Es­cape the crowds and ex­pe­ri­ence the de­lights of this lit­tle-known area.

Love the moun­tains in summer, but want to es­cape the crowds? Look east to find out­door es­capism at its best, says So­phie Gard­ner- Roberts

France - - Contents -

When think­ing of French moun­tain ranges, you may con­jure up im­ages of the tow­er­ing sum­mits and mys­te­ri­ous val­leys of the Alps, the jagged peaks of the Pyrénées or the an­cient vol­canic domes of the Mas­sif Cen­tral.

Less fa­mil­iar are the Jura Moun­tains, a natural east­ern border be­tween France and Switzer­land. Here lies a fas­ci­nat­ing moun­tain range, a sort of off­shoot of the Alps, with lower sum­mits but breath­tak­ing land­scapes. The land is dot­ted with blue lakes, small vil­lages and his­tor­i­cal forts. Peaks rise dra­mat­i­cally, cre­at­ing bu­colic val­leys, while the earth is carved from within by cave net­works. It is home to cat­tle-farm­ing folk who have pre­served a her­itage of agri­cul­ture and ar­ti­sanal pro­duc­tion in the high pas­tures.

You will find ever-chang­ing scenery that brings a sur­prise at ev­ery turn of the twist­ing moun­tain roads. You will cross the paths of cy­clists, walk­ers and bik­ers, and per­haps the oc­ca­sional herd of cows. You will eat your way through hearty cui­sine and tra­di­tion­ally made cheeses, whose recipes re­main a well-kept se­cret. You may even dis­cover the truth be­hind the leg­endary ab­sinthe spirit.

These were just some of my ex­pe­ri­ences on a packed tour of the Mon­tagnes du Jura, where I was charmed by the natural beauty of the area and the trea­sures it held, hid­den from the well-trod­den path of summer tourism in the French moun­tains.

The Jura Moun­tains are a de­fined hol­i­day area that cov­ers the Haut-jura re­gional park and three dé­parte­ments: Doubs and Jura in Bour­gogne-franche-Comté and Ain in Au­vergne-rhône-Alpes. It is a natural play­ground for ac­tive trav­ellers who love to hike, cy­cle, swim, paddle or climb.

As the Jura range is rel­a­tively mod­est in height, climb­ing and other rock ac­tiv­i­ties such as via fer­rata are very

pop­u­lar, com­bin­ing the adrenalin rush of the moun­tains at a lower al­ti­tude. One such via fer­rata scram­bling route is lo­cated on the south­ern edge of the re­gional park, right by the border with Switzer­land.

Thrilling as­cent

Just out­side Bel­le­garde-sur-valser­ine perches Fort l’écluse, an old for­ti­fied bas­tion over­look­ing the River Rhône. I was peer­ing up at it, pleas­antly tak­ing in the scenery, when Éti­enne, our guide from Rock’n Jump Ad­ven­ture, pointed at the up­per fort some 200 me­tres above and said: “That’s where we’re go­ing.” “Sure we are,” my brother and I laughed, think­ing it was a joke. It was not. Try­ing to ig­nore the jolt of fear in our stom­achs, we be­gan the as­cent in the swel­ter­ing heat, Éti­enne lead­ing the way.

Lit­tle me­tal footholds were bolted into the cliff, pro­vid­ing firm grips and steps for our hands and feet as we climbed at a steady pace. Sud­denly, Éti­enne stopped and hooked his safety line on to one of the rigid sta­ples stick­ing out of the rock and sat com­fort­ably into his har­ness.

“En­joy the view!” he grinned. Do­ing the same, we turned away from the cliff to take in the jaw-drop­ping panorama. The Rhône glinted pale blue down be­low, while for­est-cov­ered moun­tains rose on ei­ther side of us. It was spec­tac­u­lar. We car­ried on, gain­ing con­fi­dence with ev­ery step, stop­ping oc­ca­sion­ally to drink water and en­joy the views. It was a phys­i­cally tir­ing yet thrilling as­cent. We reached the base of the up­per fort rel­a­tively quickly, feel­ing hot and both­ered, but happy and giddy from ex­cite­ment.

Those who are not keen on ver­ti­cal as­cents will find plenty of gen­tler ac­tiv­i­ties. I en­joyed a pleas­ant walk through the wooded land­scapes of the Pertes de la Valser­ine in Bel­le­garde. A path fol­lows the River Valser­ine be­fore the waters pour into im­pres­sive canyons

that have been shaped by ero­sion. It makes a per­fect pic­nic spot and is a great place to slow down and en­joy the sur­round­ing na­ture.

