Friday, August 1, 2008

Up and Over: The Jura

Nantua Lakeside Monument


Swiss welcome

Swiss vista: French Alps

Swiss Jura

St-Ursanne, Switzerland

Over the few days preceding my anticipated arrival in Geneva, I took out my map time and again and tried to work out a back roads route, but no matter how clever I tried to be, it always ended up in a squiggly dead end on a mountain top. From Bourg-en-Bresse I could take a minor road for about 10 km, but then I would have to get on the main road to Nantua, another 50 kilometres. The route between Nantua and Geneva looked like it would also involve joining the cars for significant stretches. A rail line was marked on my map, and that was Plan B, but I wanted to try cycling first.

In the last village before I left the minor road, the church bells started pealing and I stopped to consider the reason. I didn't think it was Sunday. Two small boys were walking toward me. "C'est un mariage, madame!" one of them called out to me, nonchalant; right, Saturday.

At first the main road wasn't so bad. It was scenic, as Michelin had indicated with the green line alongside it on the map. Aside from the cheerful wedding guests honking and waving on their way into the village, the traffic wasn't heavy. It wasn't much different than riding B.C.'s winding and hilly Sunshine Coast Highway, which I have done a number of times. The trouble was, I had become spoiled by the idyll of quiet French country roads, and had no desire to have cars speeding by me. But I consoled myself that it was scenic. And I enjoyed the flying descent to the Ain River, and the river crossing, marked in large letters on the map, "Gorges de l'Ain". I had not noticed the tiny print beside the road as it left the Gorges; it read "15%". I discovered that I had embarked on a serious climb, 10 kilometres long with 15% and 10% grades most of the way. "Rock falling on road" signs were accurate; I had to manoeuvre around bits of cliff on the road, shakily struggle with my heavy bike up the 15% grade, and keep an eye out for overtaking, oncoming cars coming downhill. When I got to Nantua (a town on a lake), I was unconvinced about continuing further, especially since I had been unable to connect with Susan in Geneva. I went to inquire about taking the train back to Cluny so I could continue with my French idyll--take that enticing bike path north up the Saone River to Chalon-sur-Saone. But Plan B was a bust! I discovered that the French government had decided to take out the tracks, and there was no train to take either to Geneva or back to Cluny. Plan C was to stay in France and continue in the mountainous terrain north to get back to the rivers route. But in fact, I had set my heart on getting to Geneva; I wanted to be with an old friend, and I needed a reprieve from my own company.

Over the next two days I continued to try and reach Susan, leaving several messages by text and voice on four different numbers, and waited for my phone, diligently charged each night, to ring. I was stuck: I didn't want to continue east to Geneva without making contact, and I didn't want to go north in case I did make contact. In a cruel synchronicity of weather and mood, the sunshine I had come to take for granted disappeared, replaced by drizzle and dropping temperatures. Waking up in Bourg-en-Bresse, Nantua, and then Le Poizat in the mountains, I had a hard time getting out of my tent in the morning, dreading the wet exit.

In my successful efforts to procrastinate in going anywhere, I visited the museum in Nantua about the French resistance movement and the "Deportation". From the small department of Ain (including the town of Nantua) 1,301 people were captured in raids and taken to concentration camps by the Nazis, either Jews or people involved in the Resistance. One hundred and thirty four of these were Jewish children and their six caretakers, who had fled already to Nantua for their safety. They were taken on April 6, 1944. The tourism office today is the former train station where they were all herded onto those train cars we know from films. The resistance work was deadly but exciting: skiing into the mountains with messages, sabotaging the train tracks, hiding Jews or known resisters. All the while notices were posted everywhere in German and French describing your fate (and those of your near relatives) if you were caught--men would be shot, women and children deported to camps.

