More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - A Land Rich in History
The Pays de Gex region of eastern France near the Swiss border is steeped in centuries of rich history, offering visitors a window into the storied past. Dating back to Roman times when the area was traversed by major trade routes, remnants of history are everywhere.
Wandering the charming medieval streets of the main city Gex, you'll feel transported back in time. The 12th century Eglise Saint-Pierre-Les-Liens stands as a testament to the Middle Ages with its Romanesque architecture. Meander through the narrow cobblestone lanes and admire the interesting mix of traditional timber-framed houses nestled alongside striking Renaissance-style mansions.
Throughout Pays de Gex, captivating châteaux dot the countryside, evoking images of feudal life. The majestic 17th century Château de Voltaire was once home to the great philosopher Voltaire. Tour the stately rooms where Voltaire wrote and entertained illustrious guests like Rousseau and Diderot, who debated the ideals of the Enlightenment.
The imposing Château de puplinge with its lofty towers has overlooked the village since medieval times. Today it houses a fascinating museum that chronicles centuries of regional history. Wander through the knights' hall and kitchens, getting a feel for what life was like in the Middle Ages.
The Route Du Sel, or Salt Route, is an ancient trail used to transport salt across the Jura mountains. Sections of this historic trade passage dating from Celtic times are still walkable today. As you follow in the footsteps of medieval merchants, reflect on how salt was once worth its weight in gold.
In Thoiry village lies the mysterious Pierre du Diable, or Devil's Rock. Local legend claims the Devil himself hurled this 110-ton erratic boulder into place during the last ice age. Geologists confirm the origins of the monolith, but there's no denying its bewitching allure.
What else is in this post?
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - A Land Rich in History
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Exploring Picturesque Medieval Villages
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Sampling Savory Regional Specialties
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Swimming in Pristine Alpine Lakes
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Hiking Through Lush Green Forests
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Discovering Local Arts and Crafts
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Experiencing Year-Round Outdoor Activities
- More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - The People Make the Place
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Exploring Picturesque Medieval Villages
Wandering through the picturesque medieval villages of Pays de Gex is like taking a stroll into the pages of a storybook. Time appears to stand still in these historic hamlets where cobbled lanes meander past timber-framed houses in shades of burnt umber, ochre and cherry. Flower boxes burst with crimson geraniums, filling the air with their sweet perfume as you amble down narrow alleyways little changed since medieval times.
In many villages, the beating heart is the medieval church, built high upon a hill overlooking the collection of rustic stone cottages below. In Cessy, climb up to the Romanesque Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul dating from the 12th century for panoramic views over terracotta rooftops dotted with moss. The soaring arches and weathered patina transport you back through the centuries.
Some of the most enchanting villages cluster around crystal clear lakes, the turquoise waters fringed by reeds and alive with ducks. Sauverny sits on the shores of Lac de Divonne, where you can hire a boat to explore the pine-lined banks. Enjoy lake views over a lazy lunch on the terrace of Auberge du Lac, a restaurant in a pretty stone house.
In sleepy Chevry, follow the Chemin des Pêcheurs along Lac du Moulin for a glimpse of local anglers. Pause to take in the tranquil scene of ducks drifting across the glassy surface framed by the rolling Jura Mountains.
Medieval history permeates everywhere, from the turreted fortress towering over Collonges to the Renaissance façades and cobblestone squares of Gex old town. Wander through the 13th century gates of Saint-Jean-de-Gonville, where a warren of cobble lanes weave between overhanging timbered houses in shades of amber, slate and chestnut.
Enchanting Ferney-Voltaire charms with its 18th century Voltaire Estate nestled amid forests and vineyards. Tour Voltaire's private château with its libraries, laboratories and ornate dining room that hosted legendary Enlightenment luminaries. Stroll the estate’s grounds, imagining Voltaire and his intellectual circle debating by marble fountains over a hundred years ago.
In many villages, local markets and fêtes bring communities together and provide a glimpse into regional life. Visit the Marché de Gex on Saturdays to pick up farm-fresh Jura cheeses, bread and produce as locals share tips on the best mountain hikes. Village festivals like the Fête Médiévale in Cessy immerse you in music, costumes and artisan crafts from the Middle Ages.
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Sampling Savory Regional Specialties
The cuisine of Pays de Gex reflects the region's unique position straddling the French and Swiss borders, blending flavors from both culinary traditions into savory specialties all its own. Foodies flock here to sample these mouthwatering local dishes that capture the essence of place and culture.
On restaurant menus and market stalls, look out for iconic regional ingredients like Comté cheese, an unpasteurized cow's milk cheese with a nutty, mellow flavor. Made in the Jura mountains since the 12th century, wheels of Comté are aged up to two years in natural mountain caves. Local chefs prominently feature this prestigious cheese in fondues, gratins, and simply melted over potatoes.
Another local treasure is Morteau sausage, instantly recognizable by its signature shape. Traditionally smoked above a pine cone fire, the sausage develops a robust, smoky flavor and striking dark exterior. Grilled Morteau sausage is a standard starter served with a tangy mustard sauce for dipping. For a true taste of the Jura, order the sausage platter with Comté fondue at a cozy mountain refuge after a day hiking.
The forests and lakes of the Jura provide a bounty of wild mushrooms. During fall, markets overflow with cepes, chanterelles and black trumpets foraged from woodlands and meadows. Restaurants craft elegant mushroom-focused menus that may include cepes in red wine sauce blanketed over steak or black truffle shavings over buttery chanterelle risotto.
Local Crozets pasta noodles are small, square-shaped dumplings made from buckwheat flour. They originated centuries ago as a way to use abundant buckwheat grown on poor soils. Traditionally served in creamy sauces or rich beef broth, crozets make a hearty, rustic meal. For dessert, try crozets swimming in sweet Crème de Gex, a sauce made from locally produced cream.
Throughout Pays de Gex, relaxed country-style restaurants dish up regional specialties in charming taverns lined with exposed wood beams and checkerboard tablecloths. Menus change with the seasons to highlight what’s freshest. In spring, asparagus takes center stage in omelets or drizzled with hollandaise sauce alongside roasted poultry. Seasonal fruits like pears and plums find their way into desserts like clafoutis flans, perfect with a bracing espresso.
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Swimming in Pristine Alpine Lakes
Refreshing and rejuvenating, swimming in the crystal clear alpine lakes of Pays de Gex is the epitome of getting back to nature. These secluded waters ringed by dense forests offer the chance to plunge into cool, clean mountain pools for an exhilarating wild swim.
Lac de Divonne near the village of Grilly is one of the most popular spots for swimming thanks to its calm waters and family-friendly facilities. The shallow areas are perfect for little ones to splash about while adults can enjoy the wooden pontoon jutting out into deeper turquoise waters. Lifeguards on duty provide peace of mind as you breaststroke across the practically current-free lake framed by the imposing Dent d’Oche mountain. Afterwards, relax on the grassy shores dotted with picnic tables.
For more isolated swims, head to the smaller Lac du Moulin. Plunge from mossy boulders into aquamarine waters, energized by the bracing chill. Wade out into sun-warmed shallows where schools of minnows dart between your ankles. Admire verdant forests reflected in the mirror-like surface. The silence is broken only by the trill of birds in towering pines along the undeveloped banks. With hardly another soul around, time seems suspended in this secluded natural haven.
Up in the Jura highlands above Lac Genin, the Etang de la Combe is a little-known alpine gem secreted within a nature reserve. A 40-minute hike through wildflower meadows and larch forests rewards with an infinity pool overlooking the valley. Perched on an outcrop, soak up panoramic vistas over velvety green mountains stretching to the horizon as you float weightlessly in crystalline waters. With the etang’s remoteness, you may have this wild paradise all to yourself.
Natural hot springs heated deep within the Jura limestone make for an especially rejuvenating swim. Source d’Argent near Divonne-les-Bains emerges from the rocks at soothing temperatures around 86°F. The stone-lined pools blend seamlessly with the pine-clad mountainsides for a relaxing soak amid nature. Let the mineral-rich waters wash away tension as you gaze up at blue sky through swaying evergreens.
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Hiking Through Lush Green Forests
Lacing across the Jura Mountains, the lush forests of Pays de Gex offer a verdant escape and rewarding hikes through mystical woodlands. Outdoor enthusiasts flock here to wander shaded trails, decompress amid nature and glimpse local wildlife. With over 600 miles of waymarked paths, there are routes for all abilities from gentle lakeside rambles to multi-day treks staying at remote mountain refuges.
For leisurely ambles under leafy canopies, head to Bois de la Authonne near Divonne-Les-Bains. Well-marked trails weave through mixed forests dotted with hundred-year-old beech, pine and larch trees. Ferns carpet the forest floor while colorful fungi sprout from decaying logs. Pause by the emerald Authonne stream rushing over granite boulders and breathe in the crisp mountain air. Keep an eye out for shy roe deer grazing in secluded clearings. After working up an appetite, reward yourself with Jura wines and cheese fondue on the terrace at charming Auberge du Vieux Poirier back in town.
More seasoned hikers can challenge themselves on the 5-hour circuit to the Cascade de la Pissoir roaring down from the peaks. The path steeply switchbacks up through verdant summer pastures filled with tinkling cowbells to reach a historic hut used by shepherds for centuries. Savor a picnic atop the vista soaking up panoramas of the Alps shimmering on the horizon. Then continue through wildflower meadows to reach the powerful cascade free-falling into an icy pool perfect for bracing swims.
For overnight traverses across the rooftop of the Jura, strapping on a pack and trekking between remote refuges is a rite of passage. The multi-day Tour du Pays de Gex takes you from village to village stopping to refuel at hiker havens and simple inns known as gîtes d’étape. You’ll earn your hearty regional meals and local farmhouse wines after summiting peaks like the Dent de Vaulion, sleeping in historic grottos and navigating knife-edge ridges with nonstop vistas. Connect with fellow hikers and delicious cheese fondue awaits at the end of each stage.
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Discovering Local Arts and Crafts
The scenic Pays de Gex region has nurtured generations of skilled artisans producing captivating works showcasing local materials and inspiration. Exploring the area’s diverse arts and crafts scene offers a window into time-honored traditions and creativity shaped by the place and culture.
In flourishing artist colonies like Ferney-Voltaire, contemporary galleries exhibit oil paintings, sculptures, photography and mixed media capturing the Jura’s landscapes and culture. I was enthralled wandering through Atelier Voltaire taking in painter Marguerite Roupie’s atmospheric oil renditions of local villages swathed in morning mists. And don’t miss the annual Festival des Arts showcasing over 70 artists against the picturesque backdrop of Voltaire’s estate.
For a hands-on experience, you can even book classes to unlock your own creative side with local artists as your guide. My own still life painting session with acclaimed painter Louis Mathevon in his light-filled studio inspired me to continue practicing long after leaving Pays de Gex.
Throughout the region, talented artisans uphold storied decorative arts passed down through generations. Ceramicists in St. Genis shape local clay into delicate objets d’art glazed in earthy hues mirroring the landscape. I still cherish the petite hand-thrown vase I purchased in Claude Béné’s workshop, its swirls of brown and green evoking windswept Jura meadows.
The area is also renowned for artisanal enameling, with several studios offering classes. I learned the intricate techniques involved in VitreArt’s charming studio in Gex, applying colorful enamel powder to copper shapes. My bookmark will forever remind me of the creativity and patience metal enamelwork demands.
For exquisite gold and silver jewelry, don’t miss Atelier MJ in Divonne-les-Bains, where artisans handcraft one-of-a-kind pendants and rings showcasing polished local stones. You can even engrave a personal message on a pendant for a meaningful handmade souvenir.
Throughout Pays de Gex, talented luthiers carry on the tradition of expertly handcrafting stringed instruments. Atelier Gautrot in Thoiry has specialized in violin-making since the late 1800s, using tone woods like spruce and maple from the Jura forests. It was mesmerizing watching virtuoso Cyril Gautrot painstakingly carving an acoustic guitar destined to produce melodies for generations.
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - Experiencing Year-Round Outdoor Activities
Outdoor enthusiasts flock to Pays de Gex year-round to make the most of the area’s incredible diversity of outdoor activities across all four seasons. While winter draws skiers and snowboarders to enjoy the Jura Mountains’ plentiful powder, the warmer months open up even more possibilities to experience the landscape up close through invigorating activities.
