When Bern is one big onion

November 22, 2010, 4 Comments

The Swiss love a good festival. Everywhere from hamlet to city seems to have its own feast day: In Zürich they burn straw men and the Genevans do something odd with cauldrons, but for Bern in November it’s all about onions. The last Monday of the month is Onion Market day, know locally as Zibelemärit. Anything you could possibly do to an onion, and more besides, on offer. And the only tears are ones of happiness.

It starts at the ungodly hour of 5am, with special trains laid on to bring in the thousands from the surrounding countryside. And I mean thousands. The city centre is closed off and crowds fill the streets, crammed in between the rows and rows of market stalls. It really feels like a medieval trade fair, mixed with a harvest festival and Thanksgiving. Every other stall seems to have plaits of red, white and brown onions for sale, most intertwined with dried flowers, but you can also get Mr & Mrs Onion Head (onions dressed up as people), or little Red Riding Hood baskets filled with them. Onion cousins, such as garlic and shallots, are also plentiful. And not forgetting the onion soup, onion bread, onion rings and (best of all) onion tart. Yummy.

Just in case onions really aren’t your thing, the market also has local handicrafts, freshly-carved woodwork, rustic bread and earthy ceramics – assuming you can get near the stalls to see them. At the Onion Market, as in most parts of Swiss life, queuing is not an option. You have to have sharp elbows and determined feet to get what you want. Scrum down, money out and go!

The other big part of Zibelemärit is confetti, and I’m not talking dainty rose-petal confetti at a wedding. I’m talking giant bags of multi-coloured dots that is on sale everywhere. Kids (and a few adults) wage running confetti battles, so that by the end of the day the streets are ankle-deep in the stuff. Unless there’s snow, which then looks like a frozen rainbow. And of course, every pocket of your coat is full of it – and probably it’s down inside your clothes as well. Months later, I’ll find a speck of pink or green paper in a pocket and know how it got there. All jolly fun, until the kids with plastic hammers get to work. For some reason, Onion Market isn’t just about onions and confetti, it’s about using a big plastic hammer the squeaks when you hit strangers on the head. Mildly amusing the first time you get hit, ok the second, tiresome the third and ever more annoying after that.

Of course, this being Switzerland, the streets are all swept clean before suppertime. By the next morning you’d be hard pushed to tell anything had gone on at all. Except for the lingering smell of onions. Perhaps someone should have a stall selling air- and breath-fresheners.

4 Comments on "When Bern is one big onion"

  1. Alison Schaub Wednesday December 5th, 2012 at 03:54 AM · Reply

    I’ve known more than one expat to return to the U.S. and find a bit of confetti a year later in the odd shoe or pocket. A merry memory indeed.

  2. Janine Monday November 24th, 2014 at 11:20 AM · Reply

    Ah yes, the plastic hammers are the reason why hesitate to go (I don’t mind the confetti thought).

    “…a big plastic hammer the squeaks…” => I think you meant to write “plastic hammer THAT squeaks”, right? Otherwise the sentence doesn’t really make sense. 😉

  3. Erica Saturday October 10th, 2015 at 05:34 PM · Reply

    I hated those plastic squeaky hammers! Looked like only the kids had them, and they ended up hitting me on the head three times within 5 minutes. My sister only got hit once, but i was getting hit like crazy for some reason. Not sure if it’s because I look very young for my age but I didn’t see the adults getting hit with that annoying hammer.

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