The city has approximately 31,500 inhabitants (2002), by and large French-speaking, although the city is sometimes referred to historically by the German name , which has the same meaning, since Prussia ruled the area until 1848.
With increasing power and prestige, Neuchâtel was raised to the level of a principality at the beginning of the seventeenth century. On the death in 1707 of Mary of Orléans, Duchess of Nemours and Princess of Neuchâtel, the people had to choose her successor from among fifteen claimants. They wanted their new prince first and foremost to be a Protestant, and also to be strong enough to protect their territory but based far enough away to leave them to their own devices. Louis XIV actively promoted the many French pretenders to the title, but the Neuchâtelois people passed them over in favour of King Frederick I of Prussia, who claimed his entitlement in a rather complicated fashion through the Houses of Orange and Nassau. With the requisite stability assured, Neuchâtel entered its golden age, with commerce and industry (including watchmaking and lace) and banking undergoing steady expansion.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the King of Prussia was defeated by Napoleon I and was forced to give up Neuchâtel in order to keep Hanover. Napoleon’s marshal, Berthier, became Prince of Neuchâtel, building roads and restoring infrastructure, but never actually setting foot in his domain. After the fall of Napoleon, Frederick III of Prussia reasserted his rights by proposing that Neuchâtel be linked with the other Swiss cantons (the better to exert influence over the lot of them). On September 12, 1814, Neuchâtel became the 21st canton, but also remained a Prussian principality. It took a bloodless revolution in the decades following for Neuchâtel to shake off its princely past and declare itself, in 1848, a republic within the Swiss Confederation. To this day, the Republic and Canton of Neuchâtel is the only one of the 26 to proudly fly a tricolour – green, white and red, with a minute Swiss cross hanging in the top corner .
A local well-educated work force, linguistically gifted as well as competitive conditions contributed to position the region as a leader in high-technology industries. Supported by leading-edge research centres and well-known organizations such Swiss Centre of electronics and micro techniques (CSEM) http://www.csem.ch/, Micro technology Institute of the University IMT http://www2.unine.ch/imt, Engineer’s School of Arc Jurassien EIAJ http://www.he-arc.ch/hearc/fr/ingenierie/index_new.html, Neode (scientific and technological park)http://www.neode.ch/, Neuchâtel has been continuously improving its competitive position in the development of an innovative region. This trend will be pursued and reinforced with particular focus and support for local start-up companies and attractive conditions exogenous companies.
Neuchâtel’s atmospheric Old Town is extremely attractive, and random wanderings through its steep alleys are as good a way as any to appreciate the golden beauty of the architecture, as well as the 140-odd street fountains, a handful of which date from the sixteenth century. From the rather anonymous Place Pury – hub of buses and shoppers alike – with the main artery of Rue du Seyon leading northwards, alleys to the west bring you to Place des Halles, perpetually filled with talkers and drinkers spilling out of a handful of cafés. The square itself is overlooked by fine Louis XIV architecture – shuttered facades and the turreted orioles of the sixteenth-century Maison des Halles. You’ll find informal lunchtime boules sessions on the nearby Rue du Coq d’Inde, a broad, tranquil courtyard away from the bustle. A two-minute walk east, on Rue de l’Hôpital, is the grand 1790 Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), designed by Louis XVI’s chief architect Pierre-Adrien Paris.
The highlights of the Old Town are poised on the very top of the hill, accessed by the steeply winding Rue du Château. The Collégiale church, begun in 1185 and consecrated in 1276, is a graceful example of early Gothic. Stairs from Rue du Château bring you up to the east end of the church, with its three Norman apses. The main entrance (daily 8am–6pm), to the west, is crowned by a giant rose window of stained glass. Within the vaulted interior, the nave draws you along to the glowing transept, lit by a lantern tower, and the unique Cenotaph of the Counts of Neuchâtel on the north wall of the choir (shielded for renovations since 1997, and due for re-display in 2000). Begun in 1372, and the only artwork of its kind to survive north of the Alps, the monument comprises fifteen near-life-size painted statues of various knights and ladies from Neuchâtel’s past, framed by fifteenth-century arches and gables. Beside the church is the imposing Château, begun in the twelfth century and still in use as the offices of the cantonal government: entry is only on guided tours, which start from the signposted Door no. 1 (on the hour: April–Sept Mon–Fri 10am–noon & 2–4pm, Sat 10am, 11am & 2–4pm, Sun 2–4pm; free). The nearby turreted Tour des Prisons (daily 8am–6pm; 50c), remains of a medieval bastion, has panoramic views over the town, along with interesting models of Neuchâtel in different eras.
