Thursday 4 October 2018

Back to the Valley of the Watchmakers

By train into Switzerland

Into Switzerland!

It began with a message from a VERY distant relative that there was an exhibition in Le Locle, in Switzerland that we might be interested in seeing, Le Locle Past and Present. It was at a historic site and museum that we wanted to see eventually anyway, and this temporary exhibition was the catalyst for making the visit this year.

Six years ago we had visited Switzerland for the first time to see places associated with my wife's ancestors in the watchmaking region of the Neuchatel Canton and we were intending to go again when more research had been done, so we planned just a short trip to see the exhibition, and a couple of tourist things that we had not had time to do when we visited in 2012. We would go again in due course, when more family history research had been done, and visit the village of Valangin as well, near Neuchatel, where there were also family connections.

Last time we went I had planned my own itinerary and booked the accommodation and many of the rail tickets myself, engaging an agent to book the travel on the continent because it was difficult to do that oneself. After our more recent experience with Great Rail Journeys Independent I telephoned them an asked them to arrange the trip for me this time, specifying that we were to stay at Maison DuBois in Le Locle, the bed and breakfast house that was my wife's ancient family home, and specifying that we were to arrive there on the branch line from Besançon as we had the previous time. We would stay in London the night before departure rather than Paris as we had before. All was fixed up and then we had to wait, but because we had to travel soon in order to get to the exhibition in Le Locle it was not too long a wait, and we had our summer holiday on the south coast of England to keep us occupied - but it did mean that I had to pay Great Rail Journeys straight away for the whole project.

On a Monday evening we were driven to Peterborough station by our family, the first time we have started one of our adventures by car: it was great to say farewell, and it did mean that we were not observed leaving together with our luggage, better for security. We caught the next LNER train to London Kings Cross, travelling First Class as we had booked throughout this trip when available. Booking through Great Rail Journeys Independent meant that the open tickets cost about the same as Advance First would have cost us booking ourselves, as they are part of an international package holiday even though we were the only participants. We had to carry our itinerary with us in case we needed to prove it was a package. It was a smooth, easy journey to London and although this was a long-distance train in the last stretch of its journey we were well-served by our hostess who managed to find a pasta salad and a glass of wine for us. In London we were staying at a Premier Inn in Euston Road, almost opposite St Pancras station and very handy. I had never stayed in one of this chain before and was very pleased with it: nothing special but all very competent, with comfortable bed, enough space and an excellent buffet breakfast before making our way to the Eurostar terminal the next morning.

Unlike some trips we have taken, Great Rail Journeys had given us a very easy itinerary with plenty of time between trains and no early starts, so we were able to pack after breakfast without rushing and  walk to St Pancras. This time we entered through the Underground station so as to be on the correct level for the Eurostar check-in, and when we got there check-in for our train to Paris had just begun so we joined the queue, which kept moving, and scanned our tickets to get through to the security and passport checks. This is all a bit of a nuisance but it is as well to be safe, and it's much less fuss than flying. We waited for our train and then made our way to the platform when it was announced. This time we had a refurbished original Eurostar train (E300, I think they call them), very comfortable in Standard Premier class, and our second breakfast of the day was served as we sped through Kent. For once I declined the second bread roll.

No matter what your view of the London Underground, if you're looking for grot London has nothing to beat Paris. Once we found a ticket machine that worked we struggled to understand how to buy tickets even though we could and did choose the English language option on the machine: in London you could just go through the barriers with any contactless credit or debit card and pay for your ride without a ticket at all. When we got to the RER line D platform for our train to Gare de Lyon there was a train already at the platform so at least we did not have to wait on the dark, smelly platform, but it was a bit tight on the train with our luggage: you would think that a service linking two main rail termini would have space for suitcases, but not in Paris. It was a short ride, though, and we were soon in the light, airy surroundings of Gare de Lyon, in a part of the station we'd never noticed before, because we never come out of the RER the same way twice. We had plenty of time and went for a stroll down to the river before returning to the station for our next train, enjoying a glass of wine at a bar on the concourse right opposite our platform, as it happened.

