“Matte was the red-light district of Bern,” my Airbnb host Alexandra nonchalantly informs me about the historic quarter we’re staying in. I do a double take, and she laughs, “Of course, this was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Did you know that Casanova also amused himself here?” Well, the Italian adventurer who was infamous for his dalliances seems to have left a trail across half of Europe. A couple of years ago I had visited his prison cell in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, from where he escaped to France and later to Switzerland. In 1760 when he arrived in Bern, Mattequartier was replete with bathhouses that doubled up as brothels.
Today’s Mattequartier is a different place, thoroughly gentrified from being an industrial, working class neighbourhood to a haven for artists, students, young couples, and families. I was travelling solo in Switzerland and when I arrive in Bern, I decide to stay in Matte because of its proximity to the main train station and the old town centre, which is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site.
Switzerland is relatively safe but I prefer renting an Airbnb apartment from a woman, especially if I will be sharing the place with the host. I loved the look of Alexandra’s flat, where I stayed for a night. The living room is awash with light from the big windowpanes, the colour scheme is a cool blue-and-white, and there’s a big bookcase against one wall (though the novels are in German). The bathroom and kitchen are spic and span, and the folding bed in the living room with its butter-yellow sheets, is comfortable.
Bern is a compact city without the usual trappings of a capital. Switzerland has no official capital, as it’s a confederation or a federal state; being the seat of the government, Bern is the de facto capital. Here’s how to make the most of the city and experience it through a locals eye:
At Alexandra’s suggestion I head to the tram stop Nydegg (the closest stop from Mattequartier), which also give me my first taste of the steep stairways that link the lower and upper parts of Bern. From here it’s a short tram ride to the old town and it brings me to the Bundeshaus. The imposing Swiss Parliament building stands in Bundesplatz, a former parking lot now the centre for Bern’s social life. It hosts weekly markets, political rallies and cultural events. Come winter, it transforms into an ice-skating rink.
From Bundesplatz, I walk to the Zytglogge, Bern’s iconic medieval Clock Tower. Along the way, I notice the ubiquitous public water fountains; Bern is known as the City of Fountains, and has more than 100 of them. In the Old City there are a dozen fountains that are decorated with allegorical figures, which are supposed to drive home social and moral lessons. “Don’t miss the Ogre Fountain (Kindlifresserbrunnen)”, Alexandra had urged me; it is perhaps the most striking, depicting an ugly monster devouring a child, while carrying a bagful of kids who will possibly meet the same fate. It’s enough to give anyone nightmares! Atop another fountain (Pfeiferbrunnen) stands a barefoot bagpiper in a powder-blue cloak, playing pipes. His bare feet are supposed to signify his exclusion from society (for sins unknown). In front of the Clock Tower is the Schützenbrunnen or the Musketeer fountain, where a bearded soldier stands in full armour; strangely his musket is in the hands of a monkey who sits at his feet, taking aim as you walk by.
I walk further along Kramgasse, Bern’s high street lined on either side by arcade passages called lauben. These covered walkways run the entire length of the street, connecting the sandstone buildings above. The lauben house shops, restaurants, cafes and trendy bars. At No. 49 stands the house where Albert Einstein spent his most productive years, even coming up with his Theory of Relativity while living in the second-floor rental flat.
I continue to Bern’s Gothic cathedral Berner Münster, craning my neck to see the spire of the tallest cathedral in Switzerland. The cathedral stands next to the Münsterplattform, a lush park that overlooks the lower part of the city, including Mattequartier and the River Aare that loops around the old city.
There are several stone or wooden staircases connecting the upper parts of Bern to Mattequartier, as well as an electric passenger lift. I walk down the steps to head back to my Airbnb apartment. On the way a street plaque inscribed with a message catches my eye. It’s definitely not written in German. Alexandra tells me that it is one of the few surviving written records of Mattenenglisch, a sort of pig Latin that the people of the Matte invented to communicate among themselves without others (and especially the police) understanding them. The language had complex rules of substituting vowels and moving around consonants, and was in use till mid-20th century. The plaque apparently says “You will not find Napoleon’s gold here”, referring to the legend that a lot of the gold that Napoleon looted from Bern in 1798 is still buried around the city.
A secret language, Casanova’s escapades and Napoleon’s gold—I’m glad I picked my Airbnb apartment in this little quarter of Bern, so steeped in history and legends.
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is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.
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