At the foot of the Jura Mountains, among lakes and vineyards, the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel is the center of Swiss watchmaking.
By Bob Bestor
At the foot of the Jura Mountains, among lakes and vineyards, the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel is the center of Swiss watchmaking.
It's easy to figure why most places catch on with American tourists. Varying mixtures of charm, scenery, great buildings and history - Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Salzburg, Vienna, Lucerne, and Zermatt being cases in point - usually seem to do the trick.
Usually, but not always. Take Neuchâtel. Why it doesn't make the tourist destination "A" list or least the "B+" list is difficult to understand.
It seems to meet the criteria: a beautiful city among vineyards, facing the Alps at the foot of the Jura, and on the shore of the largest lake entirely within Switzerland. A 12th century castle and collegiate church dominate its well-preserved stone buildings, while along the lake are flowering quays, green parks, promenades, marinas and fine hotels.
The city is remarkable for its extensive pedestrian areas and traffic on its surface streets has been reduced by rerouting three intersecting main roads through underground tunnels, a 15-year undertaking. Rock excavated from the project was used to line the waterfront.
Neuchâtel is a university town and known for the quality of its spoken French, reputedly the best anywhere. its university attracts many students from outside Switzerland and contributes to the cultural life of the city.
Getting to and from Neuchâtel is easy. There are superb rail connections to other Swiss cities and two direct daily TGV trains reach Paris in only four hours. Other fast trains leave hourly for major Swiss cities.
The town is only a few kilometers from the Swiss motorway which connects to Bern, Zürich and Basel to the east; Lausanne and Geneva in the west; and south to the Alps and the Valais. Efficient transportation within the city is provided by electric trolley buses and a very comfortable light rail line which runs along the shore.
Neuchâtel should not be missed if only for the marvelous Jaquet-Droz Automatons, highly detailed miniature robots built in 1769-1780. You can see them in operation on the first Sunday of each month at the Museum of Art and History. If you're not in town on that day, the exhibit offers a video in English that is worth the one franc cost.
The robots consist of three figures: a woman 30 inches tall with tiny fingers articulated in great detail. She breathes (the chest moves in and out) and plays music on a wind piano. Of the two 24-inch child figures, one actually draws various objects and the other writes with a pen on paper. The Jaquet-Droz father and son team who created the figures unfortunately lived in the wrong time. Today they would no doubt be Silicon Valley billionaires.
The other must-see museum in the region is the International Museum of Horology in nearby La Chaux-de-Fonds. It contains more than 4,000 time measuring instruments, watches and clocks.
As populous as Neuchâtel, but not as charming, La Chaux-de-Fonds is in a valley of the Jura and cannot match Neuchâtel's scenic site. its streets are laid out in a grid, American-style and a majority of the town's workers are employed by the watchmaking industry.
In addition to the Horology Museum, La Chaux-de-Fonds is the birthplace of auto-maker, Louis Chevrolet, and one of the 20th century's most influential architects, Charles Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. You can see several of his early buildings here.
The hourly train service between the two cities takes about 35 minutes. Auto travelers can get there in about 20 minutes via the main road but should take the Vue Des Alpes Road, stopping at the viewpoint in good weather for a glorious Alpine panorama that includes many great peaks including the Jungfrau and Mont Blanc.
Oddly enough, though this area is the center of Swiss watchmaking, - Omega, Rolex, Audemars-Piguet, Longines, and Bulgari - are located in the region you will not be able to see any watches actually being made. There are many museums devoted to timekeeping devices, but no factory tours.
Walkers will want to visit Metaires, rustic country houses that serve, on old wooden tables, such dishes as fondue and ham with mushrooms, and where meat hangs curing on hooks. They are open only in summer.
The region offers no downhill skiing, but plenty of cross country, some of it at night.
Neuchâtel and environs are deserving of your attention. The tourist office (see box page three for contact info) offers three-night packages that include hotel accommodations, breakfasts and dinners, and such activities as lake cruises, funicular rides, museum admission, industrial tours and wine tastings. Per person prices range from 199 Sfr. ($116) for the simplest accommodations to 669 Sfr. ($391) in the five-star Beau Rivage.
It doesn't quite measure up to other Swiss five-star properties we've reviewed, such as the Beau Rivage in Lausanne or Interlaken's Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau, but it's the best in town and a fine hotel.
Directly on the lake, the hotel's 70 guestrooms are in a restored 19th century apartment building. Though a glass screen to enclose the old walls has been added on the lakeside ground floor, the structure retains the exterior of the older building.
