Getting Our History On At Fort L’Ecluse

On our first hike in the  Jura Mountains went through the Rhône Valley by Fort l’Écluse (or Fort de l’Écluse), near Leaz, France in the Pays de Gex.  The site has a view of the strategic route between the Jura Mountains and the Alps and has had fortifications since Roman times.

The Romans built defenses around 58 BC to protect them from the Helvetii (the nearby Swiss tribe). In the Middle Ages, the stronghold protected the Jura and was a center for goods (which the cyicist in me interprets to mean used to collect tolls or taxes).  Expanded, in the 17th century, the French used the fort to prevent French Protestants from fleeing France to Protestant Geneva after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which permitted secularism and tolerance).

There are actually two forts on the site, the lower (inférieure in French) and upper (supérieure in French).  The Duke of Savoy and the Marquis de Vauban (during the reign of Louis XIV) built the lower fort.  When the Austrians destroyed the fort in 1815, the Savoy rebuilt it bigger and stronger.

The tower dovetails into the rock.

We got lucky, they were having a historical reenactment when we visited.  It got us admission and we saw solders living as they did in the 19th century.  Some of them were cooking.  I asked what they were making.  The “soldiers” jokingly said “nothing good.” They explained that soldier’s food wasn’t good and they were being historically accurate.  We spied a couple of bottles of wine tucked away behind some plants (also historically accurate?), so I think they had a good time anyway.

Built into the stone, the fort was surprisingly cool (which was good for them in their wool uniforms).  The reenactors were really nice and totally into it.  When I asked to take a picture with them they gladly agreed and, to my astonishment, passed me the musket.  It weighed 5 kilos (10.2 pounds)!

The upper fort (200 metres/660 feet above the lower one), was built in the 1830’s-40’s to protect the lower fort provide additional space and better views from which to control the valley.  It has a subterranean stairway with 1165 steps through the rock that connecting it to the lower fort.

Unfortunately, the upper fort is closed because it is unsafe for visitors.  They are doing restoration work on the lower fort.  We hope that when they finish, they start on the upper fort because it is an amazing site and filled with history.

We took a steep trail uphill for a half an hour to reach the upper fort.  I shouldn’t have bothered to ask the extremely portly gentleman we encountered in the lower parking lot for directions.  I’m pretty sure he hadn’t done much walking, let alone hiking, over the past 30 years.  The gentleman said the upper fort was closed, there was no reason to go up there and looked at me like I was crazy when I told him we were hiking.   We are glad we went anyway.  We were still able to see the ramparts.  Even better, they had exceptional views of  the Rhône, Saleve and the Alps, including Mont Blanc.

Fort l’Ecluse wasn’t just a customs station and border control in the 20th century.  It served as a military training center during World War I.   In the 1930’s, the fort was incorporated into French border fortifications (as part of the enormously inefficient Mangiot Line) that were intended to prevent a German invasion from Switzerland.  We all know how that worked out.

I was astounded to learn that it actually saw action during WWII.  It is so close to Geneva, I can only imagine the anxiety that Genevans must have felt.  The Defensive Sector of the Rhône, a French military organization controlled the French border with Switzerland around Geneva, controlled the fort.  In June 1940, German forces (the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and the 13th Motorized Infantry Division) advanced from the north along the Rhône valley.  From June 22nd to 25th, the French force held the back the German forces advancing toward Albertville.   When France surrendered on June 25, the fort didn’t.  It held tight until directly ordered to let the Germans advance and surrender by General Charles Huntziger of the Vichy Regime.

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Our First Big Hike Of The Summer

Our first Sunday back in Switzerland, the weather was supposed to be great and we were keen to hike.  He traveled last week so he wanted to sleep in.  This meant that we needed to go someplace near Geneva.  We hadn’t hiked the Jura yet and decided to give it a go.

The first weekend after we moved to Switzerland we explored the area.  Driving back from Annecy and The Museum of the Alpine Cow, we saw a giant fortress in the mountain above.  We wanted to visit it and a hike seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We were on the last mound by the river. It has a small, dark smudge on top. Those are the ruins with a statute of the Virgin Mary on top.

We started from Léaz, France (just over the border) and hiked up to the Virgin of Léaz and stunning views of the Rhone River cutting its way through the Jura Mountains.   The Virgin sits on top of sixteenth century ruins, but the spot was inhabited in Roman times (because of its defensible position.  The views were stunning, but I was careful to watch where I stepped.

We walked all the way down to the Rhone River.  Although it was a hot day, we didn’t stop for a swim (we’ll go bridge jumping into the Rhone at Junction soon enough).   The banks were muddy and we had hiking to do… a lot of it.  Uphill.

What goes up, must come down.  We went down to the Rhone, so there was nowhere left to go but up.   On the bright side, the terrain was interesting, varied and shaded (not many panoramic views).  We passed countless streams, waterfalls and channels that funneled water from the Jura into the Rhone.   The trails were okay, but I wouldn’t plan on doing the hike if it rained the previous week and the trails climb sharply.  You were warned.

We hiked up to Fort de L’Ecluse (both of them) through The Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park and down from the mountains.  As the mountains gave way to pastures and fields, we heard our first cowbells of the season.  We love the sound of cow bells ringing through a valley interrupting the background noise of gurgling creeks and chirping birds.  It is the soundtrack to a heavenly day.

One of the best parts of the hike was the wildflowers in bloom.  I snapped way too many pictures of them.

The fields were pretty gorgeous too.

So was the view.  Let summer officially begin!

