Monday, 27 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 3: Neuchâtel, city, lake and castles

Value for money

All our travel so far within Switzerland had been free of charge, included in our Neuchâtel Tourist Card, as had been the trip on the lake at Les Brenets. Even the journey from Le Locle to Neuchâtel city was covered because the card was valid until midnight on the last day (hence the shuffling back-and-forth between Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds without having to keep buying tickets!). Knowing that we would be given a new Tourist Card at our next hotel it occurred to us that if we could fit in the intended Lake cruise at Neuchatel on the first evening, it might be possible to take another later in the stay if we so desired, using the vouchers in our new card! In the event, once round the lake was enough in the weather as it turned out, but that was how we entertained ourselves the first evening in Neuchâtel.  

The weather was still sunny and very hot when we arrived and we walked straight to our hotel, the Neuchâtel City Hotel, which was not far and all downhill. Our room was really great, with a huge amount of space and a balcony onto the street with a view of the lake, albeit between buildings. Typical of Swiss hotels, there was no air-conditioning, although a very good electric fan was provided, but this time there was a coffee machine (but not tea!). Having unpacked we made our way down to the port and found the trip boat for which our vouchers were valid and waited a short while for boarding. There were scarily few passengers on board: tourism is a long way from "back-to-normal" here yet and the boat was run with as small a crew as could safely be used. We bought drinks from the bar and sat on deck until the light rain started but it was easy to find a seat under cover when it was raining.


Family history

Back on land, and back in blazing sunshine, we explored a bit and enjoyed on the balcony of our room a salad we had bought at a local supermarket before leaving Le Locle, no substantial dinner being needed after the lunch at the crêperie there. Shower and early night were called-for after the exertions of the day.

We did not get up early on Wednesday and were among the few customers in the breakfast room at the hotel when we went down. After breakfast I went back to the room and started this blog while Alison went off to the local archives office at the Castle to begin some of her research: this was apparently a fairly complex process involving standing outside the right doorway in the castle quadrangle and telephoning a number to be let in - all in French, of course.

We then visited the Galeries d'Histoire together, learning about the development of the city and then walked to the terminus at Place Pury of the "Littorail" (which may be translated, "coastrail") tramway to Boudry by way of continued exploration. There was not a lot there to see, but this is the only remaining tram route (number 5, the others all having been converted now to trolleybus operation) in Neuchâtel, so we thought a ride on it along the lakeside would be a pleasant was to spend a few moments. We came back only as far as an interchange with a bus service that took us up the hill to the district of Peseux in order to see the castle there which is in private hands and so not open to visit but has a distant family connection and we were able to photograph its exterior well enough from the street. From Peseux we caught one of the aforementioned trolleybuses back to the city centre and to our hotel to prepare for dinner. 

The castle at Peseux, in the west of the city of Neuchâtel

We had identified from TripAdvisor a great place for fondue, which is so typically Swiss and yet which we had not yet had a chance to try on this visit. Thunder and rain were expected so we carried our waterproof jackets with us and set off for La Taverna Neuchâteloise where the host greeted us with, "Good evening," as we walked in: are we that obviously British? Maybe he'd overheard us talking to each other as we approached, for he was standing on the doorstep! The fondue was great, and the service very friendly, efficient without rushing us, with Neuchâtel wine, of course, and we determined to return the following day for a raclette, bidding our host, "À demain," as we left. During our meal the rain had come and the rain had gone, but we were able to sit outside throughout because there were a couple of excellent canopies over the outside tables and it remained just warm enough for it to be a pleasant atmosphere around our fondue set.

Thursday was our last day in Neuchâtel and we were down to breakfast somewhat earlier and otherwise began our day in a similar way.  We reconvened late morning and set off to explore the city using a walking tour in a leaflet picked up from the tourist information office, discovering its thousand-year history and including a climb to the ancient castle which gives the city its name (or did when it was new!). After slogging up the hill and having a good look around the castle, as well as enjoying the views from it, we continued the tour through the main shopping street, stopping off for an ice-cream at Suchard (who else?) and finally strolling along the lakeside which is about as near as Switzerland gets to a seaside promenade!

