Travel: Bern melds history and the avant-garde 

Einstein, artist Paul Klee and French Huguenots all have a place in Swiss city’s story


Bern, Switzerland, in typically Swiss fashion, combines the gorgeously old and spectacularly avant-garde. From its Old Town, built between the 14 th and 16 th centuries and elegantly preserved, to the Zentrum Paul Klee, one of the most stunning modern art museums in all of Europe, the city shimmers like a multi-faceted gem.

Bern's Altstadt or Old Town, an early and unsurprising addition to UNESCO's 890-site World Heritage list, sits atop a naturally fortified loop in the River Aare, as it meanders through metropolitan Bern, on the northwestern side of the Swiss Alps.

The Altstadt is small in scale - both in area and in its mid-storey buildings of sandstone, many with sloping roofs. Coherently planned, the plazas, streets and lanes, including six kilometres of arcades that once accommodated wagons, some with vaulted cellars, positively demand leisurely walking. Many now house shops and restaurants.

Among Bern's great historic buildings is the late-Gothic cathedral known as the Muenster, with grotesque gargoyles peering from its eaves in true medieval fashion.

Another is the landmark clock tower known as the Zytglogge. While the tower itself was built around 1280 as a city gate, the pendulum clock, added in the early 1400s and improved upon in the 1800s, features a face with myriad historic and astronomical references, and a gilded figure that strikes the bell with a hammer. On the hour, clock-lovers and gawkers assemble to see the hammer-wielder at work.

An important immigrant group to Bern was the French Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing repressive Catholic France. And a resulting architectural treasure is the French Church, originally a Dominican monastery and Romanesque in style, with an exquisite interior of vaults and hand-painted features. Another important building is the late-Gothic Rathaus (town hall), with an exterior double-staircase and pillared portico. The Rathaus still serves as the seat of the canton of Bern.

The 80-member Swiss parliament, in this capital city of the Swiss federation of cantons, meets in the relatively modern (1902) green-domed Bundeshaus in the centre of the Altstadt. But this mid-size complex doesn't overwhelm the wider setting of cobble streets and village-like lanes. Like much else, it fits in.

From the Altstadt, a tram or bus takes you on a 12-minute ride into the countryside - to the Zentrum Paul Klee. It's like falling Alice-like into Wonderland; suddenly you're in another realm - a suburbia of pastoral landscapes. From the gallery stop you walk down a leafy path into a vast complex designed by the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano, and opened in 2005.

The Zentrum (meaning "centre," it includes facilities for children and live performances) consists of three shapely, inter-connected steel and glass buildings embedded into low-lying hills. The overall impression is one of streams of undulating metal in a sea of green (in fact, the wave-like roof is achieved with an innovative load-bearing construction system that somehow draws on the region's solar, thermal heat and wind systems).

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