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Bern, Capital of Switzerland


Bern, the classy and lively Swiss capital, has colorful 16th-century fountains, a medieval clock-tower show, a towering cathedral, and the Paul Klee Center, celebrating the Swiss-born painter’s playful art. On a sunny day, fun-loving locals hike upstream, then float down the Aare River back into town.

Complete Video Script

Switzerland is laced together by an efficient train system. Its trains are fast, frequent, and easy to use — taking you effortlessly and scenically from downtown to downtown. Our next stop: the capital city…Bern.

The city of Bern is built on a peninsula created by a hairpin turn of the Aare River.

Its pointy towers and arcaded streets make it one of Europe's finest surviving medieval towns. Bern is stately but accessible, classy but fun.

The city, founded in 1191, has managed to avoid war damage and hasn't burned down since 1405. After that fire, wooden buildings were discouraged, and Bern gained its gray-green sandstone complexion.

Colorful 16th-century fountains are Bern's trademark. They were commissioned to brighten up the stony cityscape, to show off the town's wealth, and to remind citizens of local heroes and events. The city is named for its mascot, a bear — and bears are a reoccurring theme all over town.

This famous clock tower was part of the main gate of the original town wall. One side of it has a playful mechanical show, appropriate in this country famous for its time pieces. The clock, which dates back to 1530, still performs each hour. While you can see the medieval clock mechanism from inside — fascinating in this land of clock and watch makers — most people enjoy the show from outside. At the top of the hour the rooster crows… the bears promenade as the happy jester comes to life. Father Time turns his hourglass and the rooster crows once more…as he has for about 500 years. In its day, this was a high-tech marvel.

In this elegant city, you may brush elbows with some high-powered legislators, but you wouldn't know it. Everything feels casual for a national capital. The Swiss are very comfortable with their own style of democracy.

The Swiss government is a bicameral system actually inspired by the United States Constitution, with one big difference: Executive power is shared by a committee of seven, with a rotating ceremonial president and a passion for consensus. This is a mechanism to avoid a power grab by a single individual…a safeguard that the Swiss believe strengthens and protects their democracy.

Observant travelers will notice how the Swiss government deals with its social problems with pragmatism and innovation. Too many cars and chronically unemployed people? Create a program providing free loaner bikes…run by people who would otherwise be collecting unemployment benefits.

Like the United States, Switzerland is dealing with a persistent drug abuse problem. The Swiss believe the purpose of a nation's drug policy should be to reduce the harm drugs cause their society. Like many Europeans, they treat substance abuse more as a health problem than a criminal problem. Rather than fill their jails, the Swiss employ methods they find are both more compassionate and more pragmatic.

For instance, to help fight the spread of AIDS and other diseases, street-side vending machines dispense government-subsided needles — cheap and safe. There are needle-disposal boxes. Many public toilets are lit by blue lights. If users can't find their veins, they'll shoot up elsewhere — it's hoped at heroin maintenance centers, which provide addicts with counseling, clean needles, and a safe alternative to the streets.

And casual use of marijuana is tolerated. Locals pass joints with no apparent worries in the shadow of the cathedral ignored by others who simply enjoy life in a society that believes tolerating alternative lifestyles makes more sense than building more prisons.

Bern's cathedral is capped with a 330-foot-tall tower, the highest in Switzerland. While it was built as a Catholic church, later in the 16th century with the Reformation, it became Protestant — that's why it is so sparsely decorated.

The Swiss Protestants were iconoclasts — they considered statues of saints and Catholic art to be false idols — distractions from God — and destroyed them. This church was originally adorned with 26 different little chapels and altars each dedicated to a different saint or the Virgin Mary. When the Reformation came to town in 1528…all that was swept away. The focus was shifted away from images and to the pulpit from where Protestant preachers shared the Word of God not in Latin…but in the people's language.

Browsing through this barren place of worship, you can sense the effectiveness of one man preaching from the pulpit to an undistracted congregation.

Climbing the spire, you'll see Protestants had absolutely no problem with great bells.

Guide: This is the biggest bell of Switzerland and it's over 10 tons. And we are also very proud that we have the highest tower of Switzerland. It's over 100 meters, exactly 101 meters.

Art lovers enjoy Bern's Paul Klee Center. With its wavy building mirroring the wavy landscape, Italian architect Renzo Piano's building celebrates the creative spirit of the Swiss-born artist Paul Klee. While famous as a painter, Klee embraced all forms of creative expression. The center — which fosters music and theater as well as the visual arts — has a mission: to bring art to the people. A generous zone is devoted to a children's workshop. Kids love Paul Klee…and kids always teach the art snobs a thing or two with their interpretations. The shadow theater sparks young imaginations.

Artistically, you just can't put Klee in a box. His paintings — mostly from the 1920s and '30s — are playful yet enigmatic. Audio guides let you enjoy Klee's favorite music as you wander through his paintings. He experimented in pointillism — as you see in Ad Parnassum. His art is full of symbolism…or maybe we just think so.

Insula Dulcamara — literally "bittersweet island" — is a good example of Klee's abstract hieroglyph style. It's a puzzle — he pairs opposites…man, woman…air, water. It's 1938…is that a submarine on the horizon evoking the rise of Fascism? Perhaps the black figures are death in a spring-like landscape, which is eternal.

And when the sun comes out, it seems everyone's heading for the banks of the Aare River. The riverside park is a lively playground. The Bernese, proud of their very clean river and their basic ruddiness, have a tradition — sort of a wet paseo. On summer days, they hike upstream, then float back into town.

For something to write home about, join the locals and the trout in a float down the river.