La Bonne Etoile – Today was going to be a challenge with the steep climb up to Septmoncel and on to Lajoux, at 3,840 feet the highest village in the Jura. The campsite gardien came and asked where I was heading for. When I told him, he remarked that it was a distance of at least twelve miles, and did I think I would be able to get that far. I hoped so. He didn’t look convinced.
I had been warned that the Chemin des Moines (Monks’ Path), the footpath leading up to Septmoncel, was incredibly long and steep. Alongside the river I met the first and only other hikers I would come across in the entire journey, a friendly German couple and their dog, who had just completed a five-day walking tour of the surrounding area. They too said that the footpath was very hard work and that there were other routes to Septmoncel which I might like to consider. I thanked them for their advice and carried on.
I crossed the river by a rustic bridge sporting a sign giving the estimated walking time to Montbrilland as thirty-five minutes. Whoever had estimated these times must have had in mind mountain goats at peak fitness because they always seemed quite unrealistic. The first hundred and fifty yards of the ascent was all but perpendicular, over dry gritty soil scattered with small loose stones. I started walking up it and slithered backwards. It was too steep for my stick to be of any use. The path traversed an area of scorched grass, and there was absolutely nothing to hold on to. The weight of the backpack threatened to drag me backwards, and the only way I could progress was by bending almost double, like a Kikuyu woman under a load of wood, and putting all my weight on my toes. It was touch and go whether I would make it or be towed back down into the valley. Every inch was a battle. In my backpack was a long length of rope, and I decided that if I couldn’t make the ascent wearing the pack, I would tie the rope to it and try to haul it up behind me. With just another six feet to scale a scrawny little bush was within reach and with a final toe-pushing scramble, I lunged at the startled shrub which very nearly surrendered its tenuous hold under this assault. The scraggy bush was the forerunner of several more, and with their unwitting but vital assistance, I reached a point where the path levelled slightly and led into a shaded area. It still climbed steeply enough, and in the heat, and with the heavy load, I had to stop to drink every fifty paces, sitting down and munching a few dried apricots for energy. Sweat poured down my face, arms and legs, my clothing stuck to me, and the only noise was muted birdsong, the distant hiss of the waterfalls and the jungle drumbeat of my heart.
Eventually I reached the D436 and the Roche Percée, a one-hundred-yard tunnel blasted through the rock. Water dripped from the roof of the tunnel and I expected the whole thing to cave in on me. I wished I wasn’t such a wimp about heights, enclosed spaces, caves, and all the other things that normal people can take in their stride. Back once more on the footpath, and struggling up the incline, I thought about abandoning the tent and as many other things as I could live without for the final two days. I could wrap them in the survival blankets and push them into the undergrowth; and if anyone wanted them enough, they were welcome, particularly to the wretched tent. In the meantime I would carry on with the weight as far as I could. The well-signed path was in places wide smooth gravel, and in others earthy forest floor carpeted with the previous autumn’s cornflake crisp leaves. It was very peaceful and mostly shady, and in the very steep parts exposed tree roots made useful footholds. I felt like a human waterfall, with sweat running down my body and legs in a rapid stream. Now at 3,250 feet I was finding it even harder to breathe. To my right the mountain rose steeply, and to the left dropped away hundreds of feet. Looking back down to the valley, I couldn’t believe that a few hours ago I had been down there, and that I had somehow managed to haul myself up here.
At 2.50pm I had reached 3,315 feet at the Plateau sur le Replan, and walked into Septmoncel, a small village set against a backdrop of mountains, just as the village clock struck the hour, twice. The sound echoed on the still air, blending with the deep, soft clanging of the cowbells from the cattle who shared the alpine pastures with the bees. Septmoncel is renowned for its acoustic qualities. I stood at the acoustic point with my eyes closed and hands cupped behind my ears, as the notice board suggested, turning my head in different directions and catching the cowbells, the bees, and the drone of a tractor engine. The sound was very pure and extraordinarily amplified by my cupped hands. If you haven’t tried this, you really should.
An old lady came slowly up the hill.
“Bonjour, Monsieur,” she called.
“Bonjour, Madame,” I replied.
“Oh! Excuse me, Madame,” she laughed. “Your clothes ……….”
“Yes, I know I don’t look very ladylike.”
She recommended that I drink some water from the fountain in the village. The water there, she said, was the purest and most delicious water I would ever find. She was right. It was very good. I also bought a bag of cherries for lunch, and continued towards Lajoux. The farmers were taking advantage of the hot, dry summer weather to cut their hay, tractors working the valley floors, and brown-armed men swinging scythes on the steep hillsides.
By now it really was hot, and I had to stop and sit down every twenty paces. My face burnt from the salt of dried sweat, and my heart was pounding alarmingly. I looked in vain for wildlife, but saw nothing except a voracious herd of sheep munching their way across a flowery field. No doubt any creature with a modicum of sense would be sheltering from the searing heat amongst the silent pine trees. The summer weather had brought out the flies, which attracted to the unladylike rivers of perspiration dripping down me, added their bites to my woes.
On a plateau a smoky tractor was cutting the hay, and the air was so pure and clean it was like being on top of the world. Carried away by the scenery and euphoria, I marched hotly and happily down a long shady road for about a mile in quite the wrong direction, and then hauled back up the long, shady road towards Lajoux on the D436, having lost contact with the footpath. Small brilliant purple flowers sprouted from the bare rockface, and the miles to Lajoux seemed to have an elastic quality, as they stretched further and further, but it really didn’t matter in this paradise. Hugo Grotius, the Dutch politician who laid the foundations of modern international law, said of France that it is the most beautiful kingdom there is—after the Kingdom of Heaven. I couldn’t comment on the latter, but he must be right on the first count.
A heavily laden donkey on delicate hooves came into sight, led by a thin young man wearing a jungle hat, shorts and boots, and dark glasses with one crazed lens. He had perfect teeth and a beautiful, gentle smile. He told me he had been wandering with his donkey for three years, fulfilling a dream. I asked where he was heading.
“We follow la bonne etoile” (lucky star), he replied.
white house french alps
He carried a very small map of the whole of France measuring no more than ten inches by six, in a pouch round his neck, on which the place names could only be read with a magnifying glass, and he made no forward plans. Each day was a new adventure, following the lure of the lucky star. Each night he found someone who would allow him room for his tent and grazing for his adored donkey, who was eight years old and came from near the Pyrenees. Her sleek sides supported several robust sacks, a large canvas tent, an umbrella, a cooking pot, and a bucket.
I asked if he would write a book about his experiences.
“What for?” he responded. “What is important is to live, to follow your dreams. That is all that matters.”
He had another dream—to cultivate a huge garden.
Where would this garden be? When did he plan to start? I asked.
That would depend entirely upon la bonne étoile. Of course.
He walked slowly down the narrow road out of Lajoux with his patient companion.
Extract from Best Foot Forward – A 500 Mile Walk Through Hidden France, by Susie Kelly, published in ebook and paperback by Blackbird Digital Books. Photographs copyright of Susie Kelly.