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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.