I had found a toy and model shop and popped in to see if I could find anything useful for my Swiss-based model railway innsdorf.com and came away with only some bridge fencing. our final excursion was to take the bus to Valangin where we had once before visited another castle with a family connection: we did not feel the need to visit the actual castle again, but the bus ride was quick and simple (and free!) and it would be nice to see the village again and to see how it had fared. We had a beer at the café where we'd had lunch on our previous visit and were pleased to see that the village seemed to be looking more prosperous than before, although, as in so much of England, the shop had closed. After all our exertions we went back to our hotel and prepared for our last evening meal, a raclette back at La Taverna. Heavy rain and possibly thunder were predicted for the evening and indeed it was very much like the previous evening but with much more and heavier rain. The meal was excellent although we did have to rein back the amount we ate and drank. We went for a short stroll along the Jardin Anglais after dinner but soon realised that the rain was restarting and so we returned rapidly to our hotel and started preparations for departure in the morning. We needed to do as much packing as we could so the we would be ready for check-out and breakfast first thing because the plan was to go home in one day.

Travelling home

On the Friday morning we took our cases down to breakfast and bade farewell to the City Hotel, using our Neuchâtel Tourist Cards for the last time to ride the trolleybus up to the station to catch the 08:34 to Geneva. We had over an hour to spare there and I did enquire about changing the tickets for the next stage to see if we could leave earlier but that would have been more trouble than it was worth and we stuck to the original plan: after coffee we made our way to the international platforms as we have done before. Unlike last time there were actually border police at the passport and customs posts on the way through to the international platforms but we saw no-one stopped as we swept through with our luggage and up to the waiting train for Lyon. This was a SNCF (French) locomotive-hauled train on which reservations were not possible and which had only half a carriage of First Class accommodation in which it was a struggle to find seats (should not have lingered over coffee ...) and we had just decided to sit together in Second Class rather than apart in First when someone offered us some seats together that he had "bagged" for friends who seemed not to have turned up. We were soon away from the lakes and into the hills of France, eventually approaching Lyon Part-Dieu where we had a short break before boarding our TGV to Paris. Here we did have reserved seats but although our agent had booked us "Club Duo" vis-à-vis seats again  on this train we found that they were together but one behind the other this time, the seats in that carriage apparently having been rearranged. Oh well, I was intending to be typing this blog most of the way in any case, so perhaps it did not matter too much, but it would have been all the same if we'd been intending to play cards with each other! The TGV got us into Paris Gare de Lyon on time and we walked through to the Metro station, with our tickets ready, to take RER Line D as usual to Gare du Nord but wherever we looked there were no signs for the direction we needed to take. We asked advice from a staff member by a barrier who advised that there was work being done on that section of line today and that we should take line A instead, changing at Châtelet Les Halles to Line B for Gare du Nord. That little bit of kerfuffle did not add much to the time taken but did add quite a bit to the stress levels as we tried to find a route that, for that day at least, did not exist!

The Gare du Nord operation of ticket, passport and security checks is nothing like as smooth and efficient as the St Pancras check and it was stressful getting through there with different ticket queues depending on nationality (why? A ticket is a ticket!) and the automatic gates were not working so we all had to queue for human checks and the issue of revised seat reservations (we had those at St Pancras, too, but the automatic gates issued them). There was only one security scan conveyor belt in use and unlike in London there are no trays so all your possessions come out mixed up with other people's, a right mess, but we all sorted ourselves out and with automated passport checks (plus one person to stamp the passports now that we are not in the EU ...) we were soon in the waiting area having a long-awaited drink. The train, another refurbished E300, started boarding on time and departed on time for the run to London. This went extremely smoothly with the usual light meal served en route and the tunnel under the sea barely noticed. Soon we were at St Pancras International and just had time to pop into Fortnum and Mason for our favourite St Pancras Blend tea before making our way to Kings Cross for our booked 20:33 train to Peterborough. Again we were served a light meal on this train (very light in our case as we did not need much after the Eurostar meal!) and arrived at Peterborough in plenty of time to take our 22:00 connection to Stamford. After all that travelling it was at this stage that it all went wrong! A road vehicle was blocking the railway somewhere near Ely and although our train home had been started back from March and was approaching Peterborough, the platforms there were full of trains that could not continue their journeys because of the blockage: in particular one train for Nottingham had no crew to take it forward and the crew was on its way by taxi from Norwich with the station staff not having been given a clue about when they might arrive ... so we had no idea when our train would be able to go. It was now 22:10 and a strike was due to start at midnight. Taxis, of course, were in short supply as these were needed to take people to destinations in East Anglia beyond the blockage, but we were fortunate to have a son living in Peterborough who was free and agreed to come and collect us by car and take us home. I have no way of knowing whether that was quicker than if we had waited for the 22:00 train to turn up (which may have been just a minute after we had given up), but it got us home and it's always nice to see our family anyway!

