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Relax and Say "Aare!"

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Photos in order: Copyright Bern Tourism (1); Chris Cooper (all others)
Story by Chris Cooper

Smack in the middle of Switzerland -- only about an hour’s train ride from anywhere else in this small mountain country -- the river Aare nearly bends over itself in a great loop of emerald green, alpine waters. Tucked into this loop is a storybook town of green sandstone arcades, cobbled streets and red tiled roofs, medieval towers and whimsical fountains: the city of Bern, which, despite being the Swiss capital, remains one of western Europe’s little-known gems.

Medieval won’t cut it for accommodations, however, so the Hotel Allegro Bern offers the utmost in modernity, from décor to the casino within its walls. Those with Swiss francs to burn can rub shoulders with the likes of Nelson Mandela at the more traditional, five-star Bellevue Palace. Both are only a stone’s throw from the Kornhauskeller, where a former wine cellar has been converted into a dramatic setting for the chicest to dine on Italian and Bernese fare under its vaulted ceiling. In the plaza out front, don’t miss the best of the city’s 20 fountains -- all with drinkable water fresh from the Alps -- this one featuring a baby-eating ogre from folklore (the perfect traveling companion on your next red-eye).

To get a full appreciation for this town, take the excellent self-guided tour from the train station’s tourist office. Available on loaner iPods in English and other languages besides the local German dialect, it walks you through everything from the clock tower, where the striking of the hour brings a mechanical sideshow, to the bear pit, where you’ll likely see the bears (yes, the real kind) from which Bern takes its name. Use your own iPod to download a second Bern tour from the web, this one focusing on gay and lesbian interests.

One of those interests is “Gays Feeding Gays,” a Wednesday night dinner at Villa Stucki, home to Bern’s gay and lesbian community center; here the locals mix and mingle in an alternative to the bar scene. Back in the heart of town, The Blue Cat café and bar caters to an older gay crowd. Other gay-friendly cafes in the old city include Adriano's  and Lorenzini . Gay or straight, lunch at the Restaurant Rosengarten includes a spectacular view of the city from this favorite vantage point, plus there’s a bit of cruising among the roses after hours. Or grab a cocktail at Schwellenmätteli, with its terrace perched over the Aare.

At the Läderach chocolate shop, their chocolatiers work their wonders before your eyes so you can walk away with the goods. Use that sweet stuff to fuel a binge through the scores of other boutiques under arched arcades that let you shop till you drop even if drops are falling from the sky. Thursdays, when the stores stay open late and are joined by an open-air market, are ideal for this.

Come nightfall, Bern does its best to chase away the small-town blues with a trio of small gay clubs. Comeback Bar (a Levi’s vibe) is only slightly bigger than the postage-stamp-sized Au Petit Fours, and both are literally underground clubs. The dance club Samurai  is the most spacious of the three, but none are busy except on weekends. Fortunately, special parties are frequent and draw crowds from all over Switzerland and beyond; watch for the next man-packed Bubennacht  (“Boys’ Night”) event.


Photos in order: Copyright Bern Tourism (1); Chris Cooper (all others)
Story by Chris Cooper

Smack in the middle of Switzerland -- only about an hour’s train ride from anywhere else in this small mountain country -- the river Aare nearly bends over itself in a great loop of emerald green, alpine waters. Tucked into this loop is a storybook town of green sandstone arcades, cobbled streets and red tiled roofs, medieval towers and whimsical fountains: the city of Bern, which, despite being the Swiss capital, remains one of western Europe’s little-known gems.

Medieval won’t cut it for accommodations, however, so the Hotel Allegro Bern offers the utmost in modernity, from décor to the casino within its walls. Those with Swiss francs to burn can rub shoulders with the likes of Nelson Mandela at the more traditional, five-star Bellevue Palace. Both are only a stone’s throw from the Kornhauskeller, where a former wine cellar has been converted into a dramatic setting for the chicest to dine on Italian and Bernese fare under its vaulted ceiling. In the plaza out front, don’t miss the best of the city’s 20 fountains -- all with drinkable water fresh from the Alps -- this one featuring a baby-eating ogre from folklore (the perfect traveling companion on your next red-eye).

To get a full appreciation for this town, take the excellent self-guided tour from the train station’s tourist office. Available on loaner iPods in English and other languages besides the local German dialect, it walks you through everything from the clock tower, where the striking of the hour brings a mechanical sideshow, to the bear pit, where you’ll likely see the bears (yes, the real kind) from which Bern takes its name. Use your own iPod to download a second Bern tour from the web, this one focusing on gay and lesbian interests.

One of those interests is “Gays Feeding Gays,” a Wednesday night dinner at Villa Stucki, home to Bern’s gay and lesbian community center; here the locals mix and mingle in an alternative to the bar scene. Back in the heart of town, The Blue Cat café and bar caters to an older gay crowd. Other gay-friendly cafes in the old city include Adriano's  and Lorenzini . Gay or straight, lunch at the Restaurant Rosengarten includes a spectacular view of the city from this favorite vantage point, plus there’s a bit of cruising among the roses after hours. Or grab a cocktail at Schwellenmätteli, with its terrace perched over the Aare.

At the Läderach chocolate shop, their chocolatiers work their wonders before your eyes so you can walk away with the goods. Use that sweet stuff to fuel a binge through the scores of other boutiques under arched arcades that let you shop till you drop even if drops are falling from the sky. Thursdays, when the stores stay open late and are joined by an open-air market, are ideal for this.

Come nightfall, Bern does its best to chase away the small-town blues with a trio of small gay clubs. Comeback Bar (a Levi’s vibe) is only slightly bigger than the postage-stamp-sized Au Petit Fours, and both are literally underground clubs. The dance club Samurai  is the most spacious of the three, but none are busy except on weekends. Fortunately, special parties are frequent and draw crowds from all over Switzerland and beyond; watch for the next man-packed Bubennacht  (“Boys’ Night”) event.

With consumerism and the local LGBT scene explored, consume other culture! The Zentrum Paul Klee houses nearly half the works of the famed Bernese artist, as well as a concert hall, under Italian architect Renzo Piano’s undulating roofline. Most of the city’s other museums, including the Einstein Museum (who worked out his theory of relativity while living in Bern), cluster in the Kirchenfeld district just over the old city’s southern bridge.

By day you can also truly appreciate how seamlessly Bern melds into its natural surroundings. A trek up the Gurten, the nearby “house mountain,” takes only minutes by funicular but opens up a world of hiking, biking, and birding opportunities through unspoiled countryside with jaw-dropping views of the town below and the Alps above.

The adventurous can challenge their inner Rambo on the treetop ladders and zip lines of Ropetech Park . And keep that swimsuit handy; on a hot day, Bernese shed their clothes, jump in the Aare, and go with the flow. Jump in with them, relax, and say “Aare!”.

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