The bears of Bern have been a city highlight for over 500 years.
On the edge of the Aare River, across from the old town (Altstadt) of Bern, Switzerland, is one of Bern’s most famous tourist attractions: the Bärengraben, or Bear Park. In Bern, you’ll find images of bears everywhere you look. Bear cookies, bear sculptures, bear doorknobs, and bear flags are just a few examples.
Legend has it in 1191 Duke Berthold the Fifth swore to name his newly founded town after the first animal he killed on a hunt in the surrounding forest, which turned out to be a bear. The town embraced this beer-centric worldview and decided that if they were going to be called bear, they should have some bears.
In 1513, the first bear pit was set up in the city near the Käfigturm (Cage Tower) in what is present-day called Bärenplatz (Bear Square.) This bear pit was relocated in 1764 to the Schanzengraben (Moat) in Bollwerk, in front of the gateway to the city. The final, still visible bear pit was opened on May 27, 1857.
Over the centuries the bears of Bern have been visited by luminaries such as the German Emperor, the King of Siam, Alexander Dumas, Albert Einstien (it was a short walk from his apartment at Kramgasse 49,] and even Lenin stopping by.
In an age before animal rights, the bears were treated inhumanely and kept crowded in the small pit, resulting in fights between the bears and the resulting injuries. They were fed a vegetarian diet, and onlookers would toss bits of cheese to the well-fed animals. The bears did occasionally get their fill of meat when an eager onlooker tumbled head over heels into the pit. In 1903 a drunk convict fell into the pit, passed out, and spent the night there. He was incredibly lucky; he was about to be mauled to death when authorities found him and intervened.
Things got slightly better for the bears over the years, but the pit (remodeled in the mid-1990s) was still much too small for the large animals. By 2000 the bear pit, and the mangy, bored bears eating hunks of cheese in it, were becoming an embarrassment for the wealthy and progressive Bern.
In 2009 the last two remaining bears were put down due to health problems and for the first time in 496 years, bears ceased to have a presence in the city of Bern. Then, on October 25, 2009, the renamed Bärenpark opened to the public. The bears of Bern now live in a 6000-square-meter park along the banks of the River Aare. The large bear pit is still accessible to the bears for their continued use and the smaller bear pit now is open to the public and is used as a concert venue from time to time.
Know Before You Go
The number 12 bus will bring you right to the front of the bear park.
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