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Clowning around in luxury

Clown Riccon proves that Burgdorf's colourful history can be a laughing matter

The town of Burgdorf, lying just 20 kilometres from Bern, has long been overshadowed by its larger neighbour. But now a clown and a revamped five star hotel are trying to put the town on the tourist map.

The people of Burgdorf don’t like to boast, even though they live in one of Switzerland’s best-preserved medieval towns with the largest castle in the country.

And now they have a few more things to boast about, including Switzerland’s smallest five star hotel, which has just been refurbished, and a “Pantomine” restaurant, run by a clown.

The hotel is reached through an arched entrance leading off one of the town’s cobblestone streets. Located in “Stadthaus” – formerly the town hall – it has been a hotel since the early 19th century, and recently reopened after undergoing renovations to restore much of its original 18th century splendour.

With only 18 rooms, it’s a member of the “Small Luxury Hotels of the World” association.

The décor is understated and elegant. The rooms are equipped with the most modern amenities while the kitchen prepares dishes made with fresh organic ingredients from nearby farms.

Apart from comfort, a stay at the Stadthaus is also an excellent way to rediscover Burgdorf’s colourful past. It was in the rooms now used for seminars that a group of 19th century intellectuals plotted the successful overthrow of the aristocratic cantonal government of Bern.

A member of the group, General Johann August Sutter, fled Burgdorf and Switzerland in 1834 to avoid paying debts amounting to more than SFr37,000.

He settled in California where he discovered gold. The city of San Francisco was later founded on his property. He never paid his debts back to Burgdorf.

The hotel also displays many exquisite donations from the castle museum. A golden 18th century mirror hangs above the fireplace in the smokers’ lounge, and an original Louis XVI clock keeps time in the French dining room, “La Pendule”.

General Sutter’s debts were mostly due to a failed business venture he ran out of a house on Schmiedegasse. Today, a new entrepreneur hopes to have better fortunes with his “Pantomime” restaurant that he has opened on the same street.

His name is Enrico Manzoni and he makes faces at passers-by in the hope of luring them inside. It’s an odd approach, but Manzoni can get away with it since he’s a professional clown.

Unlike the managers of the Stadthaus, Manzoni believes the unconventional can also be successful in Burgdorf. He opened Pantomime with a few friends – including another artist and a cook.

“I told them about my idea to open a cultural centre which would double as a meeting place,” says Manzoni. “One friend said he could cook. Another said he would be interested in opening a restaurant while yet another said she was looking for a special place to exhibit her art.”

Manzoni entertains children with his clown act. To amuse the adults he often disguises himself as another guest, or as a bumbling waiter who can’t get anything right.

The artist, Manuela Kikkert, organises events such as a belly dancing show and dinner. The oriental food for the occasion is prepared by Turkish partner and cook, Ibrahim Kocer.

With the exception of Manzoni’s clowning antics, Burgdorf seems like a sleepy, provincial town where time has stood still. As the Stadthaus proves, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

by Dale Bechtel

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR