The lady at the lake-shore is wearing a voluminous dress with a corset and a large hat. Like the nearby courteous gentleman, she is part of a walk to explore the Belle Époque in Neuchatel. Besides the two bronze statues, we have already accidentally encountered some traces of this walk and of the Belle Époque in Neuchatel. For instance, a fresco of children in old-fashioned clothes.
Fabulous times in the Belle Époque in Neuchatel
The Belle Époque was a period around 1900 – from about the 1880s until the start of World War I – that seemed (in retrospect at least) promising, flourishing and full of life and elegance. Meaning “beautiful period” in French, the Belle Époque may not have been a paradise for everyone. But many things got cheaper or more available. So, at least a larger part of the middle classes could afford small luxuries and travel.
At the tourist information in Neuchatel we receive a bag containing a leaflet describing the Belle Époque walk, a photo viewer, a key tag and some vouchers.
Do we look silly, turning around on the harbour front looking into the small plastic box of the photo viewer? Never mind. The stereo photo viewer shows us how the Post Hotel looked before 1900 when the International Postal Union was founded in Neuchatel. Its headquarters had a tower for the telegraph services to distant countries such as Japan or Mexico. Their names are inscribed all around the façade of the building.
Next, we admire a restored steam ship that cruised on Lake Neuchatel since 1913. Road transport had just replaced boats for most trading needs, and ship traffic was in decline. Instead, ship builders discovered tourists as their new target group! Those days, French tourists flocked to Neuchatel because it was beautiful and easy to reach.
A strong woman swimmer
Likewise, the lake’s importance shifted from transport to tourism and leisure, or sports. Marthe Robert, a woman from Neuchatel, was the first person ever to swim across Lake Neuchatel in 1904. She and her sister trained every day in the lake. Marthe Robert went on to become – and stay – a Swiss swimming champion for years! She was particularly good at endurance swimming.
Just beyond the harbour, we have a look into the Neuchatel Museum of Art and History. Its large staircase is an orgy of art nouveau paintings and arts and crafts decorations!
Student housing and children’s games
A whole town quarter developed when water regulations made the lake’s water level drop and thus cleared new ground near the lowered lake-shore. Beautiful, multi-storied stone houses with wrought-iron balcony railings rose up. Apparently, many of them housed boarding houses for German and English speaking girls who should improve their French in Neuchatel. This remained a thriving business even when the wealthier tourists moved on to fashionable resorts in the higher mountains and in Geneva
In the park “Jardin Anglais” that does not look like an English Garden at all, we get to try some Belle Époque games. There is a hopscotch game called “Game of the Goose board”, and also wooden hoops that must be rolled and directed with a stick. On our travels we have often seen children in various countries rolling a hoop with sticks – but we have never done it ourselves, and it turns out quite challenging to keep the hoop rolling. Gladly we provide some entertainment to the people sitting in the park with a drink … The unusual hopscotch board was originally designed to discourage people from drinking too much alcohol, but the rules seem rather complicated for our leisurely Belle Époque walk and we quit after some half-hearted hopping and stone throwing.
And more serious drinking
The Belle Époque coincides with art styles such as Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Symbolism, and we remember various paintings of that period in various museums showing people in bars. Often, it’s impoverished artists and writers sipping Absinth. An extraordinarily strong alcoholic drink made from Artemisia Absinthium, aniseed, fennel, and other plants, Absinth must be mixed with water.
There’s another reason to dilute it: Thujone, a toxic substance. It is found in plants like oregano and sage, but in larger quantities in Artemisia Absinthium. Thus, the most popular and infamous drink of the Belle Époque killed some of its most important chroniclers. Absinth was subsequently forbidden for decades. Today, the ingredients are strongly regulated, and Absinth is again available. On our Belle Époque tour we get to taste some Absinth as well.
Later, the Belle Époque walk leads us to the first chocolate shop of the Suchard chocolate empire, where we get a tasting package of different types of chocolate and see a selection of turn-of-the-century chocolate advertisements. The founder, Philippe Suchard, used a newly developed system to make chocolate creamy and elastic. He also tried his hand at silk worm growing and flew in a hot air balloon!
Eating habits and food preparation also changed during the Belle Époque due to new inventions like the refrigerator and the iron stove. Carrots and spinach had previously often been eaten sweet, with sugar and cinnamon. Now they became more popular with salt and pepper. Potatoes also moved from a sweet to a savoury dish. More importantly, since vegetable oils such as peanut butter oil were more available and cheaper than butter, one particular potato dish exploded in popularity: Fried potatoes – i.e., French Fries.
Towards the end of the walk we encounter the “tramorama”. The key in our Art Nouveau bag opens a door in a wavy Art Nouveau tramway kiosk built during the Belle Époque. Locals found the kiosk too modern at the time, and a disgrace for the beautiful square. Inside we find an animated multi-screen show of the square about 120 years ago, presenting beautiful ladies in large hats, Mr. Suchard in his hot air balloon, and the first automobile to roam Neuchatel’s streets.
How to explore the Belle Époque in Neuchatel
The self-guided Belle Époque Walk in Neuchatel costs 10 € for the first person and 5 € for every other person. A 20 € deposit is also necessary. At the tourist information in Neuchatel you will get a bag with a Belle Époque leaflet. It also includes some additional requisites necessary for the walk. The whole Belle Époque walk took us almost 3 hours and was not only great fun, but also highly informative.
On some of the stations we encountered groups of lively children with clipboards. They were on the children’s version of the Belle Époque walk, where they had to solve quizzes to continue.
Note: We were not sponsored in any way to write this article. We paid the full price for the Belle Époque walk. We wrote this post because exploring the Belle Époque in Neuchatel was fun. Do you like self-guided walks or do you prefer guided tours? Let us know in the comments.