Here is Bruce Woelfel's enthusiastic report on the beautiful lakeside city of Neuchâtel and nearby La Chaux-de Fonds, the cradle of the clock-making industry.

Neuchâtel is an incredibly beautiful medieval and renaissance city at the foot of the Jura, facing the Alps. It borders the shore of Switzerland's largest inland lake and is surrounded by gently sloping vineyards. A 12th century castle and collegiate church dominate its perfectly preserved buildings of honey-colored stone. Adjoining the lake are flowering quays, green parks, promenades, marinas and luxury hotels, some of the latter enclosed by the shells of the older buildings they replaced.

A wonderful city! My greatest appreciation came seeing it from the edge of the lake early on a Sunday morning after a rainy night, with the city still asleep, when there was clear air and fantastic, dramatic lighting. It was a skyline of sharp roof tops and soft colors, etched in sunlight against a background of hovering dark clouds.

I strolled the pristine white rock waterfront which stretched far into the distance; the entire lake front is available to city dwellers for boating and swimming. Then I toured the city, walking narrow alleys of irregular ancient buildings with glassed-in displays of merchandise, and into little plazas with gilded, medieval statues.

Aside from its beauty, Neuchâtel is remarkable for its extensive pedestrian areas, and on its streets there is little traffic, only a few cars, even at rush hour. Three intersecting main roads have been buried beneath the ground. The quiet streets and beautiful shoreline are the result of this recently completed tunneling which took 15 years of exacting work. Rock excavated from the project was used to line the waterfront.

The city's history gives clues to its independent and progressive character. A part of Burgundy during the 11th century, Neuchâtel was governed by the Holy Roman Empire, then allied with the Swiss confederation from the 15th century on. It became independent in 1648 and remained an autonomous principality, although in 1707 it choose Frederick of Prussia as its prince. It became a Canton of Switzerland in 1814, but was still claimed by Prussia until 1857.

Neuchâtel has benefited by its acceptance of religious and political nonconformity, especially during the period from 1665-1685 when King Louis XIV persecuted Protestants and finally revoked the 1598 Treaty of Nantes which had defined the rights of French Protestants. These actions drove many highly skilled workers and artists from France, and some found safe haven in Neuchâtel.

In 1762, Neuchâtel provided temporary refuge for French writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who fled the ecclesiastical authorities of Paris and Geneva. The city contains the mansion of Du Peyrou, Rousseau's friend, protector and publisher. Later, in the 19th century, it sheltered writers Andre Gide and Alexander Dumas.

The region has prospered during the 19th and 20th centuries. Neuchâtel, Le Locle, and La Chaux-de-Fonds in the same canton, have become famous throughout Europe for watchmaking. The region is also known for chocolate, tobacco and cheese production, and its vineyards produce wines of distinction, the whites with a bit of sparkle, and the Pinot Noirs rich and mellow.

A university town and business center, Neuchâtel is renowned for the quality of its spoken French language, reputedly the best anywhere. Its university attracts many students from outside Switzerland and contributes to the cultural life of the city. I attended a delightful French restoration comedy in the small city theater, enjoying a sandwich and taste of white wine in the theater café before the performance. Dance, music and cinema are also available here during the summer months.

The city has a distinctly French flavor. Its center throbs with a fresh, energetic atmosphere reminiscent of the area around Pompideau Center in Paris. Lunching on a cobblestone terrace in front of Restaurant Hotel Le Marche, which looks like a chateau with its medieval pointed towers, I felt like I was in a mini-Paris, without the rude waiters. But there was something else, more Swiss in character: the atmosphere of a university town combined with a business center. All around me, students and young business people engaged in vigorous conversation as they enjoyed the bright sunshine and unique setting.

An area that prides itself on its technology, Neuchâtel has superb rail connections to France and to other Swiss cities. Two direct daily TGV runs reach Paris in only four hours and other express trains leave hourly for major Swiss cities. Road access is also good. It is only a few kilometers from the Swiss motorway network heading east (Bern, Zürich, Basel), to the west (Lausanne, Geneva), or to the south (Valais, the Alps). Quiet and efficient transportation within the city is provided by electric trolley buses and a very comfortable light rail line which runs along the shore.

