Waking Up for the Onion Market in Bern

 
It's five o'clock in the morning. I shouldn't be awake...

These are the first words to cross my mind one cold November morning. I hit the snooze button a few more times, until I realize — I'm late for the Onion Market in Bern!

I roll out of bed and grab the warmest clothes in sight. Then I catch the next bus into Bern city and walk towards the Government Plaza (Bundesplatz), which is in front of the Swiss Federal Palace (Bundeshaus). From here, I have the best view of the Onion Market in Bern.

The Onion Market (Zibelemärit)

With over 50 tons of onions, this is Bern's largest farmer's market — but it feels more like a giant carnival. Confetti fills the air, and children bop strangers on the head with toy hammers. I duck as one kid swings at me, conveniently perched on his father's shoulders.

While the market doesn't officially open until 6:00 AM, visitors arrive much earlier. That's because farmers are ready and open for business at 4:00 AM. So if you want the best selection of onion figurines — you'd better set your alarm clock.

The same funny faces are painted on the onion bulbs every year. They're characteristic of the Onion Market — I would recognize them anywhere.

Ever since I arrived, my heart was set on an onion pearl necklace, strung together with dried flowers. The perfect one appears at the next stall, and I try it on for size.

In previous years, I strung these colorful candy necklaces around my neck by the dozen. They come in a variety of flavors — strawberry, orange, lemon, mint, ice, and sweet violet.

Traditionally, these necklaces were filled with tiny onions; but somewhere between 1439 and present day, that tradition was lost.

Perhaps my favorite souvenir is this onion cat in a fondue pot. 

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I spy lots of mistletoe hanging in the market stalls. A woman sees my husband lean in for a picture — right beneath the mistletoe. She insists he give me a kiss!

I shiver a little. It's below 0°C (32°F), and the sun won't rise for another half an hour. So I must keep moving to stay warm.

Adjoining streets are lined with market stalls, and I shuffle down the nearest one. So many goodies are on display, besides just onions.

Finally the sun begins to rise, and it casts a glow over the Federal Palace and the hundreds of market stalls below.

I'm thinking about getting one of these braided onion wreaths. It would be wonderful to hang in the kitchen at home.

Parties continue in the street, and some people are drunk before 7:00 AM. Thankfully, it's a partial holiday in Bern, and many people take the day off work.

Confetti is thrown in your face when you least expect it. I think I swallowed a few pieces. It's all in good fun, and I only see friendly faces.

No Onion Market is complete without an onion pie. They're sold at several stalls and you can smell them a mile away. I had this one at Gfeller am Bärenplatz, because I desperately needed to warm up inside.

After an extra strong cup of coffee, I'm ready to head back to work in Zurich.

The Onion Swim (Zibeleschwümme)

The day before the Onion Market is the Onion Swim.  People dress in funny costumes and jump in the freezing cold Aare River. You can catch a glimpse of them from the bridge known as Schönausteg in Bern.

This group jumped in the river with a hot fondue and white wine — I almost jumped in with them.

And this group slithered through the water in bright green alligator costumes.

Ready to Go?

The Onion Market takes place from 5:00 AM to 6:00 PM on the fourth Monday of every November at the Government Plaza (Bundesplatz) in Old Town Bern.

With a Swiss Rail Pass, you can take a train to Bern Train Station (Bern Bahnhof), and it's 5 minute walking distance from here. Just head in the direction of Spitalgasse — and you will see many market stalls along the way.

 

The Onion Swim takes place at 2:15 PM on the Sunday before the Onion Market and typically lasts half an hour. The best place to watch the swimmers is from the Schönausteg bridge in Bern. 

You can read more about the Onion Market here at the Swiss Tourism website.