Founded in the 12th century on a hill site surrounded by the Aare River, Berne developed over the centuries in line with a an exceptionally coherent planning concept. The buildings in the Old City, dating from a variety of periods, include 15th-century arcades and 16th-century fountains. Most of the medieval town was restored in the 18th century but it has retained its original character.
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Built on a rocky promontory which fits tightly into a loop of the Aar River, the old city of Berne still retains the imprint and original character of the successive periods of its very rich history in its plan and its monuments. It was founded, on a hill site surrounded by the Aar, by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen (most likely in 1191): on Kramgasse there is the first of Berne's many ornamented fountains, an armoured bear holding the standard of the city's founder, dating from 1535. The original core was established around Fort Nydegg, seat of ducal power; but, when Berne became a free city in 1218, it expanded to the west towards the Zeitglochenturm (restored in 1771). A new stage in its urban expansion coincided with the protectorate of Peter II of Savoy (1255-65) when the city extended to the Käfigturm (rebuilt in 1643); some years later Fort Nydegg was destroyed and a lower quarter built up on its site. A bridge was built to give access to this quarter. The final urban expansion of the medieval period took place in the 14th century. It is marked by the Christoffel tower.
The gradual conquest of the site is still evident in the parcelling, largely a result of the medieval implantation. However, the physiognomy of Berne has been modified by additions and developed over the centuries in line with an exceptionally coherent planning concept right up to the modern period. The buildings in the Old City, dating from a variety of periods, include 15th-century arcades and 16th-century picturesque fountains, as well as towers and walls. The cathedral was constructed during the 17th century, when many patrician houses were built from sandy limestone; towards the end of the 18th century, almost 80% of the constructed zones were renewed. Like many European capitals, Berne today offers a contrast (particularly acute on the Bubenbergplatz) of old monuments and contemporary buildings; but it preserves in localized areas, traditional old streets with arcades of which the majority are walking streets.
The three quietest and most characteristic streets in the Old Town - Postgasse, Gerechtigkeitsgasse and Jünkerngasse - all meet at the Nydeggbrücke, the easternmost point of Berne's peninsula and the location of Nydegg Castle, built probably before the 1191 founding of Berne and the spur to the city's construction. It was destroyed in the mid-13th century and its location is now marked by the Nydeggkirche, although parts of its massive stone foundations survive here and there. The church is a mishmash of elements added to an original 1341 building, with a well which originally stood within the precincts of the 12th-century castle and a picturesque view of the medieval houses clustering on the slopes all around.
The impressively wide main cobbled thoroughfare of the old town stretches away on both sides of the Zytglogge: Marktgasse is to the west, while elegant Kramgasse runs east and features many Baroque facades stuck on to the medieval arcaded buildings early in the eighteenth century. There is the Einstein House, the apartment and workplace of the famous scientist, who developed his theory of relativity in 1905.
Rathausplatz is dominated by the double-staircased Rathaus. Although the building dates from 1406-17, it has been much altered over the centuries - not least in 1939-42, when the ground floor was entirely rebuilt. Opposite is a 1542 fountain sporting a Bernese standard-bearer in full armour. Next to the Rathaus is the St Peter und St Paul-Kirche, built in 1858 as the first Catholic parish church to go up in the city since the Reformation.
In Läuferplatz the fountain-statue of the city herald standing at the head of the low Untertorbrücke, one of the oldest bridges in Switzerland (1468). To the south-west, Gerberngasse follows the bend of the river down into one of the most appealing districts of the Old Town, Matte. For many centuries this was a self-contained district of craftspeople and dockworkers which long retained its own dialect, related to the Jenisch language of the Swiss gypsies and dubbed Mattenenglisch by the other Bernese, an incomprehensible language spoken in a meadow (Matte). Since 1848, large public monuments have been built which underscore the function of the capital of Berne: the Bundeshaus, Museum of Fine Arts, Historical Museum, University, Municipal Theatre, etc. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC