I love the wine of Neuchâtel, what a great start,” said James Joyce in 1941 as he sat down to a meal in the city. We echo his sentiments as we raise a toast with sparkling wine before setting out to explore the town on foot.
But it isn’t wine that is top most on our minds; it is chocolate. After all, this quaint little Swiss town, about an hour’s train ride from Geneva and nestled at the conjunction of three lakes—Neuchâtel, Morat and Bienne—is where Philippe Suchard, one of the pioneers of Swiss chocolate, set up his first factory way back in 1826 and mechanized production.
Marlene Maurius, a long-time resident of the city and our hostess for the week, is having none of it. “There’s much more to Neuchâtel (literally, new castle) than lakes of milk and mountains of chocolate,” she says. “You need to get out and walk to discover the town, which pre-dates Suchard by about 800 years.”
So true, because no sooner do we start out at the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville than we spot the first of Neuchâtel’s native motifs: a magnificent Louis XVI fountain with a large basin hewn from a single block of stone. Sparkling water flows from a column in the centre, silently inviting every passer-by to take a sip and every tourist to refill his bottle.
There are 140 fountains in Neuchâtel, someone informs us, across 18 sq. km. Largely dating to the Renaissance, they were set up to supply drinking water to the residents, straight from the springs of the outlying Jura mountains. Like the village wells in old-time India, these quickly became hubs of the town, where matrons gathered for a natter and romantic dalliances were born.
Even as we walk past the erstwhile Town Hall, built in 1784—now reborn as the swank Hotel de Ville—over narrow cobbled roads with old buildings crowding the sidewalks and cafes spilling onto the roads, our eyes are searching for the next fountain.
There! We are rewarded by the sight of the Fontaine de la Justice, dating back all the way to the mid-16th century. The octagonal basin is capped by the personification of justice, a blindfolded female figure, while at her feet sit four figures symbolizing the administration of the time: a pope, a magistrate, an emperor and a sultan. Like the previous fountain—and every one we would see subsequently—this, too, is perfectly restored and maintained, with the gold glinting in the afternoon sunlight and water tinkling into the basin below. Not unnatural: The Swiss are famed for their precision not just in watchmaking, but in scrupulous care of their cities as well.
The mandatory photos shot, we ramble down Rue des Moulins, where a series of baroque homes line the street. Ahead of the famous Cardinal Brasserie, a former brewery, lies the Croix du Marché, the old market crossing. And there, do we spy another fountain?
But not just any fountain. Fontaine du Banneret is apparently the oldest fountain in town. Originally a livestock watering hole outside the old Town Hall, it was recreated in 1561 by Laurent Perroud, who, from where we stand, appears to have had a chronic thing for fountains. The sight of a pair of lovers, entwined at the foot of the fountain, completely oblivious to the world, however, banishes the cloud of cynicism: If the majestic Renaissance Man atop the structure continues to encourage romance five centuries down the line, obviously the artist knew what he was doing.
Midway between the Croix-du-Marché and the Maison des Halles (covered market) is the Passage des Corbets. This is a typically Neuchâtel covered passage with a splendid spiral staircase, opening out into the Place des Halles or the charming market square, framed by 18th century house fronts. Glaring gargoyles, with ferocious, wide-opened mouths—fashioned to drain rainwater off the roof—are no competition for the gilted Fontaine du Griffon. The mythical half-lion-half-eagle atop the 1664 structure seems alive in the afternoon sun, grimacing at eternity, and quickly tops my favourite fountain list—and this is even before I learn that, in 1688, its water supply made way for wine when Charles Paris d’Orleans and his brother visited Neuchâtel. That must have been one wild night.
The Fontaine du Griffon is a stone’s throw from the chateau or castle that gives Neuchâtel its name, a huge 12th century structure situated high on a hill that can be accessed either by a steep staircase or through the winding Rue du Chateau. A free castle tour is available through the summer, but we prefer to wander around the central courtyard. As we peek into the massive kitchen, Marlene explains that the great big hearth was necessary for the whole oxen or swine that were often roasted over roaring flames, while sweating cooks basted the animal with grease.
All of which is very well, but where’s the chocolate? Marlene finally recognizes that much as the Renaissance may romance the imagination, we are hankering after more immediate pleasures.“Go down the Rue du Seyon and you will find the little store opened by Suchard in 1825,” she advises.
The Rue du Seyon is where the Seyon river used to flow till the middle of the 19th century, till it was diverted into a waterfall that empties into the Lake Neuchâtel. This is where we stumble on Wodey Suchard’s old-fashioned little confiserie, with its glass-encased showcase of handmade chocolates. Marlene may well object to her beloved Neuchâtel being reduced to a shop window, but for chocolate-lovers, this is the equivalent of the believer’s journey to Varanasi.
Ironically, even as Suchard—inventor of the first efficient sugar-cocoa powder mixing machine—stuck to handmade chocolates, and was gradually bought over by Tobler and then Kraft Foods, Belgian and German chocolatiers discovered more competitive manufacturing processes and stole the limelight from Swiss confectionery. “But the discerning will never switch loyalties,” asserts our hostess. “A connoisseur of fine chocolate is like a connoisseur of fine wine.”
Lust now wears a dark chocolate couverture. Somehow, we feel Renaissance Man would have approved.
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