By Beth Hancock
As the person who writes a great deal of the copy for the company’s website, I’m always emphasising the flexibility of Inntravel holidays. So, when I had only four days’ holiday entitlement left but wanted to squeeze in a walking holiday with my Mum, I decided to take advantage of this and book a shortened, tailor-made version of the Lake Geneva to Lake Neuchâtel walk.
We flew from Manchester to Geneva, from where we caught a train northwards. Again, the efficiency of Swiss trains is something I’ve written about on numerous occasions but never experienced for myself. Everything worked like clockwork. We had three minutes to change at Renens but, armed with the timetable (something Inntravel provides all customers with), we knew exactly which platform we would be arriving at and which one we needed to get to, so no time was wasted finding this out, and we even had a minute to spare before the train pulled up bang on time. We disembarked in Vallorbe, a stone’s throw from the Franco-Swiss border, and left our cases in the left-luggage facility while we strolled around the town before our bus. This, too, was wonderfully punctual (and fantastically cheap!), and we arrived 25 minutes later in Longevilles.
Usually the fourth hotel on the holiday but for us the starting point, the Hotel des Sapins is a typical French auberge run by the amiable Lanquetin family. Monsieur is the chef, while Madame, with the help of their daughter, is in charge of the front of house. We were shown up to our room, which was simple but spacious, and had time to shower and change before dinner. Judging by the old cross-country skis and wooden carvings of skiers adorning the walls of the bar and public areas, the hotel’s peak time is winter, but the rustic restaurant was full of other guests, making for a pleasant atmosphere.
Had I known that milking time was just before 8am, I needn’t have set my alarm clock for quarter to – just as I was pulling on my walking trousers, a troop of brown and white cows paraded through the village, the bells round their necks clanging gently. By 9.45 we had breakfasted and collected our picnics, and were ascending gently out of the valley towards Mont le Morond. Because the good tracks we were following rose so gradually and were shaded by pine trees to keep us cool, it was only after looking at the map once we were at the top that I realised we had risen some 500 metres. Our next target was the Mont d’Or Ridge, and soon we were greeted with marvellous views of Mont Blanc, its huge white bulk shimmering in the sun on the horizon. With these same breathtaking views all the way, the ridge took us to the Swiss border, which we crossed for a quick ‘visit’ before looping back into France, this time beneath the Mont d’Or Ridge. Walking along the top of it earlier, I had realised that there was a crag to one side, but what I hadn’t realised was that it was so tall, and it was certainly an impressive sight seen from below. Hearing clattering on the scree slopes immediately below the cliffs, we craned to spot the chamois which must have caused it, but to no avail, so we continued through the attractive forest, gently descending to Jougne, that night’s resting place.
The Hotel la Couronne is located right next to the village church, the bell of which, I was glad to discover, does not chime every hour on the hour. The hotel décor is stylish yet homely, and I enjoyed having such a large shower in which to massage my slightly tired muscles. Having arrived at about 5pm, we had time to explore the village before dinner, and found a lovely craft shop selling carved wooden goods that were so beautiful that I felt compelled to start my Christmas shopping uncharacteristically early. Back at the hotel, dinner was perhaps my favourite of the holiday. The restaurant enjoys a good reputation locally, with food that was well presented without being overly fussy – and refreshingly imaginative for us vegetarians.
Much to my dismay, the next day dawned overcast, but fortunately the rain that seemed to threaten never came. We headed along the valley to the next village and from here took a path that rose through a forest and long meadows grazed by cows to the broad ridge of Mont de l’Herba. We walked from farm to farm through wide-open meadows, marvelling at the flowers. Despite being past their best, they still provided plenty of colour, and we vowed to return earlier in the summer one year to see them in their full glory. Still enjoying the novelty of casually ‘border-hopping’ from France into Switzerland and back again, we decided on the optional detour into Switzerland. This time we re-entered France (and the EU) on the road, so we passed through a manned border control point, but we smiled sweetly at the young guard who let us through without a word (or even a glance at our passports).