With all the little things that had not quite gone according to plan, this trip was more of an adventure than usual, and at times our command of the French language had been put to the test, but we really had a great time. The weather was hotter at the start than I normally like and wetter towards the end (although not too bad), but we did a lot of exploring and thoroughly enjoyed the travel. It was wonderful to be free of the form-filling and testing, too. Lets hope things continue to remain at least this simple for we have two more European holidays coming up and need to ensure that we remain vaccination-compliant for those.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 2: Le Locle and Les Brenets

Last Train to Les Brenets

International trains - that is, the trains between Besançon and La Chaux de Fonds - stop at Platform 2 at Le Locle, being the northern end of the platform face opposite the disused station building. The other end of that platform face is numbered 3 and serves the narrow gauge line to the small town of Les Brenets. This is the only place I know personally where trains of two gauges use one platform face and where such a local services is so close to international service. There is an exit up a step stairway for those wanting to go straight to the horological museum, or the few homes up that hill, but the main exit for the town, mercifully for those of us with luggage on such a hot day, is through the subway and down hill into the town centre. Indeed, since our first visit here there is now a short cable railway which took us down in a few seconds to Sidmouth Square in the centre of the town, named after Le Locle's British twin town of Sidmouth in Devon. 

From there is was a short walk to the front door of the Hôtel des Trois Rois where we were booked to stay for the next two nights. We had normally stayed at Maison Dubois itself, my wife's ancestral family home, now a B&B, but this had no space for us on this occasion, so we thought we'd give the Trois Rois a try. Its online reviews are very mixed but I have to say we were very happy with it. There was no air conditioning, but that is very rare in Switzerland anyway, and there were no tea and coffee facilities in the room, but again, there seldom is in Switzerland. The décor and general style were very 1970s (purple featuring strongly, and brown) but contrary to what we had read in reviews it was all in good condition and very clean. Staff were friendly and helpful (although few, as in a lot of places at present) and we were soon happily at home in our room on the top floor where our windows were shaded from the strongest of the sunshine by the overhang of the roof - a great place to be in the weather as its was. The hotel provided us with our Neuchatel Tourist Cards which gave us free travel within the canton from the time of issue until midnight on the day of check-out along with a sheaf of vouchers offering free admission to almost every attraction in the canton, effectively turning the entire canton into a massive holiday camp with everything included in our hotel bill.

Sunday afternoon is an unfortunate time to arrive in a small town (even one that is the canton's third largest!) because the choice of where to eat is more than somewhat restricted. The Trois Rois currently offers only breakfast (its restaurant is available to let if anyone fancies a go ...) so our often-tried technique of booking dinner at our own hotel for the first night would not work there. We went for a beer at the Casino (a cinema and restaurant rather than a gambling den) and then after a train ride to La Chaux de Fonds and back (just because we could!), we walked off round the town and discovered that, contrary to its website's information, the crêperie at the Lion d'Or was open, so pancakes it was, then! On the terrace, under a parasol. Parfait! And so to shower and bed, tired but happy.

