Since my semester abroad back in college, Switzerland held the title of “the one that got away.” Even though I studied in one of the most northern cities in Italy, Milan, I never made the trip up to visit my neighbor to the north. For years Switzerland (and Germany for that matter) remained my biggest regrets of that semester. Both countries were unbelievably close to me, but even after six months of living in Milan, I still didn’t have enough time to visit them. I now have a second chance on this trip and I wasn't going to let it slip through my fingers again. Before I even left the US, I knew I would eventually travel through Switzerland even if it meant completely sinking my budget.
From Marseille I took a spectacular train ride through Geneva to Bern that quickly reaffirmed how truly beautiful this part of the world is. From my cramped little seat on the train I saw one stellar view of the Alps after another, hundreds of tiny little cottages scattered throughout the rough terrain, and tranquil lakes nestled between the gargantuan mountains. As the train effortlessly glided over the multitude of hills, perfectly aligned rows of grape vines contained in the geometric plots of land painstakingly carved into the land slowly rolled by. Unlike in Texas, there isn't a single flat parcel of land as far as the eye can see - everything is either hills, mountains, or lakes. Even though I am hundreds of miles from NYC, the feeling on board the train in Switzerland was staunchly professional and I clearly stood out as an obvious tourist. Everyone around me was dressed in well pressed slacks, ties, and sport coats while I was the only idiot wearing beat up old shoes (with holes now forming in the bottom) and a wrinkled, smelly t-shirt.
It was a classy sight to behold.
I can’t even begin to describe how much the scenery and architecture changed during the relatively short train ride from Marseille. While I was in transit for only a few hours, the landscape around me suggested I’d been traveling for days on end to some far off destination. In place of the enormous stone cathedrals found across most of Europe, the churches out here a humble little structures adorned with the elongated steeples poking high into the air. The usual heavy white stone buildings were replaced with little cottages and the bright red, curved terra-cotta tiles that adorned nearly all of the residential buildings thus far on my trip were now dark earth tone, hexagon tiles. While these relatively minor aesthetic differences stood out immediately, they were only the tip of the iceberg. I noticed countless subtle differences between France and Switzerland that, when combined, made me question if I was still even in Europe. Coming from Texas where you can literally drive 14 hours and never even leave the state, it never fails to amaze me just how diverse Europe is and how a short, four-hour train ride can change everything: the landscape, language, architecture, customs, and people.
My first day in Bern was absolutely wonderful. This cozy, picturesque little town is the perfect example of a quintessential Swiss city you find on postcards. The oldest section of Bern is nestled on a peninsula-like piece of land cut out by Aare river as it winds through the densely packed mountains. From the cluster of dark-brown wooden roofs emerge several narrow clock towers with their oxidized, light-green steeples jutting into the city skyline and the imposing stone Bern Cathedral (Berner Münster) in the background. Unlike the mesmerizing rich blue water I found hiking in southern France, the Aare is a cloudy light-green reminiscent of a beautiful aventurine gemstone. While unassuming, this coursing river flows at a pace more commonly seen in rapids rather than the “lazy river” at your local water park. If you happen to fall into this chilly water, it could easily transport you miles before you even realize it.
Even with all of the cramped buildings, there is an incredible amount of greenery throughout Bern. The nearby mountains across the Aare river are covered in lush vegetation and provide a remarkable backdrop regardless of where I walked in the city. There is an omnipresent feeling of serenity in Bern and the city strikes a perfect balance between the natural world and human civilization. Instead of beating nature into submission like so many cities I’ve seen thus far, Bern works in harmony with the surrounding landscape and combines the wonderful aspect of the outdoors with all the conveniences of a well-maintained city. The more I explored Bern, the more I realized how much the landscape compliments the city and the city compliments the landscape.
As I meandered through the main city streets in the old town I was fascinated by the design of the heavy, imposing stone buildings. Take for example the main street, Kramgasse, where the famous Zytglogge clock tower is located. The second story of each apartment flanking the avenue extends over the sidewalk all the way to the edge of the street creating a covered promenade for pedestrians to window shop. While simple, it is a remarkably brilliant idea I’m surprised isn't incorporated into more cities, it shields people from the sun/snow, incentivizes people to stay out of the streets, and allows for larger apartments with better views. What’s not to love? Even with the sun bearing down on the city, I spent the entire afternoon walking and never once perspired.
New York should take a hint from Bern.
Bern is a wonderful city with incredible views in almost every direction, but overall the town is quite small. After thoroughly geeking out at Albert Einstein's old apartment, I walked the entire town, checked out the bear pit where the city houses its local mascots, and walked up to the Rose Garden park to get a panoramic view of the city among other things - but even after all that it was still the middle of the afternoon on my first day!
It isn’t surprising that Einstein, who lived here from 1902 to 1905, prepare his five breakthrough papers which contained the famous E=mc2 equation in this town. Bern really is the epitome of tranquility, but for big city dwellers like myself who is fascinated by NYC, it can become dull rather quickly. While absolutely gorgeous, very little happens aside from the droves of tourists coursing through the main streets. Even if you're not one for walking, within a day you can see the entire city - that is unless you really love museums.