BERN, Switzerland — No matter how wet and blustery the weather, you're not likely to get soaked in the medieval parts of this Swiss capital, as almost four miles of the cobbled streets are lined with arcades that provide a dry haven.
Founded in 1191 within a narrow, easy-to-defend horseshoe of the Aare River, space was at such a premium that inhabitants built their homes over the arcades, which, along with many flowery fountains, polychrome statues and colorful banners, still gives the town a very compact feeling of the Middle Ages.
Once the main gate of the original town, Bern's Clock Tower is the basis of another hoary tradition. At four minutes to the hour, crowds of visitors and locals gather to watch an animated show of painted figures parading and performing on the tower until the time is struck on the hour.
And because the town was named for the first animal taken on a hunt here, the bear pit near the river is a must-stop for all visitors. They pile out of buses, cameras at the ready, asking almost frantically: "Which way to the bears? Which way to the bears?"
Getting here: Fly American, Pan Am or TWA to Zurich, also Balair until the end of October, when Swissair begins nonstop Los Angeles-Zurich service. Take the hourly service of Swiss Railways directly from Zurich Airport to downtown Bern.
How long/how much? Give Bern two full days, perhaps another for a trip to nearby Lake Thun and the pretty little town of Spiez, where you will find few tourists. Lodging costs are moderate, dining the same.
A few fast facts: The Swiss franc recently sold at 1.6 to the dollar, about 61 cents each. Spring through fall weather is fine, with July being a good time to visit when many Swiss are on vacation. September is the most crowded month. A day ticket on trams is $1.85 U.S., five days $3. But the Swiss Pass for transportation throughout the country on trains, buses, lake steamers and city trams or buses is your best bet for getting around Switzerland.
Getting settled in: Goldener Schluessel (Rathausgasse 72; $64 B&B double) sits under the arcades at the very center of town. It's simple and modest, but also comfortable. Rooms are small, with showers only. There are two restaurants plus a sidewalk cafe, and we heard very good reports on the food, mostly Swiss.
Hotel Baren (Schauplatzgasse 4; $73 double, including buffet breakfasts) has another good location, just off market square (Tuesday and Saturday markets) and a few blocks from the train station. Bedrooms have contemporary furnishings, with warm fabrics, mini-bars and TVs, while baths are rather small. There's also a family sauna. The Barenstube restaurant has solid Swiss food, and you'll recognize the hotel by a huge bear statue at the entryway.
Zum Goldener Adler (Gerechtigkeitsgasse 7; $73 B&B double) is Bern's oldest hotel, first mentioned in 1489 as an overnight stop for postal carriages. It still has an old-fashioned look, with original beams in hallways and a painted wooden ceiling in the dining room. There is also a stube that locals frequent for morning coffee or beer. Some bedrooms are large, having bright curtains and bedspreads, and window boxes of geraniums over the street arcades below.
Regional food and drink: There is nothing particularly distinctive about Bernese food other than the Bernerplatter, a veritable feast of several kinds of sausages, bacon, wurst, boiled beef, ham, sauerkraut, green beans and potatoes.
Bratwurst and rosti (a crisp pancake of fried potatoes) are a happy couple when accompanied by local Gurten beer. And people (mostly visitors) now eat those Swiss wintertime specialties, fondue and raclette, all year long. Most menus also have other dishes from various cantons in Switzerland, almost always the marvelous veal dish of Zurich, geschnetzeltes , made with cream and mushrooms.
If you order white wine, you'll get a carafe from the Lake Thun or Biel regions. Not bad at all.
Good dining: Restaurant Harmonie (Hotelgasse 3 by Clock Tower) has been serving food for more than 200 years, and the antique telephone booth must have been here since Alexander Bell. Dine on such staples as schweinbratwurst mit rosti , tripe in tomato sauce, generous cutlets and geschnetzeltes (made here with a dash of Calvados). There are two small outdoor terraces, and a plain inside room with communal tables. You may share one with a member of Parliament if it's in session, certainly with some of Bern's most substantial citizens.
Lorenzini (Marktgasse-Passage 3) is a very pretty Tuscan trattoria on the second floor over a shopping arcade, with bright and eclectic art on the walls and fresh flowers on tables. The menu will take you to the heart of Italy: rabbit roasted with fresh herbs, bistecca fiorentina , ravioli al salmone , veal in an ethereal basil sauce. The menu is extensive, food and service superb.