The area between the railway station and the Parliament buildings is transformed into a giant marketplace. Farmers from the surrounding regions bring literally tons of onions as well as garlic, in artistically woven plaits. In addition, the stalls sell vegetables, fruits, nuts and traditional Swiss market specialties as well.
But why all this celebration over onions? What is the origin of this most popular festival with locals and visitors alike?
On May 14th 1405, a fire started at 5am within the town of Bern. Within minutes a strong wind blew the flames over the town burning down 650 wooden houses and killing 100 people. The surrounding towns around Bern immediately sent help and started raising funds to rebuild the Swiss capital. Noteworthy was the assistance provided by the town of Freiburg. A hundred helpers worked two months to clear away the debris.
This frequently heard legend claims the Bernese thanked the helpers after the fire by allowing them to sell their onions in Bern every autumn. However, nothing is mentioned in the town chronicle about this story. It would also be a rather inappropriate form of gratitude considering that the helpers from Freiburg lived within the town and were not onion farmers. From where would they have gotten the onions? In addition, monocultures (producing one single crop over a wide area) did not exist in the region at that time. This story was born in a Bernese schoolroom 60 years ago and was so pleasing to explain the origin that today it became the legend around this event.
The Zibelemärit or Onion Market is all that remains of a former 14 day Autumn Market.
The Autumn Market was held in Bern the first time in 1439. In the year 1728 Bern allowed foreign people to sell their goods on Monday before the opening of the Autumn Market. This decision attracted mostly trade people selling clothes. Back at that time, the borders were not like today, foreigners were people outside of Bern.
By 1850, when a railway line was being built from the farming areas into the city of Bern, farmers from the Mont Vully area around Freiburg wanted to seize this opportunity to sell their onions on this day when foreigners were allowed to sell their goods. So they brought their onions from their region. The reputation of these onions grew quickly due to their excellent quality. The newspapers in 1860 claimed the Autumn Market then would start on the day of the Onion Market, the Zibelemärit.
The warehouses and supermarkets of the 20th century brought an end to the Autumn Market whose only reminder to this day is the Onion Market. A medieval tradition of the Autumn Market has, however, survived within this Onion Market which includes a feast consisting of tasty cheese tarts, excellent onion tarts and onion soup offered at all the restaurants and many stands at the market.
Those wanting to experience this market need to get up early to see it at its best. The stands are prepared before 5am with mountains of woven plaits of golden and red onions.
I was not able to be in Bern so early and arrived at 7am at the main railway station together with many other visitors to this lively and unique Onion Festival. Soon the aroma of onion tarts and onion soup filled the air within the market. Many stands offered the onion enthusiasts some resistance to the chilly late November temperatures with their Glühwein and garlic bread.
The event attracted thousands of visitors from Bern, all over Switzerland and even from the neighbor countries France, Germany and Italy who were all happy to buy the 54 tons of onions.
There are more photos of the event under www.pbase.com/tcom/zibelemarit