When my children were small, and I was working for a ski company, we were fortunate to be able to take them skiing each year and put them through the grades at ski school. Whenever we skied as a family, this would involve slow descents with myself in the role of sweeper-upper at the back.
How times and roles change. A quarter of a century on, I still find myself at the back, but now as keeper-upper. On a trip to Val-d’Isère last year (I really can’t call it a holiday), after a wearying coach transfer from Geneva, the now grown-up children insisted on skiing until the final lifts closed each day, and I endured the ritual humiliation of being the one they all had to wait for.
Oh for the stamina of youth. After 6 days of boot camp, I realised that I no longer want to ski all day every day, and decided on a few priorities for the next winter-sports trip: a short transfer, a relaxed and friendly resort, a couple of days enjoying quiet red and blue runs with the odd black to keep me on my toes; the chance to try out other activities on the snow, and to explore the local region and culture (yes, culture on a ski trip).
Imagine my delight at finding such a place exists! Welcome to the Pays de Gex, a region very much in France but situated just to the east of Geneva and with breath-taking views across to Lake Leman and Mont Blanc. I really can’t abide the overused expressions hidden gem and best-kept secret, but it really is. Simply turn left at Geneva Airport Arrivals into the French side, drive away from the city past cows grazing less than a mile from the runway, past the CERN Hadron Collider and then, less than half an hour later, find yourself in the mountains and forests, not of the Alps but the Jura.
The Pays de Gex offers year-round activities with an affordable price tag – good value for tourists, locals and canny Genevois, who find that their Euros go a lot further than their Swiss Francs. What’s more, the area is steeped in culture, history, outstanding local cuisine and even a dash of philosophy thrown in for good measure.
Our first taste of the action was a snow shoeing adventure and nature lesson – in the dark! Strapping on our “raquettes” and head torches, we headed for the Jura and started our ascent under a clear night sky. We walked in peaceful silence apart from the sounds of local wildlife and our feet crunching rhythmically, and sometimes not quite so rhythmically, through the snow. Our guide Nicolas, a font of local knowledge, taught us about the wolves, the lynx, the mating habits of the resident turkeys (tetras), the way that the trees of the forest communicate with one another, and the natural therapy of forest bathing and tree hugging. Sceptical initially perhaps, after a couple of minutes’ warm embrace with a pine tree, it felt like I had found a soul mate.
The food of tree love was not enough to quell pangs of hunger, and we arrived famished late in the night at a rustic mountain hut deep in the trees that was to be our dining room. This time it was cheese bathing in the aromatic warmth of fondue made with local Comté accompanied by a limitless supply of bread and white wine. It was simple, delicious and atmospheric with candles as the only source of light. The city of Geneva can only have been less than an hour away, but we could have been on another planet in this peaceful and natural environment.
By day, the Pays de Gex comprises 3 downhill ski resorts: Lélex-Crozet, Mijoux-la Faucille and Menthières, and we skied at Lélex-Crozet which is the main downhill area. It’s not huge with just under 30km of pistes (including my perfect combination of 5 reds and 3 black) and some good off-piste too. This makes it ideal for a short break and for cautious intermediates or those whose knees really don’t want a pounding. And from just €19 for a day pass, it’s incredibly good value when you consider that you could pay 3 or 4 times more in some of the bigger resorts.
Coasting down the mountain from the peak at just under 1,700m overlooking Lake Geneva was an unforgettable cocktail of great snow, awesome views and sunshine, followed by lunch at the Yeti with a terrace overlooking the lake, and the Alps further away in the background providing the perfect backdrop.
The Pays de Gex also enjoys some of the most extensive cross-country skiing in Europe, with over 160km of pistes. It’s the perfect cardio-vascular work-out, and at only €8 for a daily pass it won’t cause any stress on your purse either. At La Vattay-Valserine we donned lovely comfortable soft boots and long thin cross-country skis, and our instructor, aged 68 and fit as a fiddle, gave us an extensive lesson. That is to say he showed us how to start and how to stop. That’s all you need to know said he, and without further ado, off we glided across the forest and meadows in glorious sunshine. Actually it wasn’t quite all gliding or indeed quite so easy to stop as we soon found out; but a couple of minor collisions later and we were all best friends again.
