Day 1: La Cluse-et-Mijoux - Métabief
June 13, 2012
We start our walk at the same place where we ended six years ago: La Cluse-et-Mijoux, a village located 5 kilometres south of the town of Pontarlier. You can get here by bus from Pontarlier, which has train connections to other places in France. Alternatively, you can get a direct bus from Fleurier, on the other side of the border, easily reached by train from several cities in Switzerland (including Geneva airport, which has cheap flights to several places in Europe). Do note, however, that train tickets in Switzerland are shockingly expensive - so if you book in advance, it may be more economical to take the train from Paris.
It is a cold and rainy day. Not exactly the best weather for a walking trip, but we are eager to get started nevertheless. The walk starts with a short climb to a nearby fortress. It is a famous place, apparently, but from the road there is little to be seen. The climb is followed by descending a slippery path back to the main road - not recommended in rainy weather - and to the village of Les Angles. We are on our way.
|Château de Joux|
The Jura is famous for its rolling green fields, its forest-covered plateaus and its lakes. Today, we get to see all three. A steep climb brings us to the top of the first plateau, which has an altitude of approximately 1000 metres. For a while, we walk through the forest. When we come out of it, we are surrounded by green fields, filled with thousands of yellow, white and blue flowers. It is a wonderful surprise. Despite the weather, we have a nice view of the Lac de St Point below. We continue to the village of Montperreux (no shops, but there is a public toilet with tap water behind the mairie), where we have our lunch. So does the hawk (or is it a falcon?) that suddenly dives toward the ground to catch a prey, just a few metres from where we are sitting.
|The church in Montperreux, with its typical Jura-style tower.|
We continue our walk along the edge of the plateau. The rain has attracted many large snails, which are now crossing our path. My wife suggests that we collect and cook them, but I have never really felt attracted to snails, so we let them be and continue our walk. Most of the time, we are surrounded by forest, but every now and then we get a nice view of the lake. We skip the descent to the village Malbuisson (not necessary, unless you want to spend the night there); in stead, we stay on the plateau, which saves us half an hour. At the end of the afternoon, we leave the forest and pass through some tiny villages and fields, before arriving in the well-known ski resort Métabief.
Review: Hôtel Étoile des Neiges, Métabief
€69,- per night (triple room); breakfast €6,- p.p.
Nice hotel, good value. The rooms are clean, fairly spacious, and come with balconies. The restaurant serves good, affordable food (3-course dinners for €20-€30). The breakfast buffet is particularly recommended, as it includes delicious locally produced yoghurt, sausage, cheese, honey and apple juice. Do bring your own shower gel or soap, as the ones offered by the hotel smell like the professional cleaning stuff usually used for toilets.
The physicality of the path
As I wrote in my previous post, when I was a teenager, I walked the Pieterpad - the long-distance walking trail that goes from the north to the south of the Netherlands. One day, a classmate asked me what this path looked like. I did not quite understand her question. "It's different all the time," I said. "Sometimes you walk on a sandy forest path, sometimes on asphalt roads. Sometimes it's grass." She looked at me puzzlingly. "Why didn't they just make the whole path the same?" she asked. "And by the way, how do you get onto this path? Are there any crossings with other roads?" Only then did I understand what she meant. She thought the Pieterpad was, well, a path. A single path, that is, a single physical entity; literally, a road going all the way from the northern to the southern end of the country. I laughed. "No, of course it is not one single path," I said. "We walk on different paths and roads all the time. That's why we have a map, and have to follow the signs. How could you possibly make a separate road, just for this purpose, of a length of nearly 500 kilometres...?" She must have felt a bit embarrassed when she realised her mistake.
However, as I realised later, her question was not stupid at all. On the contrary, it was a very important question, even though I dismissed it at the time. That is, she addressed a crucial topic, usually ignored by walkers yet foundational for their practice: what constitutes the path? What does it consist of? What, incidentally, is the difference between 'path', 'way', 'road' and 'trail'? To many, the Pieterpad, or the GR5 (or El Camino de Santiago, the Shikoku henro, the Appalachian Trail, the Tour du Mont Blanc, and so on), is first and foremost an idea - a symbol, a myth even, the meaning of which extends far beyond the actual physical properties of the road itself. Walkers tend to attribute a variety of spiritual and emotional meanings to the trail, but they are more attached to the idealised notion of it, and to certain memories associated with it, than to the actual road itself. After all, before the trail is walked on, it is merely an abstract notion; afterwards, it becomes a place that only exists in memory (or, rather, a series of dots and moments in memory, retrospectively connected through the notion of a continuous 'path', despite that fact that most of the trail is forgotten as soon as it has been left behind), and gets intertwined with personal narratives of achievement, self-realisation, spiritual growth, frustration or simply 'holiday quality time'. The point is: the trail is an abstract idea, experienced highly subjectively, the physical embodiment of which is taken at face value and rarely reflected upon.
But let's face it: there is something strange about these trails. They are parasitical. Most roads and paths have their own bodies, their own physical matter of which they are made (asphalt, concrete, sand, iron). The New Jersey Turnpike, the Bergen Railway, Route 66 and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées may all have achieved iconic status, the meanings of which far transcend their particular localities, they are (or were) nevertheless real physical roads, embedded in space, embodied in place and matter. Place and matter are essential: it is hard to imagine a New Jersey Turnpike located in Windhoek and made of sand. Thus, roads are physical entities, closely connected to the particular places where they are located. Walking trails, however, are not.They have no bodies of their own. They exist by virtue of the various paths, roads and streets they use. Their shape constantly changes. They are incarnated in the D45, they are incarnated in that anonymous forest path - yet they never become them, as they merely exploit them. Thus, they transcend the paths they use, but they never succeed in becoming independent from them. They are like the bodiless spirit with the mask in Spirited Away, who can only take shape by consuming and temporarily appropriating the bodies of other creatures.
Nevertheless, the GR5 carries more significance than the Grande Rue in Métabief, just like the notion of walking to Santiago de Compostela carries more significance than walking on any given North Spanish coastal road. Walking trails may feed on the roads they use; they also transform them. In any case, there is no denying the fact that the trail is physically embodied, even though it is not a single physical entity. After all, the walker walks not merely in her own mental space, but also in physical space. Moreover, she walks on something: roads, ways, paths and open fields, the shape and texture of which constantly change, but all of which are material. Walking is an embodied activity - not only the act of walking itself, which may seem obvious, but also in the sense that the walking body is not isolated and independent, but constantly interacting with its physical surroundings. Changes in the physical aspects of the path lead to changes in the walking experience. Asphalt roads allow the walker to speed up, but if they are too long, they contribute to painful soles. Uneven paths in grass fields (with holes caused by cows) take up a lot of time and energy. Muddy paths are slippery, and may cause one to fall, or get wet feet, which may lead to blisters. Sometimes, roads are blocked by fallen trees. In sum, navigating different terrains is an integral part of the walking experience. The trail is never without physical shapes, is always embodied, and is constantly changing.
Sometimes it is good to have a look at the path you are walking on, realise what it looks like, see what it is made of, and feel your feet interacting with it. All-too-often, we tend to overlook the roads we go, obsessed with what we think is our destination. But what if the road itself is the actual destination?