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The Iron City of Switzerland

We decided to take the morning off from biking to visit the Grandes Forges de Vallorbe, which is now a museum on Vallorbe's iron making and railway history.

Our guide was Jean-Phillipe Dépraz, president of the historical foundation dedicated to this amazing museum. I was nearly as impressed with the quality of the presentations--very hands-on, with plenty of films and live demonstrations--as I was with the importance of Vallorbe to the region.

They began iron working here in the late 1200s, and thanks to the great forests (from which to make charcoal), water, and a local source of iron ore, this became one of the great iron-working centers of Switzerland. Early knife, nail, and chain production eventually led to making tools so precise they're essential to watchmaking, especially tiny files.

In the Jura region, and also here in canton Vaud, watchmaking became so important in part because the farming was poor and the winters long, so people started working for side income on watches (usually making specific fine components, not putting together the entire watch), which they could do in their kitchens or special rooms. Tiny files were among the necessary tools.

By the late 1600s the region was running out of forest to burn and iron to mine, so they began to import the raw materials to continue their work. Once the railroads started connecting all parts of Switzerland and Europe, Vallorbe feared losing its livelihood if the railway didn't arrive quickly.
But it took large scale tunnel- and bridge-building to eventually bring the railway here and put it at the crossroads to various destinations, including the critical line connecting Lausanne and Paris.

Well, that's a taste of what I learned this morning, thanks to the irrepressible Monsieur Dépraz, who clearly had a passion for the region.

And now we've had a great lunch with the Laffely family, two of whom will join us to bike back up into the Jura Mountains on our way past Lac de Joux.


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