Our train from Gare de Lyon was a TGV through to Besançon Viotte where we had a couple of hours to await our connection for Le Locle. In First Class the TGVs are very comfortable and the journey soon passed. There is no included catering on French railways but there is an at-seat paid-for service in First Class.

Besançon is down there somewhere!
At Besançon we walked from the station into the town centre just to see the place: it was farther than we thought it might be, and was all downhill towards the river, but we did have time a for little exploration. We do try to make these trips into tours by leaving plenty of time between trains at changes, and this also helps to "soak up" any delays that might occur on route - not that there were any delays this day. To avoid having to climb back up to the station we caught a tram from the town centre at Besançon to the station - so easy to use here although I did have to buy the tickets in two separate transactions: the machine does not seem to be set up for people travelling together!

And so on to Switzerland! At Besançon Viotte station we had the picnic tea we had bought in the town and then went on to the platform to await the train, and then we realised it was already there, waiting in the distance in a bay platform at the end, so we made our way there and boarded. No First Class on either coach, but standard was very comfortable with a good view through the large windows, and the train was not crowded. We left in bright sunshine but darkness fell before we reached the Swiss border. I emailed ahead to the B&B to say that we would be arriving about 21:30 and received a message back that our hostess would not be present then but she would leave the key in our room, and entry to the house is by a combination which she included in the message - all in French, of course! Arriving at Le Locle station, we took the route we knew from our previous visit and were tapping the combination into the keypad on the front door within five minutes. And so to shower and bed, having had a terrific day of travel and exploration and with some exciting activities on the agenda for the morning.

In the morning the sun greeted us when I opened the curtains, and our hostess Céline was waiting to serve our breakfast when we went down: hugs and kisses (three each: this is Switzerland, not France) like old friends and coffee, bread, fruit and yogurt for breakfast. We had checked bus timetables in advance and knew we needed to leave swiftly to get a bus to our first visit, the underground mills at Le Col-des-Roches just this side of the French border: miss it and it was a couple of hours before the next. We got to the bus stop to find that it was temporarily closed by roadworks - and the instructions where to get the bus were in French and required local knowledge: I had just about translated it when a road sweeper kindly pointed the way, just as the bus went past, and said, "À droite; à gauche," and we moved swiftly to arrive at the stop just as the end of the queue was boarding. We were on our way.

We did not have to pay a fare for this five-minute ride. Indeed, we hardly had to pay for anything at all in Switzerland: Neuchatel Canton tourist board operates a scheme whereby anyone staying at least one night in a hotel or B&B in the canton receives a Neuchatel Tourist Card - Céline gave us ours at breakfast - giving free train, bus and funicular travel for the duration of the stay, plus one free entry into most tourist attractions in the canton, including the place to which we were heading that morning.

The Moulins Souterrains at Le Col-des-Roche is one of the most amazing sites I have ever visited and as we chatted with the lady at the reception desk it transpired that it was founded by a member of my wife's family tree, which added a certain extra interest to what we were about to see. The reason for building the factory underground is that at this point the valley suddenly ends and the water cascades under the rocks through a series of caves. This provided a great opportunity for water wheels in the day when water power was essential to industry; there was still plenty of space left in the caves for the millstones and workshops of a factory making multiple products - there was a sawmill as well as flour mills and and edge mill. The whole complex closed when electricity put it out of business and was used as an abattoir in the twentieth century, processing meat crossing the Franco-Swiss border nearby. It took volunteers months to remove foul sludge from the caves in order to create the museum installation that is there now, with some machinery replaced in order to get a flavour of what was done there and other spaces left as they were. Audio guides are available in several languages to explain what is there. I'd thoroughly recommend a visit, but if you go you need decent footwear and reasonably warm clothing, and if you are mobility-impaired there will be very little that you can access - it is in the nature of a cave.

