Besançon to the Swiss border, and beyond

Rivers, and mountains, and cheese…oh my!

132kms – 7 days

The Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route that I’m following to Rome, has taken me to countless places that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve discovered charming villages and fascinating cities, visited off the beaten track places that I would previously struggle to pin point on a map. But the jewel in the crown of the Via Francigena’s magical mystery tour has to be the Jura Mountains, which stretch across the French-Swiss border. My days walking through this unknown land were pure joy. Its natural beauty, picturesque villages, delicious cheeses, and warm hospitality pulled at my heart strings and had me never wanting to leave.

A misty morning high up in the Jura Mountains

The road out of Besançon was like a cruel wake up call leading me up an impossibly steep hill that took me high into the clouds, looking down on the Citadelle de Besançon which itself towers over the city. The flat plains and undulating hills that I’d spent the last week walking through were far behind me. Everything was starting to feel alpine – the air, the evergreens, the cow bells, the wooden chalets. It was one of those moments where you have to pinch yourself. Had I really walked here from my house in London?

Beautiful Ornans, which sits at the base of the Vallée de la Loue

The stunning town of Ornans took me somewhat by surprise. I’d spotted it on the map and thought of it only as a well positioned lunch stop. But as I walked to the base of the Vallée de la Loue and turned a corner to see Ornans’ houses reflecting in the river below, I wished I was staying for a week. The town was the birthplace of the nineteenth century French realist painter Gustave Courbet. And it not only has a beautiful museum in which his and others’ works are displayed, but has attracted other artists and creatives whose wares are on sale in the town’s gallery lined streets.

I watched kayakers amble downstream as I picnicked by the River Loue, enjoying some of the region’s famous Comté cheese. It’s nutty and mature, travels well in a hot backpack, and goes perfectly with a fresh baguette.

Ornans houses reflected in the River Loue
The Vallée de la Loue

Edging further along the Vallée de la Loue, its limestone walls seemed to get higher and its forests thicker. I ventured deep into the fir trees in search of what turned out to be one of my favourite overnight stays since leaving London. A few years ago a wonderfully friendly and refreshing French-Swedish couple turned their backs on town life and bought a plot of land in the countryside, creating an off grid haven that instantly transported me to some of my favourite backpacker haunts in Nepal, Thailand, and Patagonia.

They wanted to share their world with others, so created an association (a non-profit organisation) that transformed their home into a bar where friends can drink, a venue for pétanque tournaments, the site of a music festival, and the force behind community ski trips higher up in the mountains. I stayed in a log cabin in the woods, which they reserve for pilgrims, swam in the freezing cold river that runs through their property, and enjoyed an evening of home cooked home grown food, interesting conversation, and much laughter. And I was introduced to another local cheese, cancoillotte. It looks more like double cream than cheese, and is spooned on to bread, potatoes, or anything you like to give it the taste of gooey cheesy goodness.

Taking an ice cold dip in the river

Moving south I continued to climb higher, surrounded by lush greenery and the sound of the River Loue running down the valley. I passed baby donkeys, the odd cyclist, and the lovely village of Lods.

The lovely village of Lods
Walking through lush forests

Thunderstorms brought an end to the run of glorious weather. But what I lost in clear blue skies I gained in a thundering river and dramatic waterfalls. Mist filled the air and dew covered the forest floor. With the heavy rainfall “bonus” waterfalls appeared everywhere, and fallen trees created obstacles that I had to navigate over. At the head of the valley I reached the source of the River Loue, which springs out from the base of a huge limestone rock. Its power is harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, which powers 16,000 homes in the area.

Discovering dramatic waterfalls
The source of the River Loue

As I closed in on the Swiss border, past hilltop chateaux and along disused railway lines, I started to reflect on my time in France. I’d spent five and a half weeks walking through the country, a country that aside from some trips to Paris, some family holidays as a child, and some ski trips to the Alps, I didn’t know very well. I didn’t feel I knew French culture very well either, nor did I feel like I understood it.

There’s been no better way to get to know France than to travel through it slowly, to places that are largely untouched by tourists. To places where people have welcomed me into their homes, invited me to eat dinner with them and observe the rituals of aperitifs and cheese boards. Where people have had huge amounts of patience with my pigeon French, but haven’t let that stop us from talking, and laughing, and from them displaying acts of kindness that I will forever be grateful for. At times it left like my walk through France was never ending, yet as the end drew near I didn’t want it to.

Waving au revoir to France

Formalities at the Swiss border were nonexistent, and I felt the urge to run through the fields singing “The Sound of Music” if only to mark the fact that I was in a new country. But I didn’t need a customs official or to have my passport checked to evidence that walking through a small gap in a hedge had taken me to a different world.

