Bear with Bern for Swiss skiing
Stephen Wood arrives at the gateway to the Bernese Oberland with plenty of respect for the slopes – and for the city's ursine inhabitants.
Friday 17 February 2012
On the flight from London City Airport to Bern last week, I settled down to read Mostly Mary by Gwynedd Rae, a light classic of children's literature. I have read it before, but not for half a century. On first reading, this book and the others in a series about a family of bears living in the bear-pit at Bern had considerable impact on my world view. You could keep your Paris, New York and Berlin; the place I most wanted to visit was Bern, for the bear pit.
On one family holiday we did have a stopover in Bern, but it was too short to permit a visit to the bear pit (though we did, I recall, have our first encounter with a duvet). Fifty years on, the book isn't quite so persuasive. But the thought of being in Bern and finally visiting the bear pit remained stirring. After something perilously close to a lifetime, I would see where Mary Plain, Friska and Little Wool once lived.
For a generation brought up on Sonic the Hedgehog, Bern will not be such a magnet. But for skiers, the city – or at least its airport – is increasingly appealing as a gateway to the resorts of the Bernese Oberland.
Inghams, the ski tour operator, has been sending clients there on charter services since 2006; Flybe has a Saturday flight to and from Southampton during the season; and the Bern-based airline SkyWork started a daily scheduled service from London City last March, and has since increased the frequency to two flights a day.
Bern delivers all the delights of a small airport. It's a three-minute walk from the aircraft to the taxi rank; there are never enough people there to form a queue; you take off without waiting for a slot, and land without "stacking". But size isn't everything. Its location is an equally important asset, as the small print of the Inghams brochure shows. The time it quotes for the transfer from Zurich and Geneva to Wengen and Grindelwald is three and a quarter hours; from Bern it's 90 minutes. If you're going to Mürren, the Bern flight saves a further 15 minutes.
Just as accessible from Bern as those traditional British favourites is Adelboden, where only 4 per cent of guests are from the UK. I flew to Bern en route to the latter – to which Sir Henry Lunn took what is commonly described as the first British ski package holiday in 1903. At first, the drive south from Bern, on a broad plateau, is unremarkable. But at the Adelboden turn-off the road disappears into a tunnel, and then emerges in a deep, narrow Alpine valley.
After the mist that hung above Bern at dawn cleared, the trees and mountainsides of the Kien Valley were as sharp as an Ansel Adams silver-nitrate print. Soon, shafts of sunlight began to illuminate the white peaks above the tree line. As an introduction to Adelboden, it couldn't be bettered.
There's a more than decent quantity of ski terrain at the resort. Links to Lenk (try saying that after a few drinks) provide even more skiing, but 185km of pistes and 56 lifts are accessible from Adelboden. But to keep traffic out of the village, the base of the main lift – a three-stage gondola – is in a car park just down the hill, so the skiing day starts with an irritating lift queue for the short descent. The gondola's first stop is near the best-known slope at Adelboden, the World Cup racecourse. The head of the local ski school recommended this for my first run of the day, partly because the poling involved in reaching the piste would warm me up – a frank admission at a resort where downhill skiers are faced with quite a few uphill stretches.
In the event, the poling couldn't warm me up, and the race piste was much too steep. What I had not appreciated, while admiring the view from the back of a car, was the temperature, as low as minus 20C on the mountain. Excellent snow conditions meant I could put in plenty of turns, but never enough to keep the wind-chill factor under control. My face ached cruelly.
Two stops further up the mountain, the gondola lands on Adelboden's showpiece vista. Immediately beyond the top station is a spectacular bowl for which the piste map – struggling to represent the multifaceted slopes – does not prepare you. The mountain falls away and then rears up to the 2,200m Lavey ridge. Most of the skiing here, and indeed across the area, is essentially intermediate, but for experts there is plenty of good off-piste terrain below Lavey.
The slopes were quite crowded because of a Swiss holiday period; so were the mountain restaurants. Mindful of the punishingly high level of the Swiss franc, I bought myself a light lunch; it cost £17, but it was good. Not so good was the £2.94 I paid for a single espresso.
During the pre-season there was plenty of talk about how much ski business Switzerland would lose from the UK due to the exchange rate. But the sales director at the Cambrian hotel, in which I stayed, said that the UK business had not declined – a view echoed by Adelboden's marketing director.
The Cambrian (Welsh-owned, hence the name), which has a remarkable, glass-walled lounge overlooking the Engstligen Valley, is a very smart hotel, and therefore not cheap, but the market which is suffering is the local one. Apparently the Swiss are defecting to Austria for the bargains they can get with their high-priced francs. Should I ever have any valuable Swiss francs to stash away, I'd put them in a bank in Bern, a place so solid it makes Zurich seem dodgy.
A Unesco World Heritage Site since 1983, Bern's old town – in which I stayed at the 150-year-old but completely made-over Schweizerhof Bern hotel, ineffably Swiss despite now being Qatari-owned – is dominated by stocky 18th- and 19th-century stone buildings, their pitched roofs punctured by rather romantic-looking garrets. The buildings allow themselves a little decoration at portico level, where the Stadttheater has some giant urns and the old granary features a crowd scene with bears, nymphs and chartered accountants (OK, maybe not).
The federal government building – which has the national bank very close at hand – is more ambitious, but if it is really based on Florentine palaces the idea didn't travel well. Generally, it is older elements – the medieval clock tower, and the 100 or so highly theatrical fountains, for example – which are more attention seeking. However, the 15th/16th-century cathedral, currently wearing a shroud of scaffolding, towers over everything only because of the 100m-high Gothic Revival steeple it acquired in the 1890s.
Personally, I was more taken with plainer things such as the mid-16th-century town hall, with its twin staircases climbing across the façade to meet at the first-floor front door, the amazing pre-Brutalist Hotel Bern, built in 1914, and two tram-stop shelters: one a classic 1940s design in reinforced concrete, the other a huge mirror-glass sheet slung right across the road.
As Switzerland's capital since 1848, Bern is heavy with institutions, particularly museums, two of them devoted to local heroes Albert Einstein and Paul Klee (the latter collection housed in a Renzo Piano building). The Alpine Museum was my choice, but as museums do, it closed for major refurbishment on my approach. Still, I did get the chance to see the main building of the "museum quarter", a startling, chalet-style folly dating from 1894.
Bears are an institution in Bern too, the city's name being derived – at least in legend – from a bear killed by its founder, Duke Berchtold of Zähringen, while out hunting. There are bears all over the place: bear-shaped cakes, carved wooden bears, innumerable bear emblems. In fact, the only place you won't find one is in the bear pit, despite a tradition of keeping bears there which goes back to 1513 (with an interruption in 1798 when the French army stole the animals). Quite rightly the bears – Björk, Finn, Ursina and Berna – are no longer confined to a pit; they now live in a "bear park", below the pit on a bank of the river Aare.
Did I see them there? No. The weather was much too cold for them to come out.
Oh well; next time, perhaps.
* The writer travelled with SkyWork Airlines (0871 977 6088; flyskywork.com) which flies from London City to Bern. Flights cost from £110 return. Alternatively, Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) flies from Southampton.
* The Cambrian in Adelboden (00 41 33 673 8383; thecambrianadelboden.com) has doubles from from Sfr290 (£207) including breakfast.
* The Schweizerhof Bern (00 41 31 326 8080; schweizerhof-bern.ch) has doubles from Sfr470 (£326) room only.
* 00 41 33 673 8080; adelboden.ch
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