Tradition has it that in1405 the people of Fribourg helped save the Swiss city of Bern from a fire which almost destroyed it, and were rewarded with the right to sell onions. Since then, on the forth Monday of November, the federal capital of Switzerland has been full to the brim with onions, garlic and visitors who flock to the annual Zibelemarit, or Onion market. This unique event is a huge tourist attraction, which finds, for one day a year, the entire city swamped under 50 tons of onions.
The ancient square is transformed into an enormous market; stalls draped with strings of onions or tied into ornamental ropes with dried flowers and bulbs of garlic. Creative stall holders turn tiny onions into decorative figures; little men and women dressed in Swiss National Costume, Sants’s, Chefs, witches; toadstools, penguins, cats and dogs, fish…if you can imagine it, you can make it from onions! Colourful strings of sugar onions in assorted flavours tempt children, and the young at heart, and an occasional vendor also takes advantage of the time of year to sell a few christmas goodies.
The crowds of visitors on this day have little choice but to shuffle shoulder to shoulder through the narrow aisles between stalls, while mischievous youngsters hurl handfuls of brightly coloured confetti, and playfully whack strangers on the head with squeaky plastic hammers.
No market would be complete without pentiful supplies of warm red or white spiced gluwein, or non alcoholic apple juice for the children and drivers. Mouthwatering smells permeate the air, emerging from food stalls and restaurants that fringe the square; onion tarts, onion pies, onion soup, what else would be on todays menu?
This traditional folk festival only lasts for one day each year, kicking off with an early start at 5.00 am, and ending with an enormous confetti battle at around 4.00pm, but of course Bern has much more to offer the visitor than onion tart and a face full of confetti.
The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perched on a hilly peninsular surrounded by an elegant loop of water formed by the Aare River. More than 100 public fountains supply the city, and eleven of these still feature Renaissance statues dating from 1550. Mothers still bring unruly children to see the statue of an ogre eating a sackful of children, a warning of what will happen if they don’t behave.
At the centre of the city, is the grand clock tower, or Zytglogge, which dates from the early 13th century. This landmark was once the point from which the distances on milestones along cantonal roads were measured, today tourists flock to to see the 800 year old astronomical clock, and the parade of mechanical figures that mark the striking of the hour. 21st century children might be a little underwhelmed by this mechanical wonder, but nevertheless it remains a marvel of its time.
Nearby, you can visit the flat where Albert Einstein lived with his wife and son between 1903 and 1905. It was during his time here that his theory of relativity began to take shape. You can picture him on his way to work at the Patents Office, watching the clock face from his tram and contemplating travel at the speed of light.
The heraldic crest of Bern features a standing bear, and indeed bears have been associated with the city since the 16th century, when they were housed in a small bear pit, or Barenplatz. Today, the tiny inhumane bear pit has been replaced and the animals are housed in bear-luxury; a custom built park which runs along the banks of the river. Here they can play, climb, fish and hibernate at their own leisure, while visitors watch from behind reinforced glass screens.
When you have ticked everything on your list of things to do and see in Bern, don’t forget to take a step back and admire the view of the charming old town and the enchanting river with their backdrop of snow capped Bernese Alps; visitors have been admiring this beautiful city for hundreds of years and will continue to do so for hundreds more.