The train to Les Brenets at the platform at Le Locle

Monday morning was just as hot and sunny. We had earmarked it for the lake cruise at Lac des Brenets and in order to leave some of the day for other things were aimed to take the 10:00 cruise departure. This outing would also be our last chance to ride the little electric train through the mountain from Le Locle to Les Brenets as it is to close next year and be replaced two years later with an electric bus service using part of the same route but then serving more of Les Brenets than the train is able to do. We took the lift up from Sidmouth Square and arrived at the platform at Le Locle station in good time to board the little train and travelled the few kilometres to Les Brenets and just as last time, we walked down to the lake shore through the village and exchanged our vouchers for tickets to ride the lake cruise. We were disappointed to see that the water was no higher than last time we came: it had been a very dry year and the people who run the boats were anticipating that within two or three weeks they would be unable to operate until the water returns next spring. Very disappointing for us, but even more disappointing for them: few tourists now, and nothing much to sell them when more begin to arrive in the summer! Even on the day we were there the 10:00 departure was cancelled due to low demand, so we went for a stroll and had coffee and caught the 11:00 instead, by which time there were still only about eight of us on board. The boat cruises the lake and the River Doubs which forms a lengthy part of the border with France but with the river so dry there is effectively no border; you can just pick your way over the boulders of the river bed. We took the easy way, though, and crossed the footbridge to France, had a brief look through the souvenir shops and returned to Switzerland to go and look at where the waterfall should have been and then took the 12:30 boat back to Les Brenets and the taxibus back to the station. It was a lovely walk through the woods (reminiscent of Dovedale in Derbyshire) and we were glad to have done it even though there was no more water in the river than last time. I took few photographs because it all looked just the same as on our previous visit. Perhaps next year or 2024 ...

Back in Le Locle we went back to our hotel, left my camera and collected our swimwear. On the edge of the town is an open-air swimming pool and we caught to bus there from the bus station near our hotel - Le Locle is a small town about the size of our home town of Stamford, and yet there are frequent local buses to every part of town all day long: you just don't get this in England. The pool was just amazing: once we had paid at the turnstile (reduced price for pensioners!) we were in a huge area typical of a town park, with a large swimming pool in one corner. The pool was divided into three: half of it was Olympic size and 2 metres deep throughout; the other half was again halved with a very deep diving pool one end (boards at 5 metres and 10 metres high!) and a shallow pool the other, only 0.8 metre. Not a frequent swimmer and not having swum for some time I was torn which pool to use - the idea of swimming 50 metres entirely out of my depth did not appeal to me: 25 metres is more my usual length before I take a rest. So I swam in the shallow pool although it was really only just deep enough for me and, of course, it was hard to swim lengths because it was popular with children who kept popping up or jumping in (or just jumping!) everywhere. No matter, it was good to cool down on a hot day. Dinner that evening was a superb pizza at the Casino.

After our sweet crêpes on Sunday evening we had resolved to return to the Lion d'Or for a savoury crêpe at Tuesday lunchtime, the crêperie, like most other restaurants in Le Locle, being closed on Mondays. Before lunch we checked out of the hotel, asking them to store our cases, and went for a long walk, beginning by taking a bus out to the edge of town and then walking through woodland up the steep slope to an agricultural settlement where there was a tenuous family connection to investigate. The footpath through the wood was marked on maps and was just about discernible on the ground but it was plain that not many people had walked this was recently and we were pleased that the knee-deep grass and plants did not include stinging nettles nor many thistles; it all added to the adventurous feel of this trip! We walked back down along a lane between farms as far as the outskirts of Le Locle where we bought chilled drinks from a supermarket before walking into town and having lunch at the Lion d'Or as planned. Then it was time to retrieve our luggage and go to the station to begin the next stage of the trip.

Actually, it was not quite that simple because after we had passed it we thought how good it would have been to have looked down from the train and seen where we had walked in the morning ... so we got off the Neuchâtel train at La Chaux-de-Fonds and caught the next train back to Le Locle (only a couple of minutes), looked out properly and stayed on board to be taken back to La Chaux-de-Fonds where this time we had to change trains to continue to Neuchâtel, emerging from the air-conditioned train once more into the blazing heat and light at Neuchâtel station.

