Passage to the Vallée de Joux

July 27, 2008

The Jura mountains run north from the western end of Lac Leman, and nestled among them, just east of the border with France, lies the Vallée de Joux, a north-south gash with a long lake driven between the peaks. I biked there one Saturday, from my home east of Morges on the shores of Lac Leman, over the Jura to the Vallée.

The first stage took me across the fertile, hilly farmland of French speaking Switzerland. A storm darkened the sky over the Jura in the distance. The contrast was shocking: the wooded slopes and grey sky in the distance seemed oddly detached from the clear blue over the hamlets and neatly tended fields of the canton of Vaud.

A road runs along the line dividing the two worlds. At Montricher, where I reached this road, and at L'Isle to the north where I began my ascent, one side is Vaudois hamlet with fields and vineyards. The other side is wooded, empty, and steep. I climbed 700m on a steep, narrow road and saw no one but a family of hikers. The forest turned from hardwood to evergreen, then vanished into alpine meadow and herds of cattle.

After you climb 700m into emptiness, you find the Buvette de Chatel. A less inspiring bar is hard to imagine: a low, stone building full of the smell of cow, no potable running water and barely electricity. But in the summer, it's a marvellous place to enjoy a bottle of sparkling apple cider and look out over the meadows.

My legs at last forgave me for the climb into the Jura, I finished my cider, and began my descent into the Vallée de Joux. I did not pedal until I reached the bottom, but rode the brakes incessantly or found myself going 60km/h down roads safe at 30km/h.

The pasture roads merge onto the main car road across the Jura, less steep, better paved, and less scenic, and I took this all the way to the northernmost town of the Vallée de Joux, Le Pont.

Most names in Europe were vulgarizations of Latin names. Often the Latin meant something comprehensible, but the meaning vanished long ago. All the villages of the Vallée do Joux are named in French: Le Pont (The Bridge) contains no bridge, but is itself a land bridge between the main lake stretching south and a smaller lake to the north; L'Abbaye (The Abbey) sports a tower and a reconstructed gothic arch of a 12th century cloister; Vers-Chez-Aron and Vers-Chez-Grosjean (By-Aron's-Place and By-Fat-John's-Place) conjure images of redneck directions past the site of Aunt Nelly's barn; Le Revers (The Switchback) does indeed have a switchback in the old road; I can only conjecture how La Brasserie (The Restaurant) got its name.

From the inside, the Jura seem low, friendly mountains, their peaks no more than 500m above the lake, in stark contrast to their looming aspect as seen from Vaud. The valley is a quiet, even a backwards, place, with some agriculture, no particular industry. Signs for ski and luge rental, for ski lifts, for cross country skiing paths reveal its livelihood: winter sports.

But on a summer Saturday, the valley's population was gathered along the lake. I exchanged greetings with strollers and hikers and swimmers as I biked slowly down the footpath on the eastern shore. The path ends at Bas de Bioux and Bioux Dessus (Bottom Bioux and Bioux-Up-Thar), where I returned to the main road, an almost disturbingly straight expanse. Rarely have I seen a road so straight in Switzerland. It ran straight south, it became the Swiss national bike route 7 for a while, and then the bike route turned east, and I did not. The first notion I had of this was when I reached customs at the French border.

Swiss customs was entirely empty. Two young men sat in the French customs office browsing the Internet. I tapped on the window and dragged them away from their computers long enough to ask if I were still on the road to Nyon. Yes, they said, keep going straight until you reach La Cure. By this time the storm I had seen earlier had changed its mind, recrossed the Jura, and was looming threateningly over the road ahead. My map claimed La Cure had a Swiss railway station, so I set out to beat the storm to the train.

The road continued, horribly straight, disturbingly straight, to La Cure. There two somber, uniformed men solemnly waved drivers through Swiss customs, then pointed off to the left. There it was, a tiny station and narrow-gauge railway track on the French side of customs.

I caught the train five minutes later, and as we pulled out, the storm finally began.


Fred Ross
July 2008
Lausanne, Switzerland


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