A special attraction is a demonstration of the Jaquet-Droz Automatons, miniature figures built 1769-1780, the first Sunday of each month at The Museum of Art and History. These consist of three figures: a woman 30 inches tall with tiny fingers articulated in great detail. She breathes (the bosom moves in and out) and plays music on a wind piano. Of the two 24-inch child figures, one draws different objects (a dog on this occasion), and the other writes ("Je pense, donc Jexist") with a pen on paper. The attendant who conducted the demonstrations showed great pride in the intricate and complex figures (the writing child has 6500 parts), and charmed watching children by opening the automatons backs to show the intricate insides and carrying them around to be examined in detail. The museum also has exhibits of furniture, gold artifacts, paintings and scepters, of the 16th and 17th Century rulers of Neuchâtel.

Neuchâtel Hotels

Hotel Beaufort

(Editor's Choice)

By far the city's most elegant hotel, on a stunning site at the edge of the lake. The striking new building resides inside what was originally a 19th century apartment. This 5-star "boutique hotel," with only 70 rooms, retains the exterior of the magnificent older building, although a screen of glass, to enclose the old walls, has been added on the lakeside ground floor. The large, sumptuous restaurant and lobby offer panoramic views of the lake.

Guestrooms are spacious, luxurious and expensive, befitting the hotel's rating. A bargain can be obtained for top floor rooms which are equally large and luxurious, but with lower ceilings (9' instead of 12') and smaller windows, a result of the necessity of preserving the exterior façade. All rooms have big, segmented bathrooms with separate showers and large tubs; walk-in closets; a separate bar unit combined with safe, and several other special features. The suites are particularly lavish, some with two bedrooms and terraces facing the lake.

The restaurant offers three-course lunches (typical: tomato and lettuce salad, lake fish filet, potatoes and cream tart) for $25. Dinners of four-courses (typical: soup, filets of lake perch, fricasseed rabbit with mushrooms, green beans and polenta, chocolate profiteroles) for $40. A bottle of Neuchâtel white wine is $20, a bottle of Swiss beer $2.

  • Address: Hotel Beaufort, 1, Esplanade du Mont-Blanc, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland
  • Phone: 4138/24 00 24
  • Fax: 4138/24 78 94
  • Location: Opposite Place Pury, facing Lake Neuchâtel
  • Rooms: 70 doubles
  • Proprietor: Duncan Shakeshaft
  • Prices: Weekend special top floor 160 Sfr. ($119), singles 160-310 Sfr. ($119-$230), doubles 280-380 Sfr. ($207-$281), suites 600 -700 Sfr. ($480-$560)
  • Meals: All available
  • Facilities: Outdoor terrace, extensive public rooms and convention rooms
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: Good access
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: 400 spaces under building, 10 Sfr. ($7.50) per night.
  • Rating: Excellent 18/20 G

Beaulac

A new four-star hotel overlooking the lake, marina and port. Modern, elegant interior. Three restaurants and lakeside terrace. Large rooms with lake views, but without balconies, a result of retaining the original exterior façade. The building was constructed to accommodate guests who require extremely high security. It has its own heliport with a separate entrance, as well as a floor which can be closed off from the rest of the building. All rooms are above average in size and have big bathrooms with huge tubs,

  • Address: Hotel Beaulac, Quais Leopold 2, CH-2001 Neuchâtel
  • Phone: 4138/25 8822
  • Fax: 4138/25 6035
  • Location: Overlooking the port on Quai Leopold-Robert
  • Rooms: 4 singles, 66 doubles.
  • Proprietor: Fabien Chatelat, Director
  • Prices: Single 150 -170 Sfr. ($111-$126), double 185-260 Sfr. ($137-$193), suites 290-550 Sfr. ($215-$407), including American breakfast
  • Meals: All available
  • Facilities: Banquet rooms accommodating from 10 to 330 persons
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: 4 rooms especially equipped
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: 18-20 spaces available own garage for 10 Sfr. ($7.50) per night plus outside curb spaces
  • Rating: Above Average 15/20

Touring Hotel

A smallish hotel with an outstanding location and view of the lake, port and marina. The ground floor restaurant and lobby are bright and attractive although the small lobby is a bit pinched with the elevator door opening too close to the check-in counter. Upstairs the rooms are pleasant albeit plain, but drab brown halls and worn spots in the carpet indicate the need for some spiffing up. Singles are above average in size and have large bathrooms. All rooms are the same price and decor, lakeside and city side, so ask for a room facing the water. The restaurant serves an attractive and reasonably priced lunch: trout filets, frites, salad bar, 1/3 bottle local wine (very good), 34 Sfr ($25). Also in the restaurant: a good breakfast included in room price; croissants, fresh rolls, cheese,

