May 25, 2012: Bern

Switzerland. Probably no country calls to be more than Switzerland. I have never been there and, outside of the last seventy-two hours have never been even relatively near to it. And yet I have always felt that I belong near there. Today I finally get to go see Switzerland for the first time. I am so excited.

Our journey this morning begin with the early morning commuter train from our tiny local country station at Bartenheim, France in the southern Alsace on the TER Alsace local run that terminates at what the French line calls Bale but is really the Basel Hauptbonhauf in Switzerland. The travel information from Bartenheim is extremely confusing because the last two station names don’t mention at all that they go to Switzerland so we were very much going by instinct more than anything but it went very smoothly.

Basel is one of Switzerland’s largest, and least touristed, cities sitting on the Rhine River and having suburbs spill south into Switzerland, northwest into France’s Alsace and north east into Germany’s Black Forest. Basel is truly an international gateway city yet one that is almost entirely unknown to Americans even though it is the second largest metropolitan area in Switzerland (after Zurich and before Geneva.) Basel is quite predominantly German speaking and very surprisingly, as it literally spills into France, its second language is Italian, not French.

Dominica used to be a consultant for Roche Pharma which is headquartered in Basel and she used to do a lot of support for people here so has always felt an affinity for the city. We really only know Basel ourselves because of her work history with the city. The city is well known as a world center for pharmaceuticals. Very much a European equivalent to Philadelphia.

One thing that I find amazing is how much you can sense the movement from one country to another through the train stations. Yes, of course the language changes make it somewhat obvious but there are so many mixes of languages in use everywhere and most countries post things bilingually at the rail stations that that isn’t the big factor that you might imagine but the look and overall feel of a station tends to give away its country of sponsorship.

Basel is a bit, impressive station that reeks of efficiency and business attitude. It is efficient and sterile yet nice and comfortable.

The first point of note as you step off of a French train into Basel is that you are greeted by the empty shell of what used to be customs and border control. It has been about two decades since France and Switzerland entered the Shengen – the European zone without internal borders – yet the border control area at Basel has not been removed, perhaps the Swiss anticipate a change in political climate in the future so likely that changing the main entrance point into the country isn’t warranted?

Basel is a massive station which makes sense since all of the major Swiss cities connect here as do the major French and German cities. This is Switzerland’s big gateway and the only point of entry, other than Geneva which sits against mostly rural France, that is a major city sitting at a border. The eastern border with Austria is pretty remote as is the southern border with Italy.

We had a little time in Basel’s hauptbahnhof so we checked out the Swiss grocery store and ready made food store in the station which was excellent. We got a selection of ready made Swiss food to take with us. We love doing that.

As we approached our platform there was, of all things, an American Café called Blueberries. We were amazed to see that. I got a picture of Dominica ordering a coffee from an American Café in Switzerland. There are signs of American around like a McDonald’s just outside Neuf-Brisach or a Starbucks here or there and that is to be expected, sadly, but having a Swiss company that touts itself as an American Café is just weird. Americans are not known for good coffee or good bread products.

From Basel we caught the SBB (Swiss National Rail) to Bern. On this train we finally got to see a large swatch of the Swiss countryside. What a beautiful country. We are only seeing northern Switzerland right now which is hilly but not mountainous. The alps are some ways away and we don’t have time to add them to this trip. We hope to do a bunch of time in the alps on a future trip when the girls are older and can appreciate them.

The train ride took us through countryside, city and little villages. All quite beautiful.

Bern’s hauptbahnhof is great. It was gorgeous and there is a ton of resources for tourists. This is a major world capital city that is prepared for business, government and tourist travel. We picked up a map and some advice from the tourist office. Two things that are really worth pointing out to people looking to come see Bern – there is special tourist Internet access available through the tourist office in association with Swisscom that may be of interest and there is an iPhone app that you can get that gives you an audio tour of the city. Check with the tourist office upon arrival.

We are doing the recommended walking tour of Bern. It is said to take two and a half hours. We came out of the train station and there is a really neat glass overhead structure that connects the main train station to the city tram system so that you can use both and feel like you are outside on a huge square but are really under glass and protected from the elements.

We walked past the cathedral, turned left and were headed down the main Marketstraβe to the middle of Old Town Bern.

Bern is, without a doubt, insanely beautiful. Bern is beautiful in all the ways that a city should be. It is clean, it is huge, it is three dimensional, it is modern and yet it is ancient, there is art yet there is commerce, there is private business and there is government and there is great public transportation everywhere. And, most importantly, it is safe.

Something about Bern makes it feel big. I mean you actually feel small in Bern. The buildings all seem to be a little oversized and out of perspective. And this part of Bern is quite old. These buildings have stood, making visitors to Bern feels as though they have fallen down the hole with Alice, for centuries.

