Green-turquoise under the cloudless sky, the water flowed at a pace I was unable to match – and I was walking with a fixed time-limit and purpose.
Was I really going to risk a swim in the Aare river? Was this early morning ritual, so popular with the citizens of Bern, going to be a baptism into Swiss life or a brush with a watery death?
My guide, Petra, had warned of the perils of underestimated the strength of the current: I decided that if my life were about to flash before my eyes, I’d review the last few days before I took the plunge and relive my weekend in Bern….
The Swiss say that the citizens of Bern walk, talk and live at a slower pace than people in any other canton. On arrival in the town in Switzerland, it’s evident that this is true.
After the frenetic perpetual motion of London, I found myself immediately having to adjust to the laid-back Bernese flow.
Perhaps it’s rooted in the secure knowledge that public transport provides such a characteristic punctuality, frequency and reliability that there’s no need to run to catch the bus, tram or train: there’ll be another one along very soon at the exact time it says on the timetable. Even the taxis are there when you need them, however spontaneously.
It took a short taxi ride to transport me from the Bahnhof (central train station) to Swissôtel Kursaal, Bern, just over the Konhallebrücke. I could just have easily caught the Number 9 tram or the bus (route 10) to arrive within minutes at the grand main entrance of the Kursaal.
At the Swissôtel Kursaal Bern I was immediately immersed in a guest experience that reflects a national attitude, a city mood and an individual mindset.
Karin Kunz, the general manager inspires and leads a team of staff which works seamlessly to create an ambience of indulgence, generosity and luxury without it becoming stiff, formal and overbearing. She explained to me that the guest experience is always at the forefront of her mind and that of her staff.
Embedded into that guest experience is the concept of wellness.
The Kursaal provides an holistic travel experience: lush bathroom products made from locally sourced indredients; mindful-colouring cards in each room; hand-size leaflets showing nearby jogging routes.
Recently refurbished, the Kursaal now boasts a range of beautiful, sustainably furnished and specifically designed rooms.
A number of ‘economy’ rooms have been created aimed at the business and conference guest (but absolutely meeting the needs of the leisure guest who simply wishes to have a quiet, uncluttered haven from the sightseeing and sporting opportunities of the city and surroundings).
At the next level of luxury, my double room had a balcony and panoramic view over the centuries-old city centre, complimentary mini-fridge and, after my journey, very welcome tea and coffee-making facilities with cups, glasses and teabags/coffee-pods stored in a carefully designed drawer.
The attention to detail and sustainability is remarkable: circular motifs echo the 17th Century traditional silhouettes on the walls and the coffee mugs; the materials used in furnishings are repurposed and eco-friendly; Karin is currently working on a project the recycle worn bedsheets and towels into chef’s whites, staff uniforms and aprons for the local schools.
I was treated to the opportunity to have a quiet, personal workout in one of the new, innovative and luxurious suites available to book for guests who want a unique opportunity to stay at the Kursaal whilst fully engaging with their own wellbeing.
Complete with apparatus for personal workouts, the Vitality Suites provide personal training via a selection of effort-adjustable, pre-programmed, virtual training sessions.
By following the instructions on the touchscreen, guests can make use of the yoga and Pilates equipment, Belgian-bag-style handweights, wall bars and resistance machines to do their individual workouts while gazing out toward the Swiss alps from the privacy of their own rooms – rather than use the hotel gym or complete one of the running routes suggested by the hotel.
Once the workout is complete and the equipment replaced in its discrete cupboard, aching muscles can be soothed in the suite’s huge, free-standing bath or refreshed in the rain-shower, after which the guest might choose to wander down to the restaurant to replace the calories with their choice from the healthy, vitality-focussed menu or try something more indulgent for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Sustainability, avoiding food waste and supporting local producers underpins the approach of the Kursaal chefs and as well as the hotel producing their own honey from rooftop beehives, they use cheeses and charcuterie from the excellent Jumi co-operative based just outside of Bern, meat and dairy from Bernese producers as well as breads, fruit and vegetables from the local farmers’ markets (visit them at the Saturday market in the streets and squares near the Bundesplatz).
