September 12, 2004

Update from Bern

It's been a slow weekend here in Bern. The town pretty much shuts down at 4 on Saturday, although we didn't realize this until 4:05 yesterday afternoon. :) No shopping at all, even the grocery stores are closed. Luckily the restaurants stay open, so we didn't starve. Today (Sunday) everything remained closed; the idea is to spend time with your family, go to church, and relax. We're taking the time to do laundry, update our notes, and relax as well.

Day 10 (Friday): we went to Lucerne for the day. We took a train to Olten, where we changed for another train to Lucerne. The train station is on Lake Lucerne, so we walked around the docks, looking for a boat trip on the lake. We found a tour that would take us to the top of Mount Pilatus, one of the taller peaks in the region. We grabbed a couple of sandwiches and a bag of chips for lunch. We had bought a box of paprika flavored Pringles on the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, and Gary had hoped these would be similar. Instead, they turned out to be barbeque flavor, not our favorite!

Our tour started with a 90 minute boat ride on Lake Lucerne. This was followed by an incredible cog-wheel train ride up the mountain. At some points we were traveling at a 48? angle! I snapped some great pictures of the Alps from the train, but mostly we just enjoyed the view. It was a long trip, too (40 minutes). A 10 minute hike took us to the top of Mount Pilatus, with breathtaking views. If you ever thought Yosemite was incredible, you should come here. Unfortunately the sky was a little hazy, so the mountains weren't as clear as they could be. Still, it was truly awesome. There are 2 hotels at the top of the mountain, as well as a giftshop and refreshment stands. We watched a hanglider take off from the top (I've no idea where she landed, either!), drank some beer, shared a pretzel, and marveled at the scene. At one point we heard some weird music-like sounds coming from lower on the mountain. We later found out we were hearing 2 herds of cows, one on each side of the mountain from us. The cows here all wear bells around their necks, all in different pitches, but possibly in the same key, that create a lot of noise.

The trip down the mountain was almost as exciting as the trip up. We started with a short cable car ride down, which was neat, but pretty standard. We got stuck in the middle of a large tour group, who all seemed pretty excited by the trip. This was followed by small gondola cable cars down the rest of the mountain. Gary and I shared the car with another couple, who we think were speaking Italian. We passed over a couple of cow pastures, which is how we found out about the cow bells. Finally, a short walk and bus ride bring us back to the center of Lucerne.

After our trip down the mountain we walked around Lucerne. There is a pretty covered bridge that leads from the train station to the old part of town. We wandered around here for an hour or so before finding a place for dinner. We both had some sort of schnitzel; mine was like a deluxe pork tenderloin and frites, and Gary's was similar, except with a mushroom sauce and butter noodles. For dessert I had ice cream in Bailey's, and Gary had apple struddel. By now it was nearly 8, and we decided we should start heading home.

Unfortunately, I decided that I wanted to buy a bottle of water before we got on the train. This caused us to miss the train that goes directly back to Bern, so we had to figure out another train to get. There were several trains that stopped at Olten, so we got on the first one, thinking that it would only take us a little longer than waiting for the next direct train. We were so wrong! We had unknowingly gotten on a local train, and by local I mean it stopped at every single little town and hamlet between Lucerne and Olten! A trip that should have taken us 40 minutes wound up taking well over an hour. In the end it didn't matter so much, but we got a little worried while on the train. The schedule we have doesn't list local trains, and neither does the map. So for much of the trip we had no idea how far we had gone, or how much further it would be until we reached our destination. We did make it home, however, and it was a damn good bottle of water.

Day 11: we wandered around the town of Bern. We started by walking around the large market that was going on in 2 adjacent plazas. The first one was mainly clothing, toys, jewelry, and "stuff." The second was primarily a farmers market. We didn't buy anything, but I was tempted by some yarn that looked hand-dyed. We also walked along Marktgasse, and went into a few stores here. We checked out Coop City, which seems to be the name of a lot of the stores and gas stations we've been seeing from the train here in switzerland. Gary bought a University of San Francisco t-shirt (he couldn't resist) and I bought some shoe cushions. No one ever told me how much better walking around town could be when wearing shoe cushions!

At noon we watched the main clocktower do its special hourly dance. A lot goes on in just a couple of minutes, but it's hard to follow everything. There is a rooster that crows a few times, a series of dancing figurines, and of course a figure that rings the bells for the hour at the top. It was actually a lot less impressive than I had thought it would be, given what I had read about it.

We continued our walking tour of Bern, pretty much following the route the Michelin recommended. We went into a cheese shop that Gary later wanted to go back to (but, alas, it was after 4 when we tried again, and they were closed for the weekend.) We crossed a bridge east of town and found the bear pits. I didn't realize that they still kept bears in the bear pits (I had thought it was a just a historical site). There are two pits, side by side, that house 4 bears (Tana, Pedro, and another she-bear in one, and a larger bear, Urs, in the other). The bear pits are a lot like the zoo, except it is a zoo with only one kind of animal. We watched the bears for a bit, then went inside to watch a short presentation on the history of Bern. After the presentation we watched the bears some more. This time the bear warden was back from lunch, and was selling small cones of food to feed to the bears. After watching all the kids feed the 3 bears in one pit, we decided it would be fun to try to wake the 4th bear and feed him, especially since everyone was ignoring him. As soon as we started tossing food near the sleeping Urs he woke up and wandered over to be closer to us. Bear food consists of fruit (apples, tomatoes, and green and purple grapes) and bear pellets (Purina Bear Chow, I'm sure). He seemed to like it, and was pretty good at catching it in his mouth.