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 1: by train into Switzerland

Almost normal international travel

Since the last time we visited Le Locle we have wanted to return in the hope of seeing some water in the lake at Les Brenets and the reputedly dramatic falls on the Doubs river. We also wanted to visit Neuchâtel, the cantonal capital, where another (!) castle connected to my wife's Swiss ancestors had been identified and where the local records office is located. The revisit was delayed by pandemic precautions, but we finally took the plunge and booked hotels and travel for the middle of June 2022 and we were successful in one sense, in that by the time we left home all the travel restrictions had been dropped in the UK, in France and in Switzerland for those who are vaccinated against Covid-19. The only document we needed in addition to our passports and tickets was a vaccination certificate, available through the NHS app on our smartphones: no passenger locator forms, no test results. Although official websites still mention masks on public transport there were very few people wearing them and no-one asking us to do so: I kept a stock of high-grade masks in my case but never needed to use one.

In another sense we were unsuccessful, in that the water level in Lac des Brenets was no higher than in our  previous trip which had been much later in the year. We shall have to try again in an April! Indeed, in many ways there were little disasters all through this trip but it was still immensely enjoyable and full of delights and surprises. I am typing this paragraph several days into the adventure and it is the first time I have had the time to switch on the MacBook to do so - we have packed in so much. Until this morning (Wednesday) it has been hot, very hot, and now with light rain and temperatures "only" in the mid-twenties, it is a bit cooler and I have decided to take morning easier, sitting on the hotel balcony and writing up the adventure so far, while I can still remember it!

We left home on Saturday morning and that was when the "little disasters" began to happen! Our first train, Stamford to Peterborough, was on time, but it was very busy. As we had a lot of luggage (by our standards) we decided to stand in the spacious vestibule rather than squeeze into available seats with cases all over the place - there were seats even though several people were standing. We noticed that the train after ours was cancelled, and after that was the two-hour gap in Cross Country's "temporary" timetable. Not good, although it did not affect us, fortunately. The first little disaster was that when we went to wait in the coffee lounge at the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough, which is what passes for the First Class Lounge there, staff shortage at the hotel meant that the lounge was unavailable. We sat in the easy chairs in the hotel lobby until it was time to go over for our train: the lack of coffee was not such a big deal because we knew we'd be served coffee on the train. The train was on time and although busy, again, we had our reserved seats and there was plenty of space on the luggage racks. The breakfast menu was still on offer but as we were planning an early lunch in London we took only coffee and a satsuma, with the biscuits and loafcake wrapped as a snack for later in the trip if required.

The second little disaster was that by Hitchin the train had slowed to a crawl: a points (and possibly signal) failure at Stevenage had caused problems and by the time we picked up speed again had lost 25 minutes which meant we were just a tad late for our midday luncheon appointment. It was, though, a great joy to see the family on our way through London and enjoy lunch together in one of the many new restaurants between the stations at Kings Cross and St Pancras. It was a very warm, sunny day and time passed all too quickly before we parted company at St Pancras as we made our way into the throng of international travellers waiting for trains to the continent. 

We were rather early and had to wait our turn to join the queue for the ticket barriers, priority being given to ticket-holders for the preceding train to Brussels. An hour before our train's scheduled departure we queued for the barrier, scanned our tickets and went through for the baggage scan - all over in a moment once we were through the barriers. I do wonder if the station is short-staffed because it seems to me that there could have been many more barriers open at such a busy time provided that there were enough security staff for the baggage scanning to keep up with the incoming passengers. In any case we were soon nodded through the vaccination pass, UK passport control and French passport control and into the waiting area. We were among the first few through, and the Brussels train was already loading so there was a huge choice of seats in the waiting area. Great.

The next little disaster was that, for what ever reason, it seemed to be taking a long time to get everyone through the checks - announcements said it was because of Covid precautions but really there weren't many - and we had been promised that the train would not leave until everyone was through, so the train left St Pancras over half an hour late. It was a refurbished E300, one of the original Trans-Manche Super Trains, and never made up any of the lost time. Normally this would not have been a big deal but on this occasion we had dinner booked at Le Train Bleu restaurant at Gare de Lyon in Paris and, taking into account that France is an hour ahead of the UK, time was a bit tight. I do not think we had ever been late on a Eurostar service before and had come to regard it as completely reliable (statistically, I think, it is 95% on time, so we are probably not alone in seeing it that way). There was the usual light meal served, and we did not consume all of it, knowing that dinner was coming soon. The buffet bar on Eurostar trains sells Paris Metro tickets in carnets of ten, so to save time struggling with the ticket machines in Paris I went and queued to buy our tickets in advance there: these would see us both ways on this and our next trip and still leave us with tickets to spare. a great investment.