Where the narrow-gauge ends and the
standard gauge begins at Le Locle -
train for Neuchatel in the background
This was where the Le Locle Past and Present exhibition was staged,and we visited that and bought a book of its pictures at the museum shop before we caught a bus back into Le Locle ready for our next outing, to Les Brenets, a lakeside village on the French border. We had consulted the timetables and knew that our bus would give us ample time to get to the rail station but without too long a wait for the narrow-gauge train up through the hills (and I mean "through" - there are tunnels, as ever in Switzerland!) to Les Brenets.

We took the new cliff lift up to the station from Sidmouth Place in the town centre (Le Locle, rather incongruously in my opinion, is twinned with Sidmouth in England) and crossed the tracks via the subway to the far platform. Le Locle station is unique among all the stations I have ever visited: it has one long platform at which the main line trains from Neuchatel terminate and then commence their journeys back to Neuchatel via La Chaux de Fonds, and the far platform is split into two halves, one for the French train that three times a day travels between Besançon and La Chaux de Fonds, and the other half for the metre-gauge branch line to Les Brenets. One platform face, two track gauges. The people awaiting the service to Les Brenets were interesting, quite different from those who might use such a service, where it still exists, in England. There were a few other tourists, a handful of young people of student age, a couple of shoppers and a good few business people in suits and ties, as many of them speaking German as French. Curiously, too, when we got to Les Brenets many of the signs were written in German first with French beneath whereas in Le Locle most signs are in French only.

I had pictured Les Brenets as a small place but it actually turned out to be fairly large in the sense that it took up a lot of space, and the walk to the lake was quite long - and downhill! The walk back was a daunting prospect but fortunately this has been considered by the authorities and there is a taxi bus available at the quayside which would take us back to the station when had finished on the lake - although the fare for that was not included in our Tourist Card. We went to the lake cruise booking office and exchanged our vouchers for boarding cards then bought lunch from the quayside café while we waited for the boat. The other shore of the lake was in France: this lake is a EU border, and both French and Swiss tourist boats ply the lake.

Where the waterfall wasn't. The viewing platform on the
French side had no better view!
The water level in the lake was very low and we had to walk out over a muddy shore - on timber decking provided for the purpose - to reach our trip boat. Quite a few people came ashore but only three of us boarded, so we had a quiet trip! The lake is long and quite narrow with sides wooded in many places and the cruise was reminiscent of the trips on the River Dart in England, but with France to port and Switzerland to starboard. The trip took us to the top of the lake, the farthest point possible. A rock-strewn dried-up river bed went on further and we walked alongside this towards the reputed waterfall from which the water supposedly cascaded down to a lower river. But we never saw any more water. There was a bridge across the rocky river bed, and on the Swiss side a notice about customs and passports (but no officers), and eventually we found the sheer drop where the fall might have been - no water. The lake, the river and the falls are fed from mountain meltwater and by this time in the summer it has all drained away: early spring is probably the best time to visit, when the snow is melting and lake filled.

Back at the pier we found many more passengers waiting to return, many looking like a German (or German-speaking) tour party and we had a commentary in French and German on our return trip. We made our way straight to the ticket office at Les Brenet quay and paid for the taxibus, the driver helped us aboard and we were straight off to the rail station; when I say "straight" we actually followed the usual Swiss winding road, crossing several times the fairly straight path by which we had walked down. The trip only took a few moments and it happened that the little train was already standing at the platform so were straight on board and soon on our way back through the hills to Le Locle. We did not need a lot to eat that evening but went to the crêperie next door to our boarding house for a light supper and went to bed. With the early start and the fortunate connections, we had already do one in one day all that we came to  Le Locle to do, so we had to plan what we would do on our free day in the morning, and that was to bring more excitement on the ancestor front, and more value from our Neuchatel Tourist Card!