The air on the Swiss side of the border felt different somehow, like it held the key to long life. And I drank in lungfuls of it. The roads were sealed with fresh tarmac, and their twists and turns were a playground for shiny straight-out-of-the-showroom Audi’s, 4x4s, Porches, and Ferraris. Everything seemed to ooze wealth, not least the enormous Grand Designs chalets that dotted the mountainsides.

I quickly learned that the Swiss are a proud nation. Towns and houses are decorated with bunting and Chinese lanterns that carry the red and white of the Swiss Cross. Flags are everywhere – national flags, canton flags, and town flags. Were it not for the fast cars and high spec houses, it wouldn’t have felt out of place for medieval knights to ride past on horses.

Just some of the Swiss flags on display in the town of Orbe
The colourful streets of Orbe

Walking through forests and colourful towns I got my first view of the Alps. It was a perfectly clear day and in the far distance Mount Blanc reared its head. I was overcome with emotion, standing and looking at the mountains knowing that I’d arrived at them on foot. I couldn’t quite believe it, it felt surreal. And for the first time I really felt like I was doing this, I was really walking to Rome.

The Alps crept closer as I continued south towards Lausanne, until I stood on the shore of Lake Geneva and they towered over the water. All I could do was stop and stare, completely dumbstruck by the whole experience.

Admiring the Alps from Lake Geneva

Lausanne is a city that effortlessly blends the old and the new. Its old town, with its cathedral and narrow streets, tumbles downhill into a regenerated industrial area that oozes all things hip and cool. There’s a South of France feel in the air, and the grand Belle Époque hotels lining the shore of Lake Geneva recall a time when Europe’s middle classes travelled to Lausanne to take to its waters and enjoy the mountain air (and they still do).

The view from the bell tower of Lausanne’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame
Lausanne’s old town
The headquarters of the International Olympic Committee

Lausanne is the home of the International Olympic Committee, and it felt as though the Olympic Games were taking place in the city on a daily basis. As I strolled around on a day off, trying to be as inactive as possible, I saw archery, high board diving, beach volleyball, rowing, basketball, sailing, and everything in between. Everyone exuded a healthy, youthful glow. There was an energy about the city, and everywhere I looked it was alive. I began to wonder whether Swiss air really does hold the key to long life after all.

Relaxing on the shore of Lake Geneva

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.

Brienne-le-Château to Besançon

Finding forts and walking city walls

217kms – 11 days

After days of walking in a straight line along a Roman road, there was a certain joy to be had in the twists and turns that took me into the next stage of the Via Francigena. My walk through the Champagne wine region felt like a lifetime ago, when in reality it had been less than a few days. I had traded vines for fortified towns dating back to the Middle Ages, and cellar doors for towers which I spotted everywhere – guarding towns and villages, protecting churches. As I walked through this quiet corner of Eastern France, sleepy save for the odd pilgrim and Dutch family on a camping holiday, it was hard to imagine a time when it was under siege.

Rivotte Gate in Besançon, which whilst welcoming visitors today was for many years a means of keeping them out

The cafes, cars, and people pottering the streets of Brienne-le-Château left me somewhat speechless, which is some feat for a town with less than 3,000 inhabitants – it felt surreal to be somewhere urban after spending the last few days in the middle of nowhere. Brienne-le-Château was home to Napoleon Bonaparte in his youth, when he studied at the town’s military academy. Today his name lives on in pharmacies, restaurants, and hotels. And it felt fitting that I would spend the night in a former hunting lodge complete with stag horns either side of the door. An opportunity to channel my inner Napoleon, and be grateful that I didn’t meet my Waterloo on the Roman road.

A statue of a young Napoleon Bonaparte outside Brienne-le-Château’s Hôtel de Ville

Forests increasingly crept their way into my route, and I skirted round them and along the River Aube until I reached my next mini-metropolis, Bar-sur-Aube. In the Middle Ages the town hosted an annual fair, a crossroads and meeting point at which merchants from Flanders and Italy traded spices and silk for textiles with merchants from Northern Europe. But the town’s glory days seem to be behind it, and it showed signs of what is often the reality in modern day rural France. Businesses have closed down, buildings are derelict, and half of the town’s population seems to have moved on. But my tourist-tinted glasses still see the charm in towns like Bar-sur-Aube, and I could wander its streets all afternoon taking photos of its faded grandeur (and I did).

Bar-sur-Aube’s faded grandeur
One of many derelict buildings in Bar-sur-Aube

Fields of sunflowers brought a welcome change to the landscape. Although they seemed, in typical French style, to be on strike. The sun was beating down and yet they were all looking in the other direction. A protest, perhaps, against the European heat wave that had scorched the fields dry the week before.

