A pretty historic town by the lake of the same name, Neuchâtel is the home of two-time Swiss champions Neuchâtel Xamax. Forced out of existence in 2012, Xamax took six years to climb back up the Swiss league pyramid and regain top-tier status in 2018.
Their return coincides with the resurrection of football in this French-speaking part of Switzerland, last successful in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, both Xamax and their Romand rivals Servette Geneva won the league. Both would later become insolvent. Currently Servette are also on the up and may soon follow Xamax back into the Super League.
Whereas Servette had a long, illustrious history dating back to 1890, Neuchâtel Xamax are a post-war construct. Created from a merger of FC Cantonal and FC Xamax in 1970, the new club was overseen by, of all people, Sepp Blatter, also president in the early years.
Factored into Neuchâtel’s post-2012 revival has been another merger, with lesser local club Serrières. The acronym FCS was officially added to the Xamax name – although the original idea of wearing red and black at home and the green and white of Serrières has long been dropped.
Home since 1924 has been Stade de la Maladière, overlooking the lake and close to Neuchâtel station. The location has a more tragic historical aspect too – away from the town centre, ‘Maladière’ was where the local leper colony was sited in the Middle Ages. The current stadium was completely rebuilt and reopened in 2007, a complex of 54 shops, six sports halls and a fire station.
It was Cantonal who built the original ground, eight years after becoming the first club from Neuchâtel to be crowned Swiss champions, winning two national play-off games in 1916. That same year, another club was officially founded in Neuchâtel, FC Xamax, after its instigator, Max ‘Xam’ Abegglen.
The middle of the three Neuchâtel-born Abegglen brothers, all later Swiss caps, all who played for Cantonal in the 1920s, the then ten-year-old (!) Max had actually set up FC Xamax with his pals in 1912. Their first official game was in 1916.
Cantonal had been formed ten years before, by a merger of FC Vignoble and FC Neuchâtel. Though little is known of Vignoble, a district in the far west of town close to Serrières, FC Neuchâtel were probably the first local football team, founded in 1895. In 1897-98, they took part in the inaugural Swiss championship and even made the national play-offs in 1903.
After the merger of 1906, Cantonal spent much of their history in the top flight. The youngest of the Abegglens, André ‘Trello’, hero of Switzerland’s shock 4-2 win over Nazi Germany/Austria at the 1938 World Cup, had two stints at Stade de la Maladière.
After relegation from the second tier in 1966, Cantonal never recovered. In 1969, they became Neuchâtel-Sports – in 1970, they merged with FC Xamax to become today’s Neuchâtel Xamax.
Since 1916, Xamax had mainly played in the lower divisions, ironically changing places with Cantonal in 1966 for a few creditable seasons in Ligue nationale B before the two clubs came together.
After the golden era of the late 1980s, Neuchâtel Xamax FCS last played European football shortly before the stadium overhaul completed in 2007. Having staged four full internationals, including three competitive ones, when the club was in its heyday, the revamped Maladière has only been called up for national duty once, a 1-0 friendly win over Belarus attracting a five-figure crowd in 2017.
However long the club lasts in the Super League, and autumn form in 2018 suggests a short stay, Neuchâtel as a city is back on the football map.
The closest airport to Neuchâtel is Berne 66km (41 miles) away but after the collapse of SkyWork airlines in 2018, it serves little traffic. From Geneva Airport 126km (78 miles) away, a direct hourly train takes 1hr 20min to reach Neuchâtel (SF24).
Neuchâtel station is equidistant from the town centre and the lake-facing Stade de la Maladière, both walking distance away. A funicular also connects the station to the university below. Trolleybuses and funiculars are run by the regional Transport Publics Neuchâtelois. Payment is by the Fairtiq app. Once downloaded, just swipe Start as you board and Stop when you arrive. You can also buy regular tickets (SF2.30/30min journey) from machines at stops.
Taxi-Kam (+41 32 725 22 22) are a reliable local firm with a downloadable app and a SF10 minimum fee per ride.
The nearest lodging to the stadium is the comfortable, contemporary Hôtel des Arts one tram stop away at Université, with jacuzzi suites. In the same family, the Hôtel Alpes et Lac harks back to the days when it was the Grand Hôtel Terminus. Still serving the train station over the road, this former railway hotel was overhauled a century later and now contains swish rooms, many with views of the lake also visible from the restaurant terrace.
Overlooking the lake, a short stroll from the stadium, the pricier Best Western Premier Hotel Beaulac makes best use of its waterside location, gym users and diners also enjoying the view – at a price.
Further along the waterfront and close to the town centre, Hotel Touring au Lac is an old-school three-star. In the historic centre itself, the Auberg’Inn offers a mix of rooms in a building dating back 500 years. Alongside, the Aubier is run by the café downstairs – guests should arrive by 7pm if possible, 6pm on Saturdays. Of the nine modest guestrooms on four floors (expect a climb), three are en-suite.
In the same vicinity, the Hôtel du Marché is more restaurant/terrace café than hotel, its ten basic rooms equipped with a bed and washbasin.
Further up by the castle and funicular station, neat, 22-room Hotel de L’Ecluse suits the modern urban traveller.
Pubs and bars dot the historic centre, many with terraces overlooking the picturesque surroundings.
Among them, the main Irish-style place for live sport and live music is the Café du Cerf, open until 2am at weekends, with Premier League action. On nearby places des Halles, popular destination Le Charlot offers 30 beers and a prominent terrace. Across the square, the upscale Prestige Club specialises more in wine.
At the eastern edge of the historic centre, on rue des Fausses-Brayes, the Great Glen Scottish Tavern shows major games and has a plentiful beer selection, along with pool, table football and pinball. Nearby Les Brasseurs started out as artisanal brewers in Geneva in 1997, and set up here in Neuchâtel ten years later. House brews are served in quarter- and half-litre glasses, and by the 1.5-litre pitcher. Across the road, Le Bistrot du Concert, attached to the theatre of the same name, provides a classic zinc-bar, terrace-café experience.
In the shadow of the château, the Café de la Collegiale on the steep, cobbled street of the same name may have gastro pretentions but can offer all kinds of beers and a stunning panoramic view at the same time.