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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 3 of 18: 9/26/06 In Bern

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Our hostel just over the river

Bern, capitol of Switzerland, my genetic stomping ground. Why did Johannes pick up and leave in 1854? The town is stunningly picturesque and after the wall-to-wall clouds of northern Italy, even “partly cloudy” in Switzerland is dazzling. He certainly didn’t leave hoping for better photo ops.

The train station is at the high point of the old fortified town that used the swiftly flowing Ayle River as a moat on three sides. Our hostel, “Hotel Landhaus” was located just over the river at the bottom of the horseshoe. That meant our walk was going to be all downhill. That sounded really good to me as I much prefer sleepwalking downhill. And here, gentle reader, you might well ask: “Well, why didn’t you just hire a taxi, cheapskate?” The answer is “Yes, that’s right.” I’m proud of my “cheap-skated-ness.” You see, we had checked and rechecked and calculated and recalculated finances for this trip. The airfare was more than last year’s, the three-country itinerary was much more ambitious, but the final outcome needed to be essentially the same: less than $5,000 for the both of us! Last year’s trip to Rome, Venice, Florence, and Elba had rung the bell at $4,500. Before we left we added up our “fixed costs:” those hotels, airplanes, buses, trains, and ferries we were going to have to take and then we divided the remainder by the number of days we were going to be gone. To make budget we needed to hold ourselves to €30 a day or less in incidentals, and that included food. That’s why sending postcards was one of our big splurges and why photographs and pebbles constitute our cache of souvenirs. A taxi would have cost €20, so we walked.

And what a wonderful walk, like stepping back 400 years in just 100 yards. The buildings were ancient but immaculate, five or six stories, quarter-timbered masonry and plaster accented with window boxes of lovely red geraniums and trailing blue morning glories. The streets were about 25-30 feet wide, with watering troughs every hundred yards or so. I call them “troughs” even if the tour-books call them fountains because “fountain” gives the wrong impression. These six-foot in diameter stone basins were obviously built so that local people could easily gather water. There were free-flowing pipes built into the bases of carved wooden statues rising from the center of each. Every neighborhood seemed to have its own patron statue, 12-15 feet tall and brightly painted. Bears and soldiers and lions and dragons and heroes and heroines were everywhere supplying fresh-flowing icy-cold water to a happy and prosperous citizenry. A steady stream of bright red trams traveled around these statues on tracks laid in the 6” squares of basalt cobblestones. One of the major intersections had the famous clock tower Einstein used to watch as he rode to and from work at the patent office. It was gloriously painted and the clockworks also ran a charming menagerie of carved and painted animals that put on quite a show each and every hour. And judging by the crowds this wasn’t just a show, it was the show in Bern. It was on one of these trams that the theory of relativity was hatched as the Great Brain wondered what the tower would look like if you were traveling away from it at the speed of light. That may be an indication of just how exciting the old city was or perhaps indicates how anxious Herr Doctor was to leave and put down roots in New Jersey!

The trip down to the Landhaus was only arrested by Georgia visiting one of the many chocolatiers along the way to see what there was to see inside. I remained outside watching a young couple with blue hair provide their own entertainment passionately swapping saliva. They were drawing a crowd to rival the clock-tower menagerie, but were also causing a pedestrian traffic jam thereby.

Denizens of Bern, being a very thrifty and industrious lot, not given to wasting space, long-ago discovered that if roads could easily double as watering holes then sidewalks can do triple duty. If you think about it, they really are a waste of space. No matter how busy the pedestrian traffic, the space above and below them is completely unused. Not in Bern. As early as the 14th century, Berniers were extending their buildings out over the sidewalks, and under them as well. The sidewalks, then, are really just long arched porticos with shop windows on one side and the roadway on the other. And at the edges of the roadway are what appear to be cellar doors that open to steps leading down to more shops, subterranean! Eventually Georgia re-emerged and tore me away from the floor show and we wound our way down to a beautiful carved stone bridge high over the river. It looked down on the roofs of riverside houses below and another smaller, even more ancient bridge. The combination of clay-red tiled roofs and churning aquamarine water was delightful to both the eye and the ear. The Landhaus was easy to spot from our perch. It was a 4-story masonry and plaster building flanked by the river on one side, and a mountain towering over it on the other.

The twenty-something desk clerk (surely his name was Dieter) took Georgia’s bag and apologized that our room was on the third floor. “That means it’s on the fourth floor” my sweetie quipped. “No,” Dieter replied icily, “Zat means eet issss on ze tirrrd floor.” I frowned and signaled to her that Bern was apparently not the place for word play. Georgia shrugged and we plunged up the narrow chute of a wooden spiral staircase behind rapidly ascending Dieter. The steps were so steep and the passage was so narrow that it was more like climbing a tree house than walking up a staircase. I could see why they specialized in backpackers. There was no elevator and I can’t imagine trying to carry a traditional suitcase up those steps.

