I remember my very first impressions of Biel-Bienne as we drove into town after being picked-up from Zürich airport. It was the 3rd of June 1998 – my very first time in Switzerland, and I had come over to work as an au-pair with the intention of staying 1 year. I don’t know what I was expecting at the time, but I had gone on a 3-month backpacking trip all over Europe the previous summer, and I suppose I was waiting to be dazzled. I got none of that. In fact it was cold, pouring rain, and as we drove through Biel, and into the old town, I thought to myself “My God, what have I done??!!. I had just willingly abandoned a gorgeous summer in southern California only to be plopped down in to what felt to me at the time like a doom and gloomy Eastern European film set. Initially, that dark side didn’t allow me to see all of the beauty underneath, but thankfully, the allure of Biel-Bienne finally revealed itself in the days and weeks, and years to come. And just like a true gem, the brilliance came to light.
Biel-Bienne is a small city (Pop. approx 60’000) located in western Switzerland, in the Canton of Bern. It’s pretty much a blue collar worker city, due to the fact that it’s the epicenter of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Biel is home to Omega, The Swatch Group, Rolex, and many other famous watch brands. The heart of the watchmaking industry extends out from here into the neighboring Jura region, also known as “Watch Valley”.
Biel is one of three official bilingual cities in Switzerland, hence the name Biel-Bienne (Biel is German and Bienne is French). I usually refer to it as just one or the other, as you can see in this blog post. Being an officially bilingual city means, among other things, that all of the street signs are in both German and French, the local news is in both languages, and schools provide classes for children in both languages.When one takes a walk down the main boulevard in town, however, it becomes quickly apparent that there are many more than just two languages spoken here – there are over 150 nationalities registered as official residents of Biel, myself included. It is truly an authentic melting pot of culture and language.
To me, the city of Biel’s most precious feature (other than its residents) is the juxtaposition to its natural environment, in particular the Lake of Biel. It’s vital for me to live near the water, even if I can’t jump in most of the year. As soon as it hits 18°C (65°F), I’m in, and that moment can never come soon enough. The lake turns into a glorious playground come Summertime – crystal clear water with temperatures into the mid-twenties °C (Mid-seventies °F) and big enough for all kinds of water sports, including sailing. It is truly enjoyed by all – barbecues, beer, bicycles and bikinis dominate the summer season.
The southern foot of the Jura mountain range runs along the lake of Biel, extending from the southwest of Switzerland in Geneva, all the way up to Basel. Not only is it a perfect refuge from the city, it’s brilliant in every season, and I get to recharge my batteries nearly every day on long walks with my pug Kaya. Loads of people flock here year round for its mountain biking trails, and kids even sled downhill through the forest if the snow permits in winter.
Another wonderful aspect of Biel is its wine region, which dates back to the 1400’s. My personal interest in this fact goes beyond my love of wine. My boyfriend Lukas Hasler is a vintner at Weinkellerei Hasler. He and his team work hard to produce elegant wine that is typical for the region – Pinot noir, chardonnay, chasselas, sauvignon blanc and a few others. Of course it’s my favorite wine and I taste test it all the time just to ensure great quality! There are plenty of opportunities for wine-tasting in the region, and some of the old villages, churches, and wine cellars will make you feel like you’re in a time warp. It’s especially gorgeous to take a walk or a hike through the vineyards overlooking the lake and the alps on a sunny day.
What really makes Biel so very special to me is the people that live here and the true sense of community that I’ve come to hold dear. All of my closest friends including my boyfriend are about a 5-10 minute walk or drive away. That is a quality of life that I appreciate so much, especially with my current experience of having a broken foot. I’ve had an overflowing amount of support and help from friends, neighbors, and strangers alike. To me, helping one another is an essential cornerstone of any society, and I am so grateful to be a part of that here.
So, for now, please consider this a short introduction to Biel-Bienne. I plan on writing more about what I get up to here in the future, and the fantastic people and projects that inspire me here as well.
If you read my previous post, you know that I fractured my right foot (5th Metatarsal) 3 weeks ago, so I’ve been taking it easy as the doctor ordered. I even had to turn down Category 1 tickets for the England vs Slovakia football (soccer) match in St.Etienne this week, offered from my friend and old San Diego roomate Roxanne. But I will survive, and as long as I continue to heal at this rate, I will be doing some serious beach rehabilitation in Portiragnes, France in just a few short weeks. As the saying goes…the cure for anything is salt water. I’m going to put it to the test.
Thanks for staying tuned…and until then, Happy Summer start!!
All photos were taken by June Liechti-Adamson