Thursday, July 19, 2007

CH - Bern

With one day to spend in the capital, I suspected I’d be strapped for time. Alas, one day ended up being the perfect length of time: the town is incredibly compact.

My trek began by traveling from Thun. The train I boarded was supposed to be an express with only 1 intermediate stop, but alas the timetable was wrong and so were the train line’s descriptive acronym – which indicated a regional route. As my destination hostel closed at 11:30 for several hours, I was unnerved to realise that I was now on a regional train – changing my expected arrival time of just before 11 to… well… I had no idea, but I knew that getting to my hostel was going to be tight. After passing the halfway point, my train suddenly started skipping the remaining stops. “Whoopty do!” I thought.

I recognize the Berner skyline and soon after I feel the train begin to slow. We stop at a seemingly small station… there was no automated announcement “Nächste halt…” to indicate what this stop was, and Switzerland tends to have very few signs at stations displaying the station’s name (unlike in Austria, where every station seems narcissistic). So I – and others – stood about the cars blankly staring out the windows, each face clearly perplexed as to whether or not we were supposed to get off. …Then the train started again and we arrived at Bern proper about 20 seconds later. Sorry for the anticlimactic ending; I was kind of expecting a more exciting story, myself.

But wait, there’s more (and it’s about just as interesting). Many train stations are oriented such that you exit facing the way you want to go, e.g. CBDs or tourist hotspots. If there is more than one major entrance, each one is usually well-signed as to where each one leads you towards. In the German speaking countries, you can pretty much expect a sign to direct you toward the Alstadt – that is, the historical downtown. There was no such sign here… one directed me toward the University and the other just had place names I did not recognize. My Lonely Planet guide – for the first time ever – was no help. Its map showed what I call a terminating train station: tracks only approach from one direction. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The guide also showed a nice network of interconnecting streets, but construction had closed down pretty much all of them. It was 11:25 and I knew exactly where I was, but yet I was still lost. Fortunately, it appeared that my entire train was in the same predicament.

I finally did find my hostel – the Hotel Glocke / Backpackers Bern – arriving at about 11:40. It had been closed since 11, according to the engraving on the closed reception window. On the other hand, signs elsewhere in the building as well as upon the business cards all indicated 11:30. Didn’t matter, anyway… I called the number for reception on a phone by the window and a lady appeared whom let me store my backpack until reception reopened. As she was the same person whom would later give me my key via a process that took about one minute, I am not entirely sure why I couldn’t just check in then, seeing as she was there. Oh well, it all worked out in the end.

I wondered around town and was delighted by the streets: each one like a snapshot of medieval design. The real treat was the Rosengarten on the east side of town, across the river. When I first crossed over, I started hiking up paths and ended up in some residential area. I turned around and made my way to the nearby bear pits (“Bern” is derived from the word for “bear”).

About thirty seconds after I walked up, I saw one bear assume the position… let’s just say he was on three legs. The other bear just kind of meandered about, gobbling up food tossed down and then looking upward with sad puppy-dog eyes toward the now-rapidly growing crowd, as if to say either “Please get the other bear off me” or “Please throw more food.” I guess it could be both.

I was somewhat disgusted at how quickly the crowd was growing to watch this; and they were taking pictures, no less! Were they going to put them in their family photo album? Are the going to include them with their Christmas cards? Just what kind of people would want to stand here and watch this, no less get photos to remember the occasion? I immediately recognized the irony of this, as lo and behold there I was leaning on the railing overlooking the bear pit. I took some pictures so that I could look back someday and think “ahh, here’s where I watched bears mate for 10 minutes.” I left once the bear-in-charge started groaning / moaning / roaring / whatever… that was where I drew the line and just had to go do something better with my day, lest I start having desires to become a furry.

With a ten-minute rest and an ice cream bar in my stomach, I made a second attempt at the Rosengarten; this time with signs leading me in what I hoped was the correct direction. One steep-ish 90-billion degree (Celsius, of course; this is metric territory) hike later, I was glad I made the effort. First, the view of the city must rank among the greatest views I have ever seen. It was a perfect view of the medieval city core, tiled roofs at varying heights. The rose garden itself was lovely and captivated me for quite some time with close-up photos of the flowers.

I have noticed that it is difficult to find good service in these Germanic countries, but Switzerland tops them all when it comes to bad service – or should I say nonexistent service. I can sit at a café for 30 minutes and go unnoticed; unless I am eating an ice cream cone – a big no-no at café tables – then I quickly have people telling me to eat elsewhere. Well to CH’s credit, this specifically occurred in München: I had actually tried using this tactic to get someone so I could order food, but the woman was rude when she first approached, so I decided not to be their customer (this occurred at Marienplatz).

Now as far as Bern goes, I went and sat down at a posh restaurant on the waterfront. It’s pouring rain at that moment, everyone’s wearing a suit or nice dress, and I’m there in flip-flops, torn shorts, and am soaked head to toe because it was not yet raining hard enough for me to give in and use my umbrella. For 20 minutes I didn’t even have anyone ask me to leave. I eventually get up and make my way to a restaurant in what used to be the city granary, just a few meters from my hostel and right beside the fountain with the statue of an ogre eating children. I sit down – mostly dry this time, but still underdressed: this place also seemed to be rather fancy, despite the more affordable prices. I sit in a chair on the upper floor for about 10 minutes until I realise this is probably for the bar – where I’d be expected to go to the bar & order. So I hobble down and take a seat at a table right in the middle of the dining hall. Time passes and I start playing with the salt shaker (most people know that me + condiment shakers = huge mess).

It then occurs to me: I am in a supposed Italian restaurant… with salt and pepper shakers on the table. Any Italian knows that a true Italian restaurant at least has oregano and possibly basil sitting on the table. It now occurs to me why the Turkish shops were so appealing, apart from the extra spice and flavor absent in most Caucasian foods: service. When you walk into a Mediterranean eatery, service is always about 2 seconds away. Granted, in Greek or Turkish restaurants, the servers tend to be quite surly; but they’ll still be there to respond right away. In Italian restaurants, sometimes there’s too much service… the waiter just won’t stop staring at you or asking if everything is OK. Ahh, I miss the Mediterranean.

For dinner, I ultimately settled with a takeaway pizza from a sidewalk cart; and it was amazing. It tasted like it was fresh out of a brick oven, even though I had probably passed that exact slice sitting in the cart, behind the sneeze guard, back when I first walked by en route from the train station. Oh and the cart had oregano, basil, and crushed red pepper sitting on the top of the sneeze guard. That’s how I knew it’d be good.

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