Protesting sunflowers

Sleepy Châteuvillain was my next port of call, resembling something of a period drama film set. The town is on the petite side of things, yet it has no less than 20 towers protecting it (and it used to have 60!). Bunting lined streets were dotted with colourful window boxes and shutters painted lavender and sage. Yet I seemed to be the only tourist admiring these sites, indeed the only person walking its streets. It was August, and the town’s businesses had closed down and the townspeople had disappeared on their summer holidays. Luckily the owners of the Tabac were holidaying late this year, so I was still able to guzzle down a cold Orangina when the day got too hot.

The pretty bunting lined streets of Châteauvillain
An open Tabac comes to the rescue with a cold Orangina

With every day that I journeyed through the departments of Aube and Haute-Marne, the walls encircling the towns that I passed through seemed to become more and more robust. Langres took things to new heights (quite literally, as it’s perched on the top of a rocky promontory). Its city walls stretch for 3.5 kilometres, housing countless towers and look out points from which to survey the countryside below.

The view from Langres’ city walls

I took a day off to explore its quiet alleyways, and to tot up the streets, squares, and businesses named after the city’s most famous resident, the philosopher and co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the 18th century Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot. And of course to walk the city’s walls. But no visit would be complete without sampling the locally produced Langres cheese – half Camemberty, half goats cheesy, incredibly pungent, and absolutely delicious!

A statue of Denis Diderot in Place Diderot, Langres
The view of Cathédrale Saint-Mammès de Langres from my kitchen window
A quiet street in Langres

As I continued south, the France I’d come to know like the back of my hand was starting to change. Hills were popping up left, right, and centre, calling for more frequent visits to boulangeries to power up on croissants and pain au chocolats. Church steeples no longer pointed high into the sky, but were domed and covered in beautiful tiles that glinted in the sun like sequins.

Setting off early on a long 38km day

But one of my favourite things that crept its way into the landscape was the region’s lavoirs, public wash houses that were once a place where people gathered to wash clothes and catch up on the local gossip. They came in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some dated from as far back as the 10th century, and others from the 20th. Some were beautifully preserved and decorated with baskets of colourful geraniums, whilst others were graffitied and the play den of the town’s delinquents. They provided me with shelter during storms, and shade from the burning sun. And I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one enamoured with them – someone has documented France’s lavoirs on a dedicated website!

The pretty lavoir in Seveux

One afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, I passed some workmen who were working on the side of the road. They asked if I was doing something “sportif”, so I explained that I was walking from London to Rome. They were flabbergasted, and I had to repeat myself 5 times (and I’m sure it wasn’t due to my poor French) before they would believe that I had travelled so far on foot. As I carried on my journey, after thanking them for their well wishes, they whooped and hollered as though they had just met a celebrity. When you spend each day living the Via Francigena, meeting other pilgrims or those who provide shelter to them, you sometimes forget the magnitude of it. And sometimes you do so on purpose, as to wake up every day and think about walking 2,000 kilometres weighs heavy on your mind, and body. But those men working on the roadside made me remember that this isn’t an everyday walk in the park. And that whether I make it all the way to Rome or not, everything that I’ve experienced so far has been truly once in a lifetime.

Sunlight breaking through the Forêt de Gy en route to Besançon

I continued south to Besançon, home to the jewel in the crown of the region’s fortifications. The seemingly impenetrable 17th century Citadelle de Besançon sits 100 metres above the old town, a location, tucked into a bend in the River Doubs, that even caught the eye of Julius Caesar in 58 BC. It’s one of the finest examples of French military architecture with walls up to 20 metres high and 6 metres thick. It’s intimidating just to look at.

Just a small part of the formidable Citadelle de Besançon
Palace Granvelle which showcases Besançon’s unique mottled stone

Besançon has more to it than its military fort, and I took a day to be a tourist and explore its streets. They’re lined with buildings made from a locally quarried stone that has a distinctive mottled chalk, blue and beige colouration. And behind these multicoloured walls are elegant palaces, the birthplace of Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a stunning 18th century traditional pharmacy, and workshops that continue Besançon’s tradition of making some of the finest watches and clocks in the world.

The stunning 18th century Pharmacie Jacques
The wide variety of cheese on sale in Besançon’s Marché des Beaux Artes

Getting lost in Besançon’s labyrinthine streets I discovered Roman ruins, a wonderful indoor food market selling inconceivable varieties of cheese, and nightlife! Besançon was the first place I’d passed though that didn’t seem to pull the shutters down at 6pm and head home to bed. The streets were full of people drinking, French families holidaying, and people eating in the most eclectic mix of restaurants I’d seen to date. The life of a long distance walker isn’t, sadly, well suited to heavy nights on the town. So after my pizza and carafe of rosé I called it a night (not much after 6pm!). For tomorrow was a big day…the Jura Mountains and the Swiss border were calling, and to them I must go.

Evening revelry in Besançon along the driver Doubs

I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind, You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.