La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
La Chaux-de-Fonds isn't the most obvious of Swiss tourist destinations: It doesn't have a medieval center, a lake, alpine ski slopes, or chalets in the middle of town. But if you're interested in architecture or 19th Century urban design, La Chaux-de-Fonds deserves a place on your Swiss travel itinerary.
With 37,000 inhabitants, La Chaux-de-Fonds is the third-largest city of Suisse Romande (a.k.a. French-speaking Switzerland).
In the 1700s, it became a world center of the watchmaking industry, and the town's prosperity--combined with the education and enlightened attitudes of its French Huguenot and Jewish settlers--led to a golden era of culture and architecture in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Today, La Chaux-de-Fonds remains a livable city of hidden treasures and public pleasures--and one that's easy to reach, thanks to frequent train service from Biel/Bienne on the main railroad line between Zürich, Neuchâtel, and Lausanne.
History and background
La Chaux-de-Fonds before the fire:
In medieval times, La Chaux-de-Fonds was a bucolic agricultural village in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss-French border. A publication of Tourisme Neuchâtel, the cantonal tourist office, explains what happened next:
La Chaux-de-Fonds attracted Huguenot and Jewish watchmakers partly due to its relatively high elevation of 997 meters or 3,271 feet. Because the local growing season was short, farmers in La Chaux-de-Fonds and nearby towns were available for industrial work during much of the year.
By the time Swiss watchmaking reached its peak in the late 19th Century, hundreds of small and large firms employed seasonal and full-time workers throughout the region.
From ashes to a modern town plan:
After a fire destroyed two-thirds of Le Chaux-de-Fonds in 1794, the town's leaders decided on a new plan that was inspired by egalitarian principles from the French Revolution: The rebuilt town was based on New York's Manhattan, with long, wide streets that ran along the floor and parallel hillsides of the valley.
This design guaranteed light and fresh air even in working-class apartment buildings, and it also minimized fire risk.
Italian opera and Jugendstil:
Between 1794 and 1900, the population of La Chaux-de-Fonds increased from around 4,500 to more than 35,000, and the city center was filled with Art Nouveau dwellings, an Italian-style theatre, watch factories, public buildings, churches, and one of Switzerland's largest synagogues.
INSA, the Inventaire Suisse d'Architecture, lists several hundred buildings from the period between 1850 and 1920 alone.
The earliest works of Le Corbusier:
In 1900, Charles-Edward Jeanneret-Gris--the architect subsequently known as Le Corbusier--began an apprenticeship in engraving and carving at the Ecole d'art. After collaborating on several houses with the architect René Chapallaz, he opened his own firm and designed La Maison Blanche ("The White House" for his parents in 1912. In 1917, he built La Villa Turque ("The Turkish Villa") before moving to Paris.
Thanks to this remarkable architectural heritage, La Chaux-de-Fonds has been chosen as one of the eight most important cities on the Art & Architecture Theme Route of Switzerland Tourism.
If you're a city planner, an architect, or an aficionado of urban design, spend at least one full day (or, better yet, two) in La-Chaux-de-Fonds during your next visit to Switzerland.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is represented by Neuchâtel Tourism, which has a sometimes flaky Web site at www.neuchateltourisme.ch. The cantonal tourist office markets the entire region as "Watch Valley: Le pays de précision."
If you arrive in La Chaux-de-Fonds by train, walk straight ahead one block from the railroad station to the Avenue Léopold-Robert.
Turn right, and you'll see the Espacité Tower, a skyscraper on the city's main drag. The local Tourist Office is in the base of the tower. (As long as you're at the tower, ride the free elevator to the top floor to enjoy a panoramic view of the city.)
If you're seriously interested in architecture and have a fat wallet, we'd suggest hiring a tour guide for a few hours, since a guide may be able to get you into buildings that normally aren't open to visitors. You can book ahead by phone or e-mail; call +41 (0)32 889 68 95 or e-mail [email protected]
Finally, if you read French, be sure to visit the Tourist Office page on the municipality's Web site, which lists the office's business hours and has downloadable brochures in PDF format.
Museums and attractions
La Chaux-de-Fonds has several museums, including:
The International Watchmaking Museum, a.k.a. the Musée International d'horlogerie, which covers the technical, artistic, social, and economic history of watchmaking. The MIH's collection includes 2,700 watches and 700 clocks.
Farming and Craft Museum, or Musée paysan et artisanal, which is located in an early 17th Century farmhouse. The museum shows how farmer-watchmakers and their families lived and worked in the early days of Switzerland's watch industry. You can reach the museum on your own or as part of a horse-drawn carriage tour.