On arrival at Gare du Nord we made our way swiftly to the Metro and too RER line D to Gare de Lyon. The heat was striking as we descended from the Eurostar train, and even more so on the RER station. It was on the RER train that we met the last British person we would speak to for many days, on his way to work in Italy from his home in England. Yes, things are getting back to normal! On arrival at Gare de Lyon we went straight to the restaurant to explain that we were running late and asking if we could delay our dinner while we went to our hotel to check in and change. They were really relaxed about that and said we could be as late as we wanted, they were not busy. So good; we could have been on time but would have had our luggage with us and been a sweaty heap after lugging it through Paris at 39 degrees! It was hotter in Paris than in Cairo on that day.

I had, I thought, booked the Mercure hotel next door to Gare de Lyon, but had done so through the Trains Europe agent who booked the train tickets, and he had mistakenly booked a different Mercure just a couple of blocks away, but we did not find this out until we had queued for ten minutes at the wrong hotel, which was the next little disaster! An understandable error: both hotels had "Mercure Gare de Lyon" in their names! In the event, though, once we had found the hotel in which we actually had our reservations, we were very happy with it (except that the lift had broken down and we were on the fourth floor ... next little disaster ... but the kind receptionist helped us cary our stuff up to the room). In future I shall book this hotel if we need a night or two at this side of Paris, so I was glad to have stumbled across it. But four floors up in 39 degrees I can do without! 

The room was air-conditioned (yay!) and we washed and changed and walked, free of luggage to Le Train Bleu and settled to a great dinner in great surroundings. It was all lovely, but in very hot weather my appetite is greatly diminished and in spite of the best French cooking and the relaxed (although hot!) atmosphere I could not manage the whole of my main course and declined the dessert. Alison just had to have the crêpes Suzette, though, with flaming Grand Marnier (just to add to the heat)! The staff were lovely and looked after us as if we'd been there every week! Like everywhere else, I think they were just delighted to have customers - not just because of the pandemic, but there were also major building restorations going on all around their restaurant.

And so back to our hotel and a good night's sleep with, I think, no further little disasters but an exciting day, and indeed several days ahead of us.

It was, then, Sunday morning when we returned to Gare de Lyon, calling on the way at a small Monoprix supermarket to buy take-away salads and fruit for lunch. By the time we had walked through to the correct part of the station ("Hall 2") and bought our coffee and croissants the TGV to Besançon had been announced and so we took our seats and had our breakfast on board awaiting departure. Fas at Trains Europe had done a great job with this reservation: a "club duo" pair of seats aligned with the window on the upper deck of a duplex carriage - just the perfect seating for a couple on this sort of trip. The first time we went to Le Locle we had come on this train travelling Second Class on the lower deck and it was a great experience, but this was even greater. After a suitable interval I went to the bar car to buy coffee - there did not seem to be an at-seat service on this train - and soon after coffee we arrived at Besançon TGV station where we had to change trains. 

That first time we did this we had been surprised to find that the local train waiting for us had been a through train to Switzerland which required no further changes, but this time it was as shown in the timetable, a connection to Besançon Viotte (the town's main station), where we had to change again for Le Locle. It was all very civilised and straightforward, although with temperatures still in the thirties and with luggage to handle it was as well not to rush - and we did not need to, the connections being very well timed. So we settled into our seats on this strangest of international trains: a three-car stopping train, second-class only and the only diesel-powered train we had used since leaving our local train at Peterborough, the rest having been electric throughout. No disasters this day: everything had been on time and had worked exactly as planned! We stepped off the train into the heat at Le Locle's international platform and so began the next stage in our adventure!

Well into the trip from Besançon to Le Locle, just after Gilley station. The train the turns and makes its way to Morteau, the French watchmaking town, before crossing the Swiss border to Le Locle and termination at La Chaux-de-Fonds.