It is an autumn day and we are off in search of one of Switzerland’s rather less well know paddle steamers, the little Fribourg, which is tucked away in the rather difficult to access village of Portalban on the east shore of Lake Neuchatel.
So far as I can see from the Swiss timetables, the only way in is to take the boat from Neuchatel at 12.10pm and the Post Bus out at 13.47. If we miss either of these we are a bit stumped as there are no other boats until 18.35 and post buses run here only every two hours on a Saturday. Time is therefore short and of the essence.
So here we are in the harbour at Neuchatel ready to start our adventure. And what’s this? A modern motor vessel also called Fribourg.
It is a calm and mild day, with the lake slightly warmer than the air and we have arrived at Portalban by boat at 12.38.
This is the pier but, so far, no sign of the Fribourg. Apparently she is a little bit inland.
We are at the end of the pier now and the village beckons in the distance. Ou est le Fribourg?
Still no sign of her but: Hang on. Look! There is a Swiss flag ahead on the left of the main street in the distance. Is that on a hotel or could it be on the Fribourg herself?
Yes, hurrah! Here she is in the car park of the Hotel St Louis.
The paddle wheels have gone but, never mind, the ship herself is still here.
Built by Escher Wyss in 1913 the Fribourg is of the “half deck” steamer design with a few steps down to the lower aft saloon and a few steps up to the deck above it. She was also constructed with a low air draught to get under the bridges in the canals which connect Lakes Neuchatel, Biel and Murten.
The tide seems to be out in her own private lagoon.
Attached, literally, to the hotel, Fribourg earns a living as a restaurant and bar and, today, even out of season, seems to be doing quite nicely with the local clientele.
The rudder, set permanently at hard to port.
Dangling down from her starboard side are her old steering chains which once connected the ship’s wheel to the rudder. Like many Swiss paddle steamers, before the introduction of modern electric steering, these chains often ran along the outside of the hull and under the sponsons and rubbing band.
Let’s go aboard.
Today the Fribourg is pretty much wall to wall restaurant and bar. We are sitting about where the engine used to be looking aft.
Turning round to look forward, the original structure is still there including the old railway train type up and down windows with the leather straps for opening them.
OK, the Fribourg has lost her engines and is not exactly as she was in her heyday on the lake. OK the ship’s boat is now a sort of nautical window box bedecked in geraniums red. But she is still here. And I found the sight of her sitting there in state still earning a living four decades after she was withdrawn rather uplifting.
But time is short. We must hurry off to catch the Post Bus at 13.47 (which, Switzerland being Switzerland, we can expect to arrive bang on time) and leave the Hotel St Louis with its distinctive and unusual restaurant and its Swiss flag seeming to fly, from this angle anyway, rather ambiguously from both the hotel and the Fribourg’s stern.
I think that the Fribourg is a bit of a good news story as is her one time consort on the lake, the paddle steamer Neuchatel. Built in 1912, she found a second career as a restaurant and bar at Neuchatel but is now being re-built at Sugiez with a view to returning her to operational condition, equipped with a steam engine which once graced the Chiemsee paddler steamer Ludwig Fessler.
So, hopefully, it will not be too long before the flap, flap, flap of the Neuchatel’s paddle wheels will once again be heard on the lake. And, perhaps on certain days when the wind is in the right direction and the circumstances just so, that joyous sound may float down the pier, past the trees, on inland up the main street and down the Fribourg’s ventilating cowls in their land-locked location to cheer this little ship’s very heart and remind her of the happy days of her youth when she, too, was paddling around the lake.
Have a look at Neuchatel’s website here.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.