Day 35 – Pontarlier to Jougne

Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den….


Friday 4/5/2018

Distance 26.3km Total Distance from Canterbury 840.3km

Pontarlier is famous for absinthe. Absinthe is, or was, a much-loved alcoholic drink, renowned during the 19th century. It was a spirit, with a high level of alcohol, and flavoured with a variety of herbs including wormwood and aniseed. It was invented, if that is the word, in Switzerland, but Frenchman Henri Pernod bought the recipe and opened a distillery in Pontarlier in 1805. By the end of the nineteenth century the French were consuming over 13 million litres per year and there were more than 1,000 distilleries in the country.

It had a reputation for causing madness, and had a prominent part in popular culture, popular among Bohemians and artists and equally the working classes and soldiers. It was banned in France in 1915 and banned also in many other countries. Other aniseed flavoured drinks like Pernod and Ricard took its place.

Old label for ‘aniseed flavoured liqueur’ showing the Porte St Pierre in the centre of Pontarlier

As claims about its toxicity, other than that due to alcohol itself, seem to have been essentially disproved, it has generally become legal everywhere again, although strangely, it remained illegal into the 21st century in France to sell absinthe – if you called it absinthe – but it was legal if you called it spiritueux à base de plantes d’absinthe, or wormwood-flavoured spirits. Since 2011 it can be sold in France again as ‘absinthe’.

I am not in any way endorsing absinthe and of course all alcohol must be taken in moderate amounts, if at all. Advice on cutting down is available here.  However, I did try one after my Italian supper last night and it was nice enough. When I dined with my new French friends in Mouthier we had been served absinthe-flavoured ice cream, which was rather nicer.

I was happy to meet them again last night in their hotel in Pontarlier and we planned to walk together today. They are a very friendly group of people. They are quite serious about their walking, in an entirely fun way, and they were distributing walking notes for the day ahead when I got there. They are not following any of the three(!) guidebooks that I am using but are essentially following GR routes. The GR is the (amazing) system of footpaths in France called Grande Randonnée or literally ‘big hike’. There are 60,000km of marked pathways in France. The marking is very simple, just red and white stripes, either painted or plastic adhesive, called balises. And usually no other directional details, including generally no arrow, so you DO need to be using a map as well. Or an app, nowadays. But this has the advantage of great simplicity.

Here are the signs you will see. That is all, so the signs themselves are very simple to mark and maintain. Once you are on the correct GR it is easy enough to stay on it.

Some of the GR routes are very well known, so the GR10 for example is a route of 866km which runs through the Pyrenees on the French side of the French-Spanish border. AndThe GR5 is a 2,600 km hiking trail going from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. And throughout France, more or less, (one of the routes of) the Via Francigena is labelled as the GR145. My new friends were keenly following the GR 145, which sticks much more closely to footpaths than the route I had been following. They became quite anxious whenever we came to a road as it was unlikely we should be following it. The cry would go up, “Un doute” and everyone would gather and check maps, apps and compass. And always matters were resolved very quickly. This is quite a new experience for me. I have mentioned before that I do not plan very much. If I were in Spain, I generally would not be sure in the morning when setting out where I planned to spend the night. I like the flexibility. It is a bit different on the VF, as there is not nearly as much readily available pilgrim accommodation, so for the past month I have known each morning where I would spend the night, but never I think was I sure of the following night.

Some people hugely enjoy planning everything out in advance, sometimes weeks or months in advance. Partly it is to do with the size of the party. Travelling alone gives great flexibility and allows for spontaneity. A dozen people travelling together clearly need to book accommodation in advance. Different strokes for different folks, as, supposedly, Muhammed Ali once said. I actually like maps and have no trouble reading them, but rather enjoy the freedom of not having to use them usually when I am walking on a well marked route.

