Did Albert Einstein develop his Theory of Relativity while floating down the Aare River? If he was like most young people in the medieval Swiss city of Bern, he likely floated down one side of the city and up the other on the Aare River, which carves it into a perfect peninsula. It's a four-kilometre drift along the city's high fortress walls and around the sharp bend at the head of the peninsula. Drifters then pick up their inner tubes and walk a couple of blocks across the bottom of the city and start again.
Einstein was 21 when he moved to Bern in 1902, after his unremarkable graduation from a college in Zurich. Three years later in his small apartment at 49 Kramgasse, he came up with what is considered the most significant formula in modern science - E=mc2. That formula opened up the cosmos to us.
Einstein was working as a minor clerk in Bern's patent office when he composed the Theory of Relativity, plus several other formulas in physics and mathematics that allowed other geniuses to advance our knowledge over the years. His apartment, his neighbourhood, in fact his town, has changed little since those days, except there are fewer bears downtown.
Bern, the capital of Switzerland, means "bear" in German and a big brown bear is the city's emblem. That's why two dozen large brown bears used to live in the heart of the city in a concrete bear pit that citizens could come and watch - and torment, if they wished. The bear pit still attracts hundreds of visitors daily. It's a contentious issue in the city. Many animal rights advocates would like to see it closed. And many others like seeing bears in the city. Only two bears live there now, and they are big.
Despite the pit, Bern is considered one of the world's most charming capital cities. It has a population of only 130,000. The old town is more than 500 years old and sits atop the steep-sided walls of the fast-flowing river that makes a 180-degree turn in its midst. Few vehicles are allowed in the core, so the cobble-stone streets are busy with pedestrians, electric trams - some even operated by steam - and the highest number of sidewalk cafes per capita in Europe.
Its medieval streetscapes contain elaborate street fountains, wondrous clock towers, shopping arcades and attractive narrow alleys. Its small-town charm has persuaded UNESCO to declare Bern's old town a World Heritage Site. On a clear day you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the distance. Greenpeace wants more of those clear days. On the opening day of Parliament in June a dozen Greenpeace activists scaled the scaffolding framework wrapped around the large parliament buildings. The scaffolding was erected to clean the stone walls of the building. The activist hung large banners telling parliamentarians to clear the air too. It was just so Swiss.
The Greenpeacers hung for two hours in their climbing harnesses 100 feet off the ground while three cohorts blew those long, large Alpine horns in the square in front of Parliament. The handful of police merely watched until the protestors came back down.
The day before, that same square was filled with 15,000 athletic women. It was the finish line for Europe's biggest women's race, which Bern hosts every two years. The 10- and 15-kilometre races are conducted all day long for various qualifications.
More than 98 per cent of Switzerland's four million residents live within two kilometres of railway tracks. Travel by train is the fastest, most efficient and most economical method of touring Switzerland. But bicycles are very popular, too.
The first thing you see when exiting the train station at Bern is hundreds of bicycles parked on the sidewalks... many of them are not locked.
On our trip to Switzerland, we checked our bags with Swiss Air in Montreal and didn't see them again until they arrived in our hotel room in Bern. Now that's efficiency.
Although there are a few Einstein artifacts in his apartment, the Bern Historical Museum hosted the largest Einstein exhibition ever put together to mark the 100th anniversary of Einstein publishing his theory. Everything you ever wanted to know about Einstein, including his eclectic love life, was on display at the museum, which sits across the river from old town. The bridge connecting the two offers one of the best photographic locations in the city.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/