Bern Stories and Tips

The Fountains of Bern... And More

Anna Seiler Brunnen Photo, Bern, Switzerland

Bern, for those not in the know (as we were before this trip), was named for the bear. Or rather, for a dead bear, since that was the first animal to be hunted and killed by a local ruler when he first set up shop here. Bern, makes much of the bear. Bear representations are all over the place—we saw them on flags fluttering along the streets of the Old Town; we saw them in murals outside buildings; as part of the parade of mechanical figures on the Clock Tower; on countless souvenirs; even embossed on manhole covers. And yes, we also saw a fountain with an upright statue of a bear clad in chainmail and helmet, equipped with fearsome weaponry.

Which brings me to the fountains. Frankly, I tend to associate an abundance of fountains with Rome. So, when I read in our trusty guidebook that Bern has lots of fountains (most of them very old—15th and 16th century), I was exuberant. I adore fountains, the more ornate the better (which is why Rome was a hit with me). I was still gushing, happy as a clam, when we got out of Bahnhofplatz, obtained a map of the city from the local tourist information centre, and set off down Spitalgasse. Approximately halfway down the street, we came upon the first of the fountains, the Pfeiferbrunnen—the Piper’s Fountain, and reality kicked in. Unlike the fountains of Rome, the Bernese fountains aren’t elaborate, huge affairs with gallons of water gushing all over the place. If you’re expecting something like the Trevi or the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona, let me disillusion you: these are smaller, way smaller. Each fountain is basically a tiny outlet for water, a circular stone basin into which up to four narrow pipes dribble water. By and large, the only decorative element is the statue that surmounts the fountain—and these are what make Bern’s fountains in a class by themselves. The statues are always carved, vividly painted and gilded, and though they don’t look like high art, they’re eye-catching enough.

The Piper’s Fountain, for instance, has (well, obviously!) a piper, dressed in blue and red, playing what looks like a Swiss version of bagpipes. At his feet, looking up with a definitely annoyed expression, is a large bird—a crane or a heron, perhaps. And all down the column, till the fountain itself, are more decorations: bells, swags of greenery, a little group of dancing jesters, gargoyle-like creatures, and more. All slightly eerie, though the cheerful band of orange-red geraniums around the fountain helps make it look a little friendlier.

A couple of minutes’ walk along Spitalgasse and we arrived at Bärenplatz, once a moat but now far from it. This is dominated by a large domed building with `Imperial German’ written all over it (figuratively, not literally) and a market of somewhat crummy stalls in front. A few steps beyond, and we went through the tunnel-like aperture of the Käfigturm (the Prison Tower), and onto Marktgasse. And here was yet another fountain, the Anna Seiler Brunnen. Anna Seiler’s claim to fame is that she helped fund the setting up of Bern’s first hospital in the 1300’s. Atta-girl! This fountain’s much like the Piper, in that it has a rim of geraniums around the rim, but that’s where it ends. The column in the centre of the fountain is plain grey stone, with not a shred of decoration on it until the very top, where a statue of Ms Seiler stands. She’s in a sort of Florence Nightingale-ish position, one hand holding a basin while the other empties a pitcher into it. Yes, I suppose you can’t really show her administering to a suffering patient: there’s just enough space to fit oneperson onto the top of the column.

At the far end of Marktgasse, we were faced with a dilemma: should we go straight, past the Clock Tower and down Kramgasse, or should we turn left towards Kornhausplatz, where the deliciously evil Kindlifresserbrunnen (the Ogre Fountain) stands? Kramgasse won, mainly because we decided we wanted to see the Münster and Einsteinhaus before lunch—and both lay in the direction of Kramgasse.

Beyond the Clock Tower, a bylane took us to Münstergasse and then onto Münsterplatz, with the cathedral looming magnificently in front—and yet another statue, very appropriately the Mosesbrunnen, stationed at the near end of the square. Moses obviously had more clout with the Bernese than poor Anna Seiler; his statue has some fancy carving and gilt on the column as well, and the square basin of the fountain itself is carved. As for Moses, he’s richly clothed in gold-trimmed blue and white, and holds the two tablets of the Ten Commandments in his left hand. His right hand points to the second commandment (thou shall have no other gods but me), according to our guidebook an important tenet of the Lutheran faith. The book is silent, however, about the strange clumps of stuff growing out of the top of Moses’s head, like bunny ears. Very strange. Tarun and I decided it was probably some fanciful way of denoting a halo.

Having duly seen—and admired—the Münster, we walked down Kreuzgasse and worked our way back along Kramgasse towards the Clock Tower, passing an unusually plain fountain on the way. This one had its circular basin, its rim of geraniums, some carving on the grey stone obelisk topping it, but that was all. Even the official tourist map, though it showed a little icon of the fountain, didn’t bother to assign a name to it.

So on we went, to the next of the lot: the Simsonbrunnen, the Samson Fountain. This one’s striking, the statue lavishly gilded and the column below painted in stripes of grey and orange-red. Samson doesn’t look even faintly Biblical—his clothes are definitely medieval European, and the curly hair and beard definitely not the flowing locks one would have expected. The gilded lion whose jaws Samson’s pulling apart has a much longer mane, though his ribs stick out so much, we wondered if Samson should’ve got credit for bumping off a creature so emaciated.

A few steps further along the street, we came to another statue, and one which we unanimously accorded Number One position on our list: it’s so representative of Bern! This is the Zähringerbrunnen, in honour of Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, founder of Bern (also the guy supposed to have killed that first bear after whom Bern was named). The column is painted and gilded in stripes along the sides and topped off with some nude torsos at the top. The Zähringen statue is, appropriately enough, a statue of a bear dressed in chainmail and bristling with gilt-hilted swords and daggers. In his right paw he holds a red-and-gold standard. The best bit about him is his helmet: it’s golden (not very effective as a means of defence, I’d think) with a sort of dome on top and a cage-like front. Cool! And as if that wasn’t enough bear, there’s a small bear sitting at his feet too.

By this time, we were very hungry, so we trotted off towards Kornhausplatz—and what’s perhaps Bern’s most famous fountain, the Kindlifresserbrunnen, the Ogre Fountain. The base of this one is trimmed with gilded and painted bears (Yes! What else?), wearing chain mail and carrying flags but with no helmets, sad to say. The statue at the top of the fountain is the biggie here: it’s an ogre with at least four naked and chubby babies in tow, all dangling from his belt by straps. He’s in the middle of eating a fifth kid, its plump bottom just about disappearing into his mouth. Ugh, ugh, ugh!! I don’t like my statues quite so graphic, especially not when I’m in the middle of lunch.

But yes, Bern’s fountains are worth it all. Not Rome, but endearing, interesting and with a character all their own.

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