The GR5 - The Jura

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October 15th 2009
Published: October 15th 2009
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I'm writing this entry in Nice, just a few streets away from the Promenade des Anglais and the mediterranean sea. From this you will probably be able to deduce two things - firstly, that I am quite late as usual in posting my account of my travels but secondly, and much more importantly, that I have finished my trek across Europe. That's right, after 4 months, 105 stages and 2273kms (give or take), I finally made it to Nice on Sunday 11th October. I suppose this means the rest of my blogs will be like films where you already know the ending but I hope it wont diminish your enjoyment in reading my accounts of the highs and lows of the trek.

This blog describes my journey through the Jura, as the GR5 makes its way southwards along the Swiss-French border towards Lake Geneva and the beginning of the Alps. Before setting off, I had a couple of rest days in Belfort waiting for Sam, an old school friend to join me - due to my fantastic forward planning Sam had to make his way up from Geneva where he had flown in fully expecting me to be ready to start the alpine leg of the trip. The highlight of any trip to Belfort is the fort (naturally partly fortified by our old friend Vauban) and the famous Lion of Belfort (sculpted by the bloke who created the Statue of Liberty), which celebrates the siege in 1870 when French forces withstood the attacks of the Prussians (although they got hammered everywhere else). The rest of my time seemed to be spent sleeping as much as possible and desperately trying to keep up with events in the final ashes test - thanks to those of you sending me the text updates.

The GR5 from Belfort can be summarised as walking to get somewhere rather than walking for enjoyment, as we knocked off the miles and tried to leave the Belfort gap behind us. The first day in particular was very long and tiring, as the temperature soared to 38ºC and the stage took us along roads, cycle paths and canal tow-paths. The day started by getting the train back to Hericourt before crossing woodland and open countryside before passing through a couple of villages. We were able to stop at a lake for lunch and get a bit of relief from the heat before spending the afternoon walking along the Rhone-Rhine canal and then back into woodland. Despite phoning ahead, it was proving difficult to find somewhere to stay - a theme that was to repeat itself during our time in the Jura - as we approached the small town of Vandoncourt in the early evening sun. Unfortunately, the walkers' notice board informed us that the gîte had been closed for a couple of years. Not overly keen on the prospect of walking a further 7km to find a hotel, we decided to try our luck in the local shop. Luckily for us, there is a very kindly grandmother who provides B&B for walkers like us who turn up expecting to find something and then get stranded in the middle of nowhere. So that is how I ended up on my birthday enjoying a four course meal with wine and the use of a swimming pool, trying not to trespass too much on their family get-together.

Leaving Vandancourt, it is an easy stroll through woodland to reach Pont Sarrazin, a natural archway in the limestone rock and the first notable sight since leaving Belfort. From there, the GR5 takes you along forest tracks and back roads before a short but sharp climb takes you out of the valley and up to the Swiss-French border for the first time, which is marked with border stones going back as far as 1817. We followed the border for a couple of hours, mostly through woodland and pastures, where there were occassional views back towards the industrial area around Montbeliard. The afternoon's walk was spoilt somewhat by the rain and there was a tricky finally descent towards the town of St Hippolyte over the now slippery rocky path. St Hippolyte is situated on the Doubs river in the shadow of mountains and we arrived as the mist was starting to creep up the valley and cover the views of the town. As all the hotels were full we had a bit of a tricky time sorting our accommodation but ended up in a wooded hut at the camping ground, which looked what it was - a glorified garden shed - but which did the job.

The stage from St Hippolyte to Goumois is designed as a short cut to miss a large bend in the Doubs river, although it certainly didn't feel like an easy option. The stage starts by following the river out of St Hippolyte where the GR5 takes you past the foot of some limestone cliffs before crossing the river and beginning a steep climb out of the valley. After an hour of so, the trail leaves the trees behind and emerges into fields before an almost vertical ascent up a road to a farm - we soon came to be wary of the term "fairly steep" when it would crop up in the guidebook. Thereafter, the day was spent crossing a couple more valleys, ascending and descending a few hundred metres at a time, passing lots of cows in the fields and the occassional village. The GR5 eventually drops down towards the village of Goumois, passing a rocky outcrop which provides an excellent vantage point. Goumois is right on the Swiss-French border (in fact the river Doubs which marks the border splits the village in half) and nestles at the foot of some impressive cliffs. By the time we arrived, the sky had darkened and the mist was coming in and we were fortunate to finish the stage just as the heavens started to open.