Discovering local history and culture
Away from the slopes, what a joy it was to discover the market town of Ferney Voltaire, not just a sign on the autoroute to the airport, but a vibrant municipality in the heart of the Pays de Gex. It’s named after the French writer and philosopher who arrived at the age of 60 and enjoyed the most productive years of his life, perhaps because he was surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes. Voltaire was a wealthy man, and built a large and imposing chateau where he lived with his niece who was, but let’s not dwell on this, also his partner. A fascinating tour included their bed chambers each with a single bed, the man’s slightly narrower and the lady’s a little wider.
With such an eminent philosopher in residence, Ferney Voltaire became an intellectual centre of Europe hosting young men on their Grand Tour. And as any reader of Candide will know, cultivating your garden is an important philosophical metaphor for life itself, and unsurprisingly the chateau stands in stunning parkland.
Food and literature go hand in hand, and Ferney’s weekly market is the largest in the region. It’s a cheese-lover’s paradise and we sampled a full range with enthusiasm and delight. Comte which we had already tried in the fondue; l’Epive which is wrapped in bark from the local pine trees; Charbon de bois which is prepared in two halves with a blue line between the two; and Morbier which is only produced in the summer months. Moving on, we lapped up delicacies from stalls brimming with pineapples, pomegranates the size of coconuts; pâté en croute made by French champions, oysters and champagne. And all before 11am – that’s my kind of local culture!
After sampling far too many delicacies, it was time to compensate with a little aqua therapy, and just 20 minutes’ drive away is the thermal spa town of Divonne les Bains. Springs and ponds at a chilly 8 degrees centigrade are dotted throughout, and the town has been a prime destination for many years for people seeking natural cures for ailments in its chilly waters. Fortunately our therapy was to be a little warmer amongst the bubbles, jets and sprays of the large municipal thermal spa (in a pre-Covid world), where we digested our culinary overload and were restored to perfect balance and wellbeing (or so the poster said).
And wellbeing both of the physical and spiritual kind are the hallmarks of this beautiful region. An affordable diversity of winter sports, unbeatable views of mountains and forests, culture, literature, an outstanding market and a nice bath too, all within a short drive of Geneva airport. Sorry Switzerland, but next time I’ll be turning left again and heading for the Jura and the Pays de Gex. What a gem!
The trip took place in March 2020, days before Europe went into lockdown, and we watched the ski resorts and Geneva airport close around us as we took our flight back to London. By June, the Pays de Gex and its Monts Jura Mountain Resort were at the forefront of the return to tourism, and offering peace of mind as the first area in France to obtain the COVID-FREE independent label – a safety standard for professionals in the catering, hotel and tourism industries committed to fight against the spread of the virus www.covid-free.fr
Debbie was a guest of the Pays de Gex Tourist Office.
Return direct flights from London Gatwick to Geneva Airport cost from £41 with Easyjet.
TPG (Geneva public transport) www.tpg.ch
Line Y: Gex – Ferney-Voltaire – Airport – CERN – 21 minutes 2.50€ each way
Two nights stay at the 5* www.jivahill.com Hotel is priced from £205pp with breakfast, based on two sharing.
Snowshoeing and dinner in a mountain refuge – Chalet Fore Tier du Chalet Juraventure and the company owner is Nicolas Guitton www.juraventure.com/store/randonnees-en-raquette 48€ pp for the guide, snowshoes and meal with wine. Children 16 and under 38€pp.
Lift passes start from 19€pp or over 65yrs/ children under 16 years old per day 15€pp per day. Ski & Boot hire www.loopingsports.com from 11€ pp per day
Ski lessons www.esf-lelex.fr – 2 hours group lessons from 50€ pp.
Cross country skiing Lessons www.lavatty,fr starts from 25€ pp for lessons for one hour, Ski hire: 14€ per day for ski and boot hire. Passes: from €9.50 pp per day.