Bern, Switzerland’s Federal City, is a splendid medieval city and an under-appreciated gem.
What is the capital of Switzerland?
Manny Gonzalez (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2018 - 12:00am

Last of three parts

Lausanne, the Self-Styled Olympic City. Just an hour train-ride from Geneva (and you can in fact go straight from Geneva airport), Lausanne is carved into a steep hillside which rises from the lake. Late in the 19th century, a French guy came up with the idea of resurrecting the Greek invention of sports fests, thus starting a multibillion-dollar industry whose profits and off-the-books transactions today disappear into shady pockets, never to be seen or spoken of again. For convoluted reasons, this business enterprise chose Lausanne as its HQ. As one unintended consequence, Lausanne has the most overpriced restaurants in the entire country, maybe twice as much as Geneva (in the low-budget range).

And if you do go to Lausanne for an Olympic Experience, you may be disappointed. The only Olympic thing in town is the Olympic Museum, which doesn’t quite manage to be as entertaining as the Futbol Club museum in Barcelona. Notably missing are any organized films of great Olympic moments or great opening ceremonies, or even an archive of winners and world records. This is a museum on the cheap, designed by a functionary with no imagination, rather than a true enthusiast.

The Olympic Museum in Lausanne is over-rated and underwhelming. And the grass is overgrown. Olympic profits do not, apparently, go into grounds maintenance.

Jaywalking and other high crimes. A friend who once lived in Switzerland likes to tell how her small apartment building assigned specific days and hours for each tenant to use the coin-operated washing machine and dryer. She had a window of 1 ½ hours, twice a week, but like any good Filipina she tried to use it outside her schedule – whereupon another tenant, who didn’t even want to do any washing, came down to tell her to beat it, or she would call the cops.

However, that was many years ago. Nowadays, the Swiss are more relaxed. Babies and toddlers scream to their hearts’ content in public, and parents cower in fear. My sister, who used to live in Geneva, brazenly barbecued on her balcony out of season, and the police just gave her a written warning. People ignore pedestrian traffic lights with gay insouciance and even cross the street where there are no crosswalks. It’s all these foreigners, teaching decadent attitudes to the Swiss. Before long, they’ll ruin everything.

The Capital that isn’t. Not one person in 10,000 can tell you what Switzerland’s capital is. Correct Answer: None. So as not to offend anyone, instead of a “capital,” Switzerland has a Federal City where national officials have their offices. Albert Einstein would later recount that as an employee of the Swiss Patent Office, which is of course located in the capital, he got the idea for his Theory of Relativity from watching streetcars below Bern’s Clock Tower, and wondering if the clock would appear to move faster or slower if you were moving, as opposed to just standing there. (It’s true – Bern is streetcar-crazy; I never saw so many in one place.)

As it turns out, Bern is quite a charming place. Some parts look like Salzburg and other parts like a movie set. Honest, it’s lovely. (Except for the Federal Muddy Grey paint on every building.) Don’t miss the Rose Garden, which has spectacular views of the city (tram line 10, uphill from the Clock Tower). For dining, I strongly recommend the Kornhauskeller (corn-house-keller). This name means “grain warehouse cellar,” and the building is right in the center of town, where the Bernese liked to be able to keep an eye on their food stocks. Food-wise, Kornhauskeller offers no surprises, but its medieval interior is just stunning and there aren’t many restaurants like it anywhere else in the world.

You can invent anything else you like about your stopover in Bern, because no other Filipino has ever been there. Except me. And because I like you, my lips are sealed.

Bern’s Kornhauskeller is an underground restaurant(rigth) that used to be a grain storage warehouse. Modern times have caught up with Switzerland, in the form of graffiti everywhere(center), even just a stone’s throw from the Swiss Parliament building. Metro Manila can help! Basel’s Tinguely Museum is noted for its avant garde art(right). Those protruding tubes are telescopes, but the author was unable to catch anyone peering into them.

Basel, the forgotten city. Basel is the least-known of Switzerland’s big cities even though it is the headquarters of the Bank for International Settlements, which supposedly helps member central banks stay solvent. The BIS has existed since 1930, and up to now, as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t prevented even one central bank from getting its country into trouble. Think of Weimar Germany. This record is only rivalled by that of the International Monetary Fund (created in 1944) which singlehandedly turns any balance-of-payments problems into decades-long depressions and economic sinkholes. Think of Mexico, Argentina and most of Africa. . .

Among the Swiss, Basel is considered a Daring Art Center. The reason I went there in the first place was my Swiss hair-stylist Stefan, who raved about the Wim Delvoye exhibit at the Tinguely Museum; this Wim guy takes commonplace objects and turns them into surprisingly beautiful works of avant-garde art. So I went. I liked his carved tire trucks and his “telescope rear ends,” but drew the line at his working reproductions of the human digestive system.

Another major draw is Basel’s Kunstmuseum (this word means “Art Museum,” and the first syllable is pronounced sort of like koonst, not the way you dirty-minded readers are thinking), which has a world-beating collection that goes back to the Medieval ages, but is most heavy on Dadaists and onward. Despite this being a relatively small city, the Basel Kunstmuseum’s modern art collection easily beats New York’s Guggenheim or London’s Tate.

 Graffiti rears its ugly head. You have probably heard that Switzerland is a very clean country. Well, it depends. One of Switzerland’s most shameful inventions is the pay toilet, which now costs SwF1.50 for a pee and SwF2 for more serious business. I guess they’re clean.

However, on a more macro scale, everywhere you look, whether in downtown Zurich or a remote Alpine barn, chances are you will see graffiti, lots of it. This truly bothers me, because it’s just ugly and shows the Swiss are losing their grip. But it is also an opportunity for Filipinos.

Whatever other deficiencies it may have, Metro Manila is a contender for World’s Most Graffiti-Free Metropolis. Just open your eyes and check. This is surely not an accident. It can only be supposed that certain secret patriots in Manila have been going around, making war on graffiti by Terminating With Extreme Prejudice anyone in possession of spray paint after 6 p.m. The message has really gotten out. We should identify these dark knights and offer their services to the Swiss. It’s the least we can do for the country that sells us Ovaltine.

When dining in Switzerland, it is prudent to find a rich Swiss friend to pay the bill.

The author is resident shareholder of Plantation Bay Resort & Spa in Cebu.

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