Bern with Kids: A Few Fun Family Activities to Do in the Capital of Switzerland

Despite the circumstances that brought us to Bern this summer, it was impossible for us to stay impartial to the charms of this beautiful city. My husband’s birthplace, Bern is a city we visited many times. We absolutely love it, and see it as a second home.

And so, before the summer ends, I thought I’ll share some of the things I love about the place, and give you a few ideas for activities to do with kids, if you happen to find yourself in Bern with children and some time to explore:

Walk around the medieval old city

The old city of Bern is one of the prettiest cities I’ve been to. Neatly contained by the river Aare, it is fun and walkable. Stroll down the main street, but make sure to explore the side streets as well. You never know what you might find!

The streets in this part of town are all covered. This has to do with an old regulation, under which people were not allowed to sell out of their windows. The archways circumnavigated that rule, but also provided (and still do!) shelter from the elements: protection from snow in winter, rain in summer, and also the sun on especially hot days!

While you walk, make sure to look up and down as well as to the sides. Try to notice the little details. The old Bernese architects had an amazing sense of humor. You will find some funny carvings, statues and architectural details. Take this guy, for example, which I noticed on my recent visit:

Or the little frog on the bottom-right-hand side of that door:

Or this wall painting (which is actually not that old):

Modern city planners made fun contributions of their own, like this statue in one of the squares that always makes me smile:

Or these plastic dogs that filled the city this summer, some sixty strong:

 

There’s also street art, though I’m sure the City Fathers (as well as many of the respectable citizens) frown upon it:

Drink from the street fountains

The old city is dotted with water fountains, each a piece of art on its own. Many feature old statues, or funny faces. A few let YOU be the statue! They are all perfectly safe to drink from, and doing so on a hot summer day can be very refreshing (not to mention money-saving!).

Stop by the famous Bernese Clock Tower

It does funky things every hour, but it is most impressive at noon, when it’s show is the longest and fullest. Looking at the clock is fun, but watching the tourists that gather in front of it is even more fun!

Make sure to go all the way to the Bear Park

It’s at the edge of the old city, and you can clearly see the bears after which the city is named. These days they are walking leisurely in their new, big enclosure. You can also stop by the old bear pit, where bears used to be kept until a few years ago. They lost their mind then, in that tiny den, which is what prompted the city government to open the new park. The old pit is now a museum.

And if you’re there already, climb the steep hill across the street to the Rose Garden, and enjoy the breathtaking view of the old city. The restaurant there was one of my mother-in-law’s favorites.

On Saturdays, go to the farmers’ market

The Saturday farmers’ market is full of fresh vegetables, delicious breads, amazing cheeses and great meats. It also has flowers and ready-to-eat foods. My kids love the crape booth. There is a smaller market on Tuesdays as well.

Play a game in one of several street-game locations

There are boards painted on the pavement and big game pieces for the public to use in both bärenplatz and in the park near the cathedral. You can play with family members or friends, or with complete strangers. This is a great way to break barriers and promote world peace. Here, for example, you see an Israeli boy playing with a two siblings from an Arab country. No words were used, but fun was had by all:

Climb the Cathedral tower

The cathedral in Bern is beautiful, and climbing the tower will give you some exercise and reward you with beautiful views.

Go shopping!

Stores in Bern are true works of art. There is great stress on aesthetics and keeping things beautiful and clean. Even window-shopping is fun:

One of our favorite stores is the toy store Clatterbar, where you can find beautiful wooden toys. We go there every time:

And yes, there are at least three fabric stores in the old city!

Make sure to EAT!!

Swiss food is delicious, and looks great, too. You will drool just looking at the food displays: The breads, the pies and, of course, the chocolates!

Where else can you find chocolate spinners?

So make sure to put some (or a lot!) of this into your mouth. You will not regret it!