That afternoon I went up the minor road I thought I would take if I did go to Geneva, to a village called Le Poizat. It was another significant climb, but taking cars out of the mix made it an entirely different and more enjoyable experience. I feasted on tiny wild strawberries growing alongside the road on the way up. I had hoped to have a bed under a roof in a gite d'étape, but it was Sunday of the long weekend and a wedding party had booked the whole place. So I camped at a farm, the only camper there aside from the cows making cowbell music on the mountain slope near my tent. I also had more wild strawberries to myself. The next day, Bastille Day, I found a warm room in a "vacation village" called Les Clairmontelles. Still my phone, kept by me night and day, did not ring.

I enjoyed the family style dinner at Les Clairmontelles, and the conversation at table. I was also invited to join the other guests for the drive down to Nantua for the Bastille Day fireworks by the lake.

At breakfast the next morning, someone asked, "ce n'est pas dûr d'être loin de ta famille?" (isn't it hard to be far from your family?) ''Oui,'' I admitted, and my eyes misted-I was set to head north, not quite believing that I was abandoning the Geneva plan. Just minutes later, the hostess offered me the use of her office laptop. In my email inbox, there was a message from Susan with another phone number to call. Contact made at last, I headed off at once for Geneva. I was so excited I headed the wrong way down the road without a route plan and had to return to figure it out.

[Mes chers amis aux Clairmontelles, même si je ne m'ai pas bien exprimé en francais, j'ai compris 100% votre gentillesse, merci beaucoup.]

And in concert with my happier outlook, the sun came out, and the air was fresh. The way I had chosen was the long way back to the highway, but a gorgeous one, a touristic route called "Les Sapins" (The Pines). There was a little climbing, but then a long descent, as well as a viewpoint from which I could see the Jura Mountains, the Alps, Geneva and what I later learned (after going up it in a ''teléferique'', a gondola) was La Salève, which from my vantage point looked like a mountain sliding into Lake Geneva.

Then fast down to the town of Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, another river town, neat houses climbing the steep river banks. This was a day of friendly chats with cyclists from Annecy, workers on a lunch break at the river, and a man who stopped his gardening when I pulled up at his driveway, gasping for breath on my way up the hill out of town. He has some relatives who live in Canada; he didn't know which part. I resisted singing for him the Arrogant Worms' Canadian anthem, "Canada's Really Big."

As I got closer to Geneva hundreds of sunflowers beamed on me like a welcome team. I pedalled through the vineyards of Dardagny, wending my way downhill through the lanes of vines. I saw on my descent a sign flash by, warning me "franchissemente strictement interdit à la frontière". Something was strictly forbidden at the border and I wasn't sure what, but I continued on; then I huffed up a short steep hill and popped over the top: I was in Switzerland.

And then I was in urban traffic for the first time since Amsterdam. As I peered uncertainly down a six lane highway plunging into a dark tunnel, a man asked if he could help me. He said with authority that this was the way to downtown Geneva and that all I had to do was follow bus number 6 or 18. I asked him (incredulous) if this was the way for bicycles to go? And he assured me it was, I just had to follow one of those buses. Good grief, he was sending me to certain death. I thanked him and headed off; within 100 metres there was a bike route sign to Geneva's city center and I followed it off to the right, away from the tunnel of death, aware that he was watching me totally disregard his instructions. The bike path took me all the way downtown by a less direct route, but it got me there through treed parks and protected walking and cycling trails. People are eager to help, but they often have no idea about the bike routes in their own city. (Even tourist information staff give me car-appropriate (and vélo-inappropriate) directions.

I spent two happy days in Geneva, catching up with Susan, sightseeing with her brother and mother, and feeling like a normal connected person again; it was restorative.

And I started planning the next part of my route. I had thought originally that I would just zip back into France and get back on the rivers route (Eurovelo 6) from Geneva, but those Jura mountains were in the way. I eventually found a spot on the map where I figured I could get back into France at La-Chaux-de-Fonds. But I would have to make my way northwest through Switzerland first.

