Jura Mountains: trail heaven

The Jura is a charming, little-known mountainous region of France – and trail running is the perfect way to explore, says Sarah Stirling.

So, they keep cheese in it nowadays,” explains Julia.

We’re in a forest, looking at the immense ramparts of the second largest fortress in France. During the 1800s, 1,500 workers spent 30 years building the Fort des Rousses’ 50,000m/sq of vaulted rooms and miles of galleries. It’s a significant clue to the Jura region’s culture that all this now protects cheese. Apparently it’s the ideal ambient temperature.

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The Jura is famous for wine as well as cheese, and gourmet French cooking in general, but that’s not the only appeal, although it is a big one after a day on the trails. In the Jura there are towering forests and fresh-tasting rivers, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and vineyards and lakes. Then you’ll pop out in a sunny valley with jangling cowbells, traditional farm buildings and flowery meadows.

The Jura is one of France’s charming, lesser-known rural mountain regions, and I’m loathe to spread the word, but I promised Editor Rosie. It’s possible to run, mountain bike, walk, cross-country ski or snowshoe a ‘Grand Traverse of the Jura Mountains,’ by various routes, or you can just do a few sections of the ‘GTJ.’ It’s easy to drop down to a traditional village for the night at any point. It’s generally amazing and – sigh – you should go.

“Julia’s gone so lightweight she’s only brought two pairs of pants, washing them as she goes and flying the spare pair from her rucksack like a flag to dry in the wind as we run.”

It’s easy to get to as well. Like many adventure lovers I’ve got to know Geneva airport quite well, as I pass through often to visit Chamonix, France’s mountain capital, which is 90 minutes’ drive east of this Swiss city. The Jura lies 90 minutes drive (or train ride) in the opposite direction from Geneva. The Jura Mountains are a lowly 1,719m maximum, but that makes them an ideal balcony for viewing the higher Alps in the distance, and you won’t have to hike or run uphill for hours just to get above the tree-line, like you do in Chamonix. It’s, well, quite relaxing, really.

I’m here with my friend Julia Tregaskis-Allen: international mountain leader, nordic ski instructor, trail cycle leader, restless adventure-lover who never sits still for more than five minutes. She’s recce-ing a route she’s plotted for a week-long, point-to-point running trip. Julia is a huge fan of the Jura, and spends many weeks a year there both summer and winter, guiding trips. But still, she wanted to check out the exact route before running it with clients.

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“Ooh they do wonderful tartes aux citron in that cafe!” she calls as we trot through a village, and darts in to check their opening hours and ask if they have rooms. “That’s good,” she reports. “They open at 11. I’ll be passing through around then with the group, and the sun will be right on this terrace.”

On other detours we call into restaurants to pick up their latest menus; we also pop into lodges and make notes of the ones that have hot tubs, saunas and other delights. We don’t have time to stop ourselves, and I begin to get jealous of Julia’s clients, who are going to have a wonderful stress-free trip, all their luggage taken onwards for them, enjoying nights in eco lodges and mountain chalets.

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Meanwhile we’re carrying our minimal luggage on our back. Julia’s gone so lightweight she’s only brought two pairs of pants, washing them as she goes and flying the spare pair from her rucksack like a flag to dry in the wind as we run. The route Julia has planned is 100km of running over six days, with a rest day in the middle. We’re doing it in three. We brought mountain bikes for the first half of the recce, and ditched them at a hotel half way to run the rest.

We run up hills and down them, through spruce woods and across meadows. When we stop for lunch, nosey cows gather. In the evenings, in lodges and chalets we practise our schoolgirl French over several courses of traditional dishes. Our hosts rarely speak English. It’s wonderful to be really immersed in real France complete with red wine, local meat and cheese. So different from tourist centres like Chamonix.

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The highlight for me was 20km of running along a rolling ridgeline with sheer limestone cliffs on one side and a plateau of wild flowers on top, which offered lovely views and easy running up to the Cret de la Neige (1,717m) and then le Reculet (1,719m) – the highest summit of the Jura chain. We then dropped down to Menthieres for the night.

That was it for our recce, but Julia’s clients would have one more day to go. They’d climb back up to the crest and run to the Cret de la Goutte and then the Grand Cret d’Eau (1,621m) from where there are apparently superb panoramic views, then descend to Lancrans for a celebratory dinner. From there it would be easy to catch a train back to Geneva. Not that they’d want to leave – I certainly didn’t.

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