I was walking by the clock tower, in the heart of the old town, when unlikely musical sounds began coming from the direction of Baeren Platz.

An alpenhorn performance wouldn't have surprised me, nor a cowbell-ringing competition, or even a yodeling concert. But bagpipes? After all, this was Bern not Brigadoon.Nevertheless, there they were: a dozen kilted pipers blowing away for all they were worth to the delight of a crowd of onlookers. It seems there was an international curling competition in progress, and this was a bagpipe band from Winnipeg come to town to inspire the Canadian team. Or perhaps intimidate their opponents.

A well-preserved and compact medieval city of some 140,000 people, surrounded by mountains, forests and farmland, Bern has a cozy, almost small-town feeling to it. And, as befits Switzerland's federal capital, a very Swiss ambiance as well. However, Bern is a more cosmopolitan place than it appears at first glance.

Bern became the national capital in 1848, beating out larger and better known rivals Zurich and Geneva. The city's location in the center of the country was a factor in the selection, but, more importantly, at that time Bern straddled the country's linguistic frontier.

Zurich was German-speaking, and French was the language of Geneva, but Bern was bilingual, its population just about equally divided between speakers of both languages. Today, German is the native tongue of the overwhelming majority of Bernese but with a good many French words and phrases mixed in. Merci and danke schoen, for instance, are heard about as often, and bon jour is as common a greeting as guten tag.

Bern was founded at a U-shaped bend in the Aare River in 1161 by Duke Berthold of Zahringen, supposedly on the spot where he had killed a bear, or "bern" in the local Swiss-German dialect. The bear - usually represented as an anatomically correct male - remains the city's proud and ubiquitous emblem.

A bear appears on the city's coat of arms and flag and on many of the colorful guild and regional flags the Bernese love to display. At least since the late middle ages, real live bears have usually been on view in Bern as well.

Originally, these mascots were kept in the dry moat outside the city wall. When the walls were taken down and the moat filled in - creating Baeren Platz (Bears Square), now the city's alfresco social center, filled with cafe tables - the bears were relocated several times. Since 1854 their permanent home has been a large bear pit in a park near the Nydegg Bridge on the south side of the river. Looking healthy and pampered but a bit bored, the five brown bears (down from as many as a dozen) now occupying the pit are definitely Bern's most photographed residents.

Also a photographers's favorite is the statue of a bear, wearing armor and carrying a shield that decorates a fountain on Kramgasse, one of the most typical streets of the old city center. Instead of being built around a central market square as are most Swiss towns, Bern was laid out with several wide main streets suitable for open-air markets and lined with covered arcades.

The city has four miles of arcades - one of the longest shopping promenades in Europe - making it possible to stroll and window-shop in any kind of weather. The best way to appreciate Bern is probably to just leisurely wander the arcades, ducking into shops and stopping occasionally for refreshment in a cafe or wine cellar.

There are some 150 restaurants in Bern, most of them small, friendly and located in arcades or wine cellars. The local culinary specialty, found on virtually all restaurant and cafe menus, is the Bernerplatte.

Not a dish for picky eaters, the Bernerplatte consists of a large platter piled high with sausages and boiled, smoked and roasted meats. The usual accompaniment is a mound of rosti: potato slices that have been boiled, fried in butter and then roasted.

In the mid-16th century, fountains - each with a pillar topped by a different statue such as that of the bear in armor - were installed every 1,000 feet or so on the main shopping streets. There are a dozen such ornamental fountains in Bern, and they contribute a lot to the city's romantic atmosphere.

Some statues represented people common in the city such as a street musician or a crossbow man. Others were allegorical, like the one representing justice. Most famous - and strangest - is the Ogre Fountain, which has a grotesque figure of a man devouring little children.

The bear fountain is just in front of another beloved Bern landmark, the old clock tower, one of the original but much rebuilt city gates. The tower's astronomical clock, one of the oldest in Europe, was installed in 1531 and has been keeping the city on time - and entertained - ever since.

When announcing the hour, the clock puts on a show that lasts about 10 minutes. A rooster flaps its wings, a jester rings two bells, Father Time turns an hourglass, a knight in gilded armor strikes the hour, a lion raises his head as if to roar and a procession of spear-carrying bears marches in front of the clock.

Looming over the city's medieval heart is the 15th-century cathedral's 328-foot-high spire, the tallest in Switzerland. Above the main portal of the cathedral is a particularly vivid Last Judgment showing damned souls - including two popes - being dragged down to hell and subjected to imaginative and painful-looking torments.

The cathedral became a Protestant church after the reformation and was stripped of its statues and Catholic imagery. But the soaring nave was too high (and expensive) to repaint, and the images of 86 Catholic saints still look down from the ceiling.

Not far from the cathedral is the domed Federal House, home of the Swiss National Assembly. The square in front of the assembly building is the site of a lively and colorful twice-weekly produce and flower market. The promenade behind the building, Federal Terrace, has a wonderful view looking over the Aare River to the snowcapped Bernese Alps.

One Bern resident who often strolled along the terrace - and perhaps drew inspiration from its view - was Albert Einstein. Although born in Germany, he developed his revolutionary theory of relativity here in 1905 while working as a clerk in the federal patent office.

Einstein's old apartment, a four-room third floor walkup in an arcaded old building at 49 Kram-gasse where he lived with his wife for two years before returning to Berlin, is now a museum. I didn't find it particularly exciting, but everything is relative. However, there is something pleasing about the fact that one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century occurred in so low-tech a setting.

Another notable sometime resident was the abstract painter Paul Klee, who was born in Bern in 1879. Klee spent much of his life and did most of his work in Germany, but Bern proudly claims him as its own. The excellent Museum of Fine Arts on Hodlerstrasse boasts the world's largest Klee collection: some 2,000 works, most of them prints. Usually about 10 percent of the print collection but most of the paintings are exhibited at any given time.