Benches on the Aare

London has the Thames, Paris the Seine, Cairo the Nile—and Bern has the Aare, snaking around the old town on its way from the Alps to the Rhine. Tens of thousands of people in the city of Bern live or work within fifteen minutes’ walk of the Aare.

In my case, it’s more like five minutes.

During the Covid year I’ve tried to walk at least an hour a day, and one of my standard routes is along the stretch of the Aare nearest my home. Less than a block from my apartment building, three flights of concrete stairs lead down to an expanse of forest growing on the steep hillside that slopes to the Aare. Across the river is the Matte, a section of the medieval city that boasts a row of half-timbered houses.

At the foot of the outdoor staircase, I walk across a narrow road and through a gate to a path that runs down to the Aare and continues along its bank. This path—and many more—traverse a wooded hillside called the Englische Anlage.  This could be translated as “English park”—although there is not a lawn, flowerbed or boxwood hedge in sight. Perhaps “English grounds” would be a better description of the ten acres of trees, shrubs, paths and benches stretching along the river from the Kirchenfeld Bridge to the Bear Park (where three brown bears named Finn, Björk and Ursina live—but more about them in another post.)

The path I take to the Aare is a switchback—the hillside is too steep for anything else. It meanders back and forth across the slope, sometimes turning into stairs. I’ve been walking it for twenty-five years, and the descent has always been adventurous, with uneven steps and drop-offs on first one side and then the other.

During the past few months, my path has been meticulously repaired: new sections of wall built, fencing added, and the surface graded and refinished with marl, a calcium-rich clay.  It’s impressive work and important not only for making the walkway safer but for keeping the whole hillside from collapsing into the river. I did some research and found that the Englische Anlage hadn’t been renovated since the 1950s. These repairs are a big deal.

During the years I’ve been walking these paths, I haven’t paid attention to the wooden benches placed along the way. After all, my goal is to get exercise.  But now that everything else has become so attractive, I can’t help noticing that all the benches are covered with graffiti. I’m not talking about street (or should that be forest?) art, but about vandalism.

I will be watching with interest to see if part of the renovation work on my next-door hillside will include removing graffiti from the benches. If it does, then the question arises: will the benches be left in peace to weather in a normal way or will they be defaced again? 

I’ll keep you posted.

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