BEARING UP TO BERN by Glenn A. Baker

Bern bridge

The most memorable words spoken about Swiss timekeeping came from the great Orson Welles, high on a ferris wheel over Vienna, in the film, The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Switzeland's ubiquitous cukoo clocks

He may not have been quite so dismissive of Swiss clocks had he been given, as I was, an escorted tour through the entrails of the Zytglogge (Clock Tower) in Bern, the Swiss capital – on the site of the 1191 City Gate. It has long been said that a good magician does not reveal his tricks but all is on display here.

More than 500 years old, it is the world’s oldest mechanical clock and needs to be wound daily. Crowds gather in the square beneath it to witness the cast of a gilded crowing rooster, a bell striker and ten dancing bears.

Bern's premier tourist draw

My travelling companion was reminded of the Martin Scorsese film, Hugo; about an orphan boy living in a Paris railway station, who was taught to fix clocks and other gadgetry by his father and uncle and uses those skills to keep to station’s clocks running on time.

The Germanic-leaning capital of Switzerland, which once played host to Albert Einstein (with a museum honouring his presence), Bern gives the impression of having been designed by an ancient predecessor of a Tourist Office. Compact and clean, with pure air, striking architecture, covered outdoor arcades, traditional shopping precincts and markets, and a swiftly flowing river which winds through the city, complete with bridges and high views.

Bern busker

In the cool evenings, the city square is filled with spacious open street restaurants and buskers (one of which is a puppeteer’s doll, seemingly skilled on the violin).

There is a chocolate-box quality to the place and, not surprisingly, there are chocolate emporiums aplently. Our favourite was Laderach, which offers a particularly delectable dark blend with strawberries and pink peppercorns.  There are cake bears at the other sweet shops – a local delicacy.

Bern's Einstein museum

Add that to the Bern motif, an enclosure of brown bears residing in a cage down by the river, and a large moulded beast straddling a wire across a nearby bridge by the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, and you readily reach the conclusion that Bern is bear crazy.

In March, Bern’s version of “Carnival” takes place when a mythical bear imprisoned in the Prison Tower is woken from his winter sleep by the ychüblete (drumming) and released. Masked revellers brave the winter temperatures and swarm through the streets and restaurants (including the 350-year-old Klotzlikeler) of the Old Town. Guggenmusik-Cliques (bands of carnival musicians) make the six-kilometres route along Bern’s arcaded promenade vibrate with their wild rhythms and noisy percussive music.

Bern's intricate cathedral art

Though there is a Schnit International Short Film Festival with Bern as one of eight participating cities, a Bern “Grand Prix” where thousands run along “the ten most beautiful miles in the world”, a Buskers Festival, a world-famous jazz club (Marian’s Jazzroom), Christmas Markets on Bear’s Square and at Kambly, and a September Sichhlete Festival which combines a harvest, livestock and folk festivals, and the four-day Gurten Music Festival – reached only on a funicular called the Gurtenbahn – showcasing some 60 live acts of all contemporary genres – it needs be said that there is little of the French joie de vivre that one finds in, say, Geneva.

Though the citizenry is faultlessly helpful – particularly when it comes to negotiating the network of trams and buses which can take you beyond the immediate city limits – the smiles and banter one encounters are more likely to be from other visitors.  There is a certain general abandon, though, down by the river under Parliament House. The normal gleeful splashing in a pool is to be heard but the real attraction is the use of the Aare River as a means of rapid transport cum recreation.

Bern's tourists

The crisp and deep waters that sweep down from the Bernese Alps can take you a few hundreds metres or from one side of the city and out the other. There is no need for a canoe or kayak, just hurl yourself (perhaps with your possessions in a watertight pouch) into the torrent from one of the platforms and, when you wish to alight, strike out toward the shore, grab one of the steel bars protruding from a platform and drag yourself onto land.

A first attempt can be a little, let’s say, challenging and even a tad terrifying, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an almost addictive experience. On a busy day, there are quite literally hundreds of bobbing heads being swept past your eyeline. All looking rather joyful for the experience.

Bern river



Lisbon - Portugal - Lisbon tramways by Glenn A. Baker

All great cities have a legend or two. Some weave their marketing motif around them. Mythical figures and tall tales are claimed and even fought over when it comes to setting one centre of civilisation apart from another.

Though Lisbon is a pivotal port of such vast, impressive documented history that it hardly needs the added sheen, it is quite prepared to toss into its tourist-teasing mix the story of how the Greek hero Ulysses founded the city on his way home from Troy.

