As I drove north from Annecy the Jura mountains, once again I found landscapes I felt at ease with.
The Jura mountains are the north-eastern little sisters of the Alps. Switzerland is very close, as the crow flies, but it is cut off by the high peaks of the mountain range, then by the river Doubs. The contrast couldn’t be starker between the metropolis of Geneva and the busyness of the Leman and Neuchatel Lakes and the beautiful, preserved mountains of Jura.
The slopes are covered in woods of spruce, sycamore, beech and chestnut trees, with hazel, boxwood and dogwood underneath. Despite an Indian summer, there is a definite tinge of autumn in the highest leaves. Pines and spruces become more frequent on shadier, cooler slopes, and as you take altitude. This is the best season for hiking, that of raspberries and blackberries.
In these mountains live wolves and lynxes, but they leave no trace. Jays are everywhere, flashing their white rumps as they fly off noisily. Squirrels litter the ground with pinecones leftovers. Under the spruce, ants nests look like big piles of needles, until you get closer and realise they are all moving – the surface of the nest is alive with ants crawling and carrying needles in all directions.
In meadows – for this is a high pasture landscape – big, fleshy gentian are turning yellow earlier than the grass, and carline thistles are starting to dry up. But the Saint John’s wort are still as vibrantly yellow as ever. In the valleys, tractors are busy cutting and drying the last growth of grass. At this time of year, each evening flying ants emerge in their thousands. Early in the morning, you may see chamois grazing in meadows, alongside cows and horses, before they slip back into the woods. They are fat and round this time of year.
Cows are now Montbéliardes, white and red. Their milk is made into Comté, Morbier and Mont d’Or cheeses, some of the most flavoursome in France, and all the more if you buy them directly from a “fruitière”. They are where all the milk from a village’s farms is collected and turned into cheese. “fruitière” refers to the taste of Comté, which some find fruity; I would describe its taste as flowery and dry, personally, especially the “young”, twelve months old one.
I really like the people of Jura; too. They are gentle, soft-mannered, and very helpful. They speak with a drawl reminiscent of the Swiss accent. It is easy to imitate and make fun of, but I find it quite soothing. The houses are sober but quaint, with wooden balconies. The tile roofs are made for snow, with large overhangs and metal spikes to avoid dangerous snow falls. Churches are victims of the weather; their zinc-covered towers aren’t to my taste. But their originality is in their shapes – sometimes squared, sometimes pointy, sometimes with bulbs.
I find this land particularly grounding; the rolling hills alternating with high cliffs, the woods with meadows, the harsh winters with generous summers.