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Our first experience of Bern is sitting on a roof top bar over the city watching the sun burning in to the night. The snow capped Alps in an infinite line across the horizon. We drink a beer with our new Couchsurfing host Sandro. Bern is already beautiful and we are happy to be here, excited to enjoy the city for a few days. We can’t get enough of old Swiss cities and towns (like St. Gallen, Chur, Lucerne and Thun). With their culture, history, architecture and last but not least their usual striking position among incredible scenery.
When the sun disappears and the glow on the church spires begins to fade we make plans to head toward the supermarket to grab some bits and pieces to make Sandro’s famous yellow lentil curry. Along the way Sandro points out a few landmarks and important streets and then we jump on the bus for a short journey to his apartment.
We exchange travel stories and laugh and joke along the way. Sandro is a student and lives with a few other students. Another short walk through the suburbs, what seems already like a million miles away from the hustle and bustle we arrived in, we enter the apartment.
At first it is just us three. We put some music on, crack open a beer and start cooking. Some time later a few more of Sandro’s room mates join us, including some partners. We all sit around a big table and dig into the delicious curry. Sandro was not being modest regarding his curry and he shouldn’t have been. It was delicious and only after my third serving did I put my cutlery down.
A few people resign for the night and scurry to their rooms, some others leave for bigger plans. The rest of us sit around with a few beers talking and debating about a wide range of topics. From politics, computer science, artificial intelligence, gastronomy and so on. We also learn a lot about Bern, Switzerland and the Swiss in general, and have plenty of plans for the next day. A fun first night in Bern! We spend the night on an airbed in the living room.
The next morning everyone heads to work and college and we head off to explore Bern. We skip the bus and decide to walk in to town. The weather is nice and there are some parks we can walk through. Fairly uneventful but happily enjoying the sun we stroll down some side streets to the back of a park which over looks the old city. On the way we pass a red British telephone box taken over by nature. A slightly surreal image. What the hell is that doing here and what happened to it??
The grass in the park is velvet to our feet. We remove our shoes and lie on the ground. Soaking the sun and enjoy 10 minutes of chill. Although it might seem like we are on a never ending holiday, it takes its toll. Traveling is stressful, especially hitchhiking and couchsurfing, always having to entertain and nothing really ever going to plan.
The sun peaks above the trees and begins to blind us even with our eyes closed. With that we rise and head for the Bears of Bern. Yes, you head it right the Bears of Bern. Bern has a few bears which live in an outdoor enclosure that resides on the river banks. Right in the old town. The bears are free to visit and they seem pretty happy. It’s quite strange but there is some history to it: Bern was named after the first animal the Duke back then managed to hunt down. Bears have been kept in the city since the middle ages when the first living bear was brought home from a battle as a prize of war.
The city is very pretty, classic medieval Swiss architecture. Church spires protruding from in between the houses and buildings, each building a different size due to the hilly landscape. The river meanders and snakes through the old town. Each time it meanders almost touching the last. In the small space between the stretches of water, all manor of buildings and bridges are squeezed in.
We head across the river on a beautiful old bridge and then down a street full of vintage and independent shops selling cute hand made items, cards, toys, paintings, furniture, records and so on. If not for our limited backpack space and the fact we have to carry everything we buy on our backs for another two months I’m sure we would have spent a fortune.
We mill aimlessly around the streets, admiring royal buildings and grand churches and cute houses. Just recently I’ve been reading a book about a professor from Bern: The night train to Lisbon. We trace his steps to his first sighting of the suicidal Portuguese woman. We look out over the river and ponder the moment where it all changed for him. The moment where he decided to leave the comfort of his job, his position as a lecturer of ancient Greek and leave it all, for a romantic adventure to Portugal; a destination we are also making our way towards.
We spent a large portion of the day watching a strange dude on a scooter command his four jack russels like puppets among some water fountains in a square in the centre. The symphony of the dogs is fascinating, everyone else agrees and snaps many pictures and videos as the dogs run around and dance in between the fountains. Some time passes and the dude jumps on his scooter leaving everyone gasping for more, the little jack russels scurrying behind.
We hit up a few sights including the Bundeshaus (parliament) and the Berner Münster cathedral. Then we stroll along a promenade adjacent but high above the river. In the distance the snow on mountains glistens in the afternoon light. We walk in the direction of the museum of Einstein hoping to get schooled but it’s closed. Although we do catch Einstein outside and Caroline has a quick debate with him.
The whole city begins to glow orange with the low afternoon sun. It’s warm and cosy, the city is energised, the parks full of young people drinking and playing games, children running amongst the trees, tourists peering over the walls down to the river below. We find a spot in the park and return to the earth, enjoying the bustle and frivolity. Wishing we had a beer but also too chilled and lazy to go and get one.
To mark the end of the day we walk back to the gardens where we started our day and watch the sunset of the city. Bern has fantastic sunsets it seems and we’re not the only ones who have noticed. A long line of other people are propping up against, and sitting on the walls, enjoying the fantastic colours burning behind all the wonderfully crooked rooftops of the old town.
Today is our last full day in Switzerland. Tomorrow we are heading to France, passing through the last of the Alps on our way to the French Riviera to glimpse the sea for the first time on our travels. With this in mind we head back to Sandro’s place to do some last minute planning. It’s a long way to hitchhike. We are heading first towards Annecy which is approximately 200 kilometres away.
We grab a few beers on the way back to drink with Sandro and his friends. The guys mention a few last minute must sees in Bern that they recommend to check out. If we head out early we will have enough time to catch some of them. We also research and discuss with the guys a possible hitch spot and the conversation veers off on to other topics of discussion. Our hosts are intelligent and liberal, it’s easy to chat and we are all often in agreement!