While that can be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish, it does seem certain that the Phoenicians established a trading post on the site, there on the left bank of the Tagus River just inside the rugged Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, around 1200 BC and it is certain that the Romans came by in 205 BC and installed Julius Caesar as governor sixty years before Christ.

Lisbon - Sintra, Lisbon

It must have been a pleasing posting; it still would be. The city is bright and white, sparkling in a sun that never seems to be absent. It boasts springtime temperatures during the winter and cool summers invigorated by Atlantic breezes. The food is rich and plentiful, the architecture stirring and enveloping, the panoramas broad and breathtaking. With the intertwining of old and new realms has come another realm again, appealing as it is unique, as inexpensive as it is intriguing.

Claiming over twenty centuries of history, Lisbon has been Portugal’s formal capital since its conquest from the Moors in 1147. Some see it as the first true world city, the centre point of an empire spreading across the continents and sub-continents. All the western European nations amassed colonies but the Portuguese Empire was the first, longest-lasting and perhaps most diverse. After its flag was flown at Ceuta on the North African coast in 1415, this small nation took its language, culture and cuisine to Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, the Azores, Goa, Brazil, Macau and East Timor – where it remains to this day.

That it was recognised by even its adversaries as the City of Explorers was due to Prince Henrique the Navigator who established a navigation school at Sagres which made possible Vasco da Gama’s epic journey to India that fulfilled the Medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient, and initiated other epic adventures of discovery by Bartholomew Dias and Ferdinand Magellan (sailing for the Spanish crown). Like the bar scene in Star Wars, Lisbon was a crossroads of the universe, a magnet for wayfarers. In 1477, Christopher Columbus was in residence and, with his brother, worked as a cartographer and studied geography before taking up sea-borne commissions to the North Atlantic and Africa. It seemed the right place to do it.

Lisbon - Lisbon 14 by GAB

“To someone born and raised in a Mediterranean sea port, his new home must have seemed magical, alive with anticipation,” contends historian Thomas Tirado. “Sitting at the mouth of the Tagus, Lisbon’s rhythm was that of the crashing ocean at its doorstep. Thrusting into the Atlantic, facing water on two sides, Portugal had become a center for maritime activity and Lisbon was a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents.”

Since 1960, on the riverbank in the Avenida de Brasilia in the district of Belem where the Tagus meets the sea and the mighty ships of sail first set off to lay claim to the New World 500 years before, the Portuguese Age of Discovery has been marked by the imposing Monument to the Discoveries. It’s a good place to start your own expedition, given its proximity to the Tower of Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage site that could well be the city’s most photographed edifice. Built in the 16th century to serve as a fortress in the middle of the River Tagus, its outer walls are adorned with a stone-carved rope and openwork balconies, as well as Moorish watchtowers and shield-shaped battlements.

Draped, like Rome, around seven hills, Lisbon is a walking city. It not only gives you ready access to the restaurants, taverns and markets, to the churches and cobblestone alleyways, but ensures that you fully appreciate the mosaic pavements, tiled facades, wrought-iron balconies, tall houses and churches for which it is famed and that you take full advantage of the strategically-positioned miradouros (viewpoints) that seem to present panoramas at every turn. Of course, it helps to know where to walk and where to start – which of those seven hills.

Lisbon - Lisbon 20 by GAB

It could be the highest of them, the one crowned by the moated St. George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), guarding the Tagus, a fortress since the 5th century that came into its own during the Moorish occupation of the 10th when it was the ancient seat of the Saracens. There you can walk esplanades, climb ramparts and filter your gaze and eventually yourself down over the spread of the medieval Alfama district, the city’s most ancient quarter where many buildings display fading coats of arms bearing testimony to the fact that what would become (and, in some cases, still is) the home of stevedores, traders and sailors was once a most aristocratic quarter. Having largely survived the massive earthquake of 1755, it is true to its original layout and adjacent to it, on the western and northern slopes, are the nearly-as-old districts of Castelo and Mouraria.

But it perhaps should be Lapa das Mouras (the Moorish Rock) in Barrio da Lapa, the exclusive western quarter of the city (a twenty minute walk from downtown) that has long been the residential district of choice for nobility, foreign diplomats and the significantly wealthy. It is said to exemplify, with its shading trees, thick gardens and grand buildings (many now embassies) the 19th century Portuguese concept of “calming luxury”.

