Things worth seeing a little off the beaten path in Switzerland
Switzerland's big, bustling cities used to be small, quaint villages. Those villages are still there, and still appealing, though now they are ringed by factories, apartments, and shops.
I took a tour of four good-sized Swiss towns (Baden, Solothurn, Thun, and Sion), and, while Switzerland's mountain villages and better-known cities - Berne and Lucerne, for instance - should have first priority, the following sights in and around these four cities are worthy of a detour on your second trip to Switzerland:
* The Jacquet-Droz puppets in Neuchatel, a short ride from Solothurn.
The puppets visited the royal courts of Europe - Paris, London, Madrid, Brussels - and they're dressed for it. Decked out in the silks, satins, and laces of the 18th century, the self-assured blond girl plays a tune on a sort of organ. While one velvet-coated little brother writes ''welcome to Neuchatel'' (Soyez les bienvenus a neuchatel) with a goose quill pen, the other draws a subtle pencil portrait of Louis XV. Louis (whose court they visited) must have been enchanted.
There was a fascination with automatons in the 18th century. The puppets were made between 1769 and 1774 by the greatest watchmakers of the day, Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri-Louis of Neuchatel, a well-known watchmaking area. The puppets made their inventors extremely successful, and it's easy to see why: They are so lifelike it's eerie.
The musician, for example, can play five tunes - and she really does the playing; when her wooden fingers are lifted so that they don't touch the keys, the music stops. She seems to breathe - before and after as well as during her performance. Her eyes and head follow her playing, and at the end she gives a little bow.
The automatons are put through their paces at the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire de Neuchatel on the first Sunday of every month. Private showings can be arranged for about $20; demonstrations include a short lecture and slide show.
I went to Neuchatel as a day trip from nearby Solothurn. The old section of Solothurn has a series of fountains decorated by figurines, just like those in Berne, and were given by the same man, Duke Berchtold of Zahringen.
* Raclette lunch in the mountain village of Evolene in the mountains above Sion.
Evolene would satisfy anyone in search of a Swiss mountain village. Its chalets are dark brown wood (larch, actually) and are older and more weathered, and somehow more real looking, than their many imitators. Hearty red flowers half obscure windows and cut gingerbread balconies; some older ladies sport the local costume, which features the most astonishing bonnets imaginable - stiff, beribboned black velvet swooping upward fore and aft.
The buildings fit beautifully into their soaring setting - which is impressive when you consider the ad hoc local construction methods: A young couple would build a one story dwelling and then add upward as their family grows.
Our first stop was the shop of O. and H. Metrailler, where Mme. Julienne was engaged in weaving what looked like a red tablecloth on a huge thumping wooden loom. Mme. Julienne, clad in white full-sleeved cotton blouse, black bodice, skirt, apron, and red neckerchief, graciously demonstrated both weaving and the hand-spinning of the enviably thick, natural-white yarn with bits of dyed color twisted in, made from the wool of local sheep.
Next, our group piled into the Hotel Alpina for a raclette lunch. ''Usually you go to eat raclette in a group, you don't go just the two of you,'' said our guide.
The traditional way of making raclette is to set the half wheel of cheese next to the fire, scraping it on to plates with a big knife as it melts. This seems to me as if it should be forbidden, something like removing icing from a cake with your finger. But here in the Valais it's a traditional dish, served with pickled onions and small baked potatoes. It's an extremely filling combination: first, the creamy tang of the cheese followed by the sour head-clearing explosion of pickled onion, then the soothing solidity of the potato.
The Swiss like to have contests to see who can eat the most raclette (skipping the potato is cheating, I think). So when you go somewhere for it, see if you can engage the Swiss at the next table in a contest. Don't expect to win, though.
Evolene is small and definitely charming; it is not undiscovered, however. It has seven hotels and is within reasonable distance of a maze of ski resorts.
* Notre-Dame-de-Valere in Sion.
To get to Evolene, you must start in the town of Sion, in the valley far below. If you find yourself with time to spend in Sion, you might try the trek up to the Eglise-Notre-Dame-de-Valere (for the relatively agile only; wear sturdy shoes).
The climb up to the church makes the excursion seem something of a pilgrimage. Indeed, the shells on the capitals of the columns indicate it was a stop on the pilgrims' route to the church at Compestela in northern Spain.
The focus for our group was the church's late 14th-century organ, the oldest still playable in the world, we were told. The caretaker, after tenderly showing us what he said were the oldest pieces of fabric in Europe (from the 5th and 6th centuries), vanished, only to reappear by the organ in its little pulpit up near the dim heights of the ceiling. Its linen side panels are gorgeously painted, and its 135 lead pipes still produce moving music.
Inquire at the local tourist board for the times of organ concerts, given here regularly. In July and August there is an International Festival of Ancient Organs here; we were told works are presented that are never played anywhere else.
* On top of the Schilthorn, a day trip from Thun.
''The director wanted to blow this place up for the movie and he said 'I don't care about the cost.' But they wouldn't let him, so he blew up a model instead.''
With all due respect to James Bond (''On Her Majesty's Secret Service'' that time), building the Piz Gloria restaurant on the top of the Schilthorn once seems like plenty. The visitor must take what seems like an almost unending series of cablecars to get to it at all.
But no view this overwhelming can be reached without a bit of effort. Everything you see is abruptly vertical. Grayish brown rocks and a few skimpy-looking trees far, far below are the only counterpoints to the immense and delicate whiteness of the Jungfrau Massif. The restaurant not only serves pleasant meals, but also revolves gently, so that the astounded diner can take in the unbroken 360-degree wonder of it all.
The view from inside is especially important because even in May the air outside has a January bitterness.
Start out in Interlaken; round-trip fare for the cable car is $33.
A final note: If you are visiting a large Swiss city, pick a hotel in the old section if you can. That way, you can avoid the 20th century almost completely.