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.

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