The Market Street is not unlike Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Every expensive store that you can imagine (and a McDonald’s and a Starbucks) is represented there. Watches at every turn, jewelry, food, coffee, handbags, groceries, you name it and it is there and very expensive. Bern puts a whole new twist on expensive. One thing that is very much lacking is ice cream stands. It is hard to get ice cream in Bern.

We walked past the Bern open air market and wondered through it. Like I mentioned in an earlier post – we love the real local markets. This is where the good food is hiding. The fruit in this market just looked amazing but we only had huge bills in Swiss Franks so we needed to break them so were unable to buy any food at this time.

When we got cash from the ATM at the rail station, it only dispensed one hundred Swiss Frank notes. That seems a little crazy. The Swiss Frank is worth a little more than a dollar. So each note is worth about one hundred and six dollars. That seems excessive as the smallest form of currency that you can get from an ATM. If that doesn’t tip you off that you are in a rich, rich country, I don’t know what will. If this was the US I would have gotten a mix of ten and twenty dollar notes and nothing larger.

Liesl has been complaining that she does not have any sunglasses for a few days (two pairs came with us but they have gone missing) so we did some looking for some but everything, even for kids, was mostly around twenty Franks which is insane. We spotted a Claire’s (which felt incredibly out of place) and stopped in and found some cheap children’s sunglasses for her with butterflies (Microsoft’s dictionary tells me that the correct plural of butterfly is butterflies but that seems wrong to me, it might be butterflys but at the moment I have no Internet access so cannot confirm this) on them. Dominica, who has been needing a watch ever since we came to Europe, bought a relatively cheap finger watch (you will just have to see a picture of this) as well.

Now that our one hundred Frank note was broken we went back to the open air farmer’s market and bought a bag of fruit (I took a picture of Dominica buying fruit there) and two hundred grams of Swiss cheese from a specialty cheese vendor (I can’t tell you how awesome it is that in Europe there are cheese dealers.)

While at the market we stopped by to see the main government building of Switzerland which is quite impressive and has a great water fountain in front of it. It is one of those massive flat slab areas with a flush water fountain that surprisingly shoots water up out of the ground. It is a huge installation and very well done. Many children were out playing in it.

Liesl went out and stood on the fringes of the fountain for a while and I took a video of her there. Bern should be called the city of fountains. There seems to be a water fountain around every corner and in the middle of every street.

The foot path tourist route is a very simple one. You take the market street straight from the train station right down to the Aare River where you cross on the main bridge. No turns, nothing to miss.

Being Rick Steves fans we have seen his tour of Bern several times and were delighted to see things that we knew. Being here the city feels much different than it does on film. The highlight “touristy” thing that we wanted to see was right in the middle of the walk – the old city clock tower. We arrived at the tower at eleven thirty and Dominica decided that we needed to wait there so that we could see the tower ring at noon. This is one of the highlights of all of Europe so worth the half hour wait.

While waiting for the tower I walked to the local downtown Bern grocery store and grabbed a liter of fruit juice as we were a bit dehydrated and Dominica and the girls sat in front of the clock tower waiting and eating fresh fruit that we had just bought. Dominica got herself apples and pears. I got myself blueberries. And Liesl got, of all things, a watermelon. No one can accuse her of being conventional.

The show of the clock tower really is amazing. I don’t know the details and cannot look them up as I am writing this from Zurich two days later in the hotel when we took the night off from Internet access to save some money, but the clock tower is all mechanical clockwork and it puts on this amazing show every hour and has been doing so for hundreds of years. The entire thing is utterly amazing both in its ingenuity as well as in its longevity. We are very glad to have gotten to see it.

All of Old Town is astoundingly beautiful but way too expensive. I can’t believe that people actually shop here. Yet the place is packed with people shopping. There are a lot of tourists too, that can’t be denied.

Walking over the Aare River was completely breathtaking. I was not ready for how amazing this river would look or how high we would be over it. The views from the main bridge are just crazy both of the river and of the city all around you. Bern is a huge city and this vantage point really shows it off. The river flows an opulent turquoise colour too that shines brightly in the sun. It is something to behold. I’ve never seen a river like it.

Across the bridge is the famous bear pits (more a hillside zoo exhibit and less a bit) of Bern where bears have been in residence for hundreds of years. We got to see one bear sleeping but that was about it. Bears used to cover the European continent in the wild but they are unheard of now.

We hit the other tourist office just so that the girls could use the toilette while we are here (in Europe, toilette is a reference to the room, not the porcelain device on which you sit within the room which can be very confusing to Americans) and then set off to try our hand at the lower bridge and the loop route back to the train station.

The lower Old Town bridge, lying just north of the main bridge, also has some great views including views of the big bridge which is gorgeous in its own right, plus gets you much closer to the river and to real homes that sit along it.

