In which I meet the Bears of Bern

I went to Bern, very briefly, as a student during my year abroad. I remember virtually nothing except that it was a hot day.

Playing with the fountains in 2006.

While staying in Grindelwald recently, it seemed like the ideal choice for a day out – less than an hour from Interlaken, one of the big cities and it fitted the Chalet School and Barbara expeditions itinerary I didn’t mean to be following. It’s the book in which the Chalet School moves to Switzerland, specifically the Oberland in the vicinity of Interlake, so I’d taken it with me for research purposes.


The train from Interlaken to Bern is frequently a double-decker. How can anyone not sit upstairs on a double-decker train? I’d managed to not leave Grindelwald quite as early as I wanted to and it was noon by the time I stepped out into the streets of Bern, a chilly and very grey noon. The clouds had Bern resting right on top of Grindelwald as I ate breakfast and although Bern is at a lower altitude and therefore underneath rather than in the cloud, it was still heavily grey and dismal. Not particularly cold though – I’d brought my fleece in case it was cold and I was wearing my jacket mostly for the pockets. Too tip: wear clothes with lots of pockets so you don’t force yourself to wear a ski jacket in town.


I’d read the guidebook on the train and I knew my first stop was the Zytgloggeturm, timing my arrival at the famous astronomical clock for 12 noon. I did not make it.


It’s a good-looking clock, housed in a short squat square tower, with a huge golden clock face and a smaller, baffling, astrological clock underneath and then a smallish clockwork tableau that goes off every hour. The mechanism dates back to the 1500s, astonishingly enough. It must have had maintenance but it’s the same mechanism.



I wasn’t going to wait at the clock for an hour. I would come back at one o’clock, or two, or even later. I headed down the quiet cobbled streets towards the bear pits.


I had read about how charming and delightful Bern’s arcades are – the covered pavements lined with shops. On a Sunday lunchtime on a grey dismal day, when all the shops were closed and barely half a dozen souls were out on the streets, the arcades were dark and cold and claustrophobic. Besides, walking up the street, standing back for the occasional trolleybus, I could admire the colourful fountains, and there are plenty of those. You could ask why do you need a fountain every fifty yards but we don’t. It’s just Bern being pretty. Some of them are very pretty and there are more bright figures on the yellow-grey stone buildings that line the streets.




The bear pits are at the end of this straight road, just on the other side of the Aare. However, the bears don’t live in the pits anymore. Bern means a bear, the city was named after the founder’s first kill out in the mountains, there’s a bear on the canton’s coat of arms and there have always been bears in the city.


They used to – until very recently – live in round sunken pits, reasonably sized for their age, with things to climb on and fed constantly with buns and other bear-friendly treats. Now they have a bear park – the entire steep-sided riverbank has been terraced and fenced to provide a lovely habitat for them. They have trees, a little piece of river to swim in, sunbathing spots and it’s got a few fences running down it so they can be separated if necessary. Tourists don’t feed them junk food anymore but the bears remain as treasured as ever.




There are three of them, a male and two females who had only recently – probably less than a week ago – awoken from hibernation. I only saw two of them, great shaggy brown bears, ambling around, eating the trees and playing dead while enjoying the sun. For at some point while I admired the bears, the cloud vanished. I had to take off the jacket and stuff it in my bag. T-shirt weather in March! I even came back with a faint tan line around my wrist from my watch.


You can take a lift – a miniature and entirely automated funicular – down to river level to see the bear park from below but the best view really is from the bridge – unless the sunbathing bear is sprawled our next to the funi, where you can’t see her unless you know she’s there until the funi comes up level with her.


“Mama, y’un ours lá!” shrieked the small French boy I was sharing the funi with after I’d taken about six photos of the snoozing lady.


The old bear pits are still there. The small one is full of concrete bears that small children can play on or with but the large one is empty except for a few crows using the branches of the climbing trees.

I sat on the steps above the large pit for lunch in the sun – not the lunch I’d planned, since I hadn’t been able to get any bread rolls, but a snack and a drink and a check of the guidebook.


I had plenty of time to get back to the Zytgloggeturm so I ambled back up the cobbled main street, detouring to see the Gothic Münster and its view over the Aare. Under the arcades, souvenir shops and cafes had started to open and people were beginning to appear in the streets, having a drink in the sun on the pavement, giggling loudly as they walked up the road, not realising they had to get out of the way of the trolleybuses. I made it to the Zyrgloggeturm with forty minutes to spare – or twenty minutes late, from another perspective – so I went to find the Ogre Fountain, a grotesque thing with an ogre devouring human babies. The Chalet School girls were revolted and horrified by it. I am a child of the 21st century and desensitised to just about everything but even I wondered at it – it’s not exactly good taste. The Chalet School and Barbara says it was to warm children away from a very deep and dangerous ditch that used to run along here but has since been filled in. My guidebook says that Bern claims it’s merely a grotesque carnival scene but, having once been painted yellow, was a piece of anti-Jewish artwork. I reserve judgement. I don’t know what it is or why but it feels odd that it’s now at a tram stop.




I returned to the clock, found a seat on a bollards and watched the clown blowing enormous bubbles, the tourists setting up tripods right in the path of the buses, the near-misses between buses, taxis and tourists at the narrow bit of road next to the tower and at two minutes to two, Kronos jangled his bell and the ring of bears at the bottom danced a half turn. And that was it. On the hour, the little tableau did nothing but the silver figure atop the tower donged the big bell twice. I waited. Surely there was more. There was no more. For forty minutes waiting, that was a totally underwhelming display of the clock that had so enchanted the Chalet School.



I got bread in the station and had a little picnic on the train on the way back. The train was eleven minutes late into the station, was due to sit there for about ten minutes so it still left eleven minutes late. Which is fine, but a lot of the route back to Interlaken is single track and we’d fallen out of the pattern, so we had to stop at every single set of red lights to wait for the train coming the other way before we could venture onto the single track and somehow still managed to arrive barely any more than eleven minutes late despite all the delays along the lakeside.