I reach Neuchâtel, which is the capital of the canton Neuchâtel, in a spring day full of cherry blossoms, tulips in every yard and valleys full of neon green grass. The direct train from Zurich takes only about an hour and a half, which I spend glued to my window, watching the little rivers, charming houses and clean railway station. The further away from Zurich, the more Swiss the surroundings seem!
When arriving to Neuchâtel I decide to walk to my hotel, as the day is just wonderful! The way from the station is downwards, and though I have to carry my bag in some places due to the stairs, the walk turns out really beautifully! The first impressions of the city are that it is very clean, there aren’t too many people or cars, and the cars I see, are quite small. There are many stunning buildings and little gardens. I also notice a casino, I guess, the only one in town!
The history of Neuchâtel started a long time ago, and in 1990, during highway building, precious historical artifacts were discovered from 13BC. Magdalenian settlement with bones held a special find – the oldest piece of art found in Switzerland, earrings symbolizing fertility! But, in more modern history, Neuchâtel just celebrated it 1000th birthday in 2011. Most of the historical places in the city date back to 15-18th century, including many of the 140 impressive fountains, most of which have been built in the 16th century. The most stunning one is Fountain de la Justice, built from 1545 til 1546, and recently renovated. Below the figure there are four representations of state governance – pope, magistrate, an emperor and a sultan! The other fountains not to miss are Fountain du Griffon, Fountain de la rue des Moulins and Fountain du Banneret.
The historic center is not really big, and as per recommendation of the local tourism association, can be seen in two hours, definitely worth the walk! It is very refreshing to be the only tourist on the street, without crowds around competing for the best photo spots at the beautiful buildings. Many of the houses have been built from the local sandstone, thus the bright yellow color. It matches nicely with the street cafes and little stores, selling real Swiss cheese and chocolate!
The Little Town with the Global Feel
Neuchâtel is home to about 35 thousand people, yet it has the charm of a little town, people greeting you on the street! Greeting in French, as this is a very French town, and there are only 6 people who speak Romansh. Yet I was very surprised to hear Latvian at the breakfast in the hotel, turned out that there was a bike marathon passing through town and Latvian team was participating as well! I also hear Georgian on the street. Turns out, 30% of the inhabitants are citizens of other countries who work here, because Neuchâtel has become high technology center, where expats work in factories and research and development.
Neuchâtel most likely is not a city one visits as the primary holiday destination, like it is with Rome or Paris, most of the time it is a business destination or one of the stops in a Swiss road trip. If you are on one, then do plan Jura and three lakes region visit, for some fishing, local truffles and wine, as well as for an opportunity to see how absinthe is made! It originates from Neuchâtel canton, Val-de-Travers city, and still produced like in the 18th century! Neuchâtel canton city Fleurier was also the birthplace of the recently deceased Robert Miles, so this Swiss canton has left a mark in the world history.
The Land of Lakes and Watches
As beautiful the architecture may be, the main sightseeing spot is the lake. In spring there are blooming trees and daffodils, bright poppies in flower pots and the dock is full of boats. The feeling of the little town is even more emphasized by swans, one of which has decided to nest in the flowerpot, and the other is picking on grass underwater, where every single stone can be seen, so clear it is! Having the lake nearby does have one complication – millions of mosquitoes! I am glad I didn’t open the window on the day of arrival and first tried adjusting AC, as the whole wall of the hotel is covered in them! Feels like I am somewhere in the Northern swamps!
Distant, snowy peaks glimmer in the distance, right after the lake, then they get covered in clouds and I see how unpredictable the weather is here in spring. I just manage to reach my hotel when downpour begins.
Another indication of how un-touristy Neuchâtel is, is the little choice when it comes to the hotels, and the ones available do match the expectations about what Swiss prices are like. Swiss feeling is also in other details, stores selling watches are around every corner. The connection to watch industry is even stronger in Neuchâtel canton than elsewhere in Switzerland. This area is famous for watchmaking and called the “Watch Valley”. La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle cities are included in the UNESCO heritage list due to their history of watchmaking. Here you can visit the watchmakers workshops and museums, get to know some of the secrets related to watchmaking in individual tours, and, of course, buy one!
Another interesting fact related to Neuchâtel and the lake is the change of the coastal line, as the lake has been drained several times, as much as 10 feet in 1870! So some of the castles and houses that used to sit at the shore, are more inland than they used to be back in 16-17th century.