We’ve got a bit of an idea how to get to Annecy in France (which will be our third country of the trip so far! Wooo). If we get a direct ride – which we won’t – it will take us around two hours to get there. We’ve got a location on the map where to start hitching from so we figure we may as well make use of the morning. It seems we have the time, and there are a few last minute things we want to check out in Bern. In hindsight this never works out – we should just start hitching as early as possible.
We leave Sandro’s place with the guys in the morning, say our goodbyes and head off. We walk towards Reitschule, a repurposed art/food place looking to do something cool and meet cool people only to get intimidated by said cool people on arrival. Sheepishly we leave. Being annoyed with ourselves we decide to move on and leave Bern.
According to Hitchwiki our best option is Wankdorfplatz, hilarious we know. Even more hilarious is the fact the football stadium is located there and the local team is named BSC Young Boys, snort snort snort.
We take a bus and walk around aimlessly trying to figure out which side of the road to hitch from and which road, because there are 100 roads here all heading in a different direction. Then we get distracted by the huge Coop and go inside to get snacks. It’s huge and warm inside. It feels like heaven. Safe from the troubles of hitchhiking, it’s the small things that bring happiness when traveling the way we do.
Some time later, we decide to face the stark realities and hit the road. We try one corner, then another corner, then a bus stop so a car can stop easily, then the a different road. Nothing. It’s really not happening here, not at all.
We take a bus back to the center and try hitching from another location. Caroline is making backup plans while I’m holding the sign. We try trains, BlaBla car, busses, everything. We piece together some ridiculously complicated journey where we will take an annoyingly expensive train to Lausanne on Lake Geneva. From there we have about 10-15 minutes to jump on some half tube/half train/half bus thing across town where a BlaBla car will pick us up and take us to Annecy. If we’re a minute late they will leave without us. This leaves us with no time to spare at all based on when the train arrives. We don’t really have a choice here because we are couchsurfing again in Annecy and our hosts will be expecting us.
We’ve got an hour or two to kill before we have to catch the train so we decide to have one last go at hitchhiking. We pick a road near the train station with a sign of some place in the direction of Lausanne. It is another complete failure. Hitchhiking is not working today. We give it an hour or so. Our spirits are well and truly deflated. We drag our feet to the train station and depart with far too much money than we would like to. The train ride is not even exciting either, travelling mostly over flat landscape. We could at least get a mountain or two for our money, that would make me feel a little bit better. But no, boring flat landscape.
When we arrive in Lausanne we run towards the metro following any sign that resembles it. In reality we haven’t got a clue where we are going but we have no time at all to think about it. We argue over whether to buy a ticket or not. I loose and Caroline frantically fumbles with the machine trying to get it to do something, not really knowing what we need or where we are going.
We hop on the first bus/train thing and of course it’s going the opposite direction we want. Next stop we jump off and run around trying to catch it in the other direction. After plenty more running and confusions we make it to the final metro. This one heads out of the city in to the outskirts where our BlaBla car will pick us up in the car park. We apprehensively watch the minutes tick over.
The journey takes a while. By the time the metro pulls in to our stop we are already three minutes late for our ride. Our driver said she will not wait at all, so Caroline is desperately texting her while I’m trying to find the car park. We have no idea where it is and there are two exits. Of course we pick the wrong one and then go back to the other and still can’t see any sign of a car park. We can’t decide whether to head to the first or walk further.
Eventually we decide to follow the path down and around the metro where we finally find our driver. We run over in a frenzy and sling our rucksacks to the floor. We are sweating and panting like dogs. Our driver must be happy to have us! She assures us it’s no problem that she had to wait. And fucking good job it wasn’t after this shit storm we’ve been through.
The next hour or so we just chill in the back not really saying much. The driver has a friend with her and they chat in French for most of the journey. They both work in Switzerland but live in France. There is some heavy traffic near the border and we loose an hour or so. At some point after the border our driver drops of her friend on the side of the road and prompts Caroline to get in the front whilst mumbling something about her not being a taxi driver. Uhmm lady, we paid for a ride, we’re not here to provide entertainment. That package only comes with a free ride.
Our driver drills conversation out of a very reluctant Caroline for the next half hour or so as we speed in to Annecy. It’s dark now and our driver cheekily asks to drop us off just outside of the city centre stating that the traffic will be too slow. Whatever, just let us out. It’s incredible, we hitchhike, don’t pay a penny and get a better service than when we pay. We’ve had many people go out of their way to get us to our destination out of nothing but kindness with zero payment. But as soon as money is introduced, the recipient is trying every way to make the deal work better in their favour.
We walk past a pizza hut on the way to our host and we long to be alone slouched on a sofa watching TV eating a fat cheesy bites pizza. Not happening today so best to put a smile on our faces and ring the door bell!
Bern can be reached by train from most major Swiss cities in about an hour, and has connections to lots of bigger cities in Europe. As much as I dislike Flixbus, it has quite good connections for little money too. Bern airport connects to a handful of holiday destinations so if you’re coming from further away, you’ll have to choose Zürich where Switzerland’s biggest airport is.
Couchsurfing! Bern has a huge student population and there are many, many hosts to be found. Or get a deal on Booking.com.
For a place to chill in midst the hustle and bustle, head to the Berner GenerationenHaus. It’s right next to the train station and besides being a super cool project bridging the gap between generations, it also has a great courtyard where you can just sit and relax without having to consume anything.