Biel or Bienne is a rather unusual place since its name is different depending on which side of Switzerland the people come from. Biel is the German name for this town, Bienne is for the French speaking residents. Being on a language boundary such as this means that there are several languages spoken in the area so most people can get by with a smattering of one or the other.
The city itself sits snugly at the base of the Jura Mountain range which is really the only safe route in this area of tall peaks and deep valleys. It also sits on the north eastern shore of Lake Biel (also known as Bielersee or Lac de Bienne). There is also another city sitting here, Nidau, with several other administrative centers about half an hour away by car or train.
This area has been inhabited for literally centuries with Neolithic settlements being discovered all the time. Some have been entered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are examples of Roman roads from four hundred years BC that pass right through Biel.
It was the French Revolution that had the most impact on Biel since the French landed literally on the doorstep in the late eighteenth century. The townsfolk were all for this invasion and cheered the incoming army. There was some disruption to the area right up until the early part of the twentieth century when the labor movement provoked strikes brought on by the lowering of wages and rampant inflation. Since then things have cooled down quite substantially making it a beautiful place, with bi-lingual road signs no less, for visitors to have a great holiday.
Best time to go
June to September see the warmest months for those who like the sun. However, since this is Switzerland, many people will come for the winter sports that are within easy reach of this center. December and January are the favored months for these pastimes and there is a good likelihood of snow at this time. Rain is much like all European countries so people generally take umbrellas and light coats for those unannounced summer showers.
Getting Around in Biel
Biel has a great train system that connects to Swiss cities further afield. There are also three good highways so getting round by car is not that difficult but tourists may want to hire a taxi instead; expensive but it does save the bother of finding car parking spaces.
All the public transport facilities are clean and efficient as one would expect from the Swiss. There are trams, buses, local trains and boats that take people to picturesque points along the lake and river. Tickets are bought from machines before traveling or they can be bought from one of the many kiosks dotted around.
Biel is a lovely place to explore by foot too since it is extremely safe and clean. It is not that big either and gives tourists a chance to interact with the locals. Of course, bicycles are also on hire just about everywhere.
Major Attractions and Sights
Biel has three lakes within easy reach – Lake Biel, Murten and Neuchâtel. It is obvious then that there are a lot of water based pursuits on offer. There are lots of vineyards to be spotted tumbling down the hillsides and tracts of land set aside for vegetable production. This means that the place is extremely green for most of the year.
For those who like a touch of boating, try the day excursions along the three lakes or get involved with any of the watery pursuits that can be found here. Sailing, fishing or hiking up the mountains are just some of the things that the energetic can get involved in. One particularly good hiking route is the one up to the foothills of the Jura to get a panoramic view back towards the city.
People usually love to see ancient buildings and Biel has an old town with a lovely gothic church etc. It dates from the 1400s and features many fountains and antiquated signposts.
Center PasquArt is for the art lovers who visit and features graphic art, contemporary sculptures and photographs among its exhibits. It was extended a decade or so ago, making it quite lovely place to spend a few hours.
Again, for the energetic and adventurous, why not try hiring a tandem for the day and setting off to explore. Cycle paths weave their way around the three lakes region and there are plenty of small towns to stop and take a rest in. In fact, some people explore the whole region on a tandem stopping off at a different guest house each night.
If it is a winter holiday, visitors can take a bus ride up to the Les Près d’Orvin to try some snowboarding or skiing. It is only twenty minutes away so this can be done on a daily basis if required.
One unusual place to visit is the Aarberg Bridge near Biel. It spans a full 60 meters and was built almost five hundred years ago. It has been classed as one of the best and most beautiful bridges in Switzerland so be sure to take plenty of photos here.
The Museum Neuhaus is a tiny art museum that also has some historical artifacts on display. Visitors can see how people in the nineteenth century used to live and this is a great place to take kids on a wet afternoon.
For beer lovers, a walk along the river to the lake to the Lago Lodge is a charm. Not expensive, considering where this is, and people can hire bikes or rent accommodation here too.
There is also a great walking tour to go on that takes visitors out of Burgplatz/Place de Bourg and up the hill. This has some interesting history to it since it was named after the men who would sit here shaking their heads when talking about the criminals who were brought here for trial. Take a look in the Gothic Reform Church of St. Benedict which is more than five hundred years old. It is the stained glass windows which are outstanding. Walking to the north, visitors will find the funicular railway station. This takes passengers up to the Evilard/Leubringen, a group of houses surrounded by a wooded area.
