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Thousands go onion-crazy in Bern

A stallholder showing off her onions swissinfo.ch

Bern’s annual onion market got off to a swinging start in the early hours of Monday morning, with tens of thousands of visitors thronging the city’s medieval streets.

This content was published on November 24, 2003 - 13:23

Long before daybreak, the federal capital was aglow, as market traders from all over the country set up their stalls by candlelight.

Displays of plaited strings of onions, onion sculptures, winter produce, nuts, Christmas decorations and handcrafts, provided a feast for the tired eyes of early risers.

There were onions dressed up as Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse and other Disney figures, as well as Peruvians in Andean mountain hats.

But the braided “onion ropes” and wreaths were once again the clear favourite among visitors.

By 5.30am, the crisp winter air was filled with the delicious smells of mulled wine and onion pies, for sale at every bakery, and the excited shouts of children attacking passers-by with confetti and plastic hammers.

Paulina Glonek, a Polish exchange student, who was visiting the market for the first time, was bowled over by the festive atmosphere.

“It’s absolutely crazy that people are willing to get up so early in the morning and celebrate.”

Keeping up tradition

The onion market, or “Zibele-Märit” in Swiss-German, is held on the fourth Monday of November, and has its roots in a two-week autumn market that began in the 1500s.

Legend has it that the original market was created as a reward to farmers from Fribourg for helping the Bernese clean up after a city fire in 1405.

This year, the police granted licences to more than 600 traders – about the same number as last year.

And as redevelopment work is underway on parliament square, usually the epicentre of the event, permission was given to set up stalls along Spitalgasse, part of the city’s main thoroughfare.

The Pantillon farming family from Vully near lake Murten in western Switzerland has had a stall at the market for the past 27 years.

It takes them about two weeks to prepare the 300 kilograms of onions they sell at the event, most of them delicately woven with flowers into garlands.

Sylvie Pantillon said the white onion harvest had been badly hit by this year’s dry summer, with 40 per cent less produce.

The family arrived at 3am to set up their stall and did not expect to leave until all the garlands were sold, probably in the late afternoon.

Widespread appeal

The onion market is the biggest event of the year in Bern, drawing visitors from all over the country.

The tourist office offers special hotel packages for foreign guests, but operations manager Markus Schmid says the take-up is never that great.

This year, 20 guests took advantage of the offer.
Schmid said the event was more of a magnet for visitors from France, Germany and Austria, who arrive by the coachload to join in the excitement.

But local man Alfredo Burgener was disappointed.

“The market has changed. Most of these stallholders are selling products that don’t fit in with the original spirit of the market. It’s a shame,” he lamented.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Bern

onions1

The annual Bern onion market got off to a busy start on Monday, with swarms of visitors rising before dawn to snap up onion garlands and handicrafts displayed at stalls throughout the medieval city centre.

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onions2

The Zibele-Märit is held on the fourth Monday of November
It has its roots in a two-week autumn market that began in the 1500s
Up to 70 tons of onions are sold each year at the market
It draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the country and abroad
Onion-and-cheese tarts, along with mulled wine, are among the specialities on sale at stalls and cafés

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