The result is a menu that positively bubbles with traditional, rich Swiss flavours alongside innovative, light and healthy dishes.
If I were to float off in the river Aare, at least I would have enough ballast, having eaten well in the hotel and indulged in the famous black vanilla ice cream from Eiswerkstatt (near the BärenPark at the Altes Tramdepot Brauerei & Restaurant, Gr. Muristalden 6) to say nothing of a delicious dinner at the Kornhaukeller (known to the locals as ‘Chübu’) by the Kornhausbrücke and a slow stroll’s distance from the hotel).
I did work off plenty of the calories though: Bern itself is compact and easily explored by foot.
I used the bus to visit the Zentrum Paul Klee (Monument im Fruchtland 3, take the Line 12 from BärenPark for a 5-minute ride to the gallery) but the tour of the Zytglogge (check online for current booking times and terms but at time of writing for 20 Swiss Francs visitors can enjoy an hour-long tour of the inside of this UNESCO world heritage site clock and it’s environs), the Munster, the Matte quarter and the many shopping streets (designer labels, gelaterie, cafés and restaurants line both sides under the 6km of porticos and the cellars beneath) – all that was done on foot.
I earned my visit to the Matte gin-emporium, where I dulled the discomfort of my aching feet with a (well, maybe a couple) gin and tonic from this small-scale gin distillery unique in and to Bern.
I was fascinated by the history of the evolution of the Matte Brenerei from plumbers’ merchant through ‘rocker-bar’ to its speakeasy vibe that not only offers gin workshops and blending sessions but also a popular and friendly place to enjoy a drink just off Wassergasse. Try the Fleur-de-Gin mixed with the Brenerei’s own blend of tonic water: it changes colour when the tonic is added.
So there I was; rewinding the mental recording of my weekend in Bern before immersing myself in the River Aare… taking a deep breath… thinking about the warming coffee promised for afterwards…
And I did it! There can’t be many more exhilarating ways to start the day than swimming in the Aare. I can completely understand why the citizens of Bern regularly check their Aare Schwumm app (for water temperature and safety advice) and take the plunge.
There are alternatives in the shape of the four free, public, outdoor swimming pools on the banks of the river but for the full-on vitality experience I can heartily recommend the river version of this rite of passage.
The Swissôtel Kursaal’s in-house expert, Petra is happy to initiate guests into the delights of the Aare – her enthusiasm is infectious – and her guidance and advice made the experience safe and utterly enjoyable.
I’d do it again in an instant.
In fact, I’d do the whole Bern experience again in an instant. Swiss life in this laidback, lovely little city, the capital of Switzerland, is worth taking the time to savour.
It’s possible to fly direct to Bern airport (in nearby Belp) but I flew SWISSair from Heathrow to Zurich Flughafen.
Trains run frequently from the airport to the Hauptbahnhof in the centre of Zurich which is a hub for catching trains to anywhere in the country (and for international train lines) but there are trains direct from the airport to Bern – journey time around 1½ hours.
Tickets can be booked online and downloaded in the form of a QR code. There are no ticket barriers on stations but inspections will be made on the train itself.
Getting around in Bern
Download the Bern app. Any hotel will supply a verification code to get you free travel on trams/buses for your stay.
You must have a validated ticket to travel but the system works on trust rather than having to do anything else with the ticket itself. The app also provides information about things to see, places to eat/drink, where to enjoy outdoor activities, shopping, art and culture.
Where to stay
To stay at Swissôtel Kursaal Bern, look at www.swissotel.com for room rates and availability.
If you decide to take the Aare river swim, don’t underestimate the current, the temperature of the water and the risks involved.
Seek advice and guidance from your hotel (the Kursaal has the lovely Petra as a fabulous resource for this activity) and do not try to do the swim alone.
Try the four free public riverside pools as an alternative.
Guided tours of the Zytglogge and UNESCO heritage site city centre can be booked online to join a ‘public’ tour or book a private group tour in English (20SF for adults, 15SF for seniors/students).
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