The ground floor is devoted to the historical collections, with absorbing rooms on the history of Neuchâtel aided by an excellent self-start slide show (in English). Upstairs are the rooms devoted to fine art, which have been organized radically differently from most other museums. Instead of displaying works by period, or artist, or genre, the collection is grouped by theme, with the various rooms labelled Nature, Civilization, The Sacred, and so on. In an inspired piece of creative design harking back to earlier centuries, the curators have crammed each room with art from floor to ceiling, with medieval still lifes, contemporary abstractions, Impressionistic indulgences and more all mounted higgledy-piggledy, thereby inducing you to make dynamic connections between utterly distinct works. In each room you can climb podia – each one hung all round with paintings – in order to get a better view of the works hung high on the four walls.
But the most extraordinary exhibits are kept in a room at the rear of the ground floor: the Automates Jaquet-Droz, three mechanical figurines built to the most exacting technical standards by a Neuchâtelois watchmaker in the 1770s and still in perfect working order today. The three – the Draughtsman, the Writer and the Musician – are displayed static behind glass, with a fascinating accompanying slide-show in English by way of explanation, but if you can you should really time your visit for the first Sunday of the month, when they are brought to life for a demonstration (2pm, 3pm & 4pm only). The Draughtsman is a child sitting at a mahogany desk and holding a piece of paper with his left hand; his right hand, holding a pencil, performs extraordinarily complex motions to produce intricate little pictures of a dog, the god Eros in a chariot pulled by a butterfly, or a noble profile of Louis XV. The Writer, a chubby-cheeked little boy, also sits at a mahogany desk, with a goose quill in his right hand and a tiny pot of ink nearby for dipping. He writes in a florid and chunky style, and staggeringly enough, can even be programmed to produce any text of up to forty characters. While he writes, his eyes follow the words across the page. But perhaps the most charming of the three is the Musician, a gracious young girl with slender and dextrous fingers who plays a small organ – a real instrument, not a disguised musical-box. As her fingers strike the keys to produce the notes and her eyes, head and body move subtly from side to side in time, her chest rises and falls delicately in an imitation of rhythmic breathing. Her melodies were composed in the early 1770s by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, a fleeting and unique auditory time capsule from pre-Revolutionary Europe.
Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–90) was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds into a venerable and wealthy local family. After studying theology at university, he returned to Neuchâtel – by then already a centre for clock and watchmaking – and worked to combine his interest in mathematics with the skills of applied mechanics used by the artisans of the watch industry. By the age of 26, Jaquet-Droz had gained a reputation for technical brilliance, and in 1758 he and his father-in-law, a craftsman named Abram Sandoz, travelled to Madrid to show off the skill of Neuchâtelois clockmakers at the Spanish court (Jaquet-Droz’s so-called “Shepherd’s Clock” is still on display in one of the King of Spain’s palace museums).
Jaquet-Droz was by now wealthy enough to retreat from business life and concentrate on problems of applied mathematics, exemplified in his construction of incredibly complex mechanical figurines – the earliest of computers – designed to do particular tasks. He trained his son, Henri-Louis, and a colleague, Jean-Frédéric Leschot, to work with him; together, they produced the Writer, the Draughtsman and the Musician, and presented all three for the first time to the public in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1774. Writers of the day reported that people flocked from all over the country to see such extraordinary works of whimsy and technical skill. The same year, the three craftsmen showed their figurines in drawing rooms and royal palaces all across Europe, from London to Russia and Paris to Madrid, receiving high acclaim wherever they went. Perhaps aware of impending revolutionary violence in France and Switzerland, Jaquet-Droz sold the figurines to a collector in Spain in 1778. After the conflicts, in 1812, they reappeared in Paris and began touring again. Some twenty years later, they became the centrepiece of Martin and Bourquin’s “Museum of Illusions”, which toured Central Europe until the turn of the century. In 1906, helped by a grant from the Swiss federal government, Neuchâtel bought the figurines back, and they have been on display in the town’s museum ever since, in virtually the same condition as when they were first made, almost 230 years ago.