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.



Heartbreaking timepieces

We are surrounded by watches, this being Switzerland, and this being the Canton of Bern, it is also the home of many recognizable Swiss watch brands, including Swatch, Rolex, Longines and so forth.

Not much of this means anything to me. I have a utilitarian attitude toward watches. They need to be on time, they need to be waterproof and they need to be cheap enough that when I lose or break one, it will not rend my soul into pieces.

Watches watches everywhere and not a digital face to buy.


I used to have an expensive Seiko watch, a brand that in Switzerland is despised as a basement-bargain inferior product. I lost that watch back in the 1980s and I look for it still. It was perfect in design and went with any outfit. When I realized it had gone AWOL, I searched every pocket, every closet, every drawer, every nook, every proverbial cranny and it all came to nothing. Even years later, every time we moved, I kept an eye open for that watch to float to the top of the boxes, but no. Nothing.

The habit birthed out of this was to only buy watches that I would not miss, and that watch brand happens to be Timex. If Seiko is despised in Switzerland, Timex is non-existent.

I know this, because my trusty waterproof, $45 Timex sports watch has lost a piece of its strap. There are no replacement straps to be found here in the heart-and-soul of watch-land. There are no Timex watches or even anything that looks like them. More than that, there does not appear to be any digital watches and worse even, every watch I have eyed comes with a heart-stopping price tag. That is to say, heart-stopping for me. I am incredibly cheap.

I have searched our downtown core and have come upon banks and banks of old-fashioned hour, minute and second-handed watches. It is as though 1970 did not exist (the year when Wikipedia says the first digital watches came into being, although I doubt Wikipedia. Nevertheless, I am too lazy to look further than that, so please do not quote me as a reliable source on this point).

And so I walk around with my not-so-secure strap, fearful of losing of my lovely Timex watch that has been with me through so many wonderful lake swims, so many jogs and walks, a stain-proof, reliable device that has a timer, stopwatch, alarm, pulse-taker, a watch I bought only because I knew it would mean nothing to me if I lost it.

It turns out I was wrong about that.

Of course, I bought it before I moved here where it is the rarest of timepieces. If it drops off my wrist, I am going to be looking for it everywhere, just like that blasted Seiko.