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Beam yourself down into NEUCHÂTEL, and for a while you might think you’ve landed up in France. The Neuchâtelois people are the most French-oriented in Switzerland, speaking a dialect of Swiss-French that is celebrated – by those for whom such a thing is significant – as the “purest” in Romandie (that’s to say, the closest to the “true” French spoken over the border). The town’s air of dignity and easy grace is fuelled by a profusion of French-influenced architecture: many of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings are made from local yellow sandstone, a fact which led Alexandre Dumas to describe Neuchâtel as looking “like a toytown carved out of butter”. And the modern and disarmingly Gallic street life of pavement cafés and studenty night bars, upscale street markets and hip designer boutiques, has the slightly unreal flavour of a town actively seeking influences from beyond its own borders – a rare thing indeed in Switzerland.
The Neuchâtelois, for whom the issue of joining the EU is a matter of the plainest common sense, are perhaps the epitome of the Swiss mystery; they are about as far removed in attitude, values, style and language from the people of Luzern – with whom their future is inextricably linked – to the east, as they are closely related to the people of Dijon – the supposed foreigners – to the west. You get the feeling while in Neuchâtel that the locals have thrown up their hands in disbelief at such injustice, and – ensconced between their broad lake and the mountain border – have sought solace in a life of fine wines, rich foods and French TV while waiting for their compatriots to see sense.
The town’s main attractions are its café-lounging Gallic atmosphere and its location, with boats weaving to and fro across the lake and the first ridges of the high Jura range standing poised over the town. However, the Musée d’Art is worth going out of your way to experience, both for its innovative fine-art collection, and for its set of charming eighteenth-century mechanical figurines which demonstrate in understated style the quite exceptional skills of the Neuchâtel watchmakers of the era.
Throughout the summer of 2002, Neuchâtel will be one of the principal focuses for Expo 02, the Swiss national exposition. All kinds of happenings may (or may not) take place, not least of which will be the mooring of a giant “arteplage” exhibition space on the lake just offshore and, rather more prosaically, extreme difficulty in booking a hotel room in or near the town throughout that summer.
From the suburb of La Coudre, some 4km east of the town centre and reached on bus #7, a panoramic funicular rises through thick forests to the village of CHAUMONT (1087m). Set on a balcony above Neuchâtel, on the first of the Jura ridges, the viewpoint of Le Signal (1171m), a short walk from the funicular station, offers a vista over the three lakes of Neuchâtel, Murten and Biel/Bienne, with the plateau of Mont Vully rising opposite Murten and a patchwork of fields and forests stretching clear across the Swiss flatlands to the distant snowy fringe of the Bernese Alps. On the clearest of days, with such an unobstructed view across the whole country, it’s claimed that you can even make out Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
Beside the top station is the Hôtel Chaumont (032/754 21 75, fax 753 27 22, www.hotel-chaumont.ch; c), a seminar and golfing hotel with very comfortable, if bland, rooms, great views and plenty of hilltop hiking routes fanning out on all sides.
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