There are many different restaurants in the city as well. If you want to try some typical Swiss food, there is a Swiss restaurant right in bärenplatz, where you can get huge portions of roshti:

There are fun things to do outside the old city as well:

For little kids:

Different parks around the old city, like this one down by the Aare:

The Natural History Museum is one of my kids’ favorite places to go to on a rainy day. It has an old-style permanent exhibition with stuffed wild animals, as well as nice collections of insects, minerals and so on. There are also changing exhibitions. Last summer we enjoyed one about the famous Swiss San Bernard dogs. Turns out they were bread to be sickly and useless…

The Marzili baths has multiple pools for all ages, including toddler pools. There are public toilets, showers and snack bars. Bikini tops are optional.

Gurten Park, on top of a mountain in Bern, calls for a ride in a steep-tracked train, which little kids love. There is a big park on top, with a giant ball track, mini-train rides, water fountains to splash in and bumper cars to ride. There is also a nice play structure. When the kids are hungry, head over to the restaurant and enjoy the magnificent view.

The Zoo is a great place to spend a few hours. It has happy-looking animals, nice signage and a couple of places to grab food. There is also a playground if your little ones needs to let out some energy.

For older kids:

The Botanical Gardens cover five acres and are a beautiful place to stroll through and see some six thousand plant species.

The deeper pools of the Marzili baths are always a hit, or even better: the Aare itself. The water is usually quite cold, which adds to the thrill, and some people jump in from bridges, too. Only for good swimmers.

The Bern rope park has tracks for different levels, but is mostly fun for teenagers as well as adults. The track for eight-year-olds is not that thrilling. My kids love going there! You can easily spend an entire day roping in the tree tops.

Finally, if it rains, the History Museum. It has both permanent and changing exhibitions  covering history, archaeology and ethnography. My son especially loves the knight armors. You can also visit the adjacent Einstein Museum.

 

When You Die, Everything You Own Turns Into Garbage: The Sad Truth About Tearing Down a Loved One’s Household

I used to think that thoroughly tiding up my house once a year was a pain. Well, I recently discovered that there is one clean-up task that is significantly less palatable. I am talking about the tearing down of an established household following a loved one’s death. That physical systematic deconstruction of a life that happens once a person is no longer there.

Several days after my mother-in-law passed away this summer, my husband and his sister had to embark upon this unpleasant undertaking. As they began demolishing the household in which they grew up, our kids and I came to their aid.

My in-laws’ house has three floors and a basement. They lived there for almost fifty years, during which they accumulated a respectable amount of stuff. They stocked it with everything they needed to make their family’s life pleasant and comfortable, and then a little more. My in-laws filled it with a mixture of heirloom items, passed on from past generations, and things they acquired during their own lifetime. It was a beautiful, well maintained, and well functioning household.

Unlike occasionally tidying up my own house, which is annoying while it happens yet feels good afterwards, annihilating my in-law’s household was not only painful. It was thoroughly heartbreaking on many levels:

There was no hope in it, only despair.

This wasn’t a cleanup that would make someone’s life less cluttered, more focused, brighter. This was a cleanup that marked the end.

It brought up memories and added to the pain.

Every single item reminded us of my parents-in-law, their lives, and our shared experiences. The orphaned objects stressed my in-laws’ absence, and enhanced the still-fresh pain of loosing them.

It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Drawing the curtain over a life requires going over someone’s possessions one room at a time. It means getting into every shelf, closet and drawer. It required opening every box and looking through every letter.There is something very intimate about it. Going over someone’s stuff without their permission, even if they are no longer there to give it, felt intrusive.

It broke the unseen barrier that lies between guest and host. 

This wasn’t my house. I visited it many times, but always as a guest. Even my husband, who grew up there, always returned as a guest after he left. There are certain unwritten rules dictating the behavior of a guest in someone’s house. Going into every nook and cranny felt like a gross violation of that unseen contract. It felt wrong.

It put an end to the childhoods of my husband and his sister.

As long as you have a living parent, and it doesn’t really matter how old you are, you are still a child. Your parents’ house is your safe haven. It is the one constant thing throughout the great upheaval that is growing up. You always have a permanent address, even after you moved away, migrated overseas, or even had children of your own. There is someone to keep your childhood memories safe. There is a secure place to store your childhood treasures, the ones you didn’t want to take with you when you left, yet couldn’t quite bare to do away with: the artwork you made in preschool; your first-grade notebooks; the shells you collected on a family trip; your train set; your books. Once your last parent is gone, that safe haven shatters and your childhood scatters with it.