The summer heat was intense, so, later in the trip, I was re­lieved to stop in Saint-point-lac, a charm­ing com­mune on the banks of Lac Saint-point, France’s third-largest natural lake. After a lengthy swim, I watched peo­ple pass by the small beach in kayaks and ca­noes, while sails from boats fur­ther out flashed white. The lake re­flected the vivid blue of the sky, edged by dark forests. Hotels and vil­lages clus­tered on the banks but all was quiet, ex­cept for the soft splashes of water from swim­mers and pad­dles.

Spec­tac­u­lar set­ting

The area’s beauty is not lim­ited to na­ture. The Plus Beau Vil­lage of Baume-les-Messieurs is nes­tled deep in a lush val­ley and en­cased by the spec­tac­u­lar Cirque de Baume; its abbey and quaint houses are as charm­ing as can be.

The abbey was founded in the 9th cen­tury and it was from here that, in 910, Ber­non set out to be­come the first Ab­bot of Cluny. The next 1,000 years saw the abbey swing be­tween de­cline and re­gen­er­a­tion, with its peak being reached in the 16th and 17th cen­turies. The ar­chi­tec­ture re­flects the dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods and features a beau­ti­ful me­dieval sculpted door­way.

I hap­pened to be there on a leg­isla­tive elec­tion day and the vil­lage square was busy, but over­all, the vil­lage ap­pears frozen in time, with old stone houses, lined with brightly coloured roses, in quiet cob­bled streets.

An­other tes­ti­mony to times past is the Château de Joux, perched pre­car­i­ously on a high cliff over­look­ing the vil­lage of La Cluse-et-mi­joux. The drive up wind­ing roads is worth­while for the panoramic views. The fort it­self is bare in­side, al­though it has an in­ter­est­ing history as a state prison, with fa­mous in­mates in­clud­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader Count Mirabeau and Tous­saint L’ou­ver­ture, who led a slave re­volt in Haiti.

I rev­elled in ex­plor­ing the out­doors, but also had the chance to dis­cover the re­gion’s un­der­ground trea­sures. The caves of Baume-les-messieurs are tucked away in a reculée, a ge­o­log­i­cal term des­ig­nat­ing a nar­row but deep val­ley that ends in a natural cul-de-sac.

Ac­cess to the caves is by a me­tal stair­case hug­ging the cliff, as the en­trance is not level with the ground. The guided tour lasts about an hour and takes vis­i­tors through a net­work of gal­leries emerg­ing into large, cav­ernous ‘rooms’. Some sec­tions are very low and nar­row, so you have to bend over to com­plete the visit, al­though our young guide, Pierre, was very ac­com­mo­dat­ing with all the vis­i­tors.

The cave was dis­cov­ered in 1610 and ex­plored prop­erly from 1893-1895 by Alfred Mar­tel, con­sid­ered the founder of mod­ern spele­ol­ogy. It boasts im­pres­sive for­ma­tions and a jit­tery res­i­dent bat pop­u­la­tion, but the sim­plic­ity of the in­stal­la­tions – me­tal steps and clever light­ing – al­lowed us to take in fully the grandeur of the caves and its an­cient fault lines.

In a dif­fer­ent style, the Grottes du Cer­don, in Ain, are per­haps more im­pres­sive as they con­tain spec­tac­u­lar sta­lag­mite and sta­lac­tite for­ma­tions, in­clud­ing a ‘cas­cade’ which looks as if the run­ning water had frozen in­stantly. Vis­i­tors can take a guided tour, or go it alone with the help of a wa­ter­proof book­let invit­ing stops at cer­tain points to read the ex­pla­na­tions. The vis­i­tors’ cen­tre has plenty of ameni­ties and holds ed­u­ca­tional work­shops where chil­dren learn about ar­chae­ol­ogy, pot­tery and even archery.

Cheese ga­lore

Once you have burned all those calo­ries climb­ing moun­tains, div­ing in lakes and ex­plor­ing the un­der­world, you will be pleased to know that the lo­cal cui­sine con­sists mainly of de­li­cious cheeses.

The re­gion’s claim to fame, Comté, has a fas­ci­nat­ing back­ground. The first records of pro­duc­tion date from the Mid­dle Ages, when farm­ers pooled re­sources, par­tic­u­larly milk, to have enough food for the win­ter. The amount of milk they col­lected en­abled them to

make large wheels of cheese. Comté is still pro­duced in the same col­lab­o­ra­tive way, us­ing milk from sev­eral farms to make each wheel; you need 400 litres to make a 35-40-kilo­gram Comté cheese.

Per­haps the best place to un­der­stand the process is Fort Saint-an­toine. The 19th-cen­tury build­ing lies par­tially un­der­ground (be­neath six to eight me­tres of earth) and was barely used for its in­tended mil­i­tary pur­pose. Mar­cel Pe­tite, a suc­cess­ful Comté pro­ducer from nearby Pon­tar­lier, recog­nised the fort’s po­ten­tial – with its con­stant tem­per­a­ture of around 8°C and 80-90 per cent hu­mid­ity – as the ideal place to age his cheeses, and took over the premises in 1966. To­day, 100,000 wheels of Comté age slowly in ev­ery nook and cranny.

