40: Saint-Ursanne in Pictures + Cafes

Swiss shutters are always picturesque.

Saint-Ursanne is a lovely place to visit if no reason other than that they are kind enough to print their tourism brochures in English, as well as the usual German, French and Italian. It is refreshing to look on an historical monument and not have to make up stories about it from our rough interpretations of non-anglicized leaflets.

One of Saint-Ursanne’s town gates.

Saint-Ursanne has preserved its medievalness by holding on to a non-franchise business model – this means, there is not a McDonalds in sight. The downside of a no-franchise model is that it immediately ups the cost of visiting here. Lunch for $40 a person, anyone? The upside is that the town retains its lovely charm. The lack of neon billboards is very likely the reason the place has such a serene ambiance.

There is, however, one food-related franchise allowed in – a Swiss franchise grocery store called Coop (pronounced koh-op), that sells lovely sandwiches for under seven francs, although it is closed on Sunday. A little convenience store opens on ‘Spanish business hours’ (closes for a two-hour lunch break), where tourists can bump up their blood sugar levels with chocolate and ice cream bars. For the more cultured, a wine and cheese shop is also open on Sunday.

Best to pack a lunch.  We long ago tired of funneling endless dollars into the Swiss restaurant industry, delightful as the restaurants are here, but still enjoy Swiss dining ambiance by whiling away some time over coffee and ice cream at street cafes. This town has a particularly charming outdoor cafe with the restaurant on one side of the street and the tables on the other, shaded by a large white awning tethered to twin rows of trees. The service was good, although the servers refuse to speak any English, and prattled on at us in French and German. We didn’t mind. When it comes to ordering coffee and ice cream, we are fluent in many languages.

A lovely shaded street-side cafe by the rue de quartier sits at the far end of this church grove. It is one of the best shaded eating spots in town.

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93: Biel’s Alstadt – Worth Another Look

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Biel/Bienne, our small town in the heart of Switzerland’s watchmaking district, home to Rolex, Swatch, Swiss Timing and a bunch of other timepieces I can’t afford, has a lovely old-town, unique in Europe for this one fact: It has not succumbed to franchise retailers.

The street-level storefronts in many European medieval districts are jammed with H & M clothing, Bata shoes and Ochsner sporting  shops. It makes for a lively people-packed tourist quarter, but it does take something away. Biel has tiny little shops with not a single franchise name in sight, which I find more charming than I would have expected, being a such a devotee of the expected and ordinary as that I am.

The downside is that this part of town is really most vibrant on Saturdays when a huge farmers market takes up the main courtyard and the little chocolatiers, butchers and flea-market stores are open. The upside is it feels more real than the brand-name endowed and much-populated avenues of Lucerne and Zürich – although both those cities are amazing and must-see stops here. I’m not trying to deride any urban council’s attempts at revitalization, just making an observation.

Take a look in the slideshow above. See if you can find a McDonalds.

 

 

95: More on Mulhouse

Hundreds of diners in Mulhouse's street cafes and not a single laptop in sight.

We had to leave Switzerland to get to Mulhouse, France, but this was not always a necessity. From 1515 to 1648, Mulhouse, then a free republic, was “an associate” of Switzerland, and did not formally join France until it went through some alterations by over-riding treaties with pretty names (Westphalia) and in 1798 voted itself into France during the early stages of the French Revolution. Basically, the residents said if there’s going to be guillotining, we want to be sure to be on the right side of the blade.

This kind of history always fascinates me, because it is a reminder that Europe is as tribal as Afghanistan, Africa and the scarier parts of Asia, not to mention the American aboriginal population. Yet somehow, France, Germany, Switzerland and the rest all managed to cobble themselves into nations and organize themselves to a degree where they were able to overwhelm other ‘nations’ that had less control over their tribalistic qualities.

We thought the Swiss and the Germans were serious about chocolate, but Mulhouse's chocolatiers take it to a new level. Do not miss the opportunity to try the local creme-filled chocolates. Ooo la la!

But back to Mulhouse: Is it worth the visit? Yes, it is, especially if you love museums, most of which I avoided due to my aforementioned intense allergy to boredom. This is the fault of my early education which was packed with field trips to museums where we mostly stood around in large packs waiting for a guide to finish explaining to us the importance of weaving in ancient populations. It was fine for a person so inclined toward textile history, but that is not for everyone, especially not for a bunch of eight-year-olds.

And while you are there be sure to taste the goodies from its numerous chocolate and pastry shops. They might be more responsible for the existence of the French national character than any past armed conflicts. The ice cream is not as good as Italy’s, but it is still delicious and proof that if the French understand anything, it is how to treat cream, sugar and all the good that flows from these ingredients.

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