We emerged a few minutes later puffing and dizzy in a circular vestibule at the top of the chute. There were four doors, three of them with numbers. He opened the one without a number to show us the little common bathroom and toilet. Only one person could fit in there at a time. He then unlocked our closet-sized room and showed us how to use all the modern conveniences, like the sink on the wall by the twin beds and the doorknob out to our postage-stamp-sized balcony. He then stood there expectantly. World traveler that I am, it dawned on me that he wanted a tip, and since it didn’t look like he was going to leave without one, I started fumbling around in my pockets. If I had known he was coming I would have baked a cake, but, we had no Swiss francs yet and only some fairly large euro notes. I certainly wasn’t going to give him one of those. I heard something jingle in my pocket and pulled out two American quarters. I offered them to dour Dieter expecting a sneer, but thanks be to God! His face broke into a smile. Evidently 50 cents American is a large tip for people who work in student backpack hostels.

I laid down on one of the twin beds for a moment to check for cracks in my eyelids while Georgia went to check on the facilities we shared with the other rooms. She claims that I was snoring before she closed the door. I’m sure she’s wrong because I was there and I don’t remember that at all. Anyway, she says that I suddenly snorted and then went silent. The suddenness scared her so she poked me to see if I’d expired from altitude sickness. “I was afraid you’d quit breathing” she said. “No,” I replied, “It’s now a settled habit with me.”

This was the evening of the 26th and we toppled back down the chute outside our door in search of a supermercato to buy some picnic supplies for supper as well as something for tomorrow’s trip to Jegensdorf. That was the closest train stop to Johannes’ little town of Iffwyl. And it was a commuter train running early in the morning and late in the afternoon so we needed to get a bite pretty soon and turn in. We’d heard that the mountain adjacent to the Landhaus was topped by a wonderful rose garden where people would go to watch a spectacular sunrise so we thought we’d wake up early and see the sights before catching the train. We climbed back into town, found a Coop Supermercado about to close, but managed to grab a few supplies as they were turning off the lights. After a nice little picnic of cheese and bread and sausage on the bench beside the Landhaus we climbed up our laundry chute again and fell heavily into bed.

Boy, I’ll tell you what. Bern was visited in the 14th and 15th centuries by some amazingly silver-tongued clock salesmen. Beginning about 2am I was awakened every 15 minutes with multiple sonorous BONGS echoing through the river valley. After much effort, I was finally able to accidentally awaken Georgia about 5am and send her tottering off toward the shower. It was pitch black outside but I wanted to beat the crowds to the rose garden!

Halfway down the first flight of the laundry chute the light suddenly went off. I thought someone must have a pretty sick sense of humor until I realized the lights were on a timer and we just weren’t moving fast enough for it. I guess the Swiss are less interested than Americans in residual light (like an exit sign) on stairways, or perhaps they just feel that anyone who spends the night in a tree house must have good night vision. Anyway, we had to feel our way along the wall until we found another light switch and could illuminate our descent to ground level.

It’s kind of sad really. We had to corkscrew down four flights of stairs to reach ground level so we could climb the mountain beside our hotel when we could almost step onto the pathway off our balcony. But there you have it; people who sleep in tree houses need to love to climb up and down. And so we began our ascent to the rose garden.

It was now downright nippy and I was glad to have four or five layers capped by a windproof jacket. And my gloves. Can’t forget the gloves. I can stand just about any temperature if my hands are warm. We took the mountain in stages (how else would you take a mountain?) and we were both grateful for our preparatory exercise routine at the gym. We would climb slowly for 100 steps or so then silently stop and pretend to admire the view. The speechlessness, unfortunately, was not a result of the potentially spectacular view. As a matter of actual fact we couldn’t see anything. A couple of times I gasped out that perhaps the rose garden couldn’t possibly be adequate recompense for this frigid inky climb. Bern’s nightlife was apparently so listless they turned off the streetlights around midnight and the only lights we could see were the ones flashing behind our eyes. I wonder if Bern was any more exciting in Johannes’ day. Maybe he wondered what the place would look like if you were leaving it at the speed of light too. Maybe New Castle, Pennsylvania looked exotic in comparison? Anyway, Georgia assured me that the rose garden was world famous and well worth the climb. And she suggested I remember who had awakened whom.

It must have taken about an hour of steady climbing to reach the top. I wish I had words to tell you how beautiful it was. I’d love to be able to describe the ten thousand (or so) varieties of roses: the subtle color and textural differences among them. I wish I could convey the look of the exquisite statuary and make you thrill to the flutter of the silvery leaves in the bower . . . I wish I could describe the long alleys or convey how charming the birds looked as they flitted from branch to branch, and how we were absolutely captivated by their gentle trill. . . . I wish I could do all this. But I can’t. It was pitch black on that flippin’ mountain; I couldn’t even see the garden. I bet it was lovely; I bet the birds were too. Perhaps I should have tried to awaken them, but if hours of sonorous “BONGS” couldn’t do it, I’m pretty sure my breathless yelling and weak-kneed tree-shaking wouldn’t have ruffled a feather. I did smell the rose garden though. It smelled really nice.

I always associate that combined smell of roses and boxwoods with Uncle Roy’s little overgrown garden in New Castle and it brings back fond memories of sitting with him at the picnic table beside the little fish pond listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the radio, and watching him shoot at neighborhood cats with a BB gun. That seemed to be Uncle Roy’s chief pleasure in life—listening to the game and shooting at cats. That’s life in Party Central, Pennsylvania. I wonder if Johannes bought a BB gun when he arrived?

(to be continued)

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