In 1796 the first music box was made in the French speaking, western part of Switzerland, in the small town up in the hills above the Lake of Neuchatel called Sainte Croix.
This developed into the manufacture of automats, human forms, or birds, that perform music and move, operated by intricate mechanisms that are hand made by very skilled craftsmen, including woodworkers who construct the beautiful wooden inlaid boxes to hold them. The life-sized birds are usually seen in gilded cages, complete with bright plumage, and they chirp, sing and dance about just like real ones.
This area of Switzerland, in the region of Yverdon Les Bains, is known as the Jura, and borders France. When railways expanded, the town saw the necessity of connecting themselves to this revolutionary form of transport, and had plans to even connect with Pontarlier in France and be part of an international network. This did not happen, until a local man, William Barbey, financed the construction of their own metre gauge railway to go down to Yverdon and the main line.
William was born in 1842 near Geneva, studied botany and travelled the world. He financed the line, providing that no trains would run on a Sunday for at least 25 years, and none did until 1918. The railway is still running today, giving an hourly interval service for the 35 minute run up to Sainte Croix.
As always with Switzerland, the best way to get around is using one of the many ticket offers from www.swisstravelsystem.ch
The Swiss believe in making things easy for the tourist, and the Swiss Pass gives you unlimited travel on trains, buses, boats, cable cars, and funiculars, as well as incorporating the Swiss Museums Pass. Getting around couldn’t be easier.
It also helps that they believe in integrated transport, which means that buses run from railway stations, one ticket covers all, and timings match up.
The railway here is part of the Travys network (www.travys.ch) of three railways, three bus lines plus five town routes in Yverdon itself. All available with the one ticket, ideal for exploring the region.
Yverdon, the capital of the region, is historic and worth exploring. Around the area are many spectacular chateaux and castles, vineyards, natural beauty, and being 1,066 metres above sea level, there are plenty of ski and winter sports activities.
A good website is www.sainte-croix-les-rasses-tourisme.ch and for the whole area www.yverdonlesbainsregion.ch
The little train climbs steadily up to Sainte Croix and slides smoothly into the smart modern station, almost in the middle of the town.
Sainte Croix itself has a modest population; at September 30, 2011, it was 4,646, 3,810 of whom were Swiss. The town is pleasant, with some good restaurants and two hotels. Perhaps its star attraction is the museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mecanique d’Art) and the other museums.
The CIMA is a fascinating place. It really lets you appreciate the high skill levels needed to manufacture by hand all the intricate components of a music box. They are exquisite works of art, including the highly polished and inlaid wooden boxes that hold them, many with windows so that you can watch the mechanism and sometimes little dolls dancing to the tunes.
Sizes vary from tiny ones that fit into the palm of your hand up to large stand-alone pieces of furniture. In days gone by large ones were situated on many Swiss railway stations and if you inserted a coin, the music would start and figures would pirouette and dance.
The CIMA is housed in a converted old factory and part of it reproduces the old machinery and working conditions. At that time, in the 19th century, water power provided the force to turn overhead shafts. From these continuously turning shafts, long belts connected to wheels on the machines to drive them. Highly dangerous and, of course, would not be allowed these days.
You then move into the area of automats, or automatons. These are mesmerising. The largest is the life-sized angel that gracefully swoops and turns in the stair well. There are many tableaux of figures that come to life when their button is pushed. There is a team of musicians who play a variety of tunes.
An elegant 18th century lady comes to life. She looks at you, her eyes blink, her head turns, her chest breathes in and out, and she actually writes. She is seated at an ornate writing desk, and bends over her work, the hand moving back and forth. She was writing "a pierrot" in copper plate script.
When she had finished, she paused, studied the handwriting, and then bent again to go to the first letter and add the accent acute to it. It is unimaginable how much work has gone into these mechanical figures.
This is not a stuffy museum of dusty items in glass cases, it all comes to life. On display were Swiss Brain Clocks. These are difficult to describe – you have to see one. They are brightly coloured, with the hours dial and the minute dial seemingly all over the place, and you have to use your brain to see what the time actually is. Have a look at www.les-contes-du-temps.ch
While I was there the inventor, Mario Wüthrich, was surrounded by an intensely attentive group of school children who were all assembling their own brain clocks from boxes of components. I am certain that it would be a school trip that they would remember all their lives, especially taking home their own hand-built clocks as well.
Within the CIMA there is a shop for the Reuge Company, who financially support the museum. They display and sell exquisite music boxes, cabinets and it is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. There is also a café and gift shop.
Initially I had thought that it would be interesting but a quick look round would be sufficient. I was totally wrong – they had to throw me out at 5 o’clock when they wanted to shut and go home. I have never seen so many fascinating things in one place.
Outside, I looked around the town, and found a café near the station where simple food was served by an energetic and cheerful lassie. The other people in there were locals, with some leg pulling and laughter from a group of elderly men around a table having a drink before going home for tea. Very clean, relaxed and friendly, and good value for money. I think that typified Sainte Croix. I managed to try the speciality of the town, a tart called "Amandine", made with honey, butter, sugar and almonds; it is delicious, and probably very fattening.
As the warm sun headed for the horizon over the mountains, I took their little train down to busy Yverdon Les Bains and the main railway line to Basle, Geneva and Lausanne.
As we descended onto the ledge of the mountain to thread through the trees, the whole valley below was a thick, milky blanket. We dropped steadily into this, and the sun went out to be replaced with chill dark evening – a fitting end to an interesting day.