One thing we had not expected to fit into this trip but were planning to do in a couple of years' time was to visit the village of Valangin where we knew there was a castle which was associated with the family (don't ask me exactly how: I only married into this family!) and a church which had windows with images of the arms of the DuBois family, and we decided attempt a visit on our unexpected free day. By using a fantastic Swiss public transport app we were easily able to plan the journey - a bus from LeLocle to a suburban bus stop in Neuchatel from where another bus would take us to Valangin, a small place where the bus dropped us right in the centre.

The castle towered over us but was not due to open until the afternoon, so we went first to the church and were delighted to find it open. We went in and photographed all the windows and the interior of this amazing little church, including the window we had come to see, with the DuBois family crest. From there runs the original village street, direct to the castle gateway, and as we walked along this we came across an inn where we were able to stop for lunch while we awaited castle opening time - again, it all fitted in brilliantly. For me, the views from the castle were well worth the climb to it I had never really seen a castle anywhere but England before. From here this part of Switzerland was once governed, and this little village was therefore as important as Neuchatel is now.

The lake steamer Neuchatel
Mural at Neuchatel station

We caught a bus back to Neuchatel and walked to the lakeside with a view to taking a short cruise. We found where the ship was due to leave and again exchanged our vouchers for boarding passes and were delighted to find that the ship was a paddle steamer. We did try to sit on deck but a light rain began and we moved inside where we found a buffet bar for a snack and a glass of wine: amazing what you can afford when the cruise is free - I 'm beginning to understand how the canton decided it could afford to give away these passes!

We decided to catch a train back to Le Locle and stumbled across an entrance to an underground funicular railway that took us straight up to the concourse of the station and bought coffee while awaiting the train. We would be returning this way in the morning, but for now we bought salad for supper in our room and had a stroll round Le Locle for our last evening.

Céline's own holiday started that night, so she had prepared breakfast for us in advance which we had before packing and making our way to the station for the train down to Neuchatel where we were to change trains for Paris. Except it was not quite that simple! What was shown as a TGV to Paris in the timetable had a mysterious note about Frasne on the ticket, and the online public transport information which had been so useful throughout our stay also had a codicil about passengers from Neuchatel to Paris change at Frasne. At the station we enquired about where to get our train to Paris and we were told the platform number and departure time (it was the time we were expecting) and to change at Frasne for the TGV to Paris - the actual TGV apparently comes from Geneva. So we had an interesting regional express from Neuchatel to Frasne and then boarded the expected TGV, which did not actually travel at Grande Vitesse until it joined the high-speed line about half-way to Paris. We had never been to Frasne before and it was not an ideal place to change trains: it was OK for us but there was absolutely no cover on the platform, so on a wet day it would have been decidedly unpleasant. Still, it was warm and sunny and our train was soon there and wicked us off to Paris. We bought lunch from the at-seat service in First Class, including a rather splendid craft ale rather in the English style, quelle surprise!

Impromptu wine-tasting
on Eurostar
In Paris, the usual RER journey to Gard du Nord (we got the ticket-purchasing lark sorted out this time!) and then Eurostar check-in. Once aboard we enjoyed our ride home, assisted by rather more wine than might have been wise - so much so that we brought one of the small bottles home: that all started because I asked for a second wine but they did not have the sort I asked for, so the hostess gave us both two others to try ...

We had a little while to wait at Kings Cross for the train we wanted back to Peterborough for Stamford. Although our tickets were valid on any train it is better to wait in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross than on the platform at Peterborough, so we aim for a train that makes a neat but not tight connection. And so home. We were intending to take a taxi home from the station but met a friend there who was meeting another friend off the train and she kindly drove us home. Stamford is that sort of town.

A short trip but we packed a very great deal into it and apart from the cost of the accommodation and fares there and back (plus mementos of places with family connections) we spent very little indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment