We’re gradually broadening our geographical horizons here in Biel, starting this weekend with a walk to Nidau, which could be either an entire other town that happens to have grown into Biel’s border, or a suburb of Biel. Owing to our language limitations, this will remain another one of the universe’s unsolved mysteries.
What is stunning about Europe in general is how much it looks like North America, and that is true for Switzerland as well. True, there are unique areas, but as an example, we find much of the south-central part of France looks a lot like Western Saskatchewan, which coincidentally looks like East North Dakota. But you won’t see many photos of that on travel sites because only the quaint photos get posted. Mea culpa – I, too, tend to post photos of Europe as tourists see it, because who wants to see more of Saskatchewan or North Dakota?
But to get back to Switzerland, as we strolled out of Biel, a very blah yellow-brick apartment building of nondescript character flanked our left. I thought about photographing it, just to demonstrate how every country has its ugliness, but I could not muster the strength to unstrap my camera, so overwhelmed with boredom was I as I gazed on this structure, looking so much as it did like the 1950s and 60s-era apartment salt-boxes on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg. That era’s architects have much to answer for, what with destroying the landscape the way they did back then.
But enough grousing. On to Nidau, where we followed a charming gravel path alongside a canal choked with boats parallel-docked along the shore, until it met the River Aar, a main waterway here notable for the fact that it is the country’s longest river that happens to both originate and end inside Swiss borders. It’s a tributary of the Rhine, and one that changes colour from a dusky green to teal to a sparkling emerald, depending on where you find it.
Nidau has a fairly brief entry in Wikipedia (which reveals that it is a municipality of Biel), and that is because it lacks the turnstile tourist attractions that bring people to
Switzerland, such as a genuine cobblestone-avenue’d Alstadt, that is 16th-century-or-earlier old town, mountain ranges or entrancing town squares, but what it does have is some fairly expensive real estate, including riverfront homes that go for one million francs and upwards.
The houses ranged in size from about 2,500 to 6,000 square feet, bringing to mind the many Swiss I’ve met who take pains to assure me they live in spacious homes with large yards, a puzzling self-revelation as I can’t remember any Canadian or American making a similar introductory statement. The Swiss are not ostentatious by any means, but maybe they feel that Canadians look upon all European domiciles as closet-like flats, and they’re eager to correct such misapprehensions.
Nidau’s retail centre is lined with shutter-bedecked old buildings and charming shops, including one displaying hand painted birdhouses where the shopkeeper assured me the neighbourhood was very safe for walking. I ask this because some of my solo meanderings in the earlier spring attracted unwanted attention in the form of swarthy-looking unkempt gap-toothed men speaking to me in strange languages.
A shopkeeper is not necessarily the best source of information on a street’s crime rates – retailers are loath to frighten away customers, but the streets did feel safe, although somewhat under-populated for a Saturday afternoon.
Unlike Biel’s town centre that is jammed with franchises both local and foreign (a Starbucks just opened a block from our hotel), Nidau’s retail centre was full of Mom & Pop shops, giving it a somewhat unique air, suggesting a Switzerland before American and British franchises descended upon it.
It’s unlikely Nidau will ever become a tourist mecca, but it’s a pleasant place for a bike ride, jog or walk. Unlike more tourist-centric areas, it lacked public washroom facilities, and we didn’t spy a single coffee shop along the river walk, something of an oddity that suggested that we really had stumbled upon an ordinary suburb, albeit a rather wealthy one.