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Einstein and the Swiss Government

Once upon a time, the magnificent Bellevue Palace, in the heart of the Swiss capital, Bern, was sold for 1 Swiss Franc. You might think: what a shame I couldn’t buy it myself! But the Swiss did find a clever way to do it, and therefore today, they technically own it. A smart move – maybe it’s not a coincidence that Einstein used to live five minutes from here!

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Let’s take a tour of this beautiful building, which is also the official guesthouse of the Swiss government. At the end, I’ll finish the 1 Swiss Franc story. We start in the elegant neoclassical lobby with its magnificent stained glass window on the ceiling. Politicians, diplomats, and rock stars from all over the world regularly gather here (when I visited, my suite had just beenoccupied by Guns ‘n’ Roses) and make history while enjoying superb views of the Bernese Alps. The famous collection of silver frames with photos and autographs of well-known guests is a fun contrast to the DJ equipment in the grand room. After having checked in, the hotel General Manager, Urs Buehrer, smiles and explains that yes, things do happen here before the press or anybody else hears about them. He also tells me that the Bellevue Palace is above all a hub, a perfect place that enables you to come and go to different parts of Switzerland, and therefore the ideal accommodation for those who want to see a lot. He has a full programme prepared for me, but first of all I need to check my room. 

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When I enter the newly refurbished suite overlooking the Parliament, I immediately notice two things: binoculars and chocolate. A bear on the chocolate bar represents the symbol of the city. I check the spectacular views of the Old City on the Aare river that are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and catch a glimpse of everyday life between their brick roofs and windows. On the other side of the room, there’s a big window where I can see the Swiss flag proudly located on top of the Parliament building. Then I hit the shower and check all details in the bathroom. I adore its beautiful, low-tech style, also because it’s so easy to understand how it works. The amount of water is perfect, the temperature easy to regulate, the entrance and exit super com- fortable, with a big enough door where not a drop of water escapes. Molton Brown toiletries smell divine, and the mirror, decorated with fresh flowers, features those flattering lateral lights that make everybody look 10 years younger.

“It is the oldest working watch in the world and I didn’t expect it to be so huge.”

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It's time to start with the programme prepared by the Bellevue Palace, a private tour through the old town, with its typical sandstone buildings, the many traditional fountains and famous arcades. It was re-built after the big fire in 1405. We stop at Einstein’s house, where he developed his Theory of Relativity. I didn’t even know that happened here and I love this leap into the past. Then we take a look at the charming shops, so different from most city centres because there are no major chains in sight. After a few more landmarks, I am given a key and told to open a door near the Clock Tower, which is one of Bern’s most recognisable symbols. Every full hour, struck by a large clockwork-operated hammer, passers-by see a gilded figure in full harness moving its arm to strike it. I climb the narrow stairs of the medieval tower and start to see the massive mechanism from inside. It is the oldest working watch in the world and I didn’t expect it to be so huge. The ticking sound of the big iron wheels and the cannon pendulum is mesmerising. It was forged in situ (you can still see the fireplace where every single piece was made) and makes you stare and listen in awe. When the clock strikes, a magic dance begins from the top and arrives at the other side of the room – a chain reaction that finally makes the outer figures turn. And if that’s not special enough, a wooden ladder takes you up to the most beautiful views from a window I’ve ever seen, on top of the city. From here, you can hear people pleasantly chatting in the street, it’s incredible – I feel like the Queen of Bern, observing it from above. 

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I go back to the hotel fascinated and enchanted. Evening arrives quickly, so it’s time for our first dinner at Noumi, where Bern eats to an urban nomad beat, and the open kitchen offers world food ideal for combining and sharing. Urs takes good care of his guests, and I think that makes a difference – everybody feels seen and heard, and welcome in the warm atmosphere. After a solid night’s sleep and a delicious coffee, I try the creamiest scrambled eggs in Switzerland, and get ready for the second programme – urban nature. Since there are so many possibilities for things to do from here, the Bellevue Palace prepared some brochures with tips and ideas, each one with beautiful pictures and easy explanations of places and activities. There are tons of things to do in areas like the Three Lakes region, the Emmental (I’m sure you’ll know I mean the place and not the cheese), the medieval town of Gruyère, Château d’Oex – the capital of hot air balloons, the gigantic rock arena of Creux-du-Van, traffic-free locations like Gstaad, the vineyard trail in La Neuveville, and many more. I just didn’t realise how much nature you can enjoy in and around Bern. My itinerary starts from Thun, which I now think is the most underrated city in the country. Walking around, I imagine I can pick one villa and have it for free, and that I have to give a prize to the best garden. It becomes impossible. Strolling on, I see surfers in wetsuits, attached to one of the traditional wooden bridges with a rope. Flowers and weeping willows frame romantic spots with crystal clear waters. A 360-degree panorama mixes green and beautiful architecture. Finally, I go to the harbour and catch a boat to Spiez, which is another pleasant surprise. A walk to its medieval castle reveals an almost Mediterranean landscape dotted with vineyards and nestled between the Swiss Alps. Snowy peaks as a backdrop complete the idyllic scene.

“Fair and square,
with swiss flair.”

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Time to go back to the Bellevue Palace for a quick stop at the gym, and then dinner. I like to think that Queen Elizabeth and Che Guevara trained here, but the staff is not giving anything away. One thing is sure – the decor is new. I can see that from the Technogym equipment and the modern design. There are three huge artsy-looking apples that fit harmoniously to the light wooden slats and views over the red-brick roofs of the old town. The place is so stylish, it’s not even fair to all the other hotel gyms in the world. Dinner at brasserie VUE is cosy yet elegant, products are locally sourced, and in summer the terrace is the place to be. I choose the special of the day and enjoy the French flavours combined with a Swiss touch. When I check out the next morning, Urs Buehrer (who seems to know instinctively which guest is in and which guest is out at any moment) comes to say goodbye, and tells me the end of the story about the hotel. It happened during the Cold War, when the family who originally owned the Bellevue Palace decided to sell it, and the Soviets offered to buy it to turn it into their Embassy. The hotel is literally attached to the Ministry of Defence, and a few metres from the Parliament building, so the Swiss government didn’t like the idea one bit and asked the Swiss National Bank to acquire a majority stake to save it from the foreign takeover. About 10 years later, the Swiss National Bank wanted to sell the hotel to the Swiss government – after all, hospitality wasn’t its main interest. But it had kept it without investing any money or doing any renovation, so the government refused to pay, and only after some negotiating, managed to get the property for the symbolic value of 1 Swiss Franc. Fair and square, with Swiss flair. So come and enjoy the beautiful lounges in the heart of Switzerland – owned by the people, kept with intelligence, and managed with charm.

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Words Beatrice Lessi

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