It was excruciatingly sad to empty out spaces.

We live in a consuming culture. We like buying, stocking, filling. Emptying closets, cabinets and bookcases went against our habits, against our instincts. Their emptiness screamed despair.

It brought up the dilemma of what to do with old pictures.

Old pictures are objects, like any other object in a house, yet they are not. They entrap past generations, past lives, past experiences. Pictures capture the images of loved ones, of your own past self, of people you don’t even know. They immortalize happy moments as well as sad ones. We know that pictures don’t hold people’s spirits, of course, and yet… So what do you do when you find old pictures in every room, in envelopes and drawers and boxes and albums? More pictures than you could ever transfer, or ship, or store, or even scan?

The worst part: It became clear that, once you die, everything you own turns into garbage.

The worst part of tearing down a loved one’s household, by far, was the sinking realization that no one really wanted any of it. Despite my in-law’s house being a beautiful, magical space filled with heirlooms, antiques and exquisite objects, no one had any interest in taking its content. Not even us.

Both my sister-in-law and us already have full houses. More than full, even, as you might have realized if you read my posts about our Big Cleanup or my struggles to keep my sewing room tidy. Furthermore, we bought houses built in a different style, and furnished them differently. We like lighter, more modern things, and prefer to have less of them. Heavy pieces of old Swiss furniture just don’t fit in either of our houses. Nor do big clocks, or someone’s paintings, or an entire collection of copper pots. We can’t even read the old French books, passed over from a distant relative. We don’t have the time it takes to polish sets of silver cutlery, nor do we like their taste. And we already equipped our kitchens with all the gadgets we need.

In our case, we live an ocean away, and shipping things costs more than they are worth. But even my sister-in-law, who lives in Switzerland, couldn’t fit any of this into her house, even if she wanted to.

Furthermore, nobody else wanted much of it, either. Friends and neighbors have full houses, too. One person took the copper-pot collection, but the painter friend didn’t want his paintings back. We couldn’t find a taker even for the houseplants.

eBay and similar online sale sites are already flooded with old sofas and cabinets. The items currently featured there have been listed for months and do not seem to sell. Auction-house representatives walked through the house quickly. Nothing popped out at them. They said they had all the clocks they needed, and that even the ones they already have aren’t selling.

Heirloom pieces that cost my father-in-law thousands of francs to restore are basically worth nothing. It is really mind boggling, but it’s just the way it is. In the end, my husband and his sister will probably have to pay someone to come and haul it all away.

We desperately wanted to take something, anything, just to remember my in-laws by. It wasn’t easy to find such things. We ended up taking a rug or two, even though they were very worn and we don’t have a place to put them. The kids wound up with little mementos: engraved Swiss Army knives and old watches. As for me, I came home with a suitcase-full of rags:

These are some of the fabrics I found in my mother-in-law’s house. I would not have picked them out had they been offered anywhere else, but with things being what they were I felt like I just had to rescue them. For now, I’m thinking of them as my Memory Project. I don’t know how I will use them yet, but I will try to do them justice, out of respect to bygone generations and people gone.

 

 

On Objects, Spaces and Memories: A Still-life Portrait of My Late Mother in Law

My father in law had always been proud of his house, a three-floors-plus-basement townhouse just outside the old city of Bern, Switzerland. He liked to tell people that the house was over a hundred and thirty years old, and that he and his family had lived in it for over a third of its history. My husband and his sister grew up in that house, which still has most of its original architectural details. Our children and I, too, stayed there many times over the past two decades, for weeks at a time.

When my father in law passed away several years ago, the house felt emptier, but remained pretty much unchanged. My mother in law laboriously decluttered many of her husband’s possessions (he was an avid collector). Still, except for minor changes and renovations, she left things pretty much as they had always been. We saw the house as a given. It was a constant, predictable presence in our world, something we took for granted.

A few weeks ago, while on an exciting summer trip, we received the call that every child dreads. My sister in law informed us that my mother in law, who had already been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, had taken a turn for the worse and that time was running out. We immediately abandoned our adventure and headed to Switzerland on the first available flight.