  • Address: Hotel Touring au Lac, 1, place Numa-Droz, CH 2001 Neuchâtel
  • Phone: 038/25 5501
  • Fax: 038/25 8243
  • Location: Adjacent to port and marina
  • Rooms: 10 singles, 32 doubles
  • Proprietors: Bondolfi family
  • Prices: Singles 105 Sfr. ($78), doubles 165 Sfr. ($122)
  • Meals: All available
  • Facilities: Small conference rooms
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: Good access
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: Free space for 3-4 cars. Curb spaces also available
  • Rating: Average 10/20

Hotel du Vaisseau

(Editor's Choice)

A very pleasant country inn facing the lake front, below fields of ripening grapes in the little town of Cortaillod, 8 km (5 miles) west of the center of Neuchâtel. Most rooms look out toward the peaceful countryside with a view of the terraced vineyards. Accommodations include a pair of two-bedroom family apartments. All guest rooms have a homey, informal atmosphere.

I enjoyed excellent French cuisine for Sunday dinner in the restaurant adjoining the lobby. I chose the plate of the day: medium rare slices of duck in a brown sauce with little carrots, turnips, onions and scalloped potatoes 22 Sfr. ($16). Also available: fresh salmon with rice pilaf. A complete meal including the main dish plus pate, cream of chicken soup and a parfait of ice cream and prunes was 36 Sfr. ($27). The hotel bottles and serves its own white wine from local vineyards, which I found to be delicious, with a clean dry taste.

  • Address: Hotel du Vaisseau, Petit-Cortaillod Plage, CH-2016 Cortaillod
  • Phone: 038/42 1942
  • Fax: 038/42 1092
  • Location: Along Lake Neuchâtel, 8 km southwest of Neuchâtel
  • Rooms: 22 doubles
  • Proprietor: Fabien Chetelat
  • Prices: Singles 100-110 Sfr. ($74-$81), doubles 180-200 Sfr. ($133-$148), two-bedroom apartment 2000 Sfr./week ($1481)
  • Meals: All available
  • Facilities: Meeting rooms
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: Good access
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: Outdoor spaces beside building at no charge
  • Rating: Above Average 14/20 G

Restaurant Suggestions

Hotel Restaurant du Marche & Place des Halles 4

(Editor's Choice)

Three restaurants; the most formal and most expensive is on the top floor, the least formal and cheapest is outside. Lunch outside at Marche: steak with green butter and garlic sauce, pommes frites, vegetable, green salad, small carafe of good local Merlot 34 Sfr. ($25).

Brasserie - Café du Theatre Place Numa Droz

An informal and reasonably priced upbeat place close to the town center, usually filled with young people. Very friendly English-speaking waiters, including, when I was there, a young bilingual French-Canadian. Special: tomato and mozzarella salad, duck in cider sauce, rösti potatoes, vegetables. Entrée only 22 Sfr. ($16), complete meal 32 Sfr. ($24). Steak Parisienne with frites and salad, 22 Sfr. ($16), melon and ham ($11). Also a large selection of a la carte items and beverages.

Neuchâtel

Population: 40,000

Altitude: 1,518 feet

Approximate Travel times: Auto/Rail

  • Bern: 45 Mins/40 Mins
  • Basel: 1.5 Hrs/1 Hr 40 Mins
  • Geneva: 1.5 Hrs/1 Hr 10 Mins
  • Zürich: 1.5 Hrs/1 Hr 50 Mins
  • Paris: 6 Hrs/4 Hrs

Tourist Information

  • Federation Neuchâteloise du Tourisme
  • Rue du Tresor 9, CH-2001 Neuchâtel
  • Phone: 038 25 17 89 Fax: 038 24 49 40

Events

The last weekend of September is the high point of the year, when the three-day Fete des Vendanges (wine harvest festival) brings thousands of visitors to enjoy a variety of entertainment including a procession of floral floats.

Places and Activities of Special Interest

Walking Tour of the City. During July and August on Thursday morning at 9:30 in front of the Tour de Diesse on the rue du Chateau. Price 8.50 Sfr. ($6.50) for adults, 3 Sfr. ($2.25) for children.

Boat Trips. Lake Neuchâtel, the largest lake wholly in Switzerland, is connected by navigable canals to the lakes of Bienne and Morat. A wide variety of crossings and cruises operate during the summer, many with snack and dining facilities. Details at the Port or the Tourist Office, 7 rue de la Place dArmes.