The Best Beer In Geneva

Our friend discovered the Brasserie Des Murailles at a summer festival.  He made a strong statement and declared it to be the “best beer in Switzerland.”  After tasting it we fell in love with the brewery (brewery is brasserie in French).  Here’s why:

1. They regularly brew five varieties of beer (and additional seasonal ones). Each one is great.  They don’t make a bad one.

2. The brewer studied in Belgium.  Yeah Belgium!

3. They have continuously grown their business each year with minimal advertising.  They grew so much that they went from the tank above to the tanks below.

4. We like to tour breweries and microbreweries (and pretty much any kind of factory).  Although they are small, their old farm is one of the coolest buildings around.  It is a rustic old bar that has been retrofitted to accommodate brewing and visitors.  The best part is the setting in the countryside of Geneva with a wonderful view of the French Alps and Le Salève.  From the back, you can see the Jura. mountains.

5. Like the Belgians, they manage to pack their beer full of flavor.  Somehow, they manage to keep it light enough for the local market.  Even in during a summer heat wave, they never seem too heavy.

6. Their beers are unique and complex.

7. They are small enough to exercise strong quality control.

8. Although it isn’t technically a reason their beer is great, they are nice.  Really, really nice. You want them to succeed.  Although they love great beer, they aren’t pretentious or snobby.

9. At summer festivals, what would you rather drink Heineken, Kronenbourg 1664 or something with taste and flavor?

10. In a market like Geneva, where great unique beers are hard to come by, they are a godsend.

If you are interested in Swiss beers, check out the Ultimate Switzerland Beer Guide.  Sante! Proust!  Chin Chin!  Cheers!

The Toblerone Line, One Sweet Barrier

During  World War II, Switzerland was surrounded by Axis powers (Germany, Austria, Italy and occupied France).  Switzerland worked to avoid an invasion.  Some of their means of doing so, like allowing use of their railroad system connecting Italy to Germany, were controversial.  Others, like the Toblerone Line, were less so. This post isn’t about bribing the enemy with Toblerone Swiss chocolate, (no matter how tasty).  The Toblerone line is 10 km (6 mile) series of fortifications that runs across the canton (like a state, but smaller) of VaudSwitzerland from Lac Leman to the top of the Jura mountains (between Bassins and Prangins).  The Swiss Army constructed it in the 1930’s to protect against invasion. The official name for these defences was the Promenthouse Line.  However, it resembles to Toblerone’s pyramidal chocolate pieces linked together at the base that it became known as the Toblerone Line. Having taken in civilian refugees and witnessed previous confrontations between France and Germany, Switzerland was justifiably concerned about the rise of the Third Reich and possible invasion during World War II.   The Swiss military began preparations and built a series of defenses.  They were concerned about an invasion, an occupation, being divided up after the war, and the general devastation of war.  They had good reason to be concerned.  Hitler actually drew up plans for invading Switzerland.

They are HUGE!

This defensive concrete line made of dragon’s teeth.  Weighing 16-tons each, they are enormous pyramid-shaped blocks of concrete.  They were driven into the ground and covered with earth.  These barriers were meant to stop tank invasions. These sorts of installations are known as tank traps because they present significant difficulties for tanks.  Tanks can overcome these barriers with  ammunition that reduces them to rubble.  As a result, they are more of an obstacle than an impregnable barrier. Although similar defensive installations could be found throughout Switzerland, for obvious reasons they are more common in near Switzerland’s borders.  The preservation of the Toblerone Line makes it one of the best-known installations.   Private individuals began working to preserve it.  They wanted to ensure future generations would know about Switzerland’s wartime defenses.  They got sponsors and worked with the defense department.  In 2006, it became part of Switzerland’s system of trails that crisscross the country.

La Saleve

When we first arrived, we took the cable car up to one of the mountains overlooking Geneva, La Saleve.  It is known as the  “Balcony of Geneva” even though it is technically just over the border in the Haute-Savoie region of France.  From there, you can see the Jura mountains, the PrealpsLake Annecy and the Mont Blanc.  Even on cloudy days, the top of Saleve can be sunny!

It wasn’t until later that we learned people will hike and even bike up it.  It also has a nice view of the city and decent trails. Once up there, there are many outdoor activities to take part in, rock climbinghikingmountain bikingparagliding (who jump off the carpeted area in the photo below), hang glidingmodel aircraftspeleology and skiing (at the Col de la Croisette).  We looked out at Geneva and found where we live.  I would love to camp up there and watch the sunset and sunrise over the city. Shedrub Choekhor Ling Tibetan Buddhism center is located on the Salève.  They have a normal building, but it was their yurt that attracted our attention.  Their building is only 200m from the Cable car station. This authentic Tibetan Temple was consecrated and opened by the Dali Lama in September 2011.   I read an article about a Russian arms dealer has property next door to the Buddhists.   The irony. The tower is visible from the city of Geneva.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein  was written on the banks of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman).  In it title character climbs up the Salève  after fleeing.  Salève is mentioned several times by name.  

  • “It was echoed from Saleve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy…”
  • “I thought of pursuing the devil; but it would have been in vain, for another flash discovered him to me hanging among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont. Saleve, a hill that bounds Plainpalais on the south.”
  • “Who could arrest a creature capable of scaling the overhanging sides of Mont Saleve?”

Saleve itself isn’t in the alps, but what is known as the French Prealps.  Note the Alps in the background of the above photo.  The ride down in the cable car was our first cable car experience since moving to Geneva.  At the time, we had white knuckles, now, we’re old pros.   Another view of Saleve from the city.