When we arrived at the house that we had known for so long, I was struck by how different it felt. My mother in law left it for a medical emergency, expecting to return within hours and leaving everything in place. It felt like Pompeii, displaying a life interrupted mid-way. We kept expecting her to come out of the kitchen, go down the stairs, or come in from the garden. The quiet house screamed of emptiness and longed for its owner.

A week and a half later she did come back, and everything felt right again. Except it wasn’t really, and a few days afterwards she left it, and us, for good.

After my mother in law passed away, I wandered throughout the empty rooms. Slowly, the unthinkable truth daunted on me. I realized that with her passing a chapter had ended. A chapter in our family’s story, as well as a chapter in the house’s history. I suddenly understood that this was the last time I will stay in that grand old house, and that within weeks it will change beyond recognition. The house we had taken for granted, with its old furniture and heirloom artifacts, will soon cease to exist the way we knew it.

As I looked around, I slowly comprehended that for me, my mother in law was inherently inseparable from the house. The furniture she used, the pictures she hung, the objects she possessed were all a part of how I saw her, of who she was in my eyes. I started thinking of how we all shape our spaces to fit our tastes, and how these spaces shape us in return. The objects we surround ourselves with express our personalities, yet, as we use them, also take a deeper meaning as they become a part of who we are, a part of us.

I looked at the empty house and saw my mother in law in every corner. I then took pictures of the parts of it that were most significant to me, before they disappeared for good. These pictures are in essence a still-life portrait of my late mother in law.

A still-life portrait of my late mother in law:

This is the coffee corner in the kitchen. It’s where her days, and ours, when we were visiting, started. It used to house an older, much bigger coffee machine, on which our eldest daughter, as a toddler, used to make coffee for her grandfather. But several years ago, when that machine broke, my mother in law replaced it with a smaller, more convenient piece:

And this is the opposite wall in the kitchen, with my mother in law’s prized collection of copper cookware, which she kept polishing; the corn-kernels-filled clock she got from friends in the US; the flowers she always kept on her breakfast table; and the ever-present daily newspaper:

My mother in law used these dishes every day, for every meal, for who-knows-how-many decades. I will always think of her when I see a blue plate:

This is the fridge, with the grand kids’ pictures and the many magnets my kids spent hours playing with:

In the nearby living room the beautiful old stove, covered with tiles:

The corner by the big window, the brightest spot in the house, where I loved reading books, when I could:

And the opposite wall, with it’s books and nick knacks, baptism bottles, and the painting a friend gave them:

Also, ever present, a sunflower, her favorite flower. This last one, although cut and in water, actually outlived her:

The adjacent dining room featured the other side of the stove, with different tiles:

As well as these three paintings, painted by another friend, and a fake-flower arrangement that has been there since my very first visit. This was the setting for many of our dinners, and hers:

Throughout the house there was a collection of clocks, my father in law’s legacy. Some were old Swiss clocks with sentimental value. These included my parent-in-law’s wedding gift, a clock or two passed down from past generations, and a replica of a Swiss railway station’s clock. There were also new, modern clocks, to just tell the time. Clocks hung in every room, on every floor. When my father in law was alive he used to wind them every Sunday, and they all synchronized on the second. Once, we visited, and I noticed the clocks were off. That was when I knew his days were numbered. When he died, my mother in law continued with the Sunday-winding tradition. Until she didn’t:

Upstairs, on the third floor, is the wall in the room we always stayed in, the room that used to be my sister in law’s when she was little. Here you see the fake bonsai, portraits of my mother in law and her sister when they were young. A work of art my husband made as a child, and a painting of the clock factory that a distant relative operated in China, long, long ago:

Finally, the cigarette advertisement, still surprisingly hanging on the door, larger than life. The model was my mother in law, when she was young and as beautiful as a movie star. The cigarettes were what killed her. Uncomprehendingly, she left the poster hanging even after she received the diagnosis of lung cancer. It catches her exactly as she was: strong, defiant, life-loving and doing things her way.