War Walks on the Swiss Jura Crest Trail
The Jura Crest Trail is the perfect starting point for exploring Swiss escape routes and World War II historical locations. Ali Rowsell describes some of the highlights.
The Swiss Jura Mountains, running parallel to the border with France, offered a reasonably easy escape route from Nazi-occupied territory during World War II. Visible defences, fortifications and historical remnants can be seen throughout the southern end of the Jura Crest Trail, in particular from Sainte-Croix to Nyon (Stages 10-14 of the Cicerone guide Switzerland’s Jura Crest Trail).
The main wartime highlight of the northern Jura is the Belchenflue, a hilltop fortification sitting between the Cantons of Basel-Landschaft and Solothurn, within Stage 3 of the Jura Crest Trail. On route from Hauenstein, the extent of Swiss military preparations becomes clear and far-reaching, with farmed strips, intermittent with metal girders protruding dangerously out of alpine pastures, as you cross over the Challhöchi Pass. The pass acted as the frontline of defence during World War I, where Swiss regiments dug into the rock of the Belchenflue to provide strategic positions.
Following a trail of rock paintings and decorations displaying coats of arms, military insignia and leftover World War I and II memorabilia, the Belchensüdstrasse along the southern flank of the Belchenflue offers an insight into Swiss military history; it was a main supply route to the World War I fortifications in the area, to prevent German invasion. Soldiers began work in 1914 and the mountain road (bridlepath with very little traffic) has remained unchanged since, demonstrating exceptional Swiss engineering and craftsmanship.
Ascending to the pass between the summits Ruchen (1123m) and Belchenflue (1099m) the trail passes bunkers and fortress doors built into the rock before offering panoramic views north-west over tank grubens; large holes dug into the ground and then later disguised so that invading tanks were stopped in their tracks.
Just a few kilometres south-west of Sainte-Croix, the number of World War II bunkers increases as the Jura Crest Trail passes within 600 metres of the French border. The close proximity of the southern end of the trail to the border results in treks dominated by the Jura’s smuggling past and World War II history. The vast Pré-Giroud artillery fort is reached 2km south-east of the town of Vallorbe, strategically located with its arsenal aimed directly north through the valley towards France. The fortress was built between 1937 and 1941, and provided a vantage point for any potential military invasions. The large underground bunker and garrison housed up to 200 men during World War II. The museum, shop and café are open mostly at weekends between May and October. English tours can be booked in advance.
The Grand Risoux forest situated in the Vallée de Joux is one of the largest continuous expanses of woodland in Europe, at over 2200 hectares. The Risoux presented the perfect natural border between occupied France and the freedom of Switzerland, offering an advantageous starting point for those wishing to flee from Nazi occupation. Only a small 3ft-high drystone wall with Fleur-de-Lis decorating it separates the two countries, enabling Jews, allied service personnel and resistance fighters to enter Switzerland.
In 1940, up to 15 locals from the Vallée de Joux joined the Swiss Information Service, part of the Intelligence Services, to set up a small group of passeurs, also known as smugglers, to organise, supervise and guide safe passage along up to 200km of forest trails. Not only were humans transported across the border, but confidential documents regarding Nazi movements and microfilm were smuggled to the British Embassy in Lausanne, alongside armaments to resistance fighters over the border in France.
This was a risky job, which resulted in some passeurs being shot on sight by the Nazis, alongside several being captured and sent to concentration camps such as Dachau. Locals Anne-Marie Piguet and Victoria Cordier worked together to transport Jewish orphans between Champagnole in France, through the Risoux to the safety of Switzerland. The journey started at the famous Chateau de la Hille near Toulouse, 700km away. These are just a few of the decorated heroes of World War II.
To make it more difficult for the Nazis to track the passeurs numerous routes were formed throughout the forest, many of which can still be traced today. The Nazis patrolled the French side of the forest throughout the day and the night; if anyone was found within the 2km forbidden zone at the border they were shot on sight.
Once over the border, the guided group would rest and recover from the long, difficult journey at one of two wooden huts deep in the forest: L’Hôtel d’Italie and Le Rendezvous des Sages. From here, the passeurs would return to their homes before dawn, leaving the escapees to continue the 10km journey from the border to where they could register and remain in interment camps for illegal foreigners within the safety of Switzerland.
More than 100 Swiss wartime activists were accused, fined or imprisoned for charging money and profiteering from smuggling during the war, despite their selfless bravery. Passeurs admitted to carrying contraband such as chocolate and cigarettes during their journeys to keep the Nazis off the scent, as this only involved a fine. Passeurs have officially been recognised only since 2009.
Several memorials can be found in the Vallée de Joux, both on the smuggling trails in the Risoux and at Le Pont. Another memorial can be found at Chapelle-des-Bois in France. For further information and smuggling routes, visit www.lespasseursdememoire.ch or www.randodespasseurs.com.
The Toblerone Trail
The last stage of the Jura Crest Trail ends at the lakeside (Lake Geneva) town of Nyon, within a 20-minute train journey from Geneva Airport. Due to the proximity with France, a defensive line of nearly 3000 tank traps were built early in the war to form the Promenthouse Line (also known as the Toblerone Line), in preparation for the rise of armaments and potential invasion from Germany. The 17km easy-walking Promenthouse Line Hiking Trail can be reached using the Little Red train to the village of Bassins, from Nyon station. Taking approximately 5hr to descend 460m from the Jura to Lake Geneva, the trail is strewn with ‘toblerones’, bunkers and defensive chalets and is well signposted along the route, giving an in-depth account of what Switzerland was like during World War II.
Access and further information
Switzerland’s Jura Crest Trail contains further information on Switzerland and its military past. The Jura Crest Trail is one of seven Swiss national long-distance walking trails, covering 310km of summits and mountain passes. The trail starts at Dielsdorf (15km from Zurich Airport) and finishes in Nyon (26km from Geneva). With international airports at either end of the trail, alongside the reliable Swiss railway system and local post-bus routes over mountain passes, accessibility is fundamental in providing the day-hiker and weekender with ease of travel throughout.
Ali Rowsell is a full-time teacher who has worked internationally, in countries including Australia, South Korea and Switzerland. She specialises in the outdoors, in particular mountain walking, and is a freelance International Mountain Leader. As a seasoned adventurer who has set foot and traveled on all continents except Antarctica to date, she has a passion for exploring new locations and sharing her love for the outdoors.View Articles and Books by Ali Rowsell