Grand Jura

The verdant forests, rolling meadows and spectacular vistas of the Jura make it an ideal destination for a walking weekend, says Judy Armstrong

The verdant forests, rolling meadows and spectacular vistas of the Jura make it an ideal destination for a walking weekend, says Judy ArmstrongA red cow stares at me. She blinks, long eyelashes drooping over her placid face. “Do you think she wants my sandwich?” I whisper to my friend Wendy, who is sitting beside me on this sun-warmed hill. “Better not offer,” Wendy whispers back. “I don’t think tuna mayonnaise is a normal ingredient for flavouring cheese.”Wendy is right: Madame Vache is a Montb�liard, a breed from the Jura whose milk goes exclusively to make Comt� cheese. She is sharing our hillside because, well, we’re in the Jura and she lives here. Wendy and I are on her patch because of the long-distance footpath that snakes north and south, as far as the eye can see.This is the Grande Travers�e du Jura (GTJ). As a footpath, it stretches for 400 kilometres from Mandeure in the Doubs to Culoz in Ain, linking the regions of Franche-Comt� and Rh�ne-Alpes. While many walkers have discovered its full quota of delights since its inception in 2003, the GTJ is equally popular with weekenders’. This is partly due to easy access: the route follows the high points of the crescent-shaped Jura Mountains, but it is also within wandering distance of train stations. Consequently, it is possible to walk a linear or circular route for two or three days, a week or more.Wendy and I are classic weekenders. We have snatched a couple of days from busy lives and made our way to Lajoux, a village in the Parc Naturel R�gional du Haut-Jura. Lajoux is home to the park’s headquarters, built in 2006 in traditional style and clad with wooden tiles, known as tavaillons. Inside are audio-visual projections, hands-on displays showing life within the park and guides to flora and fauna, including lynx and black grouse. More than 8,000 visitors, mostly French, find their way here each year. It’s an inspiring approach to ecology and sustainable tourism and the perfect way to start a walk in the park.Evelyne Muller, who works for the park and whose passion for the project shines brighter than day, takes us under her wing. She outlines a two-day hike that features the best of the local scenery and is eager to share the history and heritage of her patch. We join her on a guided walk around Lajoux, using hand-held GPS units rented to visitors by the park. These are multimedia audio guides with touch screens, and a translation in languid American English. “Breathe deeply, open your ears and eyes, stroke the bark, dip your hands in the water,” implores Mike’. He guides us on a three-hour walk through the For�t du Massacre, explaining about the trees, flowers, animals and houses, and how the forest is managed. Originally known as For�t de la Frasse, the name was changed in 1535 after a battle between Italian mercenaries and Savoyard soldiers. While Mike chats about the landscape, Evelyne occasionally chips in. “If you look around, you can see that the ground here is limestone,” she says. “This has a special sound because of the holes and hollows underground. So we have viewpoints, but also sound points, caused by limestone and glacial erosion. In some places we have outdoor concerts, with music written to use the echoes and acoustics from the ground.”Our first night’s halt is Le Trappeur, a hotel run by the Gruet family, which sits at the heart of a handful of houses scattered over fenceless meadows. “We thought of selling it once, but then there were children and grandchildren, so we decided to renovate instead,” says Marie Gruet, beaming at various infants and a large, black dog asleep on the veranda. It is a typical Jurassien welcome: hands on hearts, smiles across faces, ushering us in to homes and lives.