The next couple of days were the real highlight of the walk through the Jura as the GR5 takes you along the banks of the Doubs through a narrow river gorge with steep rockfaces on either side. The walking is very enjoyable along wooded paths which rise up towards the cliffs above so that much of the time is spent on narrow paths and rocky ledges overlooking the river below. The flow of the river changes almost by the hour with everything from fast flowing water and rapids to large lakes and still pools where the trout gather close to the riverbank. The focal point on the first day was the Echelles de Mort (or ladders of death) which naturally with a name like that got our attention. In turns out that they are steel ladders like you might find on a fire escape and were bolted very firmly to the rockface. They allow a rapid descent from the top of the gorge to the bottom. Certainly more impressive, were the group of climbers who were crossing the rock faces using a series of Indiana Jones style rope suspension bridges. In the evening, the sun was glinting on a lake with cattle grazing by the lake shore, as we found Maison Monsieur, an Auberge on the swiss side of the river, which sits on the river's edge and had great views of the hillside where the trees had started to turn an autumnal red, yellow and brown. Before enjoying our evening meal, we had to complete the bureaucratic swiss tourist form. My response to the questions - from (Groningen, Holland) and to (Nice, France) got a confused look but no comment.

Our second day in the gorge was spent following the Doubs towards the town of Villers-le-lac. Early on we passed a couple of very impressive hydro-electric plants with one that had a series of steps going almost vertically up out of the gorge (it is so steep that there is a furnicular to get people in and out of the plant). After the power plants, the river widens into a series of meandering bends with impressive views of the limestone cliffs and rock formations. Shortly after the Saut (waterfall) de Doubs it is possible to get a ferry back to town enjoying a scenic tour of the valley but instead I trudged along a quiet, winding road high in the hills overlooking the river. Rather surprisingly I passed a couple who were going at it on the backseat of their car - normally I say a cheery "bonjour" to the people I pass on the trail but I decided it was best to leave them to it. In Villers-le-lac we were able to find the gite which when I had called earlier in the day to ask if it was possible to stay, I was met with the amusing response, "How should I know, I'm only 6". Fair point.

From Villers-le-lac, we climbed away from the river, steeply at times, before spending the next few hours following the Swiss-French border along a forested ridge. The landscape then opened up to reveal rolling green hills and pastures - in many ways it looked like the typical image of the Swiss Alps, with cows grazing in the fields and larges houses with steeply pointing roofs clustered together in small villages. As we passed between France and Switzerland along a border that has changed several times over the past few hundred years, it was possible to muse about the Swiss foreign policy during these times. It seems that Swiss position was essentially to insist that they got all the picture-perfect villages, farmland and hills so that they can sell postcards and be the setting for musicals in the future, leaving the French with the bits they didn't like. Certainly the Swiss areas were very picturesque in the warm summer sunshine. In the afternoon, we walked along the top of a cliff overlooking the French villages below before walking from village to village in search of somewhere to stay. The three gites in our guidebook had either closed or were full so that by the early evening we were running out of options. It was more with hope than expectation that I asked a local passing me in the street if he knew of somewhere to stay. As he was suggesting a family that had a little riding school, they happened to pass us in their car. Waving them down, the man arranged for us to stay in a tent in their garden with demi-pension (essentially half-board with diner and breakfast). We were told to wait for them in their garden as they were going to the next village but would be back in an hour or so. Reflecting on the nature of rural life and our good luck, we did as we were told and spent a cold but comfortable night camped out at about a 1000m.

The next day was a strange one - lots of walking through the by now familiar wooded valleys, green pastures and the odd valley but with no particular landmarks or places of interest, except for a rock formation called les Dames des Entreportes. Then late in the day we reached Fort Mahler, which overlooks Joux Castle. The castle is a thousand years old and sits on a rocky outcrop which dominated the key trading routes in the area. We did the guided tour and I was pleased to be able to get 90% or so of what was being said. A big part of this trip for me was the chance to practice my French and I was pleased with how I was doing. I had been in France six weeks or so at this point and many people had said that I spoke good French. Unfortunately, almost in the same breath they would also ask where I came from (i.e. which country). I think this has put pay to any hopes I have of being genuinely bi-lingual.

We stayed in the village beneath the castle in a quirky 1* hotel - it had wallpaper on the doors and sinks in the corridor - but the staff were very friendly and welcoming. We were deep in Absinthe country and it is distilled locally although the French and Swiss have different methods. The owner had a number of old posters in the dining room for the Absynthe de Pontalier and I spent an interesting half hour learning about the history of the drink and the region. I politely refused a tasting session - afterall I had a day's stage to walk - and I was vindicated in my decision as it was a very steep climb from the village to the crest of the hill before we followed a rocky path to Lac de St Point. The lake is the 3rd largest body of water in France and in the heatwave we were experiencing, its turquoise blue water looked too tempting to resist. Despite wading into a very muddy part of the lake, the water was very refreshing. The other notable landmark of the day was the Source Bleu - a natural spring where the water appears blue as it emerges from a deep cavern. Turning away from the lake, we passed across an open valley, heading for the ski village of Metabief. On the way we passed a farmer milking his cows in the evening sunshine, and we stopped for a chat and a photo. Cows are everywhere in the Jura and the sound of clanging bells can be heard for miles. Nearly every village has a fromagerie and it is possible to follow Les Routes du Comté - essentially one big cheese tour.