Like Columbus, Sandro Fabris is an Italian who settled in Lisbon, a city he also found alive with anticipation and not a little magical. One of those larger-than-life characters who can analyse Umberto Eco, accurately hum the sweep of symphonies, pluck a passage from an historical biography or cite lines from a slew of cinema classics, argue the importance of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and tell you about his embryonic book of photographs and anecdotes of the markets of the world – all within ten minutes of meeting you – he was considered such an asset by both countries that Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy, conferred the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity upon him when he last dropped by Portugal.

Lisbon - Cascais 1 by GAB

As, until recently, General Manager of the opulent Lapa Palace Hotel, Fabris was the king of his own castle on Lapa das Mouras, such a sturdy guide on what must be seen and done that it is hard to believe that he was also a visitor. Fresh from preserving treasures in Venice, he enthusiastically took upon the task of maintaining the remarkable standards of a remarkable building; a lavish private house built in 1870 and transformed into a palace thirteen years later by the Counts of Valenças.

And what a palace it was. Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, one of the greatest Portuguese ceramists of the 19th century, created pieces of furniture and tiles. Columbano, the celebrated “painter of broken souls”, applied his art to the walls and ceilings. There was a ballroom, a Louis XV room (used as a ladies’ boudoir), a Noble Floor, river view towers and all manner of splendour. A family home until 1992 when the family of the Count sold it, it was turned into a hotel six years later by the family Simões de Almeida and then acquired by the Orient Express group.

The Lapa Palace has become accustomed to lavish praise, celebrated by a raft of reviewers as “Lisbon’s smartest hotel with luxuriant gardens”, “a voluptuous retreat” and “a hidden gem in Lisboa”. It hosts concerts by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Lisbon and the Ballet School of Lisbon uses its health club as a workout home, sharing the facilities with a steady stream of guests of renown, ranging from more crown heads of Europe than can be counted to Sting, Cher, U2, Catherine Deneuve, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Robin Williams, George W. Bush and a brace of Nobel Prize winners. When they were in residence, Sandro was in attendance though the most you’ll get from this discreet hotelier about the demands placed upon he and his team was, “…generally speaking the important people are not a problem, it’s their entourage which is difficult to manage.”

Lisbon - Lapa Palace, Lisbon

From Barrio da Lapa, it is a quick cab ride down to the main squares, the imposing statues, the seafront, the theatres, the tramcars tackling impossibly steep rises and the Bairro da Alto – the Upper City. An historic enclave like the Alfama, dating back to 1513, it is, as one guide book gushes, “a colourful district that resounds to the calls of vendors and fishmongers, its windows and balconies festooned with laundry and bird cages”. Reached from the lower city by the Santa Justa Elevator (sort of a mini Eiffel Tower), it really comes into its own at night when visitors come to streets lit by Victorian lamps to frequent the Fado cafes, fado being a music and dance form of lament and despair not unlike the blues that was introduced to Portugal by 19th century African slaves.

There is so much packed in to Lisbon, so much reward for investigation, that is seems almost greedy to want more. Yet foolish be the visitor who chooses not to take the brief bus or train ride to Sintra, billed as a riot of 14th century palaces and 19th century pastel-coloured whimsy architecture. The poet Lord Byron described it as a “glorious Eden … perhaps the most delightful spot in Europe” and his view was shared by UNESCO which has bestowed further World Heritage status.

The Serra de Sintra is a ten kilometre long granite outcrop thrusting upward between a vast plain to the north and the Tagus estuary to the south. This twisting mini-mountain range projects into the Atlantic Ocean as the Cabo da Roca headland – continental Europe’s westernmost point. Anciently associated with astral cults – evidence of which is seen in archeology and myriad monuments – it came to be known as Mons Lanae (Hills of the Moon) and, thanks to a micro-climate all its own, has always been draped in dense, verdant vegetation.

Lisbon - Lisbon 39 by GAB

Portugal’s tourism bodies seem to move into the highest of their gears when selling Sintra. Earnestly assuring that “The visitor can choose between descending into the Neolithic era at Tholos do Monge; enjoying the view of distant horizons from the walls of the Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th century Moorish defensive construction; experiencing the harsh austerity of the Franciscan monks of Convento dos Capuchos; strolling through the delightful mysteries of the Palacio da Pena, a mythically magical palace that seems more like a continuation of the actual mountain; or savouring the nooks and crannies of the Parque da Pena, a place of love and exoticism that exudes great peace and serenity”.

