Biel-Bienne the undecided

There are places in the world and especially in Switzerland that are amazingly easy to fall in love with.

Biel-Bienne is not one of them.

It is a place that even its residents seem undecided about loving or hating.

Biel is the German name for this city of 52,350, located exactly midpoint between Geneva and Zürich.

French speakers know it as Bienne.

It is Switzerland’s only officially bilingual town, so all road signs, documents and public information are produced in both languages.

Train timetables, maps and books call the place Biel/Bienne and visitors quickly sense the duality of this city almost moments after alighting from the train.

It is difficult to know which language to use when meeting anyone in Biel as the locals seem flawlessly proficient in both French and Swiss German.

Last week I had lunch and supper in Biel and saw folks chatting away with one another in French but ordering in German, or gossiping in German but ordering in French.

Add to this mix the 40% of the city’s residents originating from outside Switzerland (Italians, Spanish, Turks, Slavs, Arabs and others) and the ear is never bored by the variety of sounds and accents overheard.

At first glance and stroll through Biel, I was reminded not so much of New Brunswick (Canada’s official bilingual province) as it made me think of Alsace in northeastern France.

Though signage in Biel is consistently more bilingual than cities like Selestat, Colmar or Mulhouse, the feel of the city and how it has evolved to its modern form is very French.

Its train station, the way the streets meet, the river/canal running through its core all remind me of Selestat.

Like Selestat, Biel does not go out of its way to market itself.

There seems little reason to linger at first glance.

You leave the station, walk along the main shopping streets where the storefronts either repel you with the expense of the wares on display or with the unappealing plainness of the establishment.

Either things are too brand name like Omega watches or if inexpensive then low quality in appearance.

The cobblestone Old Town feels less quaint as it does quiet.

Biel is a place that knows it should be extroverted but remains passionlessly introverted.

Everyone I met was polite but reserved as if they wait upon you to decide how they should behave.

And Biel’s architecture reflects this indecision.

Its arsenal is now a theatre, its town hall is now police headquarters, its streets have two names, its youth hostel is both motel and microbrewery, the Neues Museum is a merger of two former museums, a former watch factory is now a restaurant, the Omega Museum wants tourists yet does little to market itself…

Biel is a city that can’t make up its mind.

Though the city sits on the edge of Bielsee / Lac Bienne, one must actively search for its waterfront for, unlike Lausanne or Geneva, Biel seems uninterested whether tourists can actually find it.

Unlike other Swiss cities I have stayed in, the hotels and hostel don’t offer city transport cards complimentary with accommodation, as if it is thought that no one would actually desire to explore Biel itself but instead would only use Biel to explore the surrounding Jura region or change trains between other Swiss destinations.

Granted I visited Biel on a weekday so I can´t really confirm how party-animalistic the residents of Biel can get on the weekend, but I suspect not so much.

Guidebooks like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide say little about Biel outside of its lake access, some places to eat, sleep or visit, and that Biel is bilingual and is a hub between places.

Those who linger here also remain undecided.

I enjoyed my stroll along the Quai and the lakeshore.

The city itself did not inspire.

I absolutely hated the hostel for its lack of comfort, service or security.

So, do I regret visiting Biel/Bienne?

Like the city itself, I can’t decide.


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