The walk back into the market is a tough one because the climb is rather daunting. Liesl decided just before the bridge that she wanted to walk but didn’t even make it back at all before the climb had her worn out and in my arms for the steep incline up the hill.

The tourist route brings you back along the road just south of the market street. The first long bit of it is not touristy at all but is just local apartments and businesses in some really old buildings. Very interesting but nothing really to see. We stopped partway along here just because it was hot and we were tired and ate some more of our fruit supplies. The fruit from the market is some of the best that we have ever tasted. So good!!

Along this stretch we promised Liesl that we would find her some ice cream. We have been looking for some ice cream all morning and other than one little Movenpick stand at the market at the very beginning of our day we have not seen any ice cream whatsoever all day. Very odd. But while we were looking for ice cream we came upon a toy store and Liesl really wanted a break so we went in.

The toy store was amazing. Full of awesome Swiss and German toys that we cannot get, or cannot get easily, in the United States. Really great stuff. Liesl loved it all, as you can imagine. It was tough to pick something out but she finally decided on a really high end plastic horse and faery set that was nearly thirty dollars and a tiny little horse that was just under two Franks just to give her something to play with right away. Luciana picked out an owl finger puppet that is really cute. The people at the store were really friendly and helpful and unpackaged stuff for Liesl so that she could play with her new toys right away too.

For future reference, the toy horse that Liesl got today (the big one) needed a name later today and Liesl asked me what the horse’s name was. I looked at the colour of its mane and the glitter all over it and decided that it looked like a raspberry flavouring on a vanilla ice cream cone and named is “Raspberry Sparkles.” So someday when reading this, Liesl might be able to identify her Raspberry Sparkles horse as having come from this little shop in Bern, Switzerland today.

We came upon a massive and truly gorgeous public park that is built out on a cliff overlooking the river and the city to the south and walked around there. This is heavily used by the public and is just filled with locals on their lunch break eating sandwiches, talking, drinking coffee, etc. We walked around there for a bit. Amazing views.

We wanted more fruit so returned to the market as they were still open, hit the same fruit sellers again and stocked up on fruit for the journey back to Bartenheim. Altogether we spend about thirty dollars on fruit today! Another ten dollars on cheese.

Then we got ice cream, as we had promised Liesl. By the end of the day, Movenpick was the only ice cream that we had found all day. This one stand, near the train station, in the open air market. And it is just a tiny stand, not even an eis café with seating.

Movenpick ice cream, at least in Bern, is expensive like you have never seen ice cream. It is roughly four dollars per scoop with no discount for more scoops in one cone. So the price is basically four dollars for one scoop, eight for two and twelve for three! Wowzers. We spent about twenty dollars just getting ice cream for the three of us (Luciana does not eat ice cream yet, especially not at these prices.)

Now, to be sure, the ice cream was phenomenal. Liesl got the himberry (strawberry) and I got a mix of double crème du Gruyere and crème brulee. Both were just astoundingly good. Dominica got something that I do not remember but she did love hers as well.

From the ice cream place it was back to the station for us an on to the SBB back to Basel. The entire journey from Bern to Basel to Bartenheim is around an hour and a half, two hours at the most. We really love SBB trains. Nothing compares to them.

On the route from Bern to Basel we got to ride on the big Milan to Basel line which has the latest and greatest trains in the SBB fleet (I believe.) The train on this route had a train schedule kiosk in the “between cars” waiting area so that you could check your schedule, other options, return options and connections right from the train itself, it had several overhead televisions throughout the train showing a combination of Italian tourist ads, travel information and Google Earth “follow alongs” of our current trip as well as little informational LEDs for every seat on the train telling the status of that seat. Really slick.

SBB lines in Switzerland, from what we have seen, also have someone who comes through the cabin selling you coffee and snacks at your seat (think airline snack style with the little cart that comes through), have a minibar on the second floor of the train where you can get very basic items and have a bistro car where you can go for a serious meal and a table. The SBB is impressive beyond your wildest imagination is the quality of train travel. SBB is the best that I have ever ridden, anywhere. Although in about a week we get to ride the OBB overnight from Austria to Venice and I have high hopes that that will be amazing. The two rail lines that I have always wanted to ride are the SBB and the OBB. Chalk that up to me having grown up being a model railroader.

On the way back from Basel to Bartenheim on the TER Alsace local train we got into a conversation with several Brits who were on holiday and currently making a connection as they went from Venice, Italy to Mulhouse, France (just a few stops up the road here in the southern Alsace) before heading on to Paris and some Mulhouse locals. I just love meeting people on trains. We talked for a while and were able to recommend some food and wine for dinner for the Brits as they only had one night to enjoy the culinary delights of the Alsace, one of the finest food regions in Europe.