Our room, Number 416, had mountain and lakeshore views that were somewhat limited by small windows set high in the walls (a result of the necessity of preserving the building's exterior).
There was a real queen size bed, an excellent Nokia TV with CNN and CNBC, and a large executive-style table/desk. Ceiling moulding and baseboard of the same highly polished, dark wood that trimmed the furniture, lent an elegant touch. Other pleasant amenities included turn down service, air-conditioning, and an outstanding bathroom with separate walk-in marble shower with a heavy glass door, a separate tub, a separate toilet room (with phone) and piped in sound from the TV/radio.
Though a good buffet breakfast was slightly marred by canned, tinny orange juice, lunch in the dining room overlooking the lake and featuring a delicious duck leg cassoulet (36 Sfr./$21), was a pleasant surprise.
Though the Beau Rivage is less formal and doesn't yet have that old Europe money feel of the country's best five-star properties, it is very comfortable and costs a good bit less than those more cultivated digs. In fact, the weekend special which offers double rooms as low as 210 Sfr. ($123), is one of the better deals we've seen recently.
Capsule Review: Best in town, above average value. Good restaurant and superb location.
Daily Rates: Weekend special top floor 210-260 Sfr. ($123-$152)), singles 290-350 Sfr. ($170-$205), doubles 350-410 Sfr. ($205-$240), suites 450 -1000 Sfr. ($263-$585)
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 14/20
Hotel Alpes et Lac
For some reason, Swiss hotels with Chinese restaurants do not inspire confidence. Thus we approached the Alpes et Lac a bit uneasily. Any worries we might have had, however, left us as soon as we had seen a few of the hotel's 30 guestrooms, all recently renovated (1997). They are full of light and air and enough comforts to satisfy even the most demanding guest.
For train travelers, the hotel is in the "pole position," right across the street from the rail station on a commanding hillside location overlooking the lake and the old town below. Twenty-four of the hotel's rooms have that view from the high, wide windows of this 128-year-old stone building.
Capsule Review: Straight forward, mid-priced, conveniently located accommodations. Excellent value.
Daily Rates: Singles 98-120 Sfr. ($57-$70), doubles 148-170 Sfr ($87-$99)
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 16/20
Hotels in the Environs
Grand Hotel Les Endroits
With a space-age façade that is all glass and angles, to Internet access from all 42 guestrooms, this ultramodern hotel located just above La Chaux-de-Fonds on the edge of the forest, is definitely 21st century ready.
There is much to recommend Les Endroits: 24-hour room service, an attractive Jacuzzi and fitness room, free parking, and cross-country skiing within walking distance. There are even two guestrooms with facilities for the disabled.
Capsule Review: Spotless, upscale, ultramodern hotel in a country setting within walking distance of La-Chaux-de-Fonds center. Special weekend rates.
Daily Rates: Singles 123 to 153 Sfr., ($72-$89), doubles 193 to 233 Sfr. ($113-$136)
Contact: Grand Hotel Les Endroits, Blvd. des Endroits 94-96, CH-2300 La Chaux-de-Fonds, tel. + 41/032/9 250 250, fax 9 250 350
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20
L'Aubier means "natural place" which, of course, is the theme here. Guestrooms are sparely furnished and decorated; natural materials, no plastic, thank you. Beds sit low to the floor and reading lights are little halogen bulbs on the end of 18-inch flexible tubes. Hallway floors are covered in a heavy, hemp-like material. The main problem is it all seems a bit tattered and worn.
The upscale village store portion of this establishment sells organically grown meats, cereals, dairy, produce and vegetables, as well as toys, candles, teas, cheeses, wines, toiletries, shoes, sweaters and so on.
The hotel is located in Montzillon, a wide spot in the road in the hills about 10 kilometers straight west of Neuchâtel.
Capsule Review: Unusual hotel/restaurant/store featuring things organic. Rooms very spare. Not for us but some may like.
Daily Rates: Singles 105 to 125 Sfr. ($61-$73), doubles 125-185 Sfr ($73-$108)
Contact: Auberge de L'Aubier, CH-2205 Montezillon, tel. +41/032/730 30 10, fax 730 30 16
Rating: Quality 8/20, Value 10/20
Chaumont et Golf
The name is a bit deceiving because the nearest golf course is 10 minutes by car; other hotels are closer.
Super views of the lake and the alps are balanced by a murderous late afternoon sun which in warm weather bakes this glass-fronted, non-air-conditioned hotel.
