Old Town of Bern: City of Fountains

Built on a rocky promontory closely embraced by the waters of the Aar, the old city of Bern preserves, in its plan and in its monuments, the trace of a long history that spans from its foundation in the 12th century to its last modifications in the 18th century, when urban expansion definitively abandoned the reduced space of its origins to extend westward the wide avenues and residential neighborhoods of the new city, today capital of the Swiss Confederation.

Aerial view of the city of Bern (Old Town)

The Aar is by no means a calm river. Fed by alpine glaciers, its waters tumultuously descend until they lose themselves in the lakes of the Swiss lowlands, tracing their course through landscapes as spectacular as the high rock on which old Bern sits. Unable to undermine it, the Aar forms around it a tight meander that is the best natural moat a city could dream of in the difficult medieval times. And the Bernese maintain a relationship of trust with their tutelary river that is strikingly evident on summer days when the rough and seemingly dangerous waters are filled with joyful bathers who let themselves be carried at full speed by the current, perhaps because they know that these waters have never brought anything but benefits to Bern.

Feudal origins.

The city that since 1848 has been the capital of the Swiss Confederation had its origins, like many others in Central Europe, in a feudal castle. At the easternmost end of the promontory, where the church of Nydegg stands today, stood the fort of the same name, founded around 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen as the center of his ducal power, and around which the original population center was formed. Legend has it that the Duke, who had evidently chosen the site of his castle attracted by the notorious strategic qualities of the place, hesitated instead about the name he should give it, and finally decided that it would be that of the first animal hunted in the vicinity. It turned out to be a bear -Bär-, and since then the plantigrades have been a symbol and a continuous presence in the life of the town. They figure on the flag of the Bernese canton, decorate fountains, dance in the carillon of the Clock Tower, and since the 15th century, they even walk in the flesh in the busy Bear Moat, located next to the Nydegg Bridge, being a favorite attraction for tourists who come to Bern.

The Zähringenbrunnen - "Zähringen Fountain"

The pride of the Zähringen, however, was short-lived. In 1218 the ducal family died out, and Bern was from then on the master of its own destiny as a free city. It grew in the only direction it could, westward, and prospered as a burg of merchants and craftsmen, protected by its river and by the thick walls that closed the only possible access to the promontory, whose solitary witness today is the Clock Tower. During the second half of the 13th century, it enjoyed the protection of Pedro II of Savoy, experiencing a new stage of urban expansion that took its limits to the current Prison Tower. A few years later, the city began to abandon its isolation with the construction of a first bridge over the Aar, the Untertor, close to the place where the now disappeared fortress of Nydegg had stood.

The 14th century marked the birth of the Helvetic Confederation, which Bern joined in 1353, and a new growth that reached the current railroad station, in whose subway remains of the Christoffel Tower, the city limit at that time. The strategic position of the city made it gradually gain importance in the context of the Confederation until the new constitution adopted in 1848 designated it as the federal capital, and the buildings proper to its new status, in particular the Bundeshaus or Government Palace, were erected.

Urban planning.

The space bounded to the north, south, and east by the Aar River, and to the west by the railroad station and the Christoffelgasse stands out above all for the harmony that presides over its urban layout and all its buildings. In reality, it is more the result of a series of careful restorations than of long survival. Most of the town was destroyed by fire in 1405, forcing it to be completely rebuilt, and up to 80% of the residential buildings were replaced in the 18th century. The whole urban complex is organized around the main road that crosses longitudinally the promontory on which the city sits, receiving along with its route different names as it crosses the successive enlargements of the medieval village. The Spitalgasse stretches from the station, where the remains of the Christoffelturm mark the 14th-century enclosure, to the Käfigturm or Prison Tower, rebuilt in 1643 on an old 13th-century bastion. Between this and the Zeitglockenturm or Clock Tower, the old city gate in the thirteenth century, restored in 1771 and to which was added in the sixteenth century, a popular carillon clock with animated figures, develops the Marktgasse. Next are the Kramgasse and the Gerechtigkeitsgasse, the latter prolonged by the Nydegg Bridge, which replaced the neighboring and obsolete Untertor. 