We walked back across the bridge and headed for the cathedral. I apologize for not remembering the names of everything we saw...they're all in German and have very long names! We climbed to the top, of course, and got a terrific view of the city. The cathdral was built in the 15th century, and is rather plain inside. I think this has something to do with the Reformation, and the removal of a lot of Catholic decorations in churches. While we were there a choir was practicing, either for Sunday's service or for an upcoming concert. The accoustics were incredible, and walking around a cathedral that is filled with singing voices is a wonderful experience, despite the lack of ornamentation.

By now it was 4 o'clock, and we thought that rather than eat at a restaurant again, it would be fun to grab some cheese and sausage and bread and have a picnic, either in the hotel room or outside. This never happened, of course, because by the time we made this decision, we also made the discovery that everything was closed. Our Swiss friends had mentioned this to us at some point, and our guide book also says something about it. I feel that any guide book on Switzerland should have in big, bold letters on the front: "All shops close at 4 on Saturday, and do not open until Monday!" Instead we ate at yet another restaurant, and had bratwurst r?sti (sausages over hashbrowns).

Day 12: we spent another day in Bern again. We started by missing breakfast, which put me in a foul mood. It was another "stupid American not paying attention to times" problem: the hotel breakfast was served until 11, but since I thought we had already missed it at 10, we didn't bother to try to rush in the morning. By the time we found out they were serving until 11, it was already too late. Since no stores are open on Sunday, grabbing a sandwich or loaf of bread was not an option. Instead we went to the Bern historical museum, where we thought maybe there would be a museum restaurant. Just inside the grounds there was a vendor selling brats and hotdogs, so we had brats again. The museum had a bunch of games for kids to play, it looked a lot like a renaissance faire. There were horse-and-carriage rides, spear throwing contests, and battles on the grass with foam swords and shields. The kids all looked like they were having a great time, and the adults seemed happy to let them use up some energy before going into the museum.

The museum itself is nicely laid out. They have a small section of historical artifacts from around the world, but the primary focus is Swiss history. Contrary to what I know about them now, the Swiss have not, historically speaking, been a peace-loving people. In fact they seemed downright scary most of the time.

The rest of the day we are spending relaxing and being as un-tourist like as possible. This means napping, checking email (and updating my blog), and doing laundry. We may get to a few postcards this evening, too.

Posted by Jen at September 12, 2004 07:53 AM

Great notes! Missing a train and not knowing the language can be a deadly combination...glad you figured things out. How is the driving in bern? (the drivers--slow, or fast?) Any bikes?

Posted by: emily at September 12, 2004 05:05 PM

For Gary: I was having a wonderful time buying and installing an Ethernet card, to have SBC Yahoo DSL insteda of my old dial-up service. Gary gave me his Ethernet card but I had to take it out, as he could not find his accompanying CD-Rom for it. Well, after installing a Linksys Etherfast card all by myself, into the computer, and running the DSL installer, it asks me to put in my Windows 98 CR-Rom (which I cannot find, so I borrow Gary's), and I do, but all is stymied, because, evidently the Windows 98 disc does not have the file that it needs to complete the installation, and Microsoft phone help closed at four and it was 4:30! (Just like your Bern train problem--a little too late!) What's a grandma to do?

Posted by: emily at September 12, 2004 05:12 PM

That question up there, 'Remember personal info?', is ambiguous. Is it asking me whether I want you to remember or forget my or your personal information, or whether I want this machine to record it more permanently than ... oh well, it probably doesn't matter. Bern is notorious for having square citizens, according to a Swiss mathematician I once knew, and I suppose the 4 pm, the 11 pm, and the Saturday-Sunday closings are examples of their work. Be careful you don't get caught up in some three-day festival when they close the hotels. Sonya and I once spent the night in the train station in Basel, but it was because the hotels were full, not closed. No fun, even with brats. I take it you are on the way to Italy. The best Italian restaurant meal we ever had, however, was in Lugano (Switzerland), not in Italy. Have a good time.

Posted by: RARaimi at September 12, 2004 06:09 PM

I do not know what "Remember personal info?" means; I imagine it stores a cookie on your computer so you don't need to enter your name again. As I am on a public terminal, I don't have the opportunity to test it.

We are taking a night train to Rome Wednesday night. Today we are headed for the eastern side of Switzerland, but just for the day.

Posted by: Jenny at September 12, 2004 11:46 PM


This brings back memories of living in Germany: in three years we NEVER got used to the truncated commercial hours and more than once on the road almost starved. With small children, this isn't good! I remember how blue the lakes and skies were in Austria/Swizterland....amazing! Hope to see pics soon.


Posted by: Kathryn at September 13, 2004 07:49 AM

You are right about the "personal info" question: When I got down to the "Comments" box I found that my name, email address and URL were already filled in.

It's hard to believe there is such a thing as "eastern Switzerland", since the Brenner Pass goes from Italy directly to Austria. I hope you got to see that part of the mountains before the night train cut off the view. I'm told you can use Latin in Rome if you try, but English is a better bet. Tell us if they still abandon cats in the Forum.

Posted by: RARaimi at September 15, 2004 08:12 PM