Biel/Bienne and around
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The double-barrelled town 32km northeast of Murten, and almost exactly halfway between Geneva and Zürich, can get a little confusing. German-speakers call it BIEL, French speakers know it as BIENNE, but it’s Switzerland’s only officially bilingual town and so all road signs, documents and public information must be in both languages. Train timetables, maps and books always call the place Biel/Bienne, and the locals cheerfully straddle the Röstigraben without a second thought – perhaps chatting with a friend in German whilst ordering lunch in French. In addition, some forty percent of the town’s inhabitants originate from outside Switzerland, with particularly high populations of Italian and Spanish residents as well as Turks, people from the former Yugoslavia, Arabs and more. Eavesdropping can be an entertaining pastime, but it takes a certain shift in attitude in order to find your way around smoothly. Unless you’re a linguist yourself, there’s no reason why you should know that the street called Seevorstadt, for instance, is one and the same as Faubourg du Lac, or even that the body of water stretching southwest from the town is either the Bielersee or the Lac de Bienne depending on who you’re talking to.

Aside from the town’s continuous shifting between German- and French-speaking control, Biel/Bienne’s history isn’t particularly distinguished, and it was only when the railway arrived in the latter half of the nineteenth century that it began to expand beyond its old walls. Watchmaking had been a mainstay of the regional economy for a century or more, but had been suffering from the inefficiency of tiny cottage industries – there were some 350 enterprises throughout the Jura at one point, each employing a few artisans working by hand. Mechanization meant that production could be expanded and made more competitive, and Biel/Bienne took on the role of factory centre, initially for watchmaking and subsequently for precision machinery and other industries. To this day, such huge names as Omega, Rolex and Swatch maintain factories and headquarters here.

Biel/Bienne is a lively, modern town, utterly different in both style and mood from its near-neighbours Neuchâtel and Bern. The main attractions are strolling in the Old Town, dropping in on a couple of small museums and taking a boat ride on the lake or the river, but it’s also a remarkable place to spend a day acclimatizing yourself to the language and culture prevailing on the other side of the Röstigraben.

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