France and Switzerland

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Monday, May 10, 2004

Hi everybody!
At the beginning of May we took a trip to Neuchatel, Switzerland, so that Chris could visit the Ulyses Nardin factory and pick up a marine chronometer that he had purchased from a watchmaker in Newfoundland, Canada. It's a 15 hour drive, so we took a 4-day weekend and stopped in France and Germany along the way. Although the places were beautiful and we saw some interesting things, it was a difficult trip.

The original plan was that Melanie would finish work mid-day, Chris would come pick her up, and we would be on our way before rush hour on Wednesday. We figured we could drive about 5 hours, find a place to sleep and eat and then continue on the next day. However, due to a variety of circumstances, Chris actually showed up late afternoon - at which point he remembered that he had forgotten a broken "parts" chronometer that he wanted to try to sell to the factory, so back home we went. Upon picking up the chronometer and heading toward the highway, we promptly got stuck in traffic and 40 minutes later were not even to the airport (not very far). By now it was 7:00 p.m. so we just turned around, went home, got up the next morning and left then. So much for an early start!

The route to Neuchatel follows the French/German border along the Rhine River. It is beautiful countryside with mustard fields (in full bloom) lining the highway.

We decided to spend the night in Colmar, France. Colmar is in the Alsace region of France - which throughout history has sometimes been Germany - so the food there is French with a German twist (or vise versa). Colmar was founded in the 12th century and, miraculously escaped the bombings in WWII. This means that many beautiful old half-timbered houses still remain. Also, the old narrow winding roads remain. It is very easy (and fun) to get lost in Colmar. After finding a hotel (quite a feat as we kept getting lost and going in circles) we took a self-guided walking tour of the town, had a great dinner of French/German food, and snuggled in for the night. We really liked Colmar and would recommend it to others looking for a nice place to spend an evening.

The next day we continued on to Switzerland. We had to pay 35 Euro to bring the car in (some sort of highway tax), but otherwise entering the country was just like entering any of the EU countries we've visited so far. Neuchatel sits on beautiful large lake in a valley - an area known as the Watch Valley because it is the area where many of the famous watch makers have factories. There are also two watch museums in the area. The smaller one, in Le Locle, is in a beautiful old mansion, Chateau des Monts. In addition to all of the great watches (which Chris liked) there was an exhibit of winding keys which Melanie liked. These were tiny little works of art in all sorts of shapes and decorations. The exhibit had hundreds of these little keys, all beautiful. Melanie also enjoyed mansion itself.

The second museum, in La Chaux-de-Fonds is HUGE. It was a bit overwhelming for Melanie, but Chris **really** enjoyed it. Everything you ever wanted to know about watches and then some!

As many of you know, Chris collects marine chronometers and is especially fond of those made by Ulysse Nardin. So, he arranged to meet the sales director/historian at the factory and have a tour. The factory no longer produces chronometers, but is now focused on very high-end complicated precision wristwatches. We got to go see the rooms where the watchmakers painstakingly put together these intricate hand-made instruments.

The building was a bit like a very small office building with 8-10 watchmakers sitting in each room, 2 rooms per floor and about 4 floors. It was all quite nondescript. Apparently there are many of these "factories" throughout this area of Switzerland - where the art of watchmaking is still appreciated.

After visiting the factory and the museum at Chateau des Monts we went on our usual "Red" for lodging. There were lots of hotels along the lake, but for some reason we were set on trying to find a B&B. Chris had printed out some information from the internet before leaving, but either the places were farther away than we thought, we couldn't find them, or when we found them they weren't very nice. After several hours we ended up on the other side of the lake in a beautiful nature preserve that had a hotel and restaurant on site. We were tired and grumpy, but happy to have a nice place to stay. We had a small dinner at the restaurant and went to bed.

The next day, we stopped in Neuchatel to pick up the chronometer Chris had purchased from a watchmaker in Cananda. How did it get to Switzerland? The seller's wife was from Neuchatel, that is where they met, while he was in watchmaker's school. The wife brought the chronometer over to her parent's home over the Xmas holidays to minimize the chance of it being damaged. We met the parents, who had a beautiful Victorian house overlooking Lake Neutchatel and the Alps in the background. After our visit and seeing the large time museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, we started our drive home. Somebody had told us that leaving on a particular road would take us on a scenic route along a beautiful river and through some mountain passes. We thought that sounded like a nice way to get home, so took their advice. This is when we learned the impact of Switzerland not being part of the European Union. . .

As we left Switzerland and crossed into France, we were stopped by French immigration/customs agents who asked if we had anything to declare. We didn't, so we said no, after which they searched the car and found the 2 chronometers that Chris had brought from A'dam to show the guy at the Nardin factory. Since we didn't buy them in Switzerland, we didn't think we needed to declare them, but the customs agents didn't believe we had brought them from A'dam and kept demanding to see receipts of purchase. We kept saying we didn't have receipts so they searched everything again - this time looking for receipts. Finally after detaining us for 3 hours of making NO progress, they confiscated the clocks and gave Chris some forms to send back when he could produce receipts.

We have gotten so used to open borders that we didn't even think about the fact that Switzerland was outside the EU and that that would have border crossing implications. Also, we were leaving on a little road closest to Le Locle, so they are probably used to looking for clocks that people buy there and bring back to France. Next time we'll know better and either not bring the clocks in or stop at the border on the way in and get customs to acknowledge that we have the clocks in our possession prior to leaving the country.

By this time, it was late in the afternoon and pouring rain. So much for our scenic drive. Out into the rain we went, in bad moods, having skipped lunch, and with a 15 hour drive (over 2 days) ahead of us. As we went up over the mountains the rain turned into heavy snow (in May!!), which made visibility difficult, but there really wasn't anyplace to stop, so we just kept driving. It probably would have been a beautiful drive in better weather - maybe we'll do it when we go back to pick up the chronometers. ;-)

Sunday there was a lot of traffic, but we finally got back to A'dam. We're writing this almost 2 months later and the French still have the chronometers. :-(

Happier travels next time,
Chris and Melanie

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