A world apart: Bern’s Matte district


Hans Peter Blum doesn’t need much in the way of small talk. He’s got just thirty seconds for a chat, and every second takes him one metre higher. Blum operates the elevator of the Matte district (Mattelift), a venerable lift connecting the upper city with the Matte district.

The retiree transports everyone from musicians and craftsmen to Federal Council members and cinema-goers, and with locals exchanges a few words about work, their kids and the weather. Blum regales non-locals with a potted version of the legends that surround the Matte district – like the ghostly female figure who at night haunts the 183 steps of the stairway leading up from the Matte, or the barrel full of gold that is said to be buried somewhere down there.

The “Mattelift” is Bern’s most fascinating means of transport – not just because it has been operating since 1897, its metal construction designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Intriguingly, it links two worlds: the magnificent Old Town of Bern with its towers, fountains and patrician dwellings, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site; and the Matte district down by the Aare river. At one time, the division between the two was not just a matter of altitude but also one of class, with genteel citizens living up above, and workers and craftsmen lodging down below in simple half-timbered houses. Moreover, the Matte used to be a busy harbour, and the “Badgasse” was home to the public baths, which were used not just for hygiene but for all kinds of other pleasures, too. When Casanova visited Bern in 1760, he was particularly taken with the pretty girls who, for a fee, would join bathers in the water. But all that is “water under the bridge”. The baths and the harbour are long gone, and though some trades still work out of the Matte, it is now mainly given over to the cafés, artists’ studios and small shops that line its pleasant corners and low arcades.

Secret language

Nine hundred people use the elevator every day, and Peter Hafen is one of them. This passionate fan of the Matte is one of the few to speak Switzerland’s fifth national language. Not many people realize that German, French, Italian and Romansh are not the only languages spoken in this country. There is also “Mattenenglisch” (Matte English), or “Matteänglisch” as it is known in Bernese dialect. Hafen is quick to point out that this language is not to be confused with Matte dialect, which is a form of Bern German with a scattering of French, Italian and Hebrew words. Mattenenglisch, however, is a secret language brought from Hamburg by Bernese boatmen. Put very simply, in Mattenenglisch, syllables are transposed and an “i” placed in front of words and an “e” after them. As Hafen explains, “That way, ‘Mätteler’ could communicate without townie Bernese understanding them – a skill which came in handy when negotiating prices, for instance.” However, Mattenenglisch has nothing to do with English proper. Upper-town Bernese who didn’t speak the language may have invented this name because, back then, anything people didn’t understand was called “Englisch” (English).

Matteänglisch Club

Peter Hafen is president of the Matteänglisch Club with its 350-odd members, by no means all of whom speak the secret language. Hafen recounts that, when he was a boy, teachers used to chide pupils for talking “Matteänglisch” because “it wasn’t the done thing”. The language nearly died out, but in the meantime more Bernese are taking an interest in this part of their cultural heritage. Every year, Hafen organizes introductory courses in Mattenenglisch and is delighted to report that he knows a few families “who speak only Mattenenglisch at home.”

When Peter Hafen takes the elevator down to the Matte, he always chats a bit with Hans Peter Blum – but in Bernese dialect, because Blum doesn’t speak Mattenenglisch. However, he does give tourists using the lift two tips about places where they can discover this almost forgotten language. One is the tradition-steeped Restaurant Mülirad, where the few authentic Mätteler that remain are regulars, and where Mattenenglisch is still sometimes spoken. And the second is the house at Schifflaube 34, where a plaque with a sentence in perfect Mattenenglisch is let into the pavement. It is the work of Res Margot, musician and Mätteler, and refers to the legend of the gold treasure. Allegedly, back in 1798, the many goldsmiths who worked in the Matte buried a barrel full of golden coins somewhere in the district to prevent them falling into the hands of Napoleon’s invading army. The barrel never turned up again, and when, some time ago, the municipal Works Department ripped up the surface of the Schifflaube three times in succession, Margot with his Mätteler brand of humour joked that the city of Bern was probably still hunting for the lost treasure. Hence the plaque in front of his workshop with the inscription “Iehe ische ds‘Issfe itme ide ludge-icklischte idne irve-ibegre!” – which translates as “The barrel of gold coins isn’t buried here”.



  • Mattenenglisch courses and guided tours of the Matte: Matteänglisch-Club, T +41 (0)31 331 61 84, www.matteaenglisch.ch
  • Restaurant Mülirad, Gerberngasse 4, 3011 Bern, T +41 (0)31 311 21 09, www.muehlerad.ch