Some of Berne's proudest residents have clubbed together to reveal the delights of the old town, which has remained virtually unchanged since the 16th-century, and is a Unesco World Heritage site.
It's midday in Berne, and a tour guide is showing a group of visitors the medieval clock tower. A tour bus roars past with another batch of tourists, while yet more are taking a horse-drawn carriage ride through the town. Elsewhere, a man is in the process of turning the old town into a virtual reality.
"Let's say I set up the camera here. We adjust the various settings as with a normal camera. But this camera turns 360 degrees on its tripod, taking one picture. So in this picture we would be able to see the river behind us and the cathedral in front of us," says Nicolas Kyramarios, a photographer from the company MediArte.
Kyramarios is putting together a CD Rom called "BernVirtuell 360 degrees". It's a complete tour of the old town, which will be a first for Switzerland when it's released later this year. The project is sponsored by the "Vereinigung für Bern", a group of private citizens formed to promote the city.
"They will find information on the fountains as well as on the old town, on the arcades, on the clock tower, on the bear pit, on the train station - whatever someone needs to get to know the city," says the head of the group, Brigitte Stutzmann. "By using the CD Rom, you can start wherever you want."
A group of English-speaking tourists looks up in awe at the cathedral tower. Kyramarios will also be setting up his camera here. It will be one of about 150 photographs he will be taking for the virtual tour.
"This is a very special place for me because there's space," he says. "I like squares that give the feeling of space. There are only old buildings surrounding this square. Nothing disturbs the picture. It's this feeling of space and beautiful old architecture."
After the release of the CD Rom, there'll be no need for anyone to crane their neck to appreciate the cathdral. A simple mouse click and the virtual tourists will move up the tower. A second click and they will be inside, finding out about the architecture and the history of the cathedral.
In fact, the CD Rom will allow "virtual visitors" to choose where they go, how they get there, and how long they wish to spend finding out about a particular aspect of Berne's cultural heritage.
The mayor, Klaus Baumgartner, is excited that more visitors will be able to learn about the old town through the CD Rom. He says it will promote tourism and be a handy tool to help sell the city as an attractive centre for investment. Baumgartner also believes it will have indirect economic benefits.
"We can show that Berne is the centre of computer technology and telecommunications because the CD Rom is made by firms based in the city. And it shows how we have put to use all the latest technologies. It shows that Berne is the centre of new technologies."
But the project is not first and foremost a sales tool for drumming up business. As Nicolas Kyramarios explains, it's a labour of love. He grew up in the Greek capital, Athens, but has spent the last 20 years - happily - in Berne.
"Athens is a very crowded, noisy, dirty city. I found something calm, something very beautiful when I came to Berne. There's also a lot going on, it's a lively city. I found the two aspects that mean a lot to me: a peaceful beauty, which is also lively. For me, Berne is just the perfect place to be. When I can combine it with my work, I need little else."
by Dale Bechtel
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