At this stage on the VF you do need to make some reference to a map, as there is a variety of different routes for crossing the border into Switzerland. Both my Italian and English (Raju) guidebooks recommend a route through Les Fourgs in France to L’Auberson in Switzerland and then to Sainte-Croix. The other English book (Lightfoot) , which I generally do not use, recommends a route somewhat to the west, said to be closer to the route of Sigeric, which it says is becoming the  ‘official route’. But each of the books and especially the “official website of the VF” lists a number of alternatives. Our route was mainly the Lightfoot route but with the addition of a true diversion to take in a place  (tomorrow) which I had never heard of, and which I would certainly not have got to under my own steam.

We met, successfully, at the Porte St Michel, and took to the path. It was a very beautiful walk today, far from tarmac roads – this is what you get when you walk with professionals!!

The Porte St Michel (also shown above on the absinthe label)

Just as you leave the town you pass a roundabout with a piece of street sculpture. Street sculpture is quite common in France.  It is a large rust-coloured figure of a head, maybe 10m in height, which sits in the middle of a roundabout on the main road to Geneva. This is the Giant Mask of André Malraux. 

Andreé Malraux on the ‘worst roundabout in France’

He was a largely self-educated but prominent novelist and writer on the history and philosophy of art. He was also a government minister and his dates are 1901-76. The piece was created by a sculptor called Paul Bernard working with local school children. But here’s the thing – in December of last year there was a poll for the ‘worst roundabout in France’, which seems to be about the one which was the biggest waste of money, and this one won! Who knew?!

We soon left it behind us and headed into open country. The way today was very hilly, see the trace from my phone. We are in the Jura mountains.

In the distance as we began we saw this imposing castle

Fort de Joux in the distance

And surprisingly quickly we were near to it, though there remained a ravine between us and the castle.

Fort de Joux much nearer

It is an imposing place and it has a considerable claim to fame. The history of colonialism in all continents is full of people who were alternatively known as terrorists, freedom fighters, and eventually liberators. And sometimes, for instance in the cases of Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Archbishop Makarios (Cyprus) and Nelson Mandela (South Africa), as politicians, presidents and world leaders.

I lived in Kenya for a time near to Kapenguria where the ‘Kapenguria Six’ were detained for anti-British activities in the 1950s. A little further away one of them, the future president Jomo Kenyatta, was held in Lodwar, in the Turkana Deserts, in internal exile. Archbishop Makarios of the Greek Orthodox Church was imprisoned in exile in the Seychelles in the 1950s for his activity promoting the union of Cyprus with Greece and independence from UK. On his release from the Seychelles he visited Kenyatta in Kenya, and they evidently became lifelong friends. Both would become presidents of their country in time. The Greek Orthodox Church has a considerable presence in Kenya.

Nelson Mandela, as is well known, was imprisoned for many years on Robben Island, about 5 miles off the coast of Cape Town. I visited South Africa some years ago and I urge you to go if you ever get the chance. I thought of going across to Robben Island, but to be honest I am not entirely happy in boats which are smaller than the Titanic, so I just cast an eye from the top of Table Mountain.  I did visit a museum built close to the place near Durban where Nelson Mandela was arrested. It has a very unusual sculpture made of individual ‘shapeless’ poles.

Sculpture of Nelson Mandela close to the capture site in Howick

So the Fort de Joux dates from the 11th Century when it was built of wood. It has been progressively enlarged and strengthened in the intervening centuries, throughout which it served as an important border defence, though it changed hands many times. It sits close to the Swiss border and being remote and easily defensible it was what Martin Luther would have called Ein feste Burg, or ‘a mighty fortress’. This, one of his most famous hymns, was based on Psalm 46. The first verse of Psalm 46 in the King James version (KJV) is

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

which comes into the hymn as

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing:

It was argued in the past that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of Psalm 46 for the KJV. There is a complex explanation connected to the fact that the words ‘Shake’ and ‘Spear’ appear 46 words from the beginning and 46 words before the end – if you miss one word out!  But please don’t go there. It was argued in the past that the earth is flat!

