|The arc jurassien|
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The northwest frontier dividing Switzerland from France is the Jura mountain range – line after line of long, northeast-southwest ridges that trap between them a succession of sausage-shaped lakes. The Jura are nothing like the Alps: much lower to start with (rarely more than 1500m), with none of the majesty but all of the ruggedness. Scrubby rounded hilltops and deep, parallel valleys are dotted by windswept, privately minded villages nursing a weatherbeaten Gallic culture cut off for centuries from both France and Switzerland. The whole Arc Jurassien, which takes in the highlands of the Jura Vaudois, the region’s three largest lakes – the Lac de Neuchâtel, Murtensee and Bielersee/Lac de Bienne, which lie clustered together at the foot of the Jura range – Canton Neuchâtel, and Canton Jura in the far northwest, is well off the beaten track of most visitors to Switzerland. Guidebooks and brochures tend to skimp on detail, since it doesn’t easily fit into the usual Swiss pigeonholes. If you choose to venture out here, you’ll find a minimum of tourist hype and few actual sights other than the main towns of Neuchâtel and Biel/Bienne, but what exists in abundance is virtually untouched nature – and this is why the Swiss know and love the place.
Once you leave the lakes and the lowlands, public transport isn’t easy, and even main roads are a relatively recent innovation. If you don’t have a car, the best way to get around is by bike, or even, if your legs can take it, on foot. Tourist offices in the area know their clientele and can direct you onto any number of cycling trails or footpaths that reach all scenic spots. We’ve outlined a long, multi-day walk through the area, which starts near Zürich, winds through the whole Jura region and ends up at Lake Geneva.
The huge majority of the area covered by this chapter is francophone, and yet it straddles the linguistic divide, the Röstigraben, between French- and German-speaking Switzerland . As many places or regions have two names, travelling to and fro across the language border can sometimes get confusing. For example, the German word Seeland (“Country of Lakes”) has been adopted by francophones, although the area is also known as “La Région des Trois-Lacs” after the three largest lakes, Neuchâtel, Murten (Morat) and Biel/Bienne. Neuchâtel, the main town of the region, is entirely French speaking, but is known to German speakers as Neuenburg; the lake it sits on is either the Lac de Neuchâtel or the Neuenburgersee. Since local bus and boat timetables tend to stick to either French or German, it’s useful to know both names.
Southeast of Neuchâtel is the small majority-German-speaking lakeside resort of Murten, known to French speakers as Morat. Its lake is the Murtensee or the Lac de Morat. On its southern shore the language border weaves between communities, and you’ll find, for instance, the German-speaking village of Münchenwiler (Canton Bern) a kilometre or so from the francophone village of Cressier (Canton Fribourg). Tiny enclaves of Bern, Fribourg and Vaud jostle for position in this impossibly fragmented region. The lake to the north, almost surrounded by Canton Bern, is either called the Bielersee or the Lac de Bienne, with the town at its head known as Biel/Bienne – the only officially bilingual town in Switzerland.
Further north are German-speaking Canton Solothurn (known as Soleure in French), and francophile Canton Jura, established in 1979 on a wave of anti-Bern separatist feeling. For Canton Jura, taking pride in French language and culture is a political, almost nationalistic, matter, and little quarter is given to German-ness of any kind – even though strongly Germanic Basel lies next door.
Ferries around the region
The Lac de Neuchâtel, the Murtensee (Lac de Morat), and the Bielersee/Lac de Bienne are all connected by canals, and one of the scenic highlights of the area is taking a long ferry cruise (3–4hr one-way) between Biel/Bienne, Neuchatel and Murten (Morat). Point-to-point routings link the major towns of Neuchâtel, Estavayer, Yverdon, Murten (Morat) and Biel/Bienne, along with a host of smaller lakeside villages. It’s also possible to take a peaceful river-cruise (2hr 40min) up the River Aare from Biel/Bienne to Solothurn (Soleure). As ever, there’s only a handful of boats running outside the summer season (June–Sept), and then only on local routings – none of the long cruises operates in winter.
Two companies provide service: the Société de Navigation sur les Lacs de Neuchâtel et Morat (LNM; 032/725 40 12), and the Bielersee Schiffahrtsgesellschaft (BSG; 032/322 33 22, www.bielersee.ch). There’s some overlap between them, but not much. Both advertise each other’s routings and connections, and you can pick up timetables for both at all tourist offices. The BSG gives free travel to Eurail and Swiss Pass holders, and fifty percent off to InterRailers. The LNM gives free travel to Swiss Pass holders, but Eurailers and InterRailers pay full price.
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