The river Aar or Aare in Bern

Along this axis, which includes several of the polychrome fountains that have decorated various parts of the city since the 16th century, are lined with gray sandstone buildings, mostly from the 18th century, while respecting the old structure of arcades characteristic of the market city that Bern has essentially been throughout its history. Today this commercial effervescence and the tiny subway cubicles that once housed the guild workshops have been converted into boutiques, confectioneries, or antique stores.

Wonders of a very late Gothic style. 

The main monuments of the old city, with the exception of the aforementioned towers, are however set back from the central axis. Very few predate the great fire of 1405, which left virtually nothing standing. The Französische Kirche - French church - was part of a Dominican monastery in the 13th century, while the Nydegg church, which occupies the site of the former Zähringen castle, dates from the 14th century. 

Saint Vincent's Cathedral (Bern)

Immediately after the fire, work began on the Town Hall, which was to last until 1417. It is an airy building in late Gothic style, which is accessed by a double staircase and whose facade is decorated with the heraldic coats of arms of the 23 cantons of the Confederation.

St. Vincent's Cathedral belongs to the same period, or rather to its origins: work began in 1421, but it was not until 150 years later that the nave was completed, and as late as 1893 the pinnacle of the tower was added. However, the late Gothic style to which the building belongs in its entirety was never abandoned. Its greatest treasure is the superb tympanum carved between 1490 and 1495 by Erhart Küng, in which exactly 234 figures form an impressive allegory of the Last Judgment in which there are even high dignitaries of the Church moaning among those condemned to eternal fire. Inside, the 15th-century stained-glass windows and the beautiful Renaissance choir stalls, among whose carvings appear, once again, the Bernese heraldic bears.

The Bundeshaus - The Swiss Parliament

A single tower, located on the western portico, tops the temple. Accessible by a steep staircase of 254 steps, it is not only the most conspicuous landmark of Bern's skyline from any angle but also the perfect vantage point to fully appreciate the urban ensemble in all its splendor of gray stone and red roofs, straight streets, and quiet squares. So much harmony hides, it is evident, a powerful and conscious effort: considerable sums of money are spent annually in the conservation of the old city, not an easy task given the unstable condition of the sandstone with which most of the buildings are constructed. Thanks to this secret dynamism of a city apparently standing still in time, Bern will remain that impeccable space where, if anything is capable of unsettling the visitor, it will only be an excess of perfection.

The beautiful Carillon clock of the Zeitglockenturm (Clock Tower) in Bern

Fountains of Bern. 

One of the most characteristic features of the urban space of old Bern is the monumental fountains, 11 in total, decorated with polychrome figures depicting mythological, religious, or local history themes, and built mostly in the mid-sixteenth century by the sculptor Hans Gieng. 

Six of them are located along the main street that, with different names, runs from east to west through the old city. The westernmost is the Pfeifferbrunnen (Piper's Fountain), located in the Spitalgasse. Then, in the Marktgasse, very close to each other, are located the fountain of Anna Seiler, dedicated to the founder of the hospital, and the fountain of the Musketeers or Schützenbrunnen. In the Kramgasse are the Zähringenbrunnen (Zähringen fountain), crowned by a bear in armor in honor of the founder of the city, and the fountain of Samson, who is depicted fighting with a lion. Finally, the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen (Fountain of Justice), with a beautiful allegorical figure of Justice at whose feet stand the Pope, an emperor, a sultan, and a mayor. 

The splendorous Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen ("Fountain of Justice") in Bern

The other fountains are located outside this main axis. In the oldest part of the city, next to the Untertor Bridge, the Läuferbrunnen (Messenger Fountain) evokes the legend of the Bernese herald who proudly confronted a king of France, reproaching him for not speaking German, when he, in turn, reproached him for not speaking French. In front of the Town Hall is the Vennerbrunnen or fountain of the Standard Bearer, and in the cathedral square the Moses fountain, with a vigorous figure of the biblical character. The Kindlifresserbrunnen (Ogre fountain), located at the beginning of the Kornhausplatz, and the Kreuzgasse fountain, in the street of the same name, complete the ensemble. 

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