Walking back down the Schmiedengasse, visitors can join the road back to the railway station near the old town once again. It doesn’t take long for this kind of walk but visitors normally take their time when they are strolling around like this and they tend to do some shopping while they are meandering.
The railway station itself is also a great place to explore. There are four wonderful allegorical murals in the waiting area said to have been painted by Phillipe Robert. They show different ages in the life of Biel and are great for photo opportunities.
Biel may feel a little small after some time so a visit to Bern is a great idea. It is only about thirty kms away and there is a wonderful Museum of Fine Arts there. Expect to see works by people as famous as Picasso, Oppenheim and others. The collection within is always being added to so even if visitors come regularly, they are likely to see something new each time. With more than 3,000 pieces on display here, along with a staggering 48,000 drawings, photos and other prints, it is obvious that this is a serious collection of art from the 18th century onwards.
This is the oldest museum in Switzerland and the museum boasts of some pieces that span the last eight centuries no less. It is obviously famous throughout the country and beyond and will add something a little extra to any holiday visit to this part of the world.
Shopping in Biel
Since the Swiss are renowned for their watch making abilities, it seems common sense that Swatch, Rolex and Omega all have outlets here. Biel is also known for other industries too but it is the tourists that really bring in a lot of dollars.
Buying used watches is a great idea for saving money and gives the average tourist the chance to wear something expensive for a fraction of the cost.
The main shopping street is the Bahnhofsstrasse or the Nidaugasse and is totally pedestrian only. People often want to take home the legendary Swiss chocolate or the ubiquitous cuckoo clock that everyone connects to Switzerland.
Another good idea too is to take home a bottle or two of the local wine produced on the nearby mountainsides. People also stock up their wine cellars in this way and it is a cool way to remember a great holiday. Add some locally produced cheese and a bunch of local grapes and this seems a good start to eating al fresco.
Eating Out in Biel
Although Switzerland is usually expensive, visitors will find inexpensive places throughout the town. There are self service meals at reasonable prices or perhaps pay a visit to the Caffe Spettacolo opposite the main station is ideal for snacks and coffees and the like.
The Cafè Hasard near the railway station is also a good place for lovers of snacks etc. For all things organic, Kreuz in the Haupstrasse/Rue Principale 23 in the town of Nidau is the place to be. The place is run by a co-operative and visitors will find old wood floors, a terrace overlooking the garden and great food.
For those who really like the up market feel of a superb restaurant, L’Amphytryon in the Hotel Elite has been named as the best in all of Switzerland. It is closed on Sundays and visitors are advised to book if they don’t want to be disappointed.
Nightlife in Biel
Because Biel is full of students, there is a thriving bar scene going on. Unexpected events occur regularly at the Gaskessel/Coupole but it is the La Totonde brasserie which sees all the trendy people gathering both local and visitor.
There seems to be a distinct lack of nightlife in general in Biel so most people go off to Mad Ndau, as they call it, for an evening of old music and a dance. The place is not very bright or beautiful but it does see a regular crowd gathering there. On some nights there is just one price for admission and drinks and this is why the place is so popular.
Anything of local interest
In the old town, Biel holds a cultural week every year. Called the Pod’Ring, old folks and young folks gather in the square to dance away the hours every afternoon. During the night time hours, theatre and literature performances abound. Some celebrities are invited to entertain and those who come can expect to find food and drink being sold just about everywhere.
The first of August is the Swiss National Day so there are usually fireworks displays all over the cities. Try to get a ride on a boat and watch this from the lake. A great experience indeed.
Biel has its own carnival, called the Charivari, which occurs in the second week of February. Brass bands try to outdo each other and there is a competition to crown the Prince of the Carnival. He will be handed the keys to the city by no less than the mayor himself and then a huge concert takes place to mark the end of the five days of celebration. All the different restaurants and other public venues vie for attention by decorating their establishments to get people in the right mood to enjoy this lovely festival.
In 2013, Biel will be home to the Swiss Federal Gymnastics Festival. There are more than one hundred events taking place in June and the city is expect a minimum of sixty thousand competitors and a hundred and twenty thousand visitors just for this one event. It is the largest event since the Expo 02 gathering in the region so the locals are quite excited to be hosting it next year.This is a test