The Jaquet-Droz Automatons. Museum of Art and History, 1 Quai Leopold-Robert, Neuchâtel. Performances the first Sunday of the month at 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.. Admission 8 Sfr. ($6)

Guided Tours of the Castle. The Chateau and Collegiate Church of Neuchâtel form one of the most important groups of historic buildings in Switzerland. Tours: April 1st to September, on the hour, Monday to Friday 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.. Sundays and holidays 2-5 p.m. Admission free.

Au Gor du Vauseyon. Beautiful natural area in the heart of town, with gorges, waterfalls and ruins of 16th century mills. Trails and bridges link with paths leading to the town of Valangin. Take No.1 bus from Place Pury, direction Cormondreche.

Vine and Wine Museum at the Chateau de Boudry. Tracing the history of wine-making from ancestral practices to the most modern techniques. The Chateau is the birthplace of Jean-Paul Marat. Thursday through Sunday 2-5 p.m.

La Chaux-de-Fonds

Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds, each with about 40,000 inhabitants, are the canton's second and third largest cities, smaller in population in French-speaking Switzerland only to Geneva.

Although only 40 minutes rail distance apart, they are very different in character: Neuchâtel, in a picturesque location along the north side of Neuchâtel Lake, is medieval; La Chaux-de-Fonds, in a valley of the Jura, without the scenic site, is a business and industrial city best known for its production of watches and its excellent concert hall (hotels were filled with musicians attending a convention when I arrived).

Though it doesn't possess the sheer beauty of Neuchâtel, La Chaux-de-Fonds is definitely worth a visit for its cultural attractions. They include the world's largest and most important museum of clocks and watches, an important museum of art, and the early buildings of the architect Le Corbusier, born in La Chaux-de-Fonds and famous for his influence on the design of United Nations headquarters in New York.

The city's most interesting area is near the northeast end of the main street - boulevard Leopold-Robert - by a small plaza and lovely fountain, across from the Fleur de Lys Hotel. Nearby are the museums and music hall, two blocks away is an attractive shopping center in an elaborate four-story glass and concrete building with a selection of shops and restaurants. But to me these were secondary attractions; I wanted to see a building by Corbusier.

A former architect, I studied Corbusier as a student at Ohio State and have great admiration for his work. In an architectural period which glorified the past, he dreamed of cities which used the mobility of the automobile to lift inhabitants aboveground, reserving most of the land for gardens. He was also a painter and sculptor, and his skills in shaping concrete are evident in his design of the chapel at Ronchamps, France.

I had visited his "Cite d'Habitation," a huge high-rise block in Marseille, complete with hotel, two-story apartments, shopping, kindergarten and running track (but not his greatest completed design, the Indian City of Chandrigar), and was curious about what he had done early in his life. I asked my hotel concierge: "If you could only visit one of Corbusier's buildings in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which one would it be?" The answer came back: "Villa Schwob."

Most of Corbusier buildings in La Chaux-de-Fonds, done during the beginning of his career, are neoclassical and interesting only as curiosities. Villa Schwob, known as the "Turkish Villa" is an exception. It is an exquisite Art-Deco structure of delicate design, with some Frank Lloyd Wrightish touches but none of the bleaker characteristics of his later buildings.

Another La Chaux-de-Fonds attraction, the International Museum of Horology is intriguing and fascinating. It contains more than 3,000 time measuring instruments, watches and clocks. One enters past a series of frescoes illustrating the history of time measurement, and several tower clocks, monumental in size and reminders of the first mechanical clocks.

On the first level, in spherical showcases, dramatically lit by halogen bulbs are instruments for time measurement from ancient times until the 19th century, arranged by era. On the next level are tools and machines used from the 18th to the 20th century for handcrafting and later industrial production. Above is a gallery containing precision clocks used by observatories, and a panorama of the manufacture of watchcases and movements (weight-driven, spring-driven, balance, tuning fork and quartz), and an illustrated history of the wristwatch throughout the century. In a garden behind the museum is a monumental carillon, some 30 feet high, built in 1980. A combination timepiece and musical instrument, it is a fantastic sculpture of polished steel tubes with musical animation, colored and luminous, unlike anything I had seen before.

An adjoining building houses the Museum of Beaux-Arts. In addition to a painting by Corbusier, there are important paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall, and Modigliani, and an interesting collection of minimalist abstract art and contemporary sculpture.

