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Footloose in Neuchatel

A Perfect Swiss Town

May 25, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

NEUCHATEL, Switzerland — If some of the finer things in life appeal to you--Suchard chocolates, Girard-Perregaux, Piaget and Rolex watches--you're sure to lose your heart and perhaps a bundle of traveler's checks in this marvel of a medieval town on the lake that bears its name.

Far from being an industrial city, as factories for the above trifles may suggest, the neoclassic architecture of its ocher-stone buildings moved Alexander Dumas to describe it as "a child's toy carved in yellow butter."

Not only is the town a thing of beauty but its setting between lake shore and the green and gentle Jura mountains is well nigh perfect. Wine is another one of life's finer things that is historic to the region, making it one of Switzerland's most important centers for the grape.

As for watches, the Jura's harsh winters caused snowbound farmers to make individual parts for later assembly, establishing Neuchatel as the center of a Swiss cottage industry.

Here to there: Pan Am, Air Canada and TWA will get you to Geneva with stops, the first two also to Zurich, TWA with changes. Use a Swiss Holiday Card from either city for the train ride on to Neuchatel, 1 1/2 hours from Geneva, less than two from Zurich, trains every hour.

Getting around town: No problem with walking. Steamers ply Lake Neuchatel and through canals into nearby Moral and Bienne lakes. But a rental car is nice for visiting the wine, cheese and watch-making villages of the region.

How long/how much? Two days should do it, another if you really want to scout and enjoy the area. Prices are more than reasonable for food and lodging.

A few fast facts: The Swiss franc was recently valued at about 1.8 to the dollar. Visit any time between spring and late fall, summers never two hot or crowded, winters frigid but some of best cross-country skiing in Switzerland.

Moderate-cost hotels: Hotel du Chasseur (Enges; $35-$39 double B&B, $29 sharing a bath) is certainly worth the short ride into the Jura village of Enges, with marvelous views of the lake and mountains. Small but attractive rooms in Swiss-rustic style, a dining room with seasonal menus, about which more later.

City Hotel (Place Piaget; $50-$62) is at mid-town less than a block from lake. Cheerful rooms with contemporary furnishings, small lobby and bar, restaurant, probably the town's best value.

Another one just outside town is the annex La Ferme of Hotel du Verger (Thielle; $45-$49). New and just opened, it won't overwhelm you with atmosphere, but rooms No. 24 and 25 have attractive views and it's an excellent stop for anyone driving.

Regional food and drink: Numerous claims abound about just which Swiss town or village invented fondue, but after hearing the local argument and tasting the local version, we're ready to say that fondue neuchateloise has our backing as the winner, whether it was genealogically first or not. A heavenly blend of Jura, Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses simmered in Neuchatel white wine with a hint of garlic, nutmeg and splash of kirsch.

Gateau au beurre is another local specialty, nibbled with white wine or tea. Buy a few for your hotel room at Knecht's right on market square. Try Neuchatel sausage, the delicate fera lake fish or the fattest trout we've ever seen, best while still sizzling. Jura, a Gruyere-like hard cheese, and tomme , a semi-soft dessert cheese, are both delectable.

Moderate-cost dining: In the center of Old Town you'll find the simple but inviting La Grillade serving steak, vegetable and potatoes for $4. Next door is Les Halles, on ground floor with a menu running from perch to fillet to pizza at reasonable prices, upper floor nouvelle cuisine considerably elevated in cost.

If you've ever wondered where Swiss truck drivers eat, end your search at the sign Halte Routiers Suisse, an outdoor garden restaurant next door to Hotel du Verger in Thielle. Pretty and rustic place, the daily special on our visit jambon Neuchatel with rosti and a fresh-greens salad for $7.25, everyone delighted with the food.

Le Croguignolet at Port d'Auvenier is the stop for fondue, and forget the rule about it being only a wintertime dish. If so, somebody forgot to tell the locals, who were dipping and spearing with gusto.

Going first-class: Hotel du Chasseur has a formidable La Chasse menu, with such hunter's delights as cailles au nid a la vigneronne , quail stuffed with goose liver and truffles garnished with white grapes; civet de chevreuil , a roebuck stew; rable de lievre St. Hubert , saddle of wild hare prepared to honor the hunter's patron saint, and pheasant l'alsacienne , the last two serving two for $21 and $26. Set menus here $15 and $23, both leaning heavily on field and stream.

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