The History Museum, or Musée d'histoire, which occupies a 19th Century house on the Rue des Musées.
The Museum of Fine Arts, or Musée des beaux-arts, has Swiss and international art of the 19th and 20th centuries--including works by Le Corbusier.
The Natural History Museum, a.k.a. Musée d'histoire naturelle, which has free admission and will give you a glimpse of the local fauna. (The MHNC also operates a small zoo and vivarium in a park that you can easily reach on foot from the center of town. Admission is free.)
If you have time, you might also want to request a tour of the Bell Foundry Blondeau (the Fonderie de cloches Bloundeau), which casts bells one or two mornings per week. Ask the Tourist Office for details.
Hotels in La Chaux-de-Fonds
I can personally recommend the Hôtel Athmos (4 stars), which has an unbeatable location near the railroad station, the Beaux-Arts Museum, and the Tourist Office in the Espacité Tower.
The hotel has long been popular with artists at the local theatre and concert hall, which are just around the corner on the Avenue Léopold-Robert.
Rooms at the Athmos are furnished in a cozy traditional style. (My single room had plenty of dark wood, a spacious marble-tiled bathroom, and tall windows overlooking the street.)
The Grand Hôtel Les Endroits (4 stars) is a modern resort hotel in a country setting above La Chaux-de-Fonds. You can park at the hotel and use the free shuttle bus to the city center.
Hôtel Fleur de Lys (3 stars) is across from the Espacité Tower on the Avenue Léopold-Robert, the city's main shopping street. Parking is available on the premises or nearby.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is well-supplied with restaurants and cafés. I can personally recommend a restaurant on the city's outskirts:
The Auberge de Mont-Cornu occupies a 17th Century farmhouse on a hill above town, with horses in the neighboring pasture and plenty of room for your dog to run around while you enjoy fondue, Rösti with ham, or other traditional Swiss dishes.
You can dine in the chalet year-round or at outdoor tables in the warm months. For reservations, phone +41 (0) 32 968 76 00 (or ask your your hotel concierge to make the call if you don't speak French).
More photos of Le Chaux-de-Fonds:
Old and new architecture coexist peacefully in La Chaux-de-Fonds. (The green glass building is the Metropole Centre near the railroad station.)
The Musée des beaux-arts is one of four attractions in the Parc des Musées just east of the railroad station.
The others are the Musée international d'horlogerie, the Musée d'histoire, and the Carillon, which offers music with an animated display every 15 minutes.
The Crémetoire, or crematory, was designed by architects Robert Belli and Henry Robert in 1908 and built at a cost of 30,000 Swiss francs. It's in the Cimitière de la Charrière, a public cemetery that opened in 1852.
The neo-Byzantine Synagogue on the Rue du Parc was built from 1894-1896 to serve the Jewish watchmakers and industrialists who played such an important role in the economic and cultural development of La Chaux-de-Fonds during the 19th Century.
At that time, the city's Jewish community numbered about 850. (Today, about 300 Jews remain in the city.)
The Ancien collège industriel was the largest building in La Chaux-de-Fonds when it was completed in 1876. Today it's the Bibliothèque, or public library.
The Gare (railway station) was designed in 1901 and completed in 1904. The architects were Ernest Prince and Jean Béguin of Neuchâtel.
IIf you look carefully, you can see the golden arches of a McDonald's in the right-hand corner of the building.
Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, later known as Le Corbusier, received his education at L'Ecole d'art, a.k.a. the Art School, on the Rue de la Paix.
Glass cases in front of the current building display the work of students.
One of the more charming buildings in town is the Ancien Manège or Old Riding School, which combines modern features such as a skylit atrium with curving staircases that disappear into faux marble walls.
In 1868, the building was converted from a riding school into workers' dwellings. Today it's occupied by offices and a bar.
Keep your eyes open as you walk around La Chaux-de-Fonds, and you'll see Art Nouveau decorations wherever you look.
This is one of our favorite building façades in La Chaux-de-Fonds: simple, yet interesting.
Modern garages make these historic apartment buildings more appealing to 20th Century residents.
Even more modern is the Metropole Centre, a downtown shopping mall.
For a more traditional experience, visit a neighborhood café in a side street.
Or head uphill to the local Zoo and Vivarium, which has free admission and a large adventure playground where your children can play while you pat the pony.
A cow sculpture in La Chaux-de-Fonds lets city kids pretend they're Heidi or Peter.
Eating outdoors is a favorite summer pastime at L'Auberge de Mont-Cornu.
What fun is an outdoor meal without a dog?
Photos 1 and 8 copyright © Switzerland Tourism. ST/Swiss-image.ch.
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