Back at ground level, we push open the heavy cathedral door. The interior is astonishing. ‘Construction work on the Minster was suspended during the Reformation. The magnificent Catholic vaulted ceiling above the choir stalls had already been completed by then. It is thought that the city of Bern exempted it from the iconoclasm organized by the authorities because it had been financed out of the city purse – or perhaps the beautifully painted masonry figures were just too high up to reach. But it means that the choir of Bern Minster is unusually opulent among Reformed churches.’
In Bern, the bear is omnipresenent
We take a little refreshment beneath the horse chestnut trees on the Minster terrace and enjoy the view of the Aare and Kirchenfeld Bridge. ‘Look over there,’ Martin says. There is a bustle of activity. People of all ages are involved in a game. Some are smoking. ‘Bankers, students and politicians all meet up to play pétanque here.’ We watch for a while, pondering on the ability of public figures to mingle freely here. We move on. We use what must be the weirdest form of transport in the city: for 1.20 francs a head, the ‘Senkeltram’, a historic lift, lowers us 31 metres in a matter of seconds to the Mattenquartier district, from where we walk to the bear pit, now known as Bear Park. ‘The people of Bern were already keeping the animal that gave the city its name and coat of arms in a pit at least 450 years ago. What we’re looking at now is the fourth version of it, inaugurated in 1857 and replaced in 2009 by a park with an area of more than 6000 square metres,’ Martin explains, a fount of local knowledge. That’s good, we think, because as amusing as it may once have been to watch the antics of Bruin in his prison cave, it reminds us of the degrading and unnatural conditions the animals were kept in for centuries.