You get to taste one of Mar­cel Pe­tite’s most pop­u­lar cheeses, a creamy 12-month-old Comté, dur­ing the guided visit. The high­light is the large Cour d’hon­neur, which shel­ters thou­sands of Comté wheels, all neatly aligned on wooden shelves. A strong smell of am­mo­nia, se­creted nat­u­rally by the ag­ing cheeses, catches you by sur­prise but you get used to it. Em­ploy­ees, we are told, think it makes them rather eu­phoric.

The Jura Moun­tains are home to sev­eral cheese AOCS: Comté (since 1958), Mont d’or, Mor­bier and the less-well-known Bleu de Gex. The lat­ter is a creamy blue cheese which is only made in four ap­pel­la­tions. One of them, La Fro­magerie de l’ab­baye in Chéz­ery, is open to the pub­lic. Thanks to a raised plat­form with glass walls, vis­i­tors can watch the cheese mak­ers at work. Milk comes from Mont­béliarde cows, which graze high up in the moun­tains, eat­ing flow­ers that give the cheese a pep­pery taste. It is aged for a min­i­mum of three weeks and holes are poked through the top to let the air reach the cen­tre and al­low fer­men­ta­tion.

It was strangely mes­meris­ing to watch the work­ers plop the lumps of milk into buck­ets and place plas­tic let­ters on the soft cheese so that GEX is en­graved in the crust once the cheese has aged enough. One of the more mys­te­ri­ous prod­ucts of the Jura moun­tains is ab­sinthe, the once-il­licit, highly al­co­holic ‘green fairy’ no­to­ri­ous for push­ing artists to mad­ness. The spirit was in­vented in Switzer­land but mass-pro­duced in Pon­tar­lier in the 19th cen­tury be­cause of high Swiss taxes. The drink be­came hugely pop­u­lar from around 1830 after French troops, hav­ing used ab­sinthe to pu­rify water in the colonies, re­turned home and in­tro­duced it to the pub­lic.

By 1900, the golden age of cabarets, French can-can and artists’ par­ties, Pon­tar­lier had 25 dis­til­leries and 111 bistros serv­ing the aper­i­tif. Con­sump­tion was so high that peo­ple were fall­ing ill, even be­com­ing blind. At the out­break of World War I, the wine in­dus­try and po­lit­i­cal lob­bies fought to get rid of the drink. In March 1915, ab­sinthe was banned in France and the myth grew up about the spirit’s lethal qual­i­ties.

An­other age started, that of il­le­gal ab­sinthe pro­duc­tion and clan­des­tine con­sump­tion. Pro­duc­ers in Switzer­land made ab­sinthe, un­der names such as ‘ lait de vache’ or ‘ lait de ti­gre’, un­til 2005 when the ban was lifted. The French had to

wait un­til 2011 for ab­sinthe to be le­galised, but the drink re­tains some of its mystique and sense of dan­ger.

To­day, ab­sinthe is cel­e­brated as part of the lo­cal her­itage and a sym­bol of Franco-swiss col­lab­o­ra­tion. The Route de l’ab­sinthe crosses the border from Pon­tar­lier to the Val-de-travers, the heart of ab­sinthe coun­try. The Dis­til­lerie Les Fils d’émile Per­not, the most im­por­tant pro­ducer in the early 1900s, still stands to­day in La Cluse-et-mi­joux. You can visit the dis­tillery for free and buy some of its iconic bot­tles; the fam­ily-run busi­ness has re­vived the art-deco la­bels, pro­duc­ing some beau­ti­ful de­signs from the golden age of ab­sinthe.

Tast­ing the lo­cal pro­duce is as much an ex­plo­ration of the Jura Moun­tains as climb­ing the peaks or wan­der­ing around the vil­lages. If, like me, you do not ski but love the moun­tains, you will find hap­pi­ness in the forests, lakes and val­leys. I share my ex­pe­ri­ences with some he­si­ta­tion, as al­though I would love you to dis­cover this un­der­rated area of France, part of me also hopes to pre­serve its au­then­tic­ity by keep­ing its right to re­main one of l’hexagone’s best-kept se­crets.

ABOVE: The River Valser­ine in full flow near Bel­le­garde; LEFT, FROM TOP: The Château de Joux; So­phie nears the end of her via fer­rata climb

ABOVE: Clas­sic ab­sinthe la­bels at the Dis­til­lerie Les Fils d’émile Per­not in Pon­tar­lier

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