The Alps are undoubtedly the showier, sexier bit of Switzerland. What, however, is as beguiling but frequently bypassed by the strident march of many towards the peaks of Titlis or Jungfraujoch, is the well-kept secret of the Canton of Jura and the three lakes. Affectionately dubbed the “meeting place between man and horse”, with its orchards and medieval towns, vast open spaces and waters — Jura is where the locals go when they want a change of scene.
My guide, in this home place of clock-making and precision, arrives on the dot of our appointed meeting time. And with ‘every moment counts’ as her watchword, propels me forth on a boat cruise down the river Aare which promises unusual views of the Baroque city of Solothurn. But even this dramatic trailer down a river pixelated by the sunlight, doesn’t quite prepare me for how dwarfed I feel upon entering the town centre of Solothurn. St Urs Cathedral, built in light Jura limestone like most of the castles, palaces and Patrician homes constructed here between 1530 and 1792, have been built in size XXL, they demand genuflection before the sheer scale of classical architecture alone.
I learn early on this journey that no matter which medieval town I wander into, every naked angel, every larger-than-life clock tower I see, is likely to have several stories attached to it. The village fountains for instance, which resemble elaborate confections with their detailed figurative design, were built as indicators of how wealthy the city once was.
At some level, however, this intricate set littered with museums and churches, defence towers and shrines to Casanova who reputedly fell in love with a local lady here in 1760, is just heady backdrop to the living culture unfolding in Solothurn. Every Wednesday and Saturday between 8 am and 12 noon the old town is infused with life as market traders from around the region conjure up a gourmet dream, selling everything from Solothurner torte, a pie made of hazelnut meringue and cream to cheese and bread of every variety. Café culture, cycling trails, a literature festival in June, a film festival and carnival in January and a Swiss walking event in September keeps this city, caught in the parenthesis of legends of saints, harlots and witches, always lively.
A short bus ride away from Solothurn is the harbour of Biel, from where a boat waits in anticipation of travellers heading to St Peter’s Island. By his own account in ‘Reveries of a Solitary Walker’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau — the philosopher and writer whose ideas powerfully influenced the French Revolution, spent some joyful days here. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this monastery, now converted into a hotel, with its surrounding waters, low hills, potential for uninterrupted scenic walks and archeological remains — has become a popular refuge for the traveller in pursuit of some tranquility.
Further afield in Saignelegier, a visit to the Tete de Moine (Monk’s Head) cheese-making monastery with old world interiors, a museum and a flashy lounge at which the cheese is showcased and tasted, is not unlike a period movie set — but with a gift shop. Historical documents show that cheese made here is not only older than the Swiss confederation, but was also once used as a means of payment. Upon a tasting of the Tete de Moine paired with white wine, I submit to the idea that had I lived in 1291, I’d be happy to be paid in this cheese, too.
Cheese made at Tete de Moine (Monk’s Head) is pared into delicate rosettes with a girolle or cheese curler, especially invented for this purpose
Especially since the cheese in question is still created and offered with all the quirks of nostalgic tradition, rather than commercial equation. I spend five minutes watching the cheese being pared into delicate rosettes with a girolle or cheese curler, especially invented for this purpose. “This has been done since ancient times,” the guide there says, crossing himself piously, “The idea of boring down with a knife on a cheese, named Monk’s Head simply didn’t go down well with the region.”
It’s probably a good idea to walk off this feast of dairy at the nearby Etang de la Gruyere Nature reserve. Even in the rain, rows of travellers committed to cardiovascular efficiency stride forth with the desire to learn more about this unique eco-system, with it’s dammed, but natural moor lake. We circle the body of water on foot and on a wooden path. In winter, we are informed, the lake turns into a skating rink, the pine trees in this region bow low under the weight of snow, marked trails transform into snow-shoeing paradise, sleigh rides become the norm, huskies come out to play and the landscape around the Jura is transformed by the kind of magic only nature can perform.
Wandering next through the medieval town of St Ursanne, framed picturesquely by the river Doubs, I wish I’d packed more time and a better pair of walking shoes. Because each of these towns although dramatically built, is meant to be strolled through and savoured slowly, if one is to truly drink in the details of the living museums that they are. The cloister and college church form a rather eclectic backdrop to the hiking, mountain biking and canoeing adventures that begin here.
Neuchatel is also worth a visit. Not least for the Latenium archaeology museum and park. This moving scrapbook through 50,000 years of pre-history is not overstuffed with objects, but a thoughtfully laid out collection. A skeleton here is not a skeleton, but serves symbolically as a reminder that we too shall die. The artifacts neatly exhibited are more than artifacts, thanks to the vivid explanations that link the past to the present making them relevant.
Over the final few days of trawling through the Jura and the three lakes, I live at breweries converted to monasteries, drink copious quantities of beer at ancient mills morphed into restaurants, lose my bread in multiple pots of fondue at lakeside eating-houses — reputedly erected in the 19th century to allow ladies and children to swim in the lake hidden from view. In the course of these visits I confront the joy to be found in richly eccentric history, in the preservation of old structures being used in new ways, and relish seeing the medieval presented with international vision. If Rousseau could see the Jura and the three lakes now, he would probably be contemplating an essay entitled, “The Pleasures of Travelling In the Opposite Direction of the Herd.”
The cloister and college church form an eclectic backdrop to the hiking, mountain biking and canoeing adventures at St Ursanne
How to get there
Swiss Air has a daily direct flight between Mumbai and Zurich. Once in Zurich, opt for the worthwhile Swiss pass, which gives you unlimited access on the network of the Swiss Travel system for a period of 4, 8, 15, 22 days or one month. Included in the price of the ticket is free entry into over 400 museums and exhibitions. Trains run regularly between Zurich and Solothurn on the Swiss Federal Rail System. Once in Solothurn, it’s a good idea to hire a car and drive around
Where to eat
In Neuchatel, the 19th century built lakeside restaurant Les Bains des Dames serves not just great fondue, but also interesting history. It was built with the intention of giving the women of the time some privacy while they swam. For more information visit bainsdesdames.ch
A short drive from Etang de la Gruere Nature Reserve is a picture-perfect lunch spot on a riverside and in an ancient mill that has been converted into a restaurant. The Inn Theusseret is much touted for its home cooking and local trout. For more information visit letheusseret.blogspot.ch
Where to stay
While in Saignelegier, Hotel Cristal located in the Franches Montagnes typifies the peaceful green surroundings that characterise this region. Equipped with a characteristic view, spa, outdoor swimming pool, sauna and a hamam, its good value for money. For more information visit hotelcristal.ch
Maison du Prussien is the place to stay when exploring Neuchatel. Located within a gorge, this former brewery dating from the 18th century has been converted into a boutique hotel. You will fall asleep to the sound of the waterfall. For more information visit hotel-prussien.ch
If you want to follow in the footsteps of Jean Jacques Rousseau, you’ll stay on St Peters Island at The Abbey Hotel. This former monastery is steeped in history and noted for its tranquility, food and wine, views and lovely walks. For more information visit
What to buy
Don't leave without buying a slab of cheese and a girolle or cheese curler from the Tete de Moine dairy at Bellelay