The most stunning houses to see in the city are definitely the post office near the port, city hall and Hôtel DuPeyrou, which is like a tiny Versailles with beautiful garden in the city center. A friend of Jean Jacques Rousseau used to live here, Pierre Alexander DuPeyrou, who was responsible for publishing many of the writer’s works.
One of the main sights is the castle, which begun it’s story in 12th century, and offers free tours as well. Next to it is the Collégiale church, consecrated in the 12th century as well, famous for it’s grand, decorated roof. The square at the church and castle offers beautiful views to the city – I see rainbow, roofs, the ancient walls and beautiful lake, as well as the prison tower, the oldest building in the city dating back to 10th century. It is unfortunately now closed to visitors after the fire.
Food and the Question About the Cheese
Neuchâtel is one of those cities where you can have a dinner at a house build in 1569, and which is an architectural monument – Maison des halles. Once this was a warehouse for the more expensive goods of the market – grains on the first floor, fabrics on the second floor. At those time fruit and vegetables were transported across the lake from Bern, Vaud and Fribourg. Nowadays, you can get the local produce at the market on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
But the main question, when visiting Switzerland usually is – what about the cheese?
Cheese is very important in the Swiss history, once even used in place of money, as it was common to pay someone partly in cash and partly in fancy cheese. Cheese was even a common gift for the birth of a baby. Until World War I, Switzerland produced more than thousand various types of cheese. How come nowadays only few sorts of Swiss cheese are known, such as Emmental (cheese with holes, usually called “Swiss”), Gruyere (less holes) and Sbrinz (hard mountain cheese)? Turns out, one organization is to blame, and it is often compared to Italian mafia. The Swiss Cheese Union or cartel, which was established after World War I to protect and develop the cheese industry, yet ended up fully controlling all of the cheese production and sales in the country and outside, for 85 years from 1914 til 1999!
This was the organization that determined which cheese would have the quality stamp and where they would be sold. Any kind of cheese that did not match the quality or the type they preferred, would end up in the regular stores, signaling to consumers they were of lesser quality, even if those were just a different type of cheese. In the end of the nineties it was discovered that some of the employees of the Swiss Cheese Union took bribes to mark cheese as higher quality when it was not, for tax fraud, World Trade Organization intervened with suspicions of a cartel and in the end Swiss Cheese Union was dismantled. Now there is freedom to produce any kind of cheese people want and it has resulted in over 450 types of cheese produced these days!
But what does the regular visitor have to do with all of this and bother about cheese? Turns out, the famous Swiss national dish fondue was actually consumed only in Alps, but the association did a campaign to establish it as the national dish of Switzerland in the thirties, and now there are also other types of fondue, such as chocolate! And, fondue and raclette are not the same thing! Raclette is the semi hard cow milk cheese, which is heated up and the melted part is eaten, or the slices are heated and put over potatoes. These traditions originated in the shepherds groups, who moved cattle in the mountains and took this cheese with them, heating it up in the evenings at the fire. Fondue, on the other hand, is a big pot with several types of cheese heated up and bread used for eating. Is it really the case that you will just get cheese for dinner? Yes, in the two restaurants that I visited, Le Jura in the city center and Pinte de Pierre-à-Bot at the mountaintop, fondue was the main course. In the restaurant you get it prepared for you, a pot with melted cheese, large fork and a big bowl of small pieces of bread. And then you soak the bread in the cheese at eat it.
When I asked for a typical recipe of fondue, I was told it is relatively easy to do!
You will need:
250 g Emmental cheese
250 g Gruyere cheese
1 clove of garlic
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
3 teaspoons of kirsch (cherry brandy)
330 ml of dry white wine
1 teaspoon of con flour
White pepper, nutmeg, black pepper
French bread for serving
Rub the inside of the fondue pot with garlic
Carefully heat up wine and lemon juice
Add cheese gradually, stirring so all sides of the pot are touched
When the cheese starts to bubble up, add kirsh and corn flour
Boil for another 2-3 minutes
Serve with 2-3 cm large bread cubes
Of course, apart from fondue, other type of food is available in the restaurants, and I enjoyed desserts especially! For example, Restaurant O’terroirs Beau-Rivage Hotel had the tastiest pear tart and Hotel Beaulac served amazing pistachio crème brûlée!
Neuchâtel seems much more Swiss than Zurich, yet at the same time very different from the picture I have in my mind, hearing the word “Switzerland”. The chocolate and the cheese, the history and the watches are there, but people seem much more friendly and they speak French! The city is very calm, is that because of those many watches, that time flows here differently?
Planning a trip to Switzerland? Check out this Lonely Planet guidebook about Switzerland!