The Swiss Family Carlson has a mission in Porrentruy

So, fresh off our trip to Copenhagen, Mark (who never seems too tired to travel) found us a really interesting Swiss day trip. The city was Porrentruy in the Jara canton.

IMG_3026It’s on the French side of the country and actually almost touches France. Everyone speaks French there and so my German was absolutely no good. Mark speaks an incredibly rusty French so we decided we were pretty much going to have to approach this visit with the classic “Hi! We’re Americans!” tactic.

Porrentruy is an ancient city and used to be under the protection/control of the princes of Basel (or Bâle). We found some Basilisk fountains and some Basel crests hidden around the city.  And those weren’t the only things hidden in Porrentruy.

IMG_3025In his research about the Jura area Mark found a train route where you can be “robbed” by “bandits.”  The reservations were full for our weekend and so he found a self-guided walking tour called The Secret Circuit in Porrentruy instead.

You need to stop by the Tourist Office in town and pick up a map and put down 20 francs for a special key. It’s an electric key card attached to a very heavy and worn cast iron key. When you follow The Secret Circuit you are hunting for doors that have this sign next to it.  Your key can open those doors.

It’s the best kind of treasure hunt!

The map takes you all through the town. Porrentruy is a beautiful town with houses that I would love to more right into.

IMG_2993 IMG_2992

IMG_3007Like other towns that have signs of settlements stretching back to the Iron and Neolithic ages, Porrentruy was built around rivers and streams.  Porrentruy has a stream that runs right through the middle of the town and the main street is just to the north of the creek.

IMG_3001 IMG_3002 IMG_2994We got off the train and the kids wanted to get right to our spy-scavenger-locked-door hunt! We wandered by this fortress or castle-looking place and I was really hoping our map would take us up to it.

There is a red shepherd’s crook on tower to the right. That shepherd’s crook is actually the crest of Basel. It was fun clue as to the history of the area.

So! We put down our 20 franc payment, got our key from one of the women in the tourist office right on the picturesque main street, and headed into adventure!


The first place we had to find was this door that was seemingly in the middle of a park. Hmmm….

IMG_3010If the doors were round I’d be knocking and asking for Frodo.  But this was actually our first stop. We looked around to see if this was a trick of some kind, but, nope. This was it.

We waved the key in front of the lock and then we were able to go inside. Where we found another door. But this door took us downstairs into here.

IMG_3008Then the magic happened.

Porrentruy 2A movie started. We pieced together Mark’s rusty French and my partial German and read that this room was part of an underground aqueduct or cistern where people dumped things like bikes, tubas, shoes, and murder weapons. Before that it was a chapel. The movie reproduced what they think this chapel with stain glass windows looked like, complete with monks and nuns.

This was a fun and very positive start. Our next stop seemed like it was to take us up the hill toward the castle.


It doesn’t seem very castle-y from here, except for the tower. (Which, I admit, does sort of look like a hay silo.) But this view from the giant closed and locked front doors seems much more castle-like.

IMG_3012There are three secret doors somewhere in there.  We need to find them!!

The first, to my delight, led up the curved stairs on the hay silo to the door hidden by the tree. Yay!

IMG_3013The boys scampered up the stairs and were delighted to use the key to get into this secret door and see this awesome movie that went into the prehistoric findings in Porrentruy. Dinosaurs! Pteranodons!


One note: these movies have some music and sounds, but no words. The images tell the story, just like a silent movie. No knowledge of any language is necessary. Plus the movies automatically start when you swipe the key and repeat over and over for a set amount of time. We watched many of them twice.

We got down from the tower and then the boys ran off to find the next set of doors. Mark and I got to admire the view.

IMG_3016 But before we knew it the E came bounding back telling us they had found a prison. He took us to a very serious looking door and we realized the city still uses this complex as part of its city administration buildings. However, we could see our Secret Circuit sign and so we waved our key around and got into the old dungeons.

There were these clever movies running in there, too. The cells were small, but had high ceilings so you could actually stand up straight. (Unlike so many other prisons we had toured.) The movie in one cell had a distinctly Autumn/Halloween theme to it.

IMG_3021The other movie featured the story of one Pierre Péquignat, a clerk for the Prince Bishops of Basel who lead a rebellion and was subsequently beheaded for his efforts.  To make this little ghost story even more awesome, he was executed on October 31, 1740.  So, of course, this place is haunted. They don’t mention that part, but how can it not be?

Here they are drumming M. Pequignat to his death.
Here they are drumming M. Pequignat to his death.

We got to the picture below and thought, “They can’t really show the axe…” and shhh-whomp, they showed it. (To the credit of my high school drama coach, Linda Brant, this prompted me to recite all the lines from the final scene in A Man For All Seasons.)

IMG_3023And not only that, to my horror the head bounced in great leaps down the hill and through the trees only to be impaled on a spike in the front of town. All historically accurate and now burned into my 6yo’s brain.

So, we hurried out of there and found the third location at the castle. This room didn’t have a movie, but we got to go down a circular staircase, which was a missed opportunity for a slide if ever I saw one. This room had a small scale model of the town as it was in the 1400s and lots of information in French and German. We nodded appreciatively, got the jist of things, and then headed out to find our next location.

IMG_3027IMG_3029On our way to find the next location we went past the main city hall (The Hotel de Ville) and found this guy.

Porrentruy 4Porrentruy’s coat of arms is the majestic wild boar.  You can find them all over the city.

Our next stop of note was a weirdly gated off alley way behind the main street and sort of across from the pigs. I mean, wild boars.


It’s a cute silent movie about the seasons. We had to watch it 3 times because H liked the cat, especially during the summer when she was wearing glasses.

Then our map took us through another secret alley passageway and we found the Hotel-Dieu. The Hotel-Dieu was a hospital originally and now it’s a museum for the history and heritage of the Jura canton.


IMG_3047We unlocked the brown door under the stairs and went through a long hallway that smelled strongly of lemon Lysol disinfectant cleaner until we found another door to unlock. And we were in the back yard! Then we saw another door with the Secret Circuit key symbol above it and we found ourselves in a cistern. A magical cistern.

The movie alluded to the ancient history of Porrentruy. There were the burnt remains of buildings from the 10th and 11th centuries found around the cistern.

IMG_3049 IMG_3053 IMG_3051I’m not sure about the presence of dragons or swimming mermaid-like girls in the cistern or even anywhere around Porrentruy, but they were the highlight of the movie.

And then we were done! It was a nice 12km walk around a lovely city of French sensibilities and Swiss precision.

This was a really fun family adventure. The kids never complained and we never got asked the dreaded question, “When are we going home.”  We finished the entire tour in 2 hours, had some exceptional burgers and fries at a cafe off the main street, and returned home in time to watch a film and eat some pizza.  It was a great thing to do when you just don’t quite know what you want to do, but you know you’ve got to get those children out of the house or they will destroy it and everything inside.

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