None of which is overstated, for a day spent negotiating the labyrinthine streets and steps and poking about the palaces and examining the art is a day exceedingly well spent.

The same can be said about a swift sweep down the coast to Cascais which, with nearby Estoril and Guincho, is a stylish summer resort zone of sea-swept seafood restaurants, flash resort hotels, nightclubs and discotheques intertwined with 15th to 18th century churches, hermitages, fortresses and a sea museum. Here are the hotels and bars, some still intact, where Nazi and Allied spies swapped secrets and did deals during World War II. The places where those desperate souls prepared to do anything to obtain travel documents in Casablanca dreamed of finding themselves. The places that contemporary author Robert Wilson weaves so wonderfully into gripping historical thriller-fiction in A Small Death In Lisbon and The Company of Strangers.

Lisbon - Lisbon 05 by GAB

With today’s tourism flow there is perhaps greater interest in seeking out the shop, on the way to Cascais, where the Portuguese Tart was first baked. The queues extending out onto the footpath have a strong English component, as does the southern Algarve region, the destination for more than a few charter flights out of London and land of the time share arrangement and holiday hotel. The connection between the Poms and the Portuguese is long and strong, with the Iberian inhabitants more often with them than against them during skirmishes with France and Spain over the centuries. Even while sticking to its policy of neutrality, Portugal granted Britain the right to establish a naval base on the strategically important Acores Island in 1943, to Germany’s considerable displeasure.

Before he departed for Madeira, Sandro Frabris liked to think that he’d fingered the source of solidarity. It is all about a gift of practice and culture that rather took on in a kingdom not always united. “When Catherine Braganza went to Britain to marry Charles II, she took tea with her,” he explained simply. Seems he shared that one with Sting while adding lemon.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.


Rome07Four Stooges321

The Colosseum of ancient Rome was a circus in more ways than one. Completed in 80AD, it hosted entertainment for the masses, and what entertainment it was! Up to 50,000 spectators would watch the ultimate in populist entertainment including recreations of famous Roman battles, animal hunts and fierce gladiatorial battles to the death.

It was completed largely under the patronage of the familial rulers of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian and his son, Titus. Suetonius, who displayed an engagingly contemporary regard for gossip and scandal, went so far as to consider Titus (no relation to Shakespeare’s gore-soaked opportunist) a worthy emperor, one of the good guys as we’d say today, and thus the Colosseum remains one of his greatest legacies.

In modern times, the Colosseum is still a circus although a little worse for the wear and tear of the ages. Togas have been replaced by logo t-shirts and baggy cargo shorts, leather sandals by the gleaming white runners of the elderly American tourists who look as if the furthest they’ve ever jogged is to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet.

They cram inside the Colosseum’s massive brooding walls, gazing out on the broken arena and possibly reflecting on Russell Crowe in Gladiator or, as Dr Frank-N-Furter once so grandly remarked, “an old Steve Reeves movie”. Oiled pecs gleaming in the sun, the glinting fury of swords cleaving human flesh, the deafening roar of a crowd maddened by blood lust. The images flow readily in a place where the atmosphere leaches from the weathered stone blocks like slowly-melting gelato.

Rome07Four Stooges324

Any thoughts of Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain a couple of blocks away or Audrey Hepburn, regally serene astride a Vespa with William Holden, seem like another Rome altogether. The Colosseum is blood, sweat and tears for the ages.

Outside, the snaking lines of tourists are tempted by hunky Romans dressed up as gladiators. For a few Euros, nothing less, they’ll be photographed flirting with the ladies and menacing the men with their plastic swords. Their scowls have been carefully crafted over years of mirror-gazing to maximum effect. Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone had nothing on these guys.

Yet, amongst the many locals eager to share a Kodak moment for the EU equivalent of a fistful of lira, the most popular were those I came to think of as the Four Stooges. Three were attired in the leather skirts and gold breastplates of Roman soldiers, the fourth as an emperor resplendent down to his crimson robes, gleaming laurel wreath and air of taciturn indifference (or else he’d seen The Great Beauty one too many times and was yearning for a colourful linen jacket and contrasting puff-pointed pocket square). They were gregarious and entertaining, jokes at the ready, flashing smiles and deadly poses for a never-ending line of delighted tourists.

The startlingly handsome gladiators, with cheekbones as sharp as their plastic swords were blunt, kicked the dirt in rejection. There was no competing with the Four Stooges and they knew it. They were the vanquished of the modern-day Colosseum, their humiliation as final as any suffered within its walls.

Words and photos © David Latta