Old Town Charms, Splendid Art, and Heritage Sites


Say “Switzerland” and conjure up mouth-watering fantasies of fondue, raclette, chocolate, and cheese. Think Swiss quality and imagine watches, army pocketknives, and precision instruments.

Picture the Swiss Alps and mountaineering, its global cities and economic centres with four main linguistic and cultural regions (German, French, Italian, Romansh), Swiss banks and their privacy policy. This small alpine nation regularly makes it to the world’s top ten richest countries by per capita wealth. The country doesn’t rest on its laurels, and wishes to offer more.

Switzerland Tourism hosted this year’s exclusive International Media Trip “Swiss Urban Feeling”. Indonesia Design was privileged to be selected among a group of eight media companies from Europe and Asia flown in via Swiss International Airlines. The journalists were invited to experience four of Switzerland’s boutique towns for six days by train, bus, and boat using the Swiss Travel Pass - a unique, all-in-one first class travel ticket.

First stop was Basel, a city in the northwest, famed for its international museums. An hour-long train ride from Zürich airport was a visual delight through idyllic countryside of lush green meadows and mountains. The trendy Der Teufelhof, an art- and gallery-hotel in the Old Town, was the adventure’s starting point.

A guide led the private walking tour to one of Basel’s fastest developing districts, the Dreispitz, an up-and-coming neighbourhood covering some 50 hectares. The sector is currently being transformed from industrial goods warehouses and customs depot to a block of art institutions, schools, and residential housing and lifestyle space. Relocated to the area is the impressive Academy of Art and Design. Not to be missed is the angular Oslo Nord building which contains the Haus der elektronischen Künste (HeK) or Electronics Art Centre.

Day 2 found the group at the Fondation Beyeler Museum, located in the Basel suburb of Riehen, 20 minutes from the centre by tram. Italian architect and engineer Renzo Piano designed the museum that houses the private collection of art dealers Hilda and Ernst Beyeler, making the 200-odd works of classic modernism accessible to the public. At the time of the visit, the figurative, expressive paintings of 80-year old German-Austrian painter, sculptor, and graphic artist Georg Baselitz were on display.

Back in the centre of town, several participants enjoyed their free time by viewing the vast and most significant public art collection (from the early 15th century up to the present) in Switzerland, located in the Kunstmuseum Basel, listed as a heritage site of national importance.

Day 3 was Lucerne reached by a 90-minute train ride from Basel, with a two-night stay at the luxurious 5-star Schweizerhof, a hotel with stunning views of the Lake Lucerne and mountains. The Schweizerhof’s stately chambers have hosted the likes of famous and historical guests ranging from writers, actors, musicians, politicians, even royalty!

A tour of the Old Town began with the landmark Chapel bridge, originally built in 1333 and named after the nearby St Peter’s Chapel. It is known as the world’s oldest surviving truss bridge, and the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. Spanning diagonally across the Reuss river, this 204m (669ft) footbridge has interior paintings depicting Lucerne’s history, dating back to the 17th century. Unfortunately, many were destroyed in a 1993 fire.

Little winding alleys snake through the Altstadt (Old Town), with many buildings displaying colourfully painted facades. The Bruch district (Bruchquartier) used to be the regional livestock market, and is now one of Lucerne’s trendiest and liveliest neighbourhood, with ateliers, restaurants, bars, cafés, boutiques, etc.

Overlooking Lake Lucerne is the stunning multi-functional KKL (Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern), one of many significant architectural works of French star architect Jean Nouvel. It is a concert hall, congress centre and art museum incorporated under a single roof. Inaugurated in 1998, the concert hall is highly regarded for its cutting-edge acoustics.

Next morning’s free time was spent on a relaxing boat tour on Lake Lucerne to Kehrsiten-Bürgenstock. The lake’s placid blue waters and perfect panorama of sun, sky, and mountains were amazing to behold.

The group was given an insight into this year’s Fumetto International Comix Festival, one of the biggest events in Lucerne with around 50,000 visitors. Launched 26 years ago, Fumetto was first aimed for art students and young people, focused on exhibiting artistically sophisticated comics, including other art movements like animation, drawing, illustration, visual arts, and more. Today, this 9-day festival features leading comic artists, young talents, and current trends in comic art.

A 90-minute train ride on Day 5 took us to Neuchâtel, a small town located on the northwestern shore of Lake Neuchâtel and part of French-speaking Switzerland. This is the heartland of the renowned Swiss watchmaking industry, with La Chaux-de-Fonds, its most important centre, due for a visit the final morning.

The charming Hôtel Beau-Rivage was the next base, where a tasty lunch was served on the hotel’s open terrace, with stunning views of the Lake Neuchâtel and the mountains.

Neuchâtel is acclaimed for its watch industry. But we primarily experienced Neuchâtel à la Belle Epoque (1896 to 1914). At the Art and History Museum, we witnessed the amazing 250-year old Jacquet-Droz automata collection. Prominent watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri Louis, and his partner Jean Frederic Lechot fashioned the Writer, the Musician, and the Draughtsman as advertisement and entertainment dolls, to improve sales among European nobility in the 18th century.

Le Palais du Peyrou is a mansion built between 1765 and 1771 for Pierre-Alexandre Du Peyrou (1729-1794), who made his fortune from his two plantations in Suriname. In 1858, the city of Neuchâtel bought the mansion and restored it to its mainly original interior with faience stoves from Bern. Today, there is a popular restaurant within its walls.

In the Old Town, narrow lanes led through small cafés, wine cellars and shops selling saucissons, jambons, and chocolats. Street art made the walls of buildings and pavements lively and colourful. At a pause, anise-flavoured Absinthe, also known as la fée verte (green fairy), was shared among us. This famous distilled alcoholic spirit is normally diluted with water before being consumed.

The highlight of the evening was a wonderful dinner at the Brasserie Le Cardinal, with its lovely Art Nouveau tiled walls, featuring delightful scenes of flowers and birds.

Together with its twin city Le Locle, La Chaux-de-Fonds is now recognised for its watchmaking heritage by UNESCO in June 2009. We reached this picture-pretty little town by a short train ride on the final day.

La Chaux-de-Fonds is a prime example of the symbiosis between the watch industry and urban development. In 1794, a fire destroyed most of the city. A new city plan was introduced, and the town is now known for its “modern”, grid-like arrangement. From atop the landmark 60m-high (179ft) Espacité Tower offering an almost 360° view of the cityscape, one can see the watch-making town planning painstakingly executed.

The tour around La Chaux-de-Fonds highlighted the town’s original style of Art Nouveau. We admired the Maison Blanche, the personal creation of world-renowned Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, and one of the pioneers of modern architecture Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier.

Next was the apartment building of wealthy gold watchcase maker Rodolphe Spillman with its richly-decorated Blue Salon. This main reception room was painted blue and covered with doves in flight and stylised clouds. The town’s public cemetery crematorium with its architecture and décor is another fine example of the region’s Art Nouveau style.

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