Reconstruction of Stone Age stilt house

In the year 3810 B.C. the first piling was sunk into the earth to begin the oldest known village in the French part of Switzerland. Many more pilings shortly followed and between these verticals, horizontal poles fastened. Walls and roofs followed. Soon seven suspended rectangular wooden houses made up this village above the shores of the lake. The inhabitants surrounded their little village by palisades, and built fifteen shelters or ring fences.

More information on the 'pre-history of the Neuchâtel region

Much later the Romans lived in and around what was to be known as Neuchâtel. No building still exists from Roman times, but the foundation stones from one of Neuchâtel's still existing defense towers were borrowed, many centuries ago, from some Roman structure.

Roman era stones, base of defense tower

Foot bridge across castle moat

In time a "new castle," which is what 'Neuchâtel' means, was built on top of a steep hill. The castle served to keep an eye on traffic at the foot of the Jura mountains, and the comings and goings on and around the lake. Within a few steps of the castle the foundation stones of the present cathedral were laid around 1000 A.D. By the middle of the 1200s the town had expanded down the slopes and across the River Seyon.

The first mention of the lords of Neuchâtel is from the middle of the 12th century. These lords were succeeded, around the end of the 1300s, by the Fribourg-en-Brisgau and the Baden-Hochberg families. In 1504 the Orléans-Longuevilles were the ruling princes. The town continued to prosper and expanded by the end of the 1600s to the mouth of the River Seyon where the river emptied into Lake Neuchâtel. The reign of the kings of Prussia began in 1707.

Sculptures from middle ages

Fountain sculpture and Restaurant Banneret

In 1714 a fire destroyed the oldest section of the town and rebuilding began immediately - this time of stone and not wood. These buildings make up one of the most picturesque parts of Neuchâtel, and you can have have lunch or dinner in one of these buildings, the Restaurant Banneret.

The River Seyon once flowed through the middle of town. Ancient buildings lined the river, bridges linked one side of Neuchâtel to the other. The river flooded on occasion though, and there was some loss of life. In 1843 a tunnel was bored through a rock hill, and the river Seyon was diverted through the tunnel. The river now cascades over a waterfall into the lake about four or five city blocks up the lake shore. You can see where the river exits the tunnel. Walk down to the pedestrian promenade on the lake shore and take a right heading west. Continue along the promenade walking pass the one story tram depot, and the lakeside playground on the point. In a few minutes you will come to a small footbridge. Standing in the middle of the footbridge you will see and hear the waters of the River Seyon as they descend to Lake Neuchâtel.

Rue du Seyon, the converted river

Covering the Channel for the Festival

The bridges over the River Seyon were torn down, and the former river bed filled in with rubble and dirt to make a wide street today know as the Rue de Seyon. Whatever ancient buildings that still lined the Seyon before 1843 have since been torn down and replaced with more modern buildings, some of questionable aesthetic value. City buses and pedestrians now make their way down Seyon where water once flowed. Nineteenth century pragmatism had destroyed a beautiful feature of the town. One wonders if something else could have been done to save the Neuchâtel section of the River Seyon.

The river is lost but not forgotten. In memory of the river a small channel of water about 18 inches across and nine inches deep runs the length of the Rue de Seyon today. The channel is covered over with wood planks during the Harvest Festival to keep visitors and tipsy party-ers from stepping into the channel and breaking their legs and other parts of their anatomy.

Diverting of the River Seyon was not the only change to nature by man that affected Neuchâtel. In 1870 Swiss officials drained millions of cubic feet from Lake Neuchâtel, the largest lake within Switzerland, lowering the lake level by 10 feet. This created thousands of additional acres for farmers, but no doubt destroyed an invaluable bird and fish habitat as well. Not much thought was given to that sort of thing in those days. But the lowering of the lake had a few more effects. For one, buildings, stone bulwarks and piers, which had been directly on the shores of the lake, were now many yards from it.

Sculptures from middle ages

High and Dry Bulwark at Colombier Chateau

Owners of lakeside chateaus who had built bulwarks protecting their shoreline and mansions from the storm-tossed waves of the lake now found their expensive cut stone bulwarks high and dry. Look at the photograph on this page. My son with fishing pole over his right shoulder is walking where the waves of Lake Neuchâtel used to crash against the rocks to the left. The rocks protected the property of the chateau in the previous photo. The waves have not hit these hand hewn rocks in over a hundred years.

Neuchâtel townspeople would saunter on a walkway called Promenade Noire which skirted the lake. With the lowering of the lake Promenade Noire was roughly a block away from the water. Eventually rubble was piled on top of the newly exposed land, and in the 1800's new four story residences and a new roadway built along the new lakeshore. The residents in the buildings along Promenade Noire must have been really ticked off. They once had a lovely view of the lake and the whole range of the Alps beyond. Now they only had the view of apartments across the street.

Promenade Noire, built 1600s

Promenade Noire, built 1800s

Granted, the new buildings were attractive, and made of the same lovely sandstone of which the rest of Neuchâtel was made. But still, there is no comparison between a lake and alp view, and a row of apartment buildings no matter how lovely.

You can still walk down Promenade Noire, but there is no lake view. And, as you walk down the street you will easily notice that the buildings on each side are of quite different eras. The buildings on one side date to the 1600s. Their beige stone facades once reflected off the the surface of Lake Neuchâtel. The buildings bordering the lake on the other side of the street date to the 1800s and now have the lake view.

Promenade Noire

Buildings Replaced Many Vineyards

In the 19th and 20th centuries Neuchâtel continued to expand along the shores of the lake, and up the hills replacing terraced vineyards. If you walk or drive into the residential areas up the slopes of Neuchâtel you can still see the stone retaining walls that once supported vineyards, but which now support the foundations of homes and apartments.

Neuchâtel is still a wine growing region, but now the vineyards are much further from the ancient town center.

Check out a timeline of events in Swiss history.