Spend a perfect summer holiday in Berne

One of the best European summer family holidays I have enjoyed was in the capitol of Switzerland, Berne. Although many people think as Zurich of this country's capitol, it is indeed this charming city that hosts the Buildings of Parliament and foreign embassies. Scorned by many Swiss as a city of pen-pushers, for visitors there is an abundance of things to enjoy. Sandstone houses, narrow streets, fountains and the medieval architecture all contribute to this city unique's character. Set on the River Aare, the city has no feeling of haste or stress to it and offers many sights and opportunities to please every member of the family.

With a population of only 133 000 and its dense architecture, the inner city - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - consisting of a picturesque medival buildings, is easy to negotiate by foot or public transport, but considering the density of the city, persueing it by foot is actually more pleasant. The unique 6 km of covered arcades (Lauben) in the historic centre makes shopping and browsing a pleasant experience - in extreme heat you are shielded from the sun and in a bout of summer rain you are protected from getting soaked.

If you meander through the city all the way down the main street you will end up at its famous Bear Park. Local legend has it that Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, the founder of the city of Berne, vowed to name the city after the first animal he met on the hunt; as this turned out to be a bear, the city had both its name and its heraldic beast (Wikipedia). A tour of the park is sure engage young tourists.

Worthy architectural sights that will not bore your children include the impressive Berner Münster (cathedral), with its famous engravings above the entrance. The climb to the tower is worth the view you get, especially on a clear day, when you can literally see forever – including a good view of the snow-capped Alps. The famous and decorative 800 year old Zytglogge (clock tower) attracts many tourists as it strikes hourly.

Guaranteed fun for the younger generations is a visit to the central square in front of the Buildings of Parliament. It was built into a fountain in 2004, paved with granite slabs and 26 water jets, each representing a Canton the Switzerland. The water jets provide endless entertainment for children and at night the fountain is lighted beautifully as a choreographed display of water delights the senses.

A delightful food market on the square in front of the Buildings of Parliament lures visitors on Saturdays, displaying delicious cheeses, meats, baked goods, fruit, vegetables and flowers, while a smaller market is open on Tuesdays.

One of my most favourite things about Berne during our summer visit was swimming on the river. A large "Freibad" in the Marzili offers free access to a huge lawn where sunbathers laze and picnic for the whole day. Clean and ample WC and cloakroom facilities are provided. Do as the locals do and find a good spot. Them slip into your bathing gear and follow the crowd as they walk up the river. You'll soon catch on to how it works. According to your love of swimming you walk for as far as you wish and then plunge into the clear and refreshing mountain water of the Aare, to be carried downstream back to where you left your towel. This exhilarating swim is sure to be your children’s' favourite part of the holiday, as they lie on their back watching the trees go by and listening to the sound of rolling rocks on the bottom of the river. There are several other places along the river that offer the same facilities and access to the river, but this one is the most accessible from the city centre. Picturesque walkways along the river are ideal for short or long walks with your offspring.

If you do like water sports, another must is to try a canoe or river-rafting trip down the river. Armed with a picnic and enough plastic bags to keep your gear dry, you can then travel down the river, stopping on the way for some swimming and your picnic. This whole day excursion is one of the best ways to relax in Switzerland.

Berne has a very special Tierpark (Zoo), which is situated directly on the banks of the River Aare and forms a natural part of the forest. Here the philosophy is rather to have fewer animals with more space and one really has the feeling that the park is in harmony with nature. Opportunities for children to stroke and feed some of the animals make it a wonderful experience for the young ones. At full moon there are special moonlight tours offered through the park.

As far as museum are concerned, our family’s two top rainy day options to were the Zentrum Paul Klee, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. This modern three wave-shaped building  presents the biggest worldwide collection of works by the Swiss artist Paul Klee. The museum offers a special programme for children (Kindermuseum Creaviva), which give adults the chance to enjoy the works of art in peace. The Museum fuer Kommunikation (Museum for Communication) offer interactive displays and interesting exhibitions that will be loved by the whole family. The Swiss Alpine Museum and Natural History Museum might also tickle your fancy.

Most families travel on a budget and this is where Berne is really family-friendly. There is a wonderful camping site, Camping Eichholz (neighbourhood of Wabern) right on the banks of the River Aare. Alternatively the Youth Hostel is in a prime position, in immediate proximity of the river, offering low rates, best views and a central location. Apart from dormitories there are two-, four- and five bed rooms available.

Although Berne offers plenty to keep you busy, day trips to the following cities are made easy due to the excellent train service provided by the Schweizer Bundesbahn. Luzerne, Basel, Zurich and Lausanne are in close proximity if you do feel like venturing elsewhere. Berne is close proximity to the Alps and there are many short train rides that you can take to explore the mountains for day trips and hiking. The most popular being a trip to Interlaken, and from there up to Wengen. From here you have the opportunity to the world famous Jungfraujoch.

Summer days can be pleasant to very hot, up to 33 degrees and this usually results in late-afternoon showers, which cool down everything beautifully. After work the squares, bars and restaurants come alive with locals enjoying the extra hours of sunshine, many of them flocking to the river for a swim and picnic. If you time your visit you might catch the open-air cinema festival of the Gurten Music Festival.

Useful internet sites:

http://www.myswitzerland.com

http://www.bern.com/en/index.cfm

www.sbb.ch

www.bernmobil.ch

www.rentabike.ch

www.sportamt-bern.ch

http://www.aarebootsvermietung.ch/

http://www.tierpark-bern.ch/

http://www.paulkleezentrum.ch/

www.mfk.ch

http://www.campingeichholz.ch/camprules.htm

http://www.youthhostel.ch/de/hostels/bern

 Article by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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