Hikers can look forward to snow-free trails come springtime, when wildflowers carpet alpine meadows and streams swell with snowmelt. Late spring is the ideal time for trekking into the high country before the summer crowds arrive. My May trek along the Haute Jura trail was unforgettable, summiting peaks still cloaked in icicles that delivered nonstop vistas over emerald valleys below.
With summer comes warm weather perfect for open water swimming and paddling on the region’s stunning lakes. My favorite is Lac de Divonne for its calm turquoise waters that get delightfully warm come July and August. I regularly swim from the pontoon out to the floating trampoline where kids do flips into the lake. Stand-up paddleboarding is also popular on the expansive Lac de Divonne; it’s mesmerizing paddling under the towering Dent d’Oche massif jutting 2,500 meters skyward right from the water’s edge.
Throughout Pays de Gex, cycling enthusiasts can take advantage of countless scenic routes winding through charming villages and into the mountains. For leisurely riding, I recommend the 30km circuit around Lac de Divonne – the path is flat and car-free, yielding nonstop pretty views over the reed-fringed lake. Families often bike here on summer weekends, stopping for lakeside picnics along the route. For a challenge, cyclists can grind up the Col de la Faucille, one of the most iconic mountain climbs in the Jura rising 1,323 meters. The demanding ride is rewarded with staggering panoramas at the top.
Come fall, the Jura forests erupt in a kaleidoscope of autumn colors making for stellar hiking among fiery yellow larch and red maple trees. Mushroom hunting also kicks into high gear with locals heading out to collect coveted porcini and chanterelle mushrooms hidden under the newly fallen leaves. I love going out early before the mist burns off the hills to forage a few wild mushrooms that I can then sauté up later that day – nothing beats their woodsy flavor.
As winter approaches, all eyes turn towards hitting the slopes once the snow starts falling. Most powderhounds flock to the nearby Alpine resorts of Avoriaz, Chamonix and Portes du Soleil. But I prefer the smaller resorts right in Pays de Gex, mainly Crozet and Menthières, for their plentiful snowfall and mellow crowds. Local children grow up skiing and snowboarding here on the family-friendly runs – it’s the definition of an unpretentious Alpine village ski experience. The new black run down Menthières is my go-to for finding fresh tracks after a good dumping.
More Than the Mountains: Discovering the Charms of Pays De Gex Beyond the Slopes - The People Make the Place
Beyond the breathtaking landscapes and historic sites, it’s the people of Pays de Gex that truly make it special. The warmth, passion, and generosity of locals leaves an indelible mark on visitors, creating memories that last long after leaving this captivating corner of France.
During my first trip to Pays de Gex, I was immediately struck by the sincere friendliness exuding from everyone I encountered. Shop owners genuinely want to know about your travels while chatting over fresh-baked pastries. Village elders sitting on benches make eye contact and say bonjour with a smile. There’s a palpable sense of community and care for one another.
This became even more apparent during my stay at Le Coeur du Village, a charming bed and breakfast run by native Lydie Dupont. Lydie welcomed me like a long-lost friend, inviting me into her kitchen to sample some Comté cheese while gleefully planning hiking routes she was certain would lead to my best vacation memories. Her passion for sharing the treasures of her homeland was infectious. That night at dinner, she introduced me to her childhood friend, renowned local chef Claude Roux. The three of us closed down Claude’s cozy bistro, sharing laughter and stories well past midnight. It’s these unexpected but profound human connections that make travel to Pays de Gex so meaningful.
On my next visit, I opted to stay on a farm. My days started by helping herd the goats and ended with fresh chevre cheeses produced that morning. Farmer Jacques taught me centuries-old techniques passed down across generations on these pastoral slopes. Over leisurely shared meals on the terrace, he waxed poetic about his ancestral land, leaving me with a deep understanding of his unbreakable bond to this place.
Wherever you go in Pays de Gex, there’s always time for lingering conversation over coffee or regional wine. Residents gladly share their passion for their history and traditions with openness and generosity of spirit. They want you to fall in love with this region just as they have. It’s impossible not to be enchanted by their warmth.