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 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.

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