The Art of Loving Switzerland

The Swiss adage “es stimmt” means, roughly, “it fits.” When an Advocate editor goes in search of artistic and architectural delights—and maybe a gay Swiss miss or two—she indeed finds “es stimmt.” What better recommendation for a travel destination?

BY Anne Stockwell

January 11 2006 12:00 AM ET

Neuchâtel
& Bern, Saturday

Our droll guide,
Veronique, leads us through the narrow streets of
Neuchâtel to the heart of the ancient city. It’s
a trip through time as well. All the buildings are a
specific ocher yellow, she explains, because all the
stone came from a single quarry dating back to the
Romans. Since then, Neuchâtel has been through who
knows how much political hot-potato, with royal
marriage and war serving equally as discombobulators
of the status quo. But its cathedral dates way back, at
least parts of it. The foundations are Romanesque, including
double doors flanked on one side by the original
homophobe, Saint Paul, being chatted up by an
alert-seeming little devil. Suggesting some of those hateful
epistles, perhaps? We’ll never know. The
cathedral’s Gothic by the time we reach the
spires anyway.

Inside we see our
first fallout from Switzerland’s great conflict, the
Reformation—the battle between Roman Catholicism and
Protestantism. An elaborate medieval altar features
painted knights and carved ladies-in-waiting. But
during the graven-image-busting Reformation days, the
faces of the ladies were scraped away.

After the tour,
and a wistful stroll through the teeming farmers’
market in the ancient square—the
cheeses!—three of us take the train to Bern,
the capital of Switzerland, where we’ll park for a
longer stay. It’s not a long
ride—nothing in Switzerland seems to be.

Climbing up out
of the Bahnhof, we’re in German-speaking Switzerland
again. And this city is instantly likable. Our new hotel,
the Allegro, is just across the bridge. Meanwhile,
everybody’s shopping. Bern’s
centuries-old arcades protect the facades of many
malls’ worth of shops. There’s a rush on
at the grocery, the bakery, the Italian-leather store.
By law, businesses close at 4 p.m. and don’t reopen
till Monday morning. As the Zytglogge, Bern’s
famous clock tower, chimes four, you can literally see
the shoppers give it up, take a breath, and regroup for
beers and cigarettes at the restaurants that edge the plaza.

Neuchatel cathedral | Advocate.com
The cathedral at Neuchâtel

As night falls,
our host from Bern Tourism, Sandra, escorts us to dinner
at the restaurant Kornhauskeller. What a smashing
picture this massive, repurposed feudal cellar presents!
Down a broad stone stairway, my eye is compelled to an
enormous gilded disc that faces me across an expanse
of floor seating hundreds of diners. The great disc
seems like…what?…a gong, maybe? It pulls all
the elements together. Seated, we admire the heavy
vaulted ceiling, painted on every surface with Alpine
decorations.

On the way out, I
get a side view of that great golden gong. It’s a
barrel!

After dinner
it’s time to put on my Advocate hat and
check out the gay nightlife. The two bars we visit seem just
like Bern itself—laid-back, small enough to be
convivial, doing a roaring business with cute folks of
every age and gender. Aux Petits Fours (Kramgasse 67,
3011 Bern, phone 41 (0) 31 312 73 74, www.berninfo.com) is a tiny hole
in the wall right downtown amid the shops. The bartender
welcomes us in, but we’re off to the Samurai
Bar
, still in the shopping district, located up a
flight of stairs. The three good-sized rooms are
packed, the dance floor pounding. Instead of
techno—catnip to the European ear and punishment to
mine— there’s classic R&B and disco.
And here at last are the Swiss lesbians. They’re the
heart of the party, and it’s good to see that the
party includes everybody. Hot young boys, bartenders
(in suits!), stately homos, and even a fierce black
drag queen in a platinum wig.

Bern, Sunday

Margaret, our
guide for a walking tour of Bern, picks us up under a
shockingly blue sky and starts by explaining that Bern is
protected in a loop of the Aare River, a position that
allowed the old town to start on the riverbank and
grow backward from there. Crossing the bridge into the
old city, we’re time-traveling again. The gothic
roofs jut upward with nary a satellite dish in sight
(they’re forbidden).