La Chaux-de-Fonds Hotels

Club

(Editor's Choice)

A beautifully designed and decorated small contemporary hotel, close to the center of the city. Built in 1970, it offers 38 identical double rooms decorated in attractive pastel colors. Would be rated four-stars except for its lack of a restaurant. The bar and breakfast room is colorfully decorated in a modern style with bright colors and sculpture.

  • Address: Hotel Club, rue de Parc 71, CH-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
  • Phone: 039/23 5300
  • Fax: 039/23 9501
  • Location: Near center of town
  • Rooms: 38 doubles
  • Proprietor: Sonjia Richard
  • Prices: Singles 125 Sfr. ($93), doubles 190 Sfr. ($141)
  • Meals: Breakfast only
  • Facilities: Bar, solarium
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: Good access
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: Outside curb spaces, no charge
  • Rating: Above Average 15/20

Fleur de Lys

An older hotel attractively located near the museum complex, shopping and the only fountain in town. Built in 1895 and remodeled five years ago. The best room is Number 343, a large suite with a view of the fountain. Number 344, a double, also overlooks the fountain. The restaurant and coffee house in the same building is independently owned.

  • Address: Hotel Fleur de Lys, Ch-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
  • Phone: 039/23 3731
  • Location: At the east end of the main street
  • Rooms: 2 singles, 28 doubles, 4 suites
  • Proprietor: Max Kocain
  • Prices: Single 110 Sfr. ($81), double 140-170 Sfr. ($104-126), suite 260 Sfr. ($193), not including breakfast
  • Meals: Available in separately-owned restaurant, same building
  • Facilities: Sauna, solarium
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: Good access
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: Garage in rear of building, 12 Sfr. ($9) per night.
  • Rating: Above Average 13/20

Moreau

An older place with marble halls and stairs and some very attractive suites. Moreau began life as a chocolate factory in 1882. The last renovation was three years ago. The single rooms are very small.

  • Address: Hotel Moreau, 45 avenue Leopold-Robert, Ch-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds
  • Phone: 039/23 2222
  • Fax: 039/23 2245
  • Location: In center of town, 300 meters from railroad station
  • Rooms: 22 singles, 23 doubles, 3 suites
  • Prices: Singles 60-75 Sfr. ($44-$56), doubles 140-180 Sfr. ($104-$133), suites ($150-$205)
  • Meals: Two French restaurants in building, a brasserie and a rotisserie
  • Facilities: Meeting rooms
  • Credit Cards: All
  • Disabled: Good access
  • Closed: Never
  • Parking: Six spaces in nearby public garage, no charge
  • Rating: Above average 12/20

Restaurant Suggestions

Buffet de la Gare, Place de la Gare

Informal rustic atmosphere, reasonable prices, wines by the glass 4 Sfr. ($3) and beers on draught 2.50 Sfr. ($2). Baby lambchops with potatoes and vegetables 14 Sfr. ($10).

Fleur de Lys Coffee House & Restaurant,13 avenue Leopold-Robert.

Independently owned, in the same building as the hotel. Reasonably priced breakfasts, snacks and lunches.

La Chaux-de-fonds

Population: 40,000

Altitude: 3888 Feet

Approximate Travel Times

  • By car from Neuchâtel: approx. 1 hour
  • By rail from Neuchâtel: 40 minutes (service every half-hour)
  • By rail from Bern: 1.5 hours (direct service hourly, changes in Neuchâtel for other destinations)

Tourist Information

  • Office du tourisme
  • de La Chaux-de-Fonds
  • Rue Neuve 11
  • 2301 La Chaux-de-Fonds 2
  • Telephone: 039 28 13 13
  • Fax: 039 28 29 21

Museums

  • Musee International d'Horologerie (International Clockwork Museum), 33 rue des Musees, La Chaux-de-Fonds. Open daily, except Mondays 10-12 a.m. and 2-5 p.m. Admission 8 Sfr. ($6).
  • Musee des Beaux-Arts. 29, rue des Musees. Open daily, except Mondays 10-12 a.m. and 2-5 p.m. Admission 8 Sfr. ($6).
  • Le Corbusier House (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret). 38, rue de la Serre, La Chaux-de-Fonds.
  • Villa Schwob. (Turkish Villa). 167 rue du Doubs, La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Other

  • Animal Park and Vivarium, Bois-du-Petit-Chateau, La Chaux-de-Fonds.
  • Festival. Every two years La Chaux-de-Fonds has its Fair and Watch Festival

July 1994