Travelling lightDespite morning sunshine, the ground is crunchy with frost. Marie shrugs; anything can happen with the seasons. “The snow melts in May or June, but it never gets too hot in summer because of the altitude and because we have no mountains to protect us from the wind,” she says. Leaving our bags to be transferred to tonight’s halt, Wendy and I set off, armed with small rucksacks, map and a guidebook. This is an aspect of GTJ walking that we definitely appreciate; travelling light leaves you with more energy to enjoy the place. We quickly discover another GTJ plus: our route is so well signposted that even a complete novice could find their way.We follow the waymarks through forests, across meadows, past cows and isolated farmhouses. The views are beautiful and run across the Valserine Valley to the Monts Jura. It could never be described as alpine; rather, it is soft, inviting and encouraging. There is no sense of intimidation in the Jura; everything feels mellow and manageable. It inspires confidence, and we feel relaxed and happy as we stroll in the sunshine.Mid-morning, we reach a small wooden chapel. The monks from the abbey of Sainte-Claude played a fundamental role in shaping this landscape, including cutting down the forests, but there are few churches here. This chapel at Cariche bucks the trend: according to a plaque on the black-stained wood it was built in 1936 by Monsieur le Chanoine Pierre Petit. We walk up stone steps and peer through a keyhole to see a wood-lined interior, simple bench pews and altar. Outside, a stone mound is sealed by a trap door. We puzzle over this, and later ask Evelyne, who says it is a water cistern. “We have a problem: all the rain falls straight through the limestone ground, so the only way to save water is in a cistern. They are very deep and about three metres wide; all the houses have them.”We make our way south, stopping for lunch with our Montb�liard cow, and arriving in early afternoon at La Guienette. This is a typical Jurassien house: high, broad, clad in tavaillon for insulation, with zinc sheeting on the weather-facing side. Owned by Fran�ois and Fran�oise Casagrande, it is an auberge with a difference: as well as dormitories, it has a Mongolian yurt in a field. For the moment, though, a 60th birthday party is in full swing. An accordion player is leading the revellers in dancing and singing, waltzing and applauding, table banging and stamping. A happy man with no teeth asks Wendy to join in the singing. “No thanks,” she says sweetly. “If it isn’t Fr�re Jacques,I won’t know the words.”We totter up the hill, past a barrage of hissing geese, to the yurt. From the outside it looks dilapidated, with a rickety terrace and lopsided door. But inside, with its carpets and tapestries, sofas and squishy cushions, it feels a world away from reality. Later, we light the wood-burning stove and, as the flames flicker, pretend we’re on the Mongolian steppes. Before that, it’s time for dinner. The house speciality is jambon au foin, where Fran�ois smokes huge joints of ham in hay and serves the meat with potatoes drenched in cream and Comt� cheese. The ham is lean, dry yet succulent, with a seductively smoky taste; it’s incredible. It is preceded by Fran�oise’s special ap�ritif; white wine, white rum, lemon, sugar and mystery spices, which is potent and refreshing after a day in the open air. By now, the 60th birthday celebrations are over, but they have been replaced by a group celebrating a 50th. The noise is overwhelming. “Let’s hope there’s not a 40th at breakfast,” mutters Wendy. A fat full moon lights our way from auberge to yurt. Wendy fires up the stove and we settle down on red-blanketed beds. All is tranquil, until 2am when we are woken by the sound of cattle barging around the outside of the yurt. They keep it up until 7am, when we abandon any hope of sleep and stretch into a new day.After persuading Fran�oise to slide some of that superb ham into sandwiches, we dash past the geese one final time and set off into bright sunshine. Our initial target is the Borne au Lion, a stone erected in 1613 at the head of a narrow valley. It marked the border between the French kingdom (with a lily insignia), the kingdom of Savoie (a cross) and Franche-Comt� (a lion). At the time Franche-Comt� was Spanish, although it became French in 1678.Above this historical stone rears the Cr�t de Chalam, known locally as the Sugarloaf. We follow a narrow footpath up a rocky streambed and through woodland to a shoulder below the summit. Here, the view opens out, extending south to the plain that eventually holds Geneva, and west to the Alps… “Snow!” squeaks Wendy. She points forwards to a shimmering monster of snow and ice. It’s Mont Blanc far in the distance, yet it feels almost close enough to touch. We climb wooden steps to the pyramidal peak. The Cr�t de Chalam is just 1,545 metres above sea level but it feels much higher. At our feet is the River Valserine; above it a chunky cliff face supports the Monts Jura. Beyond them are more blue ridges and mountain chains, leading to the glistening glaciers and satellite peaks of Mont Blanc. It’s Sunday, and there’s a party atmosphere with couples and families picnicking, and runners in skimpy shorts. Wendy and I chomp into our ham sandwiches, but feel somewhat out-catered by the wine, bread and cheese displayed on one family’s blanket, and the champagne being shared by another. “The French sure know how to picnic,” Wendy says, wistfully sipping water. Turning our backs on Mont Blanc, we skitter down the steep face of Cr�t de Chalam and head for the village of La Pesse. Following a waymarked detour, we get lost in a forest and eventually find the village by following the sound of singing. To general astonishment, La Pesse – population 330 – is home to Azimut, an international blues festival, with free concerts and surprise events over three days. Apart from the party, La Pesse is a tranquil blend of old farmhouses, small ski chalets (there’s a vibrant winter sports scene) and a zinc-clad church with a bell tower topped by a cockerel. A museum of rural life and a co-operative selling cheese lead to a bison farm and restaurant.We climb out of town in search of La Renou�e chambres d’h�tes. Chantal Grenard welcomes us into a haven of pine and crisp linen, before showing us around her home. The first house was built in 1776 by Jean-Claude Grenard, her husband’s great-great- grandfather, with a second, La Renou�e, alongside it in 1832. Chantal and Dominique recently decided to give it new life as a chambres d’h�tes. At dinner, Dominique serves local cheese – heavily veined Bleu de Gex, Morbier with a pale blue central stripe, Mousseron, a type of Tomme made near La Pesse, plus the ubiquitous Comt� – he adds historical context. “When my father was alive, there were 37 farmers in this commune, now there are five,” he says. “Every day, he carried the milk churn on his back to the fromagerie in the village. See that photograph, from 20 years ago? This house sits proud, on its own above the village and church. Now, there are 12 new houses in between.”We reflect, over coffee, on how times are a’ changing. But later, when Wendy and I have climbed the wooden steps to our beautiful room and gaze out over a moon-lit meadow, we realise that change is relative. This view, over this corner of Franche-Comt�, looks and feels the same as it has for centuries. Verdant forests, cattle grazing on rounded hills, simple farmhouses dotted in mellow valleys. It may feel to the people of La Pesse as if the world is in top gear, but to the rest of us this is a quiet corner of timelessness.WALKING THE GRANDE TRAVERS�E DU JURALength: 400kmNorthern point: Mandeure (Doubs)Southern point: Culoz (Ain)Altitude: between 350m and 1,720mMarkings: the GTJ footpath uses Grande Randonn�e markings (red and white stripes) and Grande Randonn�e de Pays (yellow and red stripes)Best months: May to OctoberAverage daily distance: 20km-25kmGuidebook: La Grande Travers�e du Jura… � pied (pub. FFRP, ISBN 2-7514-0090-6) includes topographic maps