That night we stayed in Les Petits Fourgs at the simple but friendly Auberge le Creux des Pierres, another real family affair where Monsieur and Madame Salomon are helped by their niece, and where regional dishes such as tarte au Comté (quiche made with local cheese) feature on the menu. I also liked the breakfast the next morning, a generous buffet that included, in addition to cereal, bread, fruit, cheese and yogurt, a delicious home-baked sponge cake (I always have had a sweet tooth!).
For most people coming to the end of their eight-night walking holiday, I imagine that the 12-kilometre walk from Les Petits Fourgs to Le Mont des Verrières provides the perfect balance between two quite full days of walking. However, this was only our third day, and, having seen the dramatic picture of the Château de Joux on the cover of our map and realising we were not that far from it, we decided to start the day with a detour so that we could visit the château. The guided tour (in French) really brought its history alive – we saw the cell in which Mirabeau had been imprisoned at his father’s request in a bid to end his womanising and gambling; the cramped hole in the wall to which a woman called Berthe had been confined by her husband following her infidelity; and the vast well that had taken nine soldiers armed with little more than pickaxes fifteen months to dig. From the château we followed the GR (enjoying a very close encounter with a heron along the way) to rejoin the standard route. This led us along a wonderfully quiet track through beautiful mixed woodland and open meadows to a viewpoint from which you can look towards the château. We took advantage of the picnic tables here to enjoy our sandwiches and couscous salad, finished off with more of that sponge cake I’d liked so much at breakfast. After that, we set off once more. As on previous days, our route wound across meadows and through pine woods. Put like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the walking was very much the same from one day to the next, but it didn’t seem like that at all. The views were always different, the flowers and butterflies always provided something to look at, and we spent a lot of time staring at the sky watching an eagle or two circling overhead.
We came to Le Tillau, perhaps my favourite hotel, earlier than we’d expected – approaching it, we had assumed the large chalet in the meadow was a secluded farmhouse. Monsieur Parent welcomed us warmly, and before long we were changed and ensconced in the comfortable lounge playing Scrabble and looking forward to another dinner accompanied by more of the deliciously light red wine of the Jura.
After a very good night’s sleep (in this secluded spot there didn’t even seem to be a morning procession of cows, let alone any traffic noise) we breakfasted and set off early for what turned out to be the most strenuous, but also the most rewarding, walk of the holiday. We crossed broad meadows to a pair of old stone pillars marking the border and left France for the last time. After a section through woodland, we followed undulating lanes completely devoid of traffic to the small Swiss village of La Chaux, with the bulky – and somewhat daunting – form of Le Chasseron, our target, clearly visible ahead of us. It seemed a long way up, but we took our time, pausing every now and again to sample the tiny wild raspberries and strawberries growing at the side of the path. The regular walkers’ signposts encouragingly counted down the time until arrival at the summit: 1hr30, 50mn, 25mn…
Pausing to catch my breath in one meadow, I mistakenly identified the lake behind us as Lake Neuchâtel. It wasn’t until we were a little higher up and a second, very turquoise, lake came into view that I realised that the first was, in fact, Lake Geneva. The views from Le Chasseron itself were amazing, the orientation table at the summit allowing us to identify a whole host of well known mountains, including the unmistakeable mass of the Matterhorn. From here, it was downhill all the way to the Grand Hotel, the flowers proving to be the best of the holiday.
The 3-star Grand Hotel is a place which lives up to its name. Unlike the chalet-style auberges we had stayed in on other nights, this was a large building dating from the end of the 19th century, with high ceilings and elegant décor, but the very best feature was the view from each bedroom’s balcony. Below us, the plain stretched for miles, framed by the Mont Blanc massif which glowed pink under the setting sun, an invitation (if one were needed after such a lovely break) to explore deeper into the Alps next time. Maybe I will…