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Belying its deep historical resonance for the Swiss, MURTEN, 6km northeast of Avenches, has the air of a holiday town, its neat suburban streets and low-key waterfront promenade remniscent of the English south coast. It’s bang on the Röstigraben (linguistic divide), though among its 5,000 inhabitants, German speakers far outnumber francophones (who call the place Morat). It’s also one of the best preserved of Switzerland’s medieval towns, and is still encircled by its fifteenth-century walls. These days, offering nothing much to do other than strolling on cobbled lanes, sipping drinks at lakeview terrace cafés and boating around the lakes, it’s the perfect place for a lazy, romantic getaway. The Old Town’s hotels oblige with a range of “honeymoon” suites.
The town’s name is derived from the Celtic word moriduno, meaning “lakeside fortress”. Fire in 1416 led to rebuilding in stone, a useful move since, shortly after, in June 1476, Murten allied itself with Bern and Fribourg against the Burgundians and found itself facing down a concerted siege from Charles the Bold. The town hung on for thirteen days, whereupon a Bernese force arrived from over the hills, weighed into the Burgundian army and massacred the lot – some 10,000 were slaughtered, and local legend tells of bones being washed up on the lakeshore even eighteen years later. A runner took news of the victory 17km to Fribourg, but expired after recounting his tale – his exploit is commemorated today by thousands who take part in a fun run between the two towns on the first Sunday in October.
Murten’s Old Town is a simple three-street affair, full of picturesque medieval vaulted arcades and facades. You’re most likely to enter at the castle, which, although closed to the public, has a peaceful internal courtyard with lake views. Rathausgasse leads east, packed with hotels whose rear terraces afford prime views across the lake to the Vully vineyards. Parallel to the south are Hauptgasse, crammed with bars and eateries; and tranquil Schulgasse/Deutsche Kirchgasse, providing some relief from the hubbub. One of the best ways to see Murten is from the ramparts, accessible at a number of points along Deutsche Kirchgasse. The main eastern gate is the Berntor, or Porte de Berne, with a distinctive clock face; paths lead from here downhill to the tiny harbour. Five minutes west along the lakefront promenade, just below the castle, is an old mill, now the town’s museum (May–Sept Tues–Sun 10am–noon & 2–5pm; Oct–Dec & March–April Tues–Sun 2–5pm; Jan & Feb Sat & Sun 2–5pm; Fr.4), housing a diverting collection of archeological bits and pieces exposed when dredging of the marshes to the east lowered the water level in the lake to reveal evidence of Neolithic settlement.
The station – with trains from Fribourg and Payerne, as well as connections from Neuchâtel (via Ins) and Bern (via Kerzers) – is a five-minute walk west of the Old Town and has bikes for rent. Boats cruise in summer to and from Neuchâtel and Biel/Bienne. Of the hotels, Murtenhof, on Rathausgasse (026/672 90 30, fax 672 90 39; b–d) is prime choice, a medieval house renovated throughout: there are some plain but attractive inexpensive rooms as well as spectacular boudoirs boasting original beams, a round king-size bed, or a semi-circular bedside bathtub-for-two. A more refined option is Weisses Kreuz, Rathausgasse 31 (026/670 26 41, fax 670 28 66, www.weisses-kreuz.ch; d), in the same family for eighty years; the modern rooms in its seaview wing are outdone by the jaw-dropping ones in the town-view annexe opposite, boasting antique beds and furnishings in broad, wood-panelled splendour (ask for room 33). Ringmauer, Deutsche Kirchgasse 2 (026/670 11 01, fax 672 20 83; b) is a comfortable budget alternative.
Eating and drinking are well taken care of at the Hauptgasse cafés and hotel restaurants, although many cater for day-trippers and so can be overpriced; the Murtenhof menu is long and inexpensive, with veggie options, and Anatolia, on Hauptgasse, can do pizza or kebabs for under Fr.20. The restaurant at Weisses Kreuz is one of the many gourmet options, with its excellent fish specialities starting at Fr.25, but for formal dining you won’t get much better than Le Vieux Manoir au Lac, a romantic manor house set in its own gardens 1km west of town on Lausannestrasse (026/678 61 61): staying here overnight will cost you Fr.300 or more, but you can sample their top-rated French cuisine in a waterside dining room for just a little less (menus are around Fr.80).
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