live.
> Bern's official title is Bundesstadt, or Federal City, rather than Hauptstadt, or capital city. Switzerland technically has no capital but since 1848, Bern has been the seat of the Federal Parliament and government so is the de facto capital.
> Bern was founded in 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen. He is supposed to have said that the new city would be named after the first animal to be found on a hunting expedition in the woods. Luckily it was a bear (Bär in German, plural Bären, or Baeren) and not a rat.
> Just over 130,00 people live in Bern, making it Switzerland's fourth-largest city. Foreigners make up 23.2 percent of the population, with the two largest groups being Germans (6,206) and Italians (4,136). I am one of only 301 British residents, but there are 1,738 diplomats, including 457 diplomatic children, if such creatures exist. [2011 figures]
> The street signs in the Old Town are different colours – green, white, yellow and burgundy. This is a hangover from when Napoleon conquered the city in 1798. His troops were largely illiterate so the coloured signs were used to help them find their quarters.
> At 101 metres, the cathedral spire is the tallest in Switzerland. The Gothic lacework top (currently being restored) was added to the medieval tower in 1889–93. It's 222 steps to the top viewpoint and on the way you pass Switzerland's biggest bell, weighing 10,000 kg.
> German is the main language (81 percent of the population) followed by Italian (3.9 percent) and French (3.6 percent). The Bernese dialect is famous in the rest of Switzerland for being rather slow. It sounds almost as if someone is taking a leisurely stroll through the woods while humming a merry tune. Almost.
> All of the Old Town is a Unesco heritage site, making tourism big business. More than 400,000 visitors came in 2010, just over half of them Swiss. Of the foreign guests, the five most common nationalities were German, American, British, French and Italian.
> Bern's two gifts to the sweet-toothed world are Toblerone and Ovomaltine. The triangular chocolate was invented by Theodor Tobler in 1908 and every piece is still made in Bern. Ovomaltine (known as Ovaltine in Britain) was created in 1904 by Dr Albert Wander, who mixed malt, egg, milk and cocoa.
> On 4 July 1954, Bern hosted the World Cup final. West Germany's 3–2 victory over the favourites, Hungary, is known as Das Wunder von Bern (Miracle of Bern). The host stadium at Wankdorf was demolished in 2001 but the clock outside still shows the final score.
> At an altitude of 542 metres above sea level, Bern is the third highest European capital city (even if it isn't actually a ‘capital'). That's still a long way short of Andorra la Vella (1023m) and Madrid (667m).
Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.
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