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Jonathan Fowler finds that Neuchatel is as eccentric as ever

Neuchatel's pedestrian area is often taken over by market stands and street performers. Neuchâtel Tourism

There's not much in the way of seaside in landlocked Switzerland. But if you're looking for a promenade by the water then the town of Neuchatel does a pretty good job. Heading there may also bring a few surprises.

This content was published on August 18, 2000 - 11:08

Neuchatel's quayside is dotted with cafés and restaurants, many of which have a genteel, 1920s, feel. It's an ideal spot to enjoy a cappuccino on a sunny terrace, to watch the boats head off around the lake, or for a meal of freshwater fish washed down with the best from the local vineyards.

The town's pedestrian area is also the best place to catch a concert or an impromptu performance by buskers, mimes, jugglers and artists who escape any definition.

It's this feature of Neuchatel that led local music promoter Georges Grillon to start an annual street music festival in 1990. Inspired by a similar event in Italy, Grillon decided his hometown would provide a perfect venue for a Swiss version.

Now in its eleventh incarnation, the Buskers Festival brings together about ten groups every year. Not all are buskers by profession or inclination: groups such as the Netherlands' De Amsterdam Klezmer Band or Poland's Dikanda normally play in concert venues back home.

But many of them started on the streets, and enjoy the opportunity to relive the feeling. Jasper de Beer, De Amsterdam's bass and banjo player, says that it's a good opportunity to play to a different public.

He's backed up by local musician "Jean20" Hueguenin, who says he treats busking as a way to test new songs on an audience who haven't paid for their tickets, and are at liberty to walk away when they want.

Georges Grillon manages to assemble a range of musicians from around the world for the annual festival.

I found myself absorbed in the Mongolian throat singing of the Egschiglen ensemble, comic songs from Italy courtesy of the Gruppo Emiliano, and the "extreme circus" of Australian duo, Miss Understood and Puke Boy.

This cosmopolitan touch was far from what I expected in a town that, at first sight, looks very provincial. Throughout its history however, the unexpected has been a Neuchatel forte.

It was a decision by the King of Prussia in 1815 that made the place one of Switzerland's best anomalies. Neuchatel was his personal property, but he decided to let it join the Swiss Confederation, hoping to gain a foothold in the rest of the country.

It was not until 1848 that the locals, fed up with the exactions of the Prussian viceroys, held a revolution and founded a proper republic; "République et Canton de Neuchâtel" remains the region's official name.

Revolution of a slightly greener hue is in the air today, thanks to the all-Neuchatel group Elandir, who include rebel songs in their repertoire of entirely Irish music. Uillean piper Jean-Daniel Rudi says he likes playing in his hometown, especially in the multitude of bars.

It's late evening. The buskers play their last chords and the streets become deserted. But in Neuchatel, unlike most other parts of Switzerland, the night has just begun.

The "restaurants de nuit", a unique feature of the city, are just opening their doors. These bars with a few dining tables remain open until six o'clock the next day. For many of the musicians, it's a sleepless week in Neuchatel.

by Jonathan Fowler

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