One thing about living in Switzerland stands out above all else, and that is the access to the outdoors. I decided to enter the winter sports scene by starting with low-adrenaline activities: cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. And after scouring the glocals website, I found all the necessary equipment for next to nothing. Now, fully prepared, it was time to hit the mountains. My first destination was La Givrine for a morning of cross-country skiinghigh in the Jura above Lac Leman. Only an hour from Geneva, I caught a train at the airport to Nyon, where I hopped on an adorable choochoo train (that really blows its whistle!) that carried me up the mountain past St. Cergue to the second the last stop, La Givrine.
Upon exiting the train in La Givrine the path goes by a white house, unmarked except for handwritten “raquettes” sign, where you can rent skis, sleds, and snowshoes, before continuing on through the parking lot to a small wooden hut collecting trail fees and handing out maps. This is where most of the trailheads begin. I grabbed a map and decided on a scenic loop I had read about in the blog “Stumbling Upon Happiness” that headed towards La Cure but had the option of doubling back around to La Givrine halfway through. Luckily, despite the crowded train and parking areas, most people were here to sled with their children and the ski trails were nearly empty. This turned out to be extremely fortuitous because I quickly learned that I needed a lot of space. I put my skis in the pre-formed tracks and slowly kicked off, shuffling one foot in front of the other.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. The techniques I had read about online were no substitute for actual experience. And who knew that there were hills involved in cross-country skiing?? The trail started out flat enough, but in a matter of minutes I went around a bend and straight into a hill. I was sliding down before I knew what was happening, realizing way too late that I had no idea how to stop on cross-country skis. This resulted in me and my skis tangled in a pile at the bottom of the hill. I’d like to say that I improved, but I stopped counting at 30 crashes. After struggling immensely to get to the top of the first few uphill sections I encountered, I finally taught myself to climb up using the herringbone technique. This was enough of a confidence boost to convince me I might come back again. This, and the awe of being alone in nature, in the middle of hills blanketed by pure white snow, lit up by the sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky.
It took me about two hours with all the falls to make it to the last section of the trail. 1km before the end of the loop the trail split. One option was a path leading left for another 1.5 more km to a buvette, a cute mountain hut that serves fondue and hot wine. A sign marked two other paths, pointing to either the “cool trail to Givrine” or the “fast trail to Givrine”. I took the cool trail, of course, which was 3km long instead of 1km. It was nice and flat for the majority of the trail, but had a steady downward slope for the entire last 1km. I was terrified of someone coming around a bend in the other direction and me either crashing, mortified, into the snow to stop, or crashing into the person and injuring us all – luckily, I came upon a train of people who apparently felt the same way and had removed their skis in order to walk along the tracks instead, so I joined the party and hiked the last stretch to the trailhead.
As I changed back into my tennis shoes I let out a huge sigh. Cross country skiing could definitely be one of my new favorite sports. The combination of beautiful winter scenery, peace and quiet, and steady exercise is hard to resist. But, I have never felt as defeated as I did on these skis. This is probably just a sign that I need to come back and give it another shot – maybe only 29 falls next time.
As it turns out, I had picked one of the most difficult cross-country ski trails for my first go at La Givrine, and was utterly relieved to find out that there are places where the trails really are almost flat. La Vattay is one such place, with a huge network of cross-country trails, many of which are gloriously hill-less.
Access to La Vattay is more limited than La Givrine, though it lies just on the other side of La Dole, above La Givrine, in the beautiful Jura mountains. You can easily reach this area by car from Geneva in about 25 minutes, or using the convenient Ski Bus run by the city during the winter months that connects Gex (the last stop on the F bus from Geneva) to the main Jura ski resorts 3 times a day.
The resort itself consists of a rental shop, a hut selling passes, a locker room, and a small Buvette with classic french dishes such as large plates of meats and cheese, and all types of pies, along with beer on tap and hot wine. There is a tiny hill for sledding, but the main attraction is the cross-country ski trails. While there are many flat trails, there are also plenty of more difficult trails ranging all the way up to a slope that might compete with the lower level alpine slopes. In addition to the classic cross-country skiing, in the pre-made tracks, many patrons opt for the more skilled sport of skating. This literally looks like ice skating on long skis.
Despite a packed parking lot and a day so warm that a jacket was unnecessary, the trails still felt empty and I was able to enjoy the focused calm that results from the combination of deep concentration on staying upright and being sent out into unspoilt natural landscapes – one of the great rewards of this sport. We were able to fit in three loops (about 10km) and a hearty snack of pie and cheesecake during a short two-hours. And with only five falls, the day felt like a huge success!
Col de la Faucille
For a peaceful sport that offers beautiful scenery with zero adrenaline or risk of falling, snowshoeing is the perfect choice. Most ski towns will have easily accessible and well-maintained snowshoe trails weaving around the ski slopes. These can be a great alternative to alpine skiing, providing access to the same beautiful views, but without the cost and hassle of renting gear and buying a lift pass.
There is a beautiful trail at Col de la Faucille that winds up through the pine forest behind the ski lifts, before reaching the backside of the Jura (shown on page 48 of this book). From here, the view stretches over small towns and mountains, until the path winds serenely back towards the front of the mountain. At the summit, the trail continues along the edge of the ridge and on a clear day, affords magnificent views that extend out across the sparkling Lake Geneva to the French Alps, where Mont Blanc and the other massive peaks can be seen rising up over the water.