We enter Switzerland's fairytale capital of clocks, chocolate, bears and medieval days gone by.
Switzerland is a neutral state and a wonderful alpine country. It has produced more Nobel prize-winners and registered more patents than any other country. The Swiss invented milk chocolate, DDT, life insurance, the pump-turbine, muesli and fondue. The land-locked country shares borders with Germany, Austria, Italy and France and the tiny country of Liechtenstein is tucked snugly on its eastern border with Austria. Sixty-four percent of its population speak German; 19 percent French; eight percent Italian and fewer than one percent Romansch.
Each of the country's 26 cantons has its own constitution and legislative body and Bern, the capital of the canton of Bern, is the country's fourth largest city.
It is a World Heritage-listed city and while it borders Suisse Romande, the French-speaking part of the country, it belongs to Deutschschweiz, the German-speaking part.
The Duke of Zähringen founded Bern in 1191 and named it after the bear, which was his mascot. Bears appear quite often on things such as the city's coat of arms, and not far from the city you can visit the bear pits. Despite it being Switzerland's capital since 1848, residents prefer to focus on life's lighter side rather than politics and serious matters. They appreciate wine, chocolate, lavish flower gardens and generally enjoying themselves. The city sits on a bend of the winding Aare River which is spanned with bridges and has lush, green banks.
A devastating fire in 1405 destroyed much of the city and it was later rebuilt with sandstone and mahogany buildings, fountains, historic towers and the stately spire of the Gothic Münster.
Bern's old town is surrounded on three sides by the Aare River and in summer months locals and tourists go to the river for relaxation and to cool down. Leafy trees and safe swimming areas are big drawcards.
The city has six kilometres of covered promenades, making shopping an all-weather activity. One shop after another begs your custom antiques, fashion boutiques, tobacconists, confectioners, jewellers and department stores. Beneath the arcades, on the squares and in side streets are dozens of restaurants and cafes and on Tuesdays and Saturdays the colourful market selling vegetables, fruit, meat and flowers is great to wander around.
While Bern is a World Heritage site, it does have plenty of examples of modern architecture and design. The Museum of Fine Art houses the world's largest collection of Paul Klee works. The Swiss-born Klee did more than 8000 paintings, watercolours and etchings and is a favourite of serious collectors.
More than 100 fountains add a graceful touch to Bern. Eleven of them feature allegorical figures from the mid-16th century. The city's Rose Garden is in a large park with superb views over the old town and the Aare bend. It grows 220 types of rose, 200 iris and has flowerbeds with 28 types of rhododendron.
The Münster Cathedral, Switzerland's largest ecclesiastical building, dominates the city's skyline. Its construction began in 1421 and for generations architects worked on the masterpiece following late-Gothic traditions and architectural styles. The spire was completed in 1893, which is fairly recent. The Last Judgement in the main portal is a masterpiece but the highlight in the real sense is 344 steps above the entrance the 100m high spire from where you have wonderful views of the city, the Bernese Mittelland and snow-capped peaks of the Bernese Oberland.
The Zytglogge (clock tower) is one of the city's main attractions. It is a medieval masterpiece with a timekeeping mechanism dating from the 16th century. Tours of the tower take around 45 minutes.
The Rathaus (town hall) was built between 1406 and 1416 and is the seat of the cantonal government, while the Bundeshaus is the seat of the Swiss government. Free guided tours are available.
Sixteen museums are there vying for visitors. One is the apartment which Albert Einstein taught from between 1903 and 1905 and a series of pictures give an insight into his years in Bern. There are also documents and various papers on his scientific activities and it was right there where he first wrote of his theory on special relativity.
Late in the 19th century the movement of Art Nouveau started as an answer to the formal rigidity of historicism. Romantically named the Belle Epoque, it was typified by generous use of ornaments and forms created by nature in paintings, drawings, furniture design and architecture.
The hotel Belle Epoque is on one of Bern's oldest and most elegant streets. Each room is furnished and decorated individually with pieces from the era. Le Chariot restaurant and Belle Epoque bar offer wide choices of meals and drinks.