'Neuchâtel French was once considered perfect French," a Swiss hotel manager told me over dinner at his inn in Lausanne. "But not any more – not quite. Nowhere has perfect French, I don't think." He then raised a glass of Swiss pinot noir, grown in the vineyards that surround Neuchâtel, a lakeside town a half-hour north of Lausanne and 20 minutes east of the French border. "Oh well," he continued, shrugging his shoulders. "Ça ne fait rien."
Close to perfect has to be close enough, then, for the hundred or so Canadian students who each year earn their Grade 12 credits at private Neuchâtel Junior College. Since 1956 the school has occupied a campus halfway up the mountain on which is perched tiny, sort-of-perfect, Neuchâtel. On that same mountain, in a part of the world known for helping the rest of us track time down to the current millisecond, also sits a 12th-century castle and a millennium-old prison tower, both of which afford panoramic views all the way down to the shores of Lake Neuchâtel.
But visitors dropping off their teenagers – or, maybe, dropping in for the fall-harvest Fête des Vendanges, Switzerland's largest annual wine festival – might want to skip the tourist-thronged mainstays on the mountain: Just as rewarding is a day's worth of wandering the streets that border Neuchâtel's picturesque harbour.
A great way to start your day is with breakfast on the deck of the futuristic Hôtel Palafitte just east of downtown. Built for Expo 2002, its guest rooms are glowing cabins that hover over Lake Neuchâtel like shipping containers reimagined by a Buddhist cubist. Although mandated for demolition after Expo, the Palafitte's status as an instant icon of European modernism saved its wood-wrapped skin.
Once suitably wowed, head to the central marina. There, on Esplanade Léopold-Robert, you'll find the art-nouveau Museum of Art and History, whose sleek glass doors are flanked with portraits of 12 women's faces that represent important moments of art history. Among the museum's permanent exhibits is a collection of intricate time pieces, and a 16th-century trio of dwarf-sized figurines (Les Automates) that can draw pictures and write, and are considered precursors to the modern computer.
Leaving the museum, turn left, or north, up Rue J.-J.-Lallemand. Within a couple of blocks, you'll come to the Jardin Anglais with its sheltering linden trees, gardens planted three times a year, nannies pushing strollers, and old men lounging in the shade. It's a great place to spend a half hour watching Neuchâtel saunter by or to check out the artists who often hawk their wares on the sidewalks.
Just past the park, on the right, is La Taverne Neuchâteloise. Once the home of an 18th-century merchant and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau – a library inside houses original manuscripts – it's now a popular, cheese-happy restaurant. Enter the handsome front doors under a tangle of vines and sit down to a bubbling lunch of raclette ( starting at $6 or 5 Swiss Francs) or its signature Fondue la Britchonne: crusty bread served up with cheese matured in rosé of pinot noir ($23).
If all that fromage isn't your thing, continue up what now turns into Rue d l'Orangerie until an elegant château stops you in your tracks at the intersection of Faubourg de l'Hôpital. Fronted by a formal French garden, this is the Hôtel de Peyrou, its restaurant is best known for its superb fish, including a wild-salmon dish at $39. Climbing up the hill behind are towering cedars planted on the orders of Napoleon, or so the locals claim, to provide shade for his troops.
From the Peyrou, head west, moving along Rue de L'Hôpital, past three or four blocks that house university buildings carved from pale ochre rock mined in the 1700s in nearby Hauterive and dotted with fragments of shells and fossils. So ubiquitous is this golden stone throughout the town centre that Alexandre Dumas once described Neuchâtel as "a city with the appearance of an immense toy dressed in butter."
At the corner of Rue de Terreaux is the sweet Boulangerie Tea Room des Arcades, where it's the croissants that are dressed in butter, the coffee is strong, and the locals lineup for baguettes to go. Continuing along Hôpital, you'll soon reach the pedestrian-only town centre. Past shops that ply everything from bargain teenage clothes to groceries, knicknacks and crêpes to go, you come to Rue de Seyon, on whose corner is an exquisite chocolate shop, Pendule. Among its wares: roughly cut slabs of chocolate flavoured with pepper, lemon or cinnamon; and delicate chocolate pilotis, shaped like the Neolithic house piles discovered in the Neuchâtel harbour in 1999.
If you prefer to sit with your sweets, a few steps left on Seyon is the Chocolatia Wodey-Suchard, whose sunny café also serves as a thruway to the Rue de Trésor, itself a gateway to Neuchâtel's medieval core. Here, you'll find fleet-footed locals running errands, as well as delis, jewellers, green grocers and mom-and-pop takeout-food joints. At the Sterchi cheese shop, where the walls are rough-hewn piles of immense stones, a dashing cheesemonger talked me into an insanely stinky slab of Chaux-d'Abel, made right outside town, and a vacuum-packed bag of grated fondue mix (just add wine and kirsch, and a crusty baguette).
Trésor soon opens into Place des Halles, whose cafés outfit this public square with endless tables shaded by Louis XIV buildings that in turn boast shuttered balconies, mullioned windows and audacious chimneys. The town's market convenes here Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. If coffee (or steak frites and a glass of red) is your thing, settle in here while taking in the open-air bustle. If danker and darker is better, turn around and head back along Trésor where, at the first left, and with more or less its own dedicated alleyway, hides Café du Cerf. Popular with the university crowd, it offers a mirrored bar, tin ceilings and two daily happy half-hours (at 6:30 and 10 p.m.).
After Cerf, keep backtracking along Trésor until it turns into Rue des Moulins, where the narrowing street shades everything. Merchants' shingles advertise all sorts of shops, including Margot, an excellent butcher, I'm advised by one local, though the carved horse head may dissuade you of that. At No. 21 you'll see a plaque that reads "J. Ph Bauermeister Vins Fins." Inside, follow along a hallway under vaulted ceilings to a musty cave, where you'll find the portly, grizzled Jean-Philippe himself. Ask gently, and this composer turned wine merchant ("Composing doesn't pay for the ink I need to write the notes," he tells me in French) will bang out a tune on his grand piano as you peruse his thousands of wines.
You can finish off your tour of Neuchâtel by ambling your way east, back along Hôpital, to Rue du Concert, home to a pair of cocktail venues to cap your day. Under a glass-ceilinged patio at the Bistro du Concert, locals seem to speak pretty serviceable French as they nurse after-work drinks and share plates from a tapas menu that includes pork dumplings and sautéed eggplant. Across the street, and now back within view of Lake Neuchâtel, microbrewery Les Brasseurs hosts a more hipster crowd who tuck into local beers and Swiss mainstay flammekueche flambé: thin-crust pizza with creme fraîche, sliced onions and smoked bacon.
As night falls, and you find yourself tuckered out and maybe a bit tipsy, consider grabbing some shuteye at the Hotel Beau-Lac, located right at the main harbour, or the space-age pods of the Palafitte. At either, you can fall asleep dreaming of what perfect French might be – and reflecting on a close-to-flawless day in a country known for keeping time and, in this corner of Switzerland, happily losing track of it.
For more information, visit neuchateltourisme.ch/en. This year's Fete des Vendanges, which includes a parade, fireworks, and copious wine and cheese tastings, runs from Sept. 27 to 29.
The writer was a guest of Hôtel Palafitte.