Bern has become the first Swiss city to offer walking tours designed for the blind and visually impaired.
swissinfo accompanied one of the first groups to take the tour around the Old Town, designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
As with every walking tour organised by the tourist office, this one starts at the railway station where visitors to the city meet their guide who equips them with a small map.
A relief map with the key sites marked in braille is placed in the hands of the three blind and visually impaired people in the group.
The two-hour tour takes in the main sites: the cathedral, the old clock tower known as the “Zytglogge”, the arcades and the many fountains.
But this is where the similarities end. The guides have each received special training to learn how to put the emphasis on the smells, sounds and feel of Bern’s Old Town.
“Up until now, blind people have had to join normal tours,” explains René Mathys of the Swiss Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“But that never gave them the time they needed to get a sense of the attractions they were taken to, since they have to rely on their hands and ears.”
It was the federation which convinced the tourist office to offer the specialised walks.
“Most tourists rely almost completely on their sight, they rarely touch anything and quite often forget to use their sense of smell,” adds Mathys.
“What we need are explanations - descriptions of buildings, for instance,” says Roger Cosandey, who has been blind from an early age.
Cosandey is from Lausanne and is often in Bern on business. But this is the first time he has signed up for a walking tour of the Old Town.
“It would be a bit disappointing if the guide only said ‘look to your left, or look to your right’.
“I also don’t want to hear a guide go into too much detail, since I want to make my own impressions by listening to sounds and smelling different things.”
Cosandey’s guide is Roland Morgenegg. Morgenegg has been giving tours of Bern for nearly 50 years, but this is the first time his charges have been unable to see the sights he is showing them.
“It’s a shame that up until now we haven’t taken blind tourists into consideration,” says Morgenegg.
At the cathedral, Morgenegg leads the group to the wall to let them feel the sandstone, the material used to rebuild the Old Town after a 15th century fire.
The group is then taken round the side of the cathedral where they stand high above the Aare river to listen to its fast flowing waters.
Morgenegg explains how the town burghers used to harness the power of the river at this point to drive their mills, and how the old mills and factories are nowadays trendy apartments.
Inside the clock tower, the blind visitors find out about the workings of the Glockenspiel, and are allowed to work a bellows that makes a mechanised cock crow.
“We were only given three hours of training by a person from the blind federation, therefore it’s trial and error to find out what works and what doesn’t,” says Morgenegg.
Nevertheless, Cosandey gives his guide top marks for his first blind tour.
One of the highlights for Cosandey is the stroll through the farmers market.
“A market is always a very interesting place because of the different smells and sounds,” remarks Cosandey, who says a market is usually the first thing he seeks out when travelling abroad.
“The markets in every country are a little bit different. They have different fruit and vegetables, and of course the languages you hear are different.”
The tour ends back at the railway station where Morgenegg hands each member of the group a braille information booklet to the Old Town’s main attractions, as a souvenir of their visit.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Bern
The well-preserved Old Town of Bern is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The area’s arcades are one of the longest shopping promenades in Europe, and the cathedral tower is the highest of its kind in Switzerland.
Bern has a population of 127,000 and has been the Swiss capital since 1848.
It is predominantly German-speaking and two-thirds of its residents are protestant.
Bern has started offering walking tours of the Old Town catering for the blind and visually impaired.
The tourist office has given its guides special training, and printed relief maps and brail information booklets for blind tourists.
A two-hour walking tour for the blind costs SFr150 ($110) for the guide, which is the standard price for a guided tour of the Old Town. When booking, please give the tourist office as much advance notice as possible.
Besides the blind tour, Bern tourism has launched a new service for young travellers visiting the city. Called “IndividualCity”, young adults from Bern give guided tours, showing the town’s more youthful side. More information can be found on a special website, CityHunter (see links).