Switzerland: Go on, feel the Bern
I had completely underestimated the appeal of the common onion.
Yet here I am, at 6.30am on a November morning in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, at the Onion Festival, or Zibelemarit. And thousands of people are milling around stalls filled with vegetables, in particular onions produced by local farmers, and which are woven into pretty braids or festive-style wreaths.
In all, there's a total of 648 food stalls to visit on the medieval streets - when the sun comes up I'll see the snow-covered Swiss Alps in the distance - 171 of which are selling onions, and 57 tons of onions will be sold by the end of the day.
Yet people are up early for a lot more than onions, and are out and about in the pre-dawn darkness drinking glasses of spicy gluhwein and eating sweet pastries. The air is filled with the smell of roasting chestnuts, and children have gotten their hands on bags of confetti and are liberally showering everyone who comes near to them.
It's all a bit mad, in a totally cheerful way.
The annual Onion Festival is hugely popular with foodies, and on this trip I'll learn how to make a traditional onion pie, and take a cheese-making class in the nearby Emmental region.
We arrive in Bern the previous evening, flying into Zurich, and getting the train to Bern, where the Swiss parliament sits, and which dates back to the 12th Century and is built on the Aare River. We take tram number nine to Kursaal which leaves us right in front of our hotel, the four-star Hotel Allegro Bern, which is a deluxe and modern hotel.
It sounds all-go, but is actually a pretty easy trip.
Our first foodie delight is dinner in Kornhauskeller, a cellar restaurant with sparkling chandeliers and rich woodwork in Bernese High Baroque style. We enjoy the traditional Bernese platter, consisting of boiled meat, smoked ham and bacon, ribs, Bernese pork and tongue sausage, sauerkraut, dried beans and boiled potatoes. The story goes that when the Bernese defeated the French army at Neuenegg in the 18th Century they celebrated with this feast. To call it a man's dinner may be sexist, but I think we're safe calling it a very, very big meaty dinner.
Bern's social life takes place to a significant degree in cellars, as all buildings had them for storing grain, vegetables and wine during the snow-bound winter months. Today the cellars house bars and restaurants and businesses.
Bern is also extremely pretty, with architecture which ranges from the Imperial to rustic-style and Art Deco, and you can walk from one end of the city to the other end in 20 minutes. Or take one of the bright red trams which look lovely against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps. There's lots of shops selling Swiss knives, watches and chocolates too.
The following day - and after the fun of the early-morning Onion Festival - we head for lunch in an uber-stylish restaurant which overlooks the city, Rosengarten. It's buzzing, and has stunning views of the city. Lunch is pasta with cream and mushrooms and pistachio ice cream, and is delicious.
Afterwards we meet Emil Bolli, chef at the restaurant Volkshaus 1914, and who has the pleasure of cooking for, and travelling the world with, the Swiss football team. Emil gives us a master class in how to make the traditional onion pie; making the pastry, and its filling of onions, bacon, cheese, milk, eggs, and salt and pepper, paprika and nutmeg. It's a simple savoury dish served with salad during the winter.
All the food on this trip is meant to be tempting, and is always scrumptious. Dinner this evening is in Lotschberg, an understated hip restaurant which is so cool you feel yourself come over all youthful while eating. We have Bernese rosti; potatoes which are coarsely grated and fried in butter in the shape of a flat cake, until it is golden brown, and served with bacon and a fried egg. Followed by a coffee ice cream with freshly whipped cream.
The following morning we go on a journey of about two hours on a tram and train to the Emmental region, a place of gentle rolling hills and scenic valleys, framed by towering alps, and covered with chalet-style houses. We take a guided tour of the Emmentaler Show Dairy in Affoltern, and learn about the process of making Emmental cheese. I learn that to get the perfect sized holes in the cheese, you need to give the bacteria in the cheese-making process a little bit of extra heat, to get them working harder.
Lunch at the Dairy is a cheese-lover's paradise, and the menu offers cheese fondue, classic cheese pie and classic cheese toast with a fried egg on top, made with Emmental, or for a change, Raclette, which consists of melted Raclette cheese with pickles, pear slices and boiled potatoes.
Following lunch, we get to participate in a fun demonstration in the art of making cheese by hand. And following that we head off to a craftmen's village in Wassen, also in the Emmental region.
We visit Reist Schwyzerorgelibau, a family business where accordions are made by hand, with meticulous precision and care. There are cubicles where craftspeople sit all day checking the tone of the metal reeds which create music when air caused by the movement of the bellows makes them vibrate. The Washington Post thought so highly of this business, it wrote an eight-page article on the magic of it.
The trip back to Bern through the picturesque countryside is lovely, as is dinner at the Altes Tramdepot, a trendy restaurant offering great views of the Old Town of Bern. Dinner is parsley roots soup with bacon, followed by pork stuffed with ham and Gruyere cheese, finished off with chocolate cake.
The next day we go on a tour of the Old Town of Bern - a Unesco World Heritage Site - with our guide Margarete Schaller. Switzerland is a well-heeled country, and the busy city of Bern has a population of approximately 130,000, and in general pedestrians exude a sense of well-being, and are well dressed and purposeful, and they do seem to cycle a lot.
We visit the Clock Tower, an elaborate astronomical clock which has moving figures and was built in 1530. We pass a series of ornate sculptural fountains, which are still in working order, and date back to the Renaissance. The stunning Bern Munster Cathedral is a late-Gothic construction and is the most significant medieval church in Switzerland.
We lunch at Casa Novo, a fine-dining restaurant which overlooks the Aare River, and is owned by a Spanish family and serves Mediterranean food. Lunch is exquisite; beetroot soup with vanilla is followed by chicken breast with polenta with truffle oil, and peperonata made from peppers, olive oil, onions and tomatoes. Desert is melted white chocolate and mandarins.
Our final visit of this trip, before heading to the airport later this evening, is to Einsteinhaus, a flat on the second floor of No.49 Kramgasse, and which was rented to Albert Einstein from 1903 to 1905, the time during which he developed his Theory of Relativity.
It's been restored to how it would have looked back during his stay, with wallpaper with a flower design, a grandfather clock, a sofa which strikes me as fairly small and not something you'd lounge on, so I figure Einstein must have been small in stature (later I check and it seems he filled in his height as 5ft 7inches on his passport application, so maybe sofas back then were made for sitting up straight on), and a dresser with fine bone china.
When the time comes to head to the airport, we all agree that Bern has the makings of one very memorable weekend city break, offering lots of fantastic restaurants and unforgettable meals. Never, ever, forget to leave room for cheese.
For more information on the superb country of Switzerland visit myswitzerland.com.
Swiss International Air Lines flies from Dublin and Cork (seasonal) to Zurich and Geneva All-inclusive fares start from €74 — for more information visit swiss.com.
The Swiss Travel Pass is the all-in-one ticket to travel by train, bus and boat on an all-inclusive basis from 3-15 days. Plus each ticket offers free admission to more than 500 museums nationwide and half-price on the most scenic Swiss mountain railways.
For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist, call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit swisstravelsystem.co.uk.
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