The Mole Diaries: Bern
Why I chose Bern
I study French, German and Italian so Switzerland was the perfect place for me. I was also encouraged to choose Bern because the Durham Year Abroad Coordinator for German said the International Office was particularly helpful in finding accommodation (which was true.)
Bern is the German-speaking capital city of Switzerland, situated slightly to the west of the centre of the country. Most people are surprised when they find out that it’s the capital, because with 120,000 inhabitants it’s pretty small compared to Zuerich, Geneva and Basel. The city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s the home of the Swiss National Bank and the seat of the Parliament too.
Because I’m only here for one term, I decided to make it easy for myself and apply for the Student Halls of Residence. There are 4 in Bern, but most people go for either Fellergut or Tscharnergut and most of the parties happen in Fellergut, so I can recommend that one! At 540 CHF per month (£370) it is not the cheapest, but the rooms are huge and the facilities are really good to be honest. I only know a few people who don’t live in student halls, so they basically spend all their time/money on travelling to us because that’s where the parties are. It’s an international bunch in the student halls, including Swiss people so you’re bound to find at least one other person who speaks your language of choice, and it’s very sociable and there’s always something going on. It shows the standard of Switzerland that these student halls are in Buempliz, known as the ghetto of Bern and it is still completely safe. This is the website for student halls. They do ask for a deposit very quickly, but I didn’t arrive until February but had my room sorted by October which was a load off my mind. The International Office did email round periodically through November and December with lists of available rooms in flat-shares, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Getting there and travel
Bern does have an airport but, as it’s a small city, it’s a small airport and the only English airport that flies to it is London City. The advantage of Switzerland is that even though Basel Airport is as north as you can get, Geneva airport is as South West as possible and Zuerich is as North West as possible, each one is no more than 2 hours away from Bern by train. Easyjet fly to each of the other three airports in Switzerland, so you are pretty much guaranteed to find a cheap flight from one UK airport to one of the Swiss ones. It only cost me £17.99 to fly from Bristol to Geneva.
Once you've arrived in Switzerland, before getting the train to Bern, you need to get a “Halbtax”. This lasts for a year and will get you half off pretty much every train journey. It costs around 170 CHF but is definitely worth it, and if you think you’ll be travelling late at night, then the Gleis 7 is also worth it - giving you free travel after 7pm anywhere in Switzerland. However, together these two cost around 350 CHF, and I got by just fine with the Halbtax on its own.
If you do live in one of the student halls, then you will need to get a “Libero”. This is a monthly travel pass for 57 CHF (when you have a Halbtax) that covers all of Bern city centre travel and the train between the city centre and the student halls (takes approximately 5 minutes). Be warned though, it’s a 100 CHF fine if you are found to be travelling without a ticket or if your Libero has expired without realising it!
I am extremely lucky that my group of Erasmus friends here like to travel. I have been here for 3 months now and have yet to have a weekend when we didn’t go somewhere. It ranges from different cities in Switzerland (so far: Lausanne, Luzern, Solothurn, Geneva, Basel, Interlaken, Zermatt) to foreign travel (so far: Berlin, Vienna, Italy and San Marino). Most of the time we just get the train, especially within Switzerland, but a few times we’ve hired a car (like for our Italian road trip). I’m also lucky that my friends here are so organised and like planning events because I am certain that we wouldn’t have done half these things if it weren’t for their initiative!
Make the most of the Halbtax (and Gleis 7) and see Switzerland. Nowhere is far, and the train journey is often as amazing as the destination. Going through the Alps or alongside Lake Geneva is just amazing and there are several special train routes that are just for the scenery.
The last train from Bern to Buempliz Nord (the student halls) is at 00:10. This does pose problems because you either have to leave the bar and run for the train to get back before half past midnight, or you have to hang around till 3am to wait for the Moonliner (which costs 5 CHF) which is the night bus. It’s not the ideal situation, which means we don’t go out every weekend, but instead have parties in the student halls. Also the prices in the bars are insane (14 CHF for a JD and a coke, which is about £10) so it means pre-drinking is necessary, even if you’re going out to drink. There are quite a few bars, that are underground (which is pretty cool), and the Altes Tramdepot is really nice for a relaxed evening, with a view over the River Aare, but there aren’t many clubs. And the clubs that there are do tend to leave a lot to be desired. My advice: get used to going to Denner (one of the supermarkets) to buy wine: they have lots for under 4 CHF (and some under 2 but I would avoid them!)
