France: The Little Known Pays de Gex Near Switzerland
Pays de Gex, with Mount Blanc and the Juras Side by Side
By Tay Kinnear
Stand anywhere in the Pays de Gex in France and the Jura mountain range will be to one side of you, the Alps to the other.
But if you are going to stand anywhere, make sure it’s on the outskirts of Divonne.
There you’ll make your way through a little-known woodland trail that leads out into open plains where the sky touches the ground.
I have walked these streets, under the heady heartbeat of Mont Blanc, always watching from a distance, and wandered into enough patisseries to know the best are in the tiny towns, the ones like Cessy or Segny, and the best bars are the ones where you don’t kiss the bartenders.
Axel told me, whilst shaking up a Red Nose cocktail at Full Moon Bar, that he doesn’t travel anymore.
The World Comes to You
“Why go anywhere else,” he said through the overhanging hairs on his cliché French mustache, “when the world comes to you.”
In Divonne, the most metropolitan of the small French towns that make up the Pays de Gex, nationalities come and go, passing through the two worthwhile bars here.
You will always hear your own language somewhere here, sitting under soft red lighting outside Charly’s Pub on a warm summer evening, and a handful of others that you can’t understand.
It is quiet in this bubble today; this microcosm, and I think about how easy life is here. It hardly rains – in the winter always snow – and mountains surround us while we surround the beautiful lake.
The Pays de Gex
Pays de Gex is nestled around the Swiss jetty of Geneva which juts out into the French countryside, providing us with Lac Leman to swim in during the warm months. Made of the snowmelt that floods down from the Alps, the lake is always beautiful, always unimaginably clear.
Axel once said to me that Switzerland is not representative of reality; we Swiss (if for a moment I can pretend to be one) live in big houses with big gates, drive nice cars to nice ski resorts on the weekend.
We pay large prices for everything, covered by the large salaries we earn and we make the country safe by closing in on ourselves, globally participating over our shoulders but never quite turning to meet the gaze of the rest of the world.
Everyone has a boat, a sauna, a bomb-shelter or an au pair. Some have it all.
A Little Au Pair
In a Starbucks, I am one of the commodities. I am a little au pair, dancing in the life I’d otherwise be unable to afford. I am lucky but I chose to be here so it’s not really luck at all. But with gratitude to my ‘employers’, I have a big car, a Jacuzzi and an apartment in the mountains.
I am somewhat living outside of the reality of an average twenty-three-year-old traveler.
If you haven’t lived here, there are some things you’ll bypass when you head for the mountains or the lake. There is a road, from Gex to the first ski station in the Jura (Col de la Faucille), and along this road one can turn up a tiny track, hidden behind one winding mountain corner, leading to the graveling base of a cliff.
Climb out of your Car
Climb out of your car, head through the woods and find yourself standing on the grassy verge of another cliff, overlooking the entire region and Alps, with no other person in sight.
We took a picnic there, my French boyfriend and I; we camped and we stared at the unimaginable number of stars and we tried to point out which town was which along with the vast stretch of the lake below.
Take the Route du Pont de la London, out of Gex and along to Crozet. Hitting the bend – you’ll know the one – stop right there and get out.
From here you can follow the Allondon river through the forest, clamber through the rocks and up over them to see one of the remaining mining holes hidden amongst the trees.
Not on the tourist radar but certainly on the locals’, there are enough trees to climb and rocks to navigate over that only a picnic is needed to spend the whole day there.
An extra plus is that it makes for a beautiful first date location; just an FYI if you’re planning to see France by dating Frenchmen.
Not the Alps
It is not the Alps but there is something charming about small ski stations – the ones you can get to know intimately, running around their off-pistes and secret woodland jumps – and that is exactly what the Jura has to offer.
Throughout the winter, recovering from a bartender-related heartache, I took comfort in the slopes, chasing the wind down green, blue, red and – by the end of season – black in Col de La Faucille.
Sometimes we headed further into the Jura for Mijoux or Vattay but the best for diversity is Crozet, the slightly bigger brother of La Faucille.
Half the Cost of Chamonix
And one of the best reasons to head here, as opposed to the Alps, for a ski getaway is the price; easily, a daily ski-pass here costs half of what you would pay in Chamonix, for example, or Verbier.
Heading back down, covered in melted snow, we stopped along one of the mountain bends – one layby with a view of the Alps from Mont Blanc to Les Dents des Géants and everything in between.
Across the road, a charming wooden chalet is situated, glowing from the inside whilst the scent of fondue floats out through every crevasse.
Finding Fondue in the Chalet
We entered and took all the melted cheese we could find – an array of fondue, raclette, and tartiflette; all the dishes so typical of this area.
There was a warmth there, that night, that forced me to forget about everything I’d left down in the valley below; voices rising and falling about the wooden tables, words I couldn’t understand and didn’t need to either.
I pulled my ski jacket off and took a sip of red wine.
Another ten minutes winding down the mountain roads, we hit Gex and, naturally, the beer bar there. Known mainly for its array of Belgian beer, the Lingot d’Orge also offers over 130 beers from around the world in bottles and on tap.
And if ever, like me, you are trying to buy ten artisan beers for a particularly special stargazing event, there is a cave below the bar where each of the beers are stocked and sold for taking away.
Sitting beneath the outdoor heaters, sipping our Belgian Deliriums, we watched as the small town of Gex grow lively and open – this bar, the hub, is the heart of the community.
Whilst the French are notoriously closed when it comes to making conversation with strangers, taking a table outside the Lingot d’Orge ensures someone taking an interest in you.
Do You Have a Light?
“Do you have a light?” a girl asks, late-twenties. I don’t but my friend does and she’s soon sat at our table, pulling chairs up for her two other friends. Within minutes we’re telling our story – what are we doing here, where did we come from, why France, why here?
“Did you come to work in Geneva?”
“No, I work in Gex.” I explain and see the girl’s face display her confusion.
“No one comes to live here unless they’re commuting to Geneva. There’s nothing to do here.”
“I’ve found some things.”
Tay Kinnear is 23, from England and living in France. She is currently working with kids in France as a mentor and teacher. Her other passions including travel and culture, creative non-fiction, and documentary filming.