It was hot again this afternoon as we did the nearly one kilometer walk back from the gare to the square. Along the way we decided that an ice cream signed looked just too inviting at a restaurant called, and this is ridiculous, Le Texas. That’s right, in the southern Alsace, a culinary world center, there is a restaurant claiming to be “The Texan” – a place of culinary apathy. Why anyone would voluntarily associate a restaurant with Texas is anyone’s guess. To make matters worse, they specialize in pizza! Or all things – America has amazing pizza, on par with any in the world, but certainly not in Texas. Texas might be the low point of American pizza. And to put this into perspective – the regional food of the Alsace is… pizza! This little town, for example, has four or five pizzeries all specializing in Alsatian pizza (tarte flambee or flammenkucken) and not a single café!! So this is out of place beyond description. But it didn’t matter, as it was closed for the afternoon.

While we were checking at Le Texas, though, the owner of the pizza place across the street got our attention and called us over across the street. He didn’t have what we were looking for but we felt bad and he was exceptionally nice so we got some of the ice cream that he did have and sat on his “terrace” and ate it. It was good, even if it wasn’t anything local. He was really nice and talked to us for a bit. He speaks seven languages and taught us a little about Alsatian. His eleven year old kid already speaks four languages and his five year old speaks three!

We got back to the hotel just in time for me to get to work. We leave for Zurich tomorrow morning so tonight Dominica is busy packing up the hotel as well. Now that we are actually out and traveling the immense amount of work involved in packing and unpacking everything every other night has dawned on her and she is really regretting some of our travel plans. This week is one of two bad stretches that we have in the vacation. We tried to reschedule this one but were unable to do so so this is the middle point in a six day stretch of two nights at a time three times in a row. Our break from this comes when a longer stay in Munich (Munchen), Germany following Zurich. Then we have an even worse stretch (except that it might be better as I will not be working at the same time) as we go through Austria. The scheduling in Austria was not by choice, however, it was us taking whatever rooms we could get. In Austria we do a single night in Halstatt and then on to Vienna where we don’t get to sleep at all but instead get a full day before catching the night train and then doing a day in Venice where, again, we have nowhere to stay and have to push on to Tuscany that same day, hours away, before seeing a bed in a small hill town.

I worked and the girls played a bit. At some point in the evening I went down to the restaurant and ordered us some dinner. I went down and got a menu to take up to the room so that Dominica could look it over. I grabbed coffee while I was down there as we have none in the room (actually we do, but we have no way to heat water to make it) and a knife so that we could cut up a tomato that Dominica and I had been arguing over via Facebook.

I have been doing very well at keeping everyone apprised of our ongoing travels via Facebook on this trip. On the Android phone that we have with us, I do not have my email or my Twitter accounts. Dominica has her email set up there but I have nothing but Facebook so that is all that I use to post things in the middle of the day. At the end of each day, or while at the hotel working, I try to get Flickr and YouTube as up to date as possible with around one hundred pictures per day. We are maintaining a daily viewing of our Flickr feed at around eight to nine hundred views with about three days ago being the peak at sixteen hundred views in one day.

Dominica selected the vegetarian plate. I decided that the roasted salmon just sounded perfect. Liesl could decide so I went down and requested, in French no less, to get Spaetzel (a German dish) with cheese to which they were not surprised at all and were able to make it without a second though. The Alsace is awesome.

Dinner was delivered up to our room and was awesome. My salmon was excellent and in a tomato cream sauce with roasted potato squares and parsley quiche bites. Yum. Liesl took some convincing to try spaetzel et fromage but once she did she liked it. She also liked the tuna pate that came with our meals. In fact, she loved it, which we never would have expected.

After dinner Dominica and Liesl were almost immediately asleep. It was probably ten when they were completely out. I, on the other hand, had a very long night to get through yet.

Work for the office stretched until nearly seven in the evening back home which meant two in the morning here in France and my homework took me until just before four – so basically all night. I was not expecting to get much sleep tonight. It had to be done. No real way around it. But now work is done and my class is done. I am done. I went to bed between four and four thirty. Tomorrow we move to Zurich and no matter how little sleep I have I get to wake up knowing that I have no pressures on me other than the pressures of taking my family to exciting locations and hanging out with mein kinder.

At the end of the day today Luciana now has a mild fever. We are leaning towards an ear infection. I talked to Gwen on Facebook and she thought that it sounded like that too. We are really hoping that she is better in the morning after a good night’s rest and have discussed doctor options. Nothing is good. Going to a doctor in a foreign country is hard enough (has anyone done this before?) but doing so in a country where you do not speak the language is crazy hard and doing so under those conditions when you are constantly hopping from country to country is even moreso. We decided that since we are all to Zurch, Switzerland first thin in the morning and will be there for two days that waiting for her to see a doctor until she can see a Swiss one is likely the best choice. We will evaluate in the morning.

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