I started out along Lake Geneva, on the Swiss national bike route number 1, disenchanted with the suburbia I passed through. My standards for bicycle routes had perhaps become impossibly high after cycling in rural France. At Rolle, I stopped to camp. I put my tent right on the edge of the lake, with blue mountain views and lapping water at my feet, a couple of boats tugging at moorings and swans swimming by. Except for the swans, I could almost have been on Kitsilano Beach, looking at the North Shore mountains. And it was as crowded as Kits Beach on a hot summer weekend too: the tents were a foot apart. The only reason I got so close to the water, arriving as late as I did, was the tiny footprint of my tent which allowed me to put it between the walking path and the water's edge.

I left Lake Geneva and Camp Kitsilano the next morning to join up with Swiss national bike route number 5, the "Mittelland" Route. I had to do a long and steep climb, and was rewarded with views of the mountains in France; on my road, green agriculture and small towns with houses spilling geraniums from shuttered windows. I camped near the town of Orba. The ancient Romans occupied this site (Urba) and their mosaics are still here.

Then I aimed to intersect with Swiss route number 7, the Jura route, which involved a gruelling climb to about 1345 metres on a hot day. After this I came to the conclusion (yet again) that I must be made to ride: the hours of struggle and sweat were forgotten in the exhilaration of the cycling that followed. (When I arrived in Le Locle, near La-Chaux-de-Fonds, I had dinner at a sports bar and watched some of the Tour de France. Wusses! I thought, try doing that with 20 kilos packed on your bike.)

The Jura route was often off road, and the long climbs were in shaded forest. The mountain meadows were trim from munching cows; in the as yet unmunched fields, purple clover awaited their pleasure. The music of their combined bells filled the valleys I rode through, even when there were no cows to be seen (they were perhaps sheltering in a stand of trees up the mountain). The bells are large and attached under the cows' jaws with a wide leather strap. I can't imagine why it doesn't drive them demented to have the bell clanging with every movement, but they look more perturbed if I stop to try to take their picture. I thought of them as I sipped my "Heidi Drink" (Swiss milk and Swiss chocolate) and thanked the Swiss for their dairy cows.

I found my formerly urgent desire to get back into France fading; Switzerland was my new love. I remembered the Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, about whom I had read just a month earlier (International Herald Tribune, June 14-15, 2008, 18). He had carved into his car tires the sentence, "actually, your destination can be somewhere else." At La-Chaux-de-Fonds I decided to continue on the Swiss Jura route all the way to Basel. Au revoir, France.

The highlight of the Jura was an exhilarating ride through the Franches Montagnes, culminating in a 12-kilometre descent into St. Ursanne on the Doubs River. I soared into the village, steady as a bird coming home; the green expanses of hills and the little cows and trees slid past in the deep valley on my left. All regrets about having to leave France had completely gone. Euphoria reigned.

Then, on riding into the village, enchantment: it's a well-preserved medieval town on the river, with multicoloured shuttered house fronts, the requisite church, and a cliff-side grotto where St. Ursanne was believed to have lived with his bear back in the 7th century. I decided immediately that I would stay a couple of nights.

The day I left St-Ursanne was my last day in the Swiss Jura, and my knees started to complain a little about the long ascents. But life was just about perfect as I made my way along the Lucelle River, downhill through forest, entering and leaving France several times along the way. At one point, there was a man standing in the middle of the forest road signalling me to stop--the Grenzpolizei, border police. He asked me if I had any merchandise. Our exchange was in French, probably because I greeted him first with "bonjour", but from this point, I entered the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and all road signs were in German. I was suddenly out of my language comfort zone, and into a new stage of the journey. As I cycled into Basel, it occurred to me that I would need to know the German for "Office de Tourisme". I was dismayed to discover in my phrasebook several options and all of them big mouthfuls for the beginning German speaker: "Fremdenverkehrsburo" is one. More on my German progress next post.

Ingolstadt, Germany, 3375 km

1 comment:

Collette said...

Hi Catherine - just reading thru your blog with Sam & Matt - love the pictures, especially of the chateau.

Missing you at Savary!