It is easy to organise your own trek along the GTJ, but there are also groups that can help. There are GTJ routes for cycle tourers and mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers and snowshoeing in winter.Association Grandes Travers�es du Jura Tel: (Fr) 3 84 51 51 51, www.gtj.asso.frFRANCOFILEGETTING THEREJudy Armstrong crossed the Channel with P&O Ferries. Tel 08716 645 645  Lajoux in the Hautes Combes du Jura is a nine-hour drive from the Channel. There is a TGV station at Bellegarde (three-and-a-half hours from Paris). The nearest international airport is Geneva, with a Swiss train connection to Les Rousses (near Lajoux).

Where to stayLe TrappeurLe Manon39310 Les MolunesTel: (Fr) 3 84 41 21 26www.hoteltrappeur.comAn immaculate family-run hotel with restaurant, a short walk from Lajoux. Luggage transfer upon request.

Auberge La GuienetteLes Trois Chemin�es39310 BellecombeTel: (Fr) 3 84 41 65 yurt sleeps six, with a wood-burning stove. Toilet and shower facilities are 100 metres away in the auberge.  Luggage transfer upon request.

La Renou�eRoute de Chaudezembre39370 La PesseTel: (Fr) 3 84 42 75 35www.chambres-hotes-larenouee.comA cosy B&B with fantastic food and possibly the warmest welcome in France. Luggage transfer on request.

Tourist officeLa Maison du Parc du Haut Jura39310 LajouxTel: (Fr) 3 84 34 12

Comit� R�gional du Tourisme Franche-Comt�Tel: (Fr) 03 81 25 08

More informationGrandes Travers�es du Jura15-17 Grande Rue39150 Les Planches en MontagneTel: (Fr) 3 84 51 51

Azimut39370 La PesseTel: (Fr) 3 84 42 79 02