Location is in the countryside, above Neuchâtel, next to an observation tower* and near the upper Neuchâtel-Chaumont funicular station.
Be sure your room has a lake view, since it is this hotel's lone virtue.
(*One Sfr. for a great view, but not for those nervous about heights.)
Capsule Review: Huge, impersonal, charmless business hotel that, despite its name, is not on a golf course. Not what were looking for.
Daily Rates: Singles 110 to 240 Sfr. ($64-$140), doubles 160 to 340 Sfr ($94-$199)
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 7/20
Hotel du Chasseur
In the village of Enges, about 11 kilometers northeast of Neuchâtel. There's a lot to like here: three cozy, comfortable little rooms with private bath (and three without); a homey restaurant; and friendly management.
See the review under "Sustenance" for our thoughts on the restaurant.
Capsule Review: A small country hotel with above average charm and food (though our meal had a strange ending). Good value.
Daily Rates: Singles 60 to 80 Sfr. ($35-$47), doubles 100 to 140 Sfr ($58-$82)
Contact: Hotel du Chasseur, CH-2073 Enges, tel. +41/032/757 18 03, fax 757 17 98
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
La Maison des Halles
In our quest for good food served in informal surroundings, the ground floor brasserie of this Neuchâtel tradition is a great find. Those who want tonier surroundings and a bigger check will go up one flight to des Halles first floor restaurant.
But the brasserie was just the right atmosphere for us: a big room with high ceilings supported by huge stone pillars, lofty arched windows, a floor of tile pavers, and tables set with pink and white cloths and candles.
An opener of three fresh oysters from the French coast and a glass of house white wine, all for 10 Sfr. ($6), was a perfect and not-too-expensive start.
Half a broiled lobster was very good, and the sauce, a blend of fish stock, lemon and cream, was exquisite. The rice soaked it up beautifully.
A crisp Wiener Schnitzel came with a good mixed salad of beets, carrots, cucumber, red cabbage, corn and greens.
Desserts, though hardly revolutionary, were of fresh, top-notch ingredients. The thick hot chocolate to pour over the Coupe Denmark's house-made vanilla ice cream was served in a separate boat. Crêpes au baies des boiset glace was a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a pair of airy, cooked-to-order crêpes, liberally sprinkled with fresh blackberries, currants, raspberries and powdered sugar.
The entire dinner, including a bottle of local Pinot Noir, the oysters and white wine, the main courses and the desserts with a glass of port, cost 134 Sfr. ($78).
Though meat dishes are served, the emphasis here is on fish and shellfish (a lone diner at the next table carefully nested the empty shells as he methodically worked his way through a huge bowl of mussels) and service is efficient and friendly.
Capsule Review: For outstanding bistro food served to people wearing blue jeans, this is the place.
La Maison des Halles, 4 Rue du Trésor, CH-2000 Neuchâtel, tel. 724 3141
Hotel du Marche
Next to des Halles on Neuchâtel's main square is this prototype of the seedy, Gallic restaurant. A radio blares Jacques Brel, Elvis and Marvin Gaye, and the whiskey-voiced patroness sits at a corner table doing paperwork, a cigarette hanging from her lips.
Service is amiable but a bit sloppy: the dirty rag on our waiter's serving tray could be left in the kitchen and the tablecloth should have been changed two days before.
Food, too, was a bit spotty. A "gift of the house" of headcheese with tomato wedges and greens was fine, but a brown sauce served over sweetbreads (30 Sfr./$18) was watery. With the veal came an odd arrangement; wide noodles in the plate's center and fanned out from them alternating slices of grilled avocado and pink grapefruit slices.
Confit of duck (34 Sfr/$20) was o.k. but much inferior to the duck leg served to us the day before at virtually the same price in the refined surroundings of the Hotel Beau Rivage.
If du Marche excels at anything other than its back street atmosphere it is desserts. Two slices of very dense chocolate terrine (8 Sfr./$5) sat astride a great creme anglaise and a rich raspberry sauce. House-made ice cream made with Armagnac was drizzled with a delicious honey sauce and scattered with tiny brandy-soaked orange peel slices.
With aperitifs and another bottle of local pinot noir (25 Sfr./$15) the dinner for two came to 120 Sfr. ($70).
Capsule Review: Good people watching but a little too earthy and not good value when compared to des Halles.
Hotel du Marche, Place des Halles 4, CH-2000 Neuchâtel, tel. 245800
Hotel du Chasseur
Hearing of the hotel's reputation for fowl and game, we drove into the hills one evening from Neuchâtel to see for ourselves.