The standard trio of European shops: Mango, Zara and H&M are all present in Bern city centre, but Bruennen Westside (about 10 mins from the city centre, the end stop of the line that you have to take to get to Buempliz Nord) is a big fancy shopping centre which is very nice. There are 3 supermarkets in Switzerland: Denner (super budget), Migros (variety of brands to suit your budget) and Coop (expensive). There are branches dotted around everywhere, but I recommend Migros as it is a mix between Coop and Denner, and the Cumulus card (loyalty card) does get you money off a big shop.
One small note: Switzerland is expensive. Meat is no exception so I have mainly become veggie since being here. Bacon is the cheapest, but that’s European bacon not proper English bacon as we know and love it! There are a Coop and 2 Migros’ in the main Bern train station, and a Denner is right by Tscharnergut one of the other student halls. Otherwise the restaurant I recommend the most is: Las Alps, at the Alpine Museum. The food is amazing and definitely one of the cheaper places to eat, as it’s very expensive to eat out.
What to do in your free time
First and foremost, see the bears! Bern has 4 bears: 2 adults and 2 (quite grown up) babies, that live on one of the banks of the river Aare (safely fenced off, don’t worry!). They are free to stare at and look very cute behind the safety of bars, especially when they try to pull branches off trees and fall over. Bern’s insignia is a bear, and there are bears everywhere in Bern. The Baerengraben (bear pits) are also right by the Altes Tramdepot (the pub I mentioned earlier), and also by the Rosengarten (Rose Garden) which is a short climb up a steep hill with a great view over the whole of the Old Town. There are loads of museums about things ranging from Alpinism, Swiss Guns, Paul Klee, Albert Einstein (who lived in Bern), Natural History (if you dislike stuffed animals, avoid this one), and currently the Terracotta Army (the Chinese soldiers) are on display in one of the museums. The Uni (Universitaet Bern) has a lot of sport on offer and the students in my halls host ping pong and 5-a-side football tournaments.
What to pack
I arrived on the 31st of January and it’s now May so I’ve experienced quite a range of weather. At first it was definitely ski-jacket and boots with thermals and knit-wear weather because we had a lot of beautiful snow for a while (while I watched in amazement at how there were no public transport delays when new snow fell haha). This left sometime around early March but every now and again there’s a cold snap. However when it’s warm, it’s really warm. Like boiling (I may have already got sunburnt). So bring layers and a few summer dresses because you will definitely need both! Also sunglasses and sunblock are needed most of the time, if you go skiing or just up to the mountains, the reflection of the snow can burn your skin as well.
Don’t bother getting a library card as well as your student card. It costs 20 CHF for the library card and all that means is you can print things out, you only need a student card to use the library. There are lots of cheap copy/printing places around “Unitobler” the main university lecture building, which used to be the Toblerone factory. Go to the ESN (Erasmus Student Network) events, there are a lot of free things, like brewery tours and super cheap ski trips that they organise for you. I also downloaded a German-English dictionary to my Kindle and carry it round everywhere, it’s been very handy so far!
Although Switzerland is not part of the EU, it is part of the EEC, and therefore you are eligible for an Erasmus grant (as long as your university has an Erasmus partnership with them), in the same way that you would be if you were in Germany or Austria. The application process is no different, but it can get a bit confusing because it's not actually in the EU.
The 2 best decisions I made about my term in Switzerland have been:
1. Going into Student Halls for the social aspects and the friends
2. Doing the FREE (yes, free!) 2-week course that served as an introduction to German and Switzerland. We got free t-shirts, hats, chocolate, maps, bags, Ovomaltine (it’s everywhere in Switzerland, a kind of malt/chocolate hybrid), lanyards, and free trips to Guggisberg (stereotypical Swiss mountain village) and museums. I met the people I am still friends with now, including some French Swiss people who taught us how to make fondue properly.
Swiss German. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to understand even the little things at first. But you adapt quickly and everyone speaks Hochdeutsch (or French if they think you’re Swiss French) to you when they realise you’re not a native speaker. Also it feels pretty good when you know to say “merci” even to the German speakers, and “Gruesse” instead of “Hallo”.
Although Bern is a capital city, it is not a big city. If you need shops that are open 24/7 and can’t go one weekend without dancing in a club, then it’s not for you. I cannot recommend Switzerland enough, I really really love it here and it is a totally unique place in the middle of Europe but Geneva and Zuerich are much bigger if a big city is what you need.