The delicious tradition of Bern’s Onion Market
Do you dream of gourmet food, folk traditions and get-togethers? If so, how about a trip to Bern? Each year, the Swiss capital hosts the hugely popular Onion Market. The day's celebrations begin at dawn, bringing you quirky creations by Bern’s regional artisans. Soak up the colourful, warm and welcoming atmosphere of this city on the banks of the River Aare.
Bern’s folk traditions
On the fourth Monday in November, Bern awakens to an unusual spectacle. Farmers, street vendors and artisans take over the city at first light – from the railway station across to the Federal Square (Bundesplatz). Stalls overflow with creations that depict the star of the show: the onion. There are onions of every kind, colour and form: wreaths, plaited strings and onion characters draw in thousands of curious onlookers every year. Although bärndütsch – the Bern dialect – is the main language you hear at the start of the day, this soon gives way to a number of foreign languages as the day progresses – a testament to the international success of this unmissable folk festival. But what are the origins of this tradition?
A tradition that dates back to the 15th century
There are various stories that recount the birth of this centuries-old custom, but the consensus is that it began at the turn of the 15th century. More precisely, in 1405. History tells us that on the afternoon of 14 May, a fire broke out in the centre of Bern spreading panic across the town. Farmers from the surrounding areas – especially Fribourg – alerted to the drama that was unfolding, came to fight the flames, which were spreading at an alarming rate. The fire destroyed three-quarters of the town, claiming some 600 homes and around 100 lives. To heal the wounds of what is now considered to be the largest fire in Switzerland’s history, the authorities decided to replace the timber homes and rebuilt the town in sandstone. To show their gratitude, they invited the farmers to come and sell their produce at an all-day event in the very heart of the city.
What is on offer at Bern’s Onion Market?
While the onion is the star of the market, other local products that testify to Switzerland’s traditional skills share the limelight, such as magenbrot, a form of gingerbread; ceramic pottery crafted by local artisans; locally-grown winter vegetables; garlic; fruit and all kinds of souvenirs. The restaurants join the party by serving cheese and onion tarts, and onion soup washed down with a small glass of mulled wine, sold at some of the stalls. The heady aroma that fills the town’s narrow streets carries you through to the evening, when strange costumed characters criss-cross the market singing or delivering satirical recitals on the year’s events. Children and adolescents also descend on the event after school and enjoy themselves fighting battles with confetti.
SBB, the Swiss railway company, lays on special trains from many cities, which take you straight to the heart of the festivities, so that anyone can come and enjoy this unique opportunity to experience a traditional folk festival in the country’s capital. Please visit sbb.ch for more information. Bern’s Tourist Office also has a range of special offers on accommodation in the Old Town so you can make the most of the Onion Market as soon as it opens.