We had called for a reservation and were greeted with great warmth and given a banquette in the cozy Stube where fringed, yellow lampshades hang low over the tables. A salad of fresh greens was sprinkled with tart currants, smoked wild pork bits, tiny croûtons and tossed in piquant, creamy dressing.
The wild game menu included pheasant, partridge, wild pig and two kinds of venison.
Filet of pheasant (26.5 Sfr./$16) served in pan juices with red cabbage, baked apple, chestnuts and a dense cranberry sauce, offered interesting flavors. The juicy bird was just untamed enough to be a foil to the tartness of the apple and cranberry. A side of Spätzle nicely mopped up the juices.
Medallions of young venison (35 Sfr./$21) were tender, though a little dry, and shared the plate with an odd assortment of canned fruit, including peaches, pineapple, maraschino cherry and a poached pear. More appealing were three Brussel's sprouts and Spätzle. There was a second serving of all this.
It was not high cuisine but the flavors were intriguing and with the meal we drank a decent half bottle of Pinot Noir de Cressier (19 Sfr.$11).
At this point, our server, whom we believe to have been the owner, disappeared. We were interested in a little dessert but no one looked at us for 25 minutes. Suddenly, he reappeared, apologized for the delay, removed our plates and without an offering of coffee or dessert, again vanished. Apparently, there was a banquet upstairs and he was wanted elsewhere. After 20 minutes more, we flagged down one of the young servers to whom we had been invisible and asked for the bill. He first had trouble locating it and when he did, he placed it on the cash register and went about other business while we waited.
After another 20 minutes he stopped to tell us, in French, that he either did not know how to use the register or didn't have the authority to finalize our bill. At that point we arose, figured the amount of our bill from the menu and tried to hand the money to the young man on our way out. This caused a panic. "You cannot, it's impossible," he sputtered, this time in English. Ah, but it was. A more in-charge looking person, realizing that we were bent on leaving, came running from the kitchen and took our money. We left without an apology after waiting more than an hour from the finish of the main course. Including beverages, we paid 126.50 Sfr. ($74) for this strange dining experience.
Capsule Review: Decent country cuisine served in pleasant surroundings. We will assume our trouble was an aberration.
Hotel du Chasseur, CH-2073 Enges, tel. +41/032/757 18 03, fax 757 17 98
Bern 45 km 28 miles
Basel 139 km 86 miles
Geneva 76 km 28 miles
La Chaux-de-Fonds 20 km 13 miles
Munich 475 km 295 miles
Paris 661 km 411 miles
Zürich 165 km 103 miles
Altitude: 1,518 feet
Tourist Information: Tourisme Neuchâtelois-Littoral Hôtel des Postes, CH-2001 Neuchâtel, tel. +41/032/889 6890, fax 889 6296
Events: The high point of the year is the last weekend of September, the three-day Fete des Vendanges (wine harvest festival).
Things to Do
• Boat Trips. Lake Neuchâtel, the largest lake wholly in Switzerland, is connected by navigable canals to the lakes of Bienne and Murten. A wide variety of crossings and cruises operate during the summer, many with snack and dining facilities. Details at the Port or Tourisme Neuchâtelois-Littoral, Hôtel des Postes.
• The Jaquet-Droz Automatons. Museum of Art and History, 1 Quai Leopold-Robert, Neuchâtel. Performances the first Sunday of the month at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. Admission 7 Sfr. ($4). (Attendance is limited to 30 persons, get there early.)
• Guided Castle Tours. The Chateau and Collegiate Church of Neuchâtel form one of the most important groups of historic buildings in Switzerland. Tours: April 1st through September, on the hour, Monday to Friday 10am through 4pm Sundays and holidays 2-5pm. 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.
• Wine Museum at 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, the 18th century author. Thursday through Sunday 2-5pm.
* Population: 40,000
* Altitude: 3,888 feet
* Tourist Information: Tourisme Neuchâtelois, Espacit 1, Place Le Corbusier, CH-2302, La Chaux-de-Fonds, tel. +41/032/919 6895, fax 919 6297
• Musee International d'Horologerie (International Clockwork Museum), 33 rue des Musees, La Chaux-de-Fonds. Open daily, except Mondays 10-12am and 2-5pm Admission 7 Sfr. ($4).
• Musee des Beaux-Arts. 29, rue des Musees. Open daily, except Mondays 10-12am and 2-5pm. Admission 4 Sfr. ($2).
• 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.
• Animal Park and Vivarium, Bois-du-Petit-Chateau, La Chaux-de-Fonds.