Soon we’re
at the Münster, the city’s late-Gothic
cathedral. Its portico is covered with an extravagant
bas relief of the Last Judgment—so detailed
and, well, scary, that the graven-image purgers of the
Reformation left it the hell alone. Next comes the
Zytglogge, the medieval clock tower. Each hour as it
strikes it sets a whole crew of mechanical figures in
motion, the same circular actions every time.
What’s more, Margaret has the key to the tower; we
climb all the way up and see for ourselves the maze of
clockworks that have been ticking away for centuries.

Paul Klee Center | Advocate.com

The Paul Klee Center: a high-tech fantasy metropolis for hobbits.

This afternoon
we’re headed to one of the star attractions of our
tour: the new Paul Klee center, named for and
built to perpetuate the spirit of Switzerland’s
superstar artist. Assuming our high degree of gay
cultural literacy, I won’t go on and on about
who Klee was—although as it turned out, I was pretty
clueless about the man. Aside from creating the
whimsical masks and drawings familiar to our American
eyes, Klee was an architect and poet and musician
and…the list goes on.

When
Klee’s family—still living in
Bern—began to float the idea of a museum to
house their own Klee collection, 110 million francs were
raised from private sources to get the thing done.
There was one condition: This would be an active
place, not a hush-hush, high-art palace.

Rising up out of
a hill, dazzling in the sunlight, the center reminds me
of a high-tech fantasy metropolis for hobbits. Designed by
Italian architect Renzo Piano, it grows right out of a
grassy field, and as with a hobbit hole, its most
important surfaces are curved. Three “hills,”
successively smaller, serve the center’s multiple
uses. The biggest hill, on the left, houses the more
public functions. Downstairs from the cafe is a
theater equipped to allow 200 guests simul-translation in
three languages. Next door is an exhaustive
installation of Klee’s drawings. Back upstairs,
kids make their own art in the children’s section,
with materials available to everybody and instruction
for free.

The middle
“hobbit hill” houses a marvelous collection of
Klee’s color works, mounted with subdued
lighting designed to preserve his watercolors and
chalks and so on. The right “hill,” the
smallest, houses administrative offices and banks of
computer terminals that access the whole collection.
(At station after station, I found visitors furtively
checking their e-mail.)

The afternoon
flies by, and I hit the tram back just in time for our
dinner date with Hugo Furrer of Swiss Travel System, the
country’s amazingly comprehensive and
coordinated network of trains, buses, and boats. We
take a tram and then a funicular (!) across the banks of the
Aare into a drowsily beautiful neighborhood, where we hang
out over Italian food at Schwellenmätteli. Right on the
riverbank, this cluster of three restaurants is named for
the series of locks that slow the current down and
create the effect of a babbling brook. In summer, Hugo
tells us, the Bernese regularly put their work clothes
in a waterproof bag and go for a float down the
Aare’s currents at lunchtime.

Hugo is so much
fun, it would be easy to figure him for a dizzy party
boy. In fact, like one of the trains he oversees, he gets
where he’s going right on time. He wants us to
know about the Swiss Pass, an all-purpose, wallet-size
ticket that gets you onto nearly every train, tram,
bus, and boat in Switzerland. The big news: Starting in
2006, a Swiss Pass also gets you into the majority of
museums in the country. It’s so
sensible—one wallet-size piece of paper gets you
wherever you want to go. Family values (the financial
kind) figure prominently in the pricing too, with kids
under 12 riding free.

We’re so
totally sold on Hugo, nobody notices that a candle on the
table has set our breadbasket on fire. (Hugo puts out
the flame before you can say “Swiss
Pass.” )

And even though
we’re part of his job, Mr. Furrur must be just a
little sold on us too, because he lets us in on the
subject of the text messages that have had his phone
vibrating off the table all through dinner. It’s
all about Gobi, the chocolate Lab puppy just bought by
Hugo’s good friend Daniel. Hugo invites us out
to meet Daniel and the new baby on their evening walk.
Before long we’re all sipping drinks at a snug coffee
bar with Gobi sleeping at our feet, and Hugo is
telling me about the time he celebrated Halloween in
West Hollywood.

Friends,
it’s a small world.

Tags: Travel

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