Shouldered by the more prominent cantons of Bern and Vaud, the cantons of Fribourg and Neuchâtel are easily overlooked by hurried visitors. If they do stop, it is usually for a quick dip into the environs of Fribourg and Gruyères. That leaves the rest of this largely untouched area to the Swiss, who enjoy its relatively unspoiled nature and relaxed approach to life.
Although the strict
cantonal borders are a messy reflection of historic power struggles, the regional boundaries are unmistakable, even to an outsider. Fribourg starts in the pre-Alpine foothills above Charmey and rolls down across green hills, tidy farms, and ancient towns until it reaches the silty shores of the Murten, Neuchâtel, and Biel lakes. The region of Neuchâtel begins in these silt-rich fields (which grow everything from lettuce to tobacco), sweeps across Lac Neuchâtel to its château- and vineyard-lined western shore, and rises up to the Jura Mountains.
The Röstigraben (or "Rösti Divide," named after the buttery, panfried potato cakes Swiss Germans are particularly fond of) is the tongue-in-cheek name for the linguistic border where French meets German. It runs through Fribourg and butts up against the northern borders of Neuchâtel. In some towns you can walk into a boulangerie (bread bakery) selling dark Vollkornbrot (whole-grain bread) or find a family named Neuenschwand that hasn't spoken German for generations.
Nature's delights take pride of place here. But no matter what aspect of history interests you, you should find something to please you: prehistoric menhirs and the lifestyle of stilt-house people at Laténium, near Neuchâtel; the Roman amphitheater in Avenches; or imagining the Battle of Murten from the city's ramparts. Perhaps you'd prefer Grandson's castle, with Charles the Bold's ridiculously bejeweled hat and life-size, fully armored replicas of jousting knights. If you love Gothic churches and religious art, you can have your fill, especially in Fribourg and Neuchâtel. There's stained glass at Romont, and the sheer romantic thrill of medieval towns like storybook Gruyères.