For many years the Fort de Joux served as a prison.  And like Clairvaux which I visited some weeks ago, it was a high security prison for ‘celebrity’ prisoners. And one of these was François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, whom I freely admit I had never heard of.  He was though an interesting character. And deeply involved in the struggle for freedom in French colonies. 

A contemporary engraving

Two countries in the present day ‘share’ the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean – Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The history is long and complicated (and quite interesting) but I will give you a brief summary. The island was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and called it La Española because it reminded him of Spain(!) Well he was an Italian in the employ of the Spanish court, so I suppose he would say that. So it became a Spanish possession. Spain exploited the people and the land for gold, and as a military base for further expansion in Latin America. The British made an unsuccessful attack on the island in 1655. The French were more successful shortly afterwards. The island was ruled by various combinations of French and Spanish during the 18th century. The west part of the island became the French colony of Saint-Domingue and is now Haiti. The east part of the island was Spanish, and is now the Dominican Republic.

Toussaint Louverture ( also known as L’Ouverture), (1743-1803), was a native of the island. Let me summarise his career with a couple of sentences from wikipedia: He first fought for the Spanish against the French; then for France against Spain and Great Britain; and finally, for Saint-Domingue against Napoleonic France. You can see that he made a lot of enemies. But of course at home he was hugely popular, and essentially fought for and achieved the abolition of slavery, and the freedom of the island from both the French and the Spanish. He showed skill both in battle and diplomacy. A dangerous man if you were a colonial power.

And so the colonial power acted and arrested him in 1802. And from the heat of the Caribbean they brought him, now an old man, to the cold of the Jura mountains and put him in the Fort de Joux. And he died there within the year  a victim to the treachery of Napoleon and the severity of an Alpine climate, as a contemporary author put it.

The French authorities in more recent times have recognised him favourably and an inscription in the Pantheón in Paris says: Combatant for liberty, artisan of the abolition of slavery, Haitian hero died in deportation at Fort-de-Joux in 1803.

A few photos from the day’s walk.

An absinthe distillery
A woodcutter who was something of a storyteller. He told us how he came to chop the top of his finger off, which you can just make out.
The cows are my constant companions, but fellow-pilgrims an entirely new experience. That is what a GR path looks like!
Let me emphasise again – on a GR you are OFF the tarmac!
A little bit of folk art. Cows are central to life here.

When I said that my new friends are organised I wasn’t exaggerating. They travel with one car which they share and they take turns to do logistics and backup, which means essentially that not everything needs to be carried in rucksacks, though most did do so in fact. And it meant that each day they rendezvous with the car which has…..lunch. Here we are in a graveyard in the town of Les Fourgs. There was some discussion about the appropriateness of eating in a graveyard, but the consensus was that no one would mind!

A definite improvement in my lunch, both in cuisine and company

This is a sign you see again and again in French village cemeteries – and I think I have been in over a hundred of them by this time. It is in the spirit of “use it or lose it”. If you don’t keep putting people in the grave it will revert to the Mairie and will be reassigned. It seems a bit sad, but I suppose it is practical. But note too that the sign has been there for 3 years without anything happening!

‘The mairie will repossess this plot on the grounds that it has been abandoned’


Once again, the beauty of a GR track, with friendly chevaux
This is something which I have seen at least half a dozen times while walking through France, a shooting range. They are not usually so open.

When pilgrims get talking, they are often interested to know what other people carry in their bags and what they leave behind. There is a constant pursuit of travelling more lightly. Horses are equally inquisitive:

So a most enjoyable day’s walking with wonderful and very generous companions brought us to Jougne – our last night in France. I will be sad to leave.

To Toussaint again. The image at the top is of a modern Haitian banknote, and the words come from a poem written by William Wordsworth in 1803, the year after the death of Toussaint.

Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;—
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

It is good to remember such people. Today I passed by the deep dungeon’s earless den – not a good place, for all its beauty. But the last lines are uplifting: Thy friends are exultations, agonies, and love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

Slavery is sadly still with us. You can find more information here.

A luta continua – the struggle continues.