From Metabief it is a short walk along a railway line which is now used only for a tourist train to reach Hopitaux Neuf before a gradual climb takes you to the ski station at Le Morond. From the top you get your first sighting of the Alps including Mont Blanc spanning the horizon. It is quite a sight for someone who set of almost three months earlier in Holland. Walking along a ridge with a sheer cliff face on its eastern flank, you reach Mont D'Or, at 1461m the highest point in the Jura. From the summit there are panoramic views back over the Jura, over Switzeland and onwards to the Alps. Indeed, there is a sign saying that Nice is 345kms away as the crow flies but the GR5 takes more than twice that distance to reach the same destination. As if to prove a point, the GR5 turns westwards away from the Alps and begins a long and dull walk to Mouthe. Fortunately, we met a young Dutch couple doing part of the GR5 and we joined them for a few hours, which helped to pass the time. The weather was closing in as we arrived in the town and we were nicely settled before the rain came lashing down that evening.

From Mouthe, the GR5 heads off in a giant 'C' shape before arriving at the shores of Lake Geneva three days later. There was a continuation of the uneventful walking of the day before across fields and through woods, trying to avoid the rain. We stopped off in Chaux Neuve - a ski jumping town - as the rain began to fall and enjoyed the first introduction to Savoyard cuisine - basically a heart attack on a plate. All the dishes use pretty much the same ingredients - (lots of) potatoes, cheese, cream, and meat (bacon, sausage etc). Delicious, especially given the depressing weather. There was something unusual about the restaurant that I couldn't work out until much later in the day. It was that it was run by two guys of North-African origin. They were probably the first non-white people I had seen outside of the big cities/towns during my time in France. I make no judgements about this, its just an observation. Our destination that evening was Chappel des Bois, a tiny village spread out on a plane which lies on the French side of the border with Switzerland perched on the cliffs above.

In the morning the views of the cliffs and the valley were completely obscured by the mist and rain. It was a difficult climb on the slippery rocks and tree roots to reach the viewpoint of Roche Champion. It was possible during brief intervals to get a final look at the Jura mountains before the mist became all enveloping once again. From there we followed the French-Swiss border again along the top of the cliffs before heading through forest where there was very little to see other than trees and loggers. Eventually we reached Les Rousses - a bustling ski village even in summer - before heading onto one of the quietest youth hostels I've ever stayed 3kms further on but which was located right next to a waterfall.

On our final day before the Alps we passed through the ultimate border town of La Curé where some buildings and even some rooms have the border running straight through them. And then it started to rain. After 3 hours of a persistant downpour we were soaked to the skin. As we trudged into St Cergue, we found somewhere to get lunch and have the chance to dry off, although I had to wring out my soaks before I sat down. Fortunately in the afternoon it brightened long enough to finish the stage. We followed an old Roman road downhill until we reached the flat area of fields and light industry that lie just before Lake Geneva. Having finally found somewhere to stay in Nyon, all that was left to do was to celebrate the end of another section of the GR5. We found a pub that brewed its own beer and went about the systematic tasks of tasting them all.

Nyon offered a chance to replace or repair my kit. I spent four hours in an out-of-town shopping centre waiting for my boots to be resoled. After 1600kms they were worn out around the outer edges and hand needed repairing for several weeks. Its worth noting at this point - two thirds into the trek - that most of my kit had been patched up at some point and if it hadn't it would be by the time I crossed the Alps. I had taped up frayed shoelaces, my map case and the numerous holes in my supposedly waterproof bag cover (the result of too many tangles with barb wire fences and thick hedges). The valve of my water bottle was leaking resulting in a constant drip of water down my front. I had begun to wear through my socks with holes around the heel and my t-shirts had started to fray. I include these details to illustrate the seemingly trivial things that the long distance walker has to deal with but which become big issues in their own right depending on how irritating they are or how much they impede one's progress.

From Nyon I took one of the ferries that heads to Thonon-les-Bains on the French side of the lake. The shoreline is dotted with large houses, quaint little villages and fisherman on the quaysides. Sails flutter in the wind as people enjoy watersports on the lake. Despite its beauty, my focus was fixed firmly on the Alps that rise from the lake and tower above you as high as the eye can see.

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