Hike to the Vorbourg Ruins

High above the surrounding valleys in the Jura mountains, the village of Pleigne spreads out its few streets and farm roads through grain fields surrounded by forests. At 809 meters, or 2,654 feet of elevation, it is the highest point in the area, which means that any return trip home is an upward journey. There is one small shop, a church with a bell which tolls the hour and quarter-hours, one post office, one bed-and-breakfast, a dilapidated building claiming to be a restaurant, and a collection of farmhouses. Most of these incorporate a barn or a stable into the architecture of the home, and people often keep animals in their back yards. For the first week, we had sheep belonging to Sebastien’s uncle, and we watched them from our table outside during lunch in the afternoons. The neighbors to the left keep chickens, and the neighbors on the right have donkeys. There are horses in many of the pastures surrounding the village. School is out now for the summer, and one hears the sounds of children in nearby houses through open windows.

In the afternoons, when work is done, I alternate between an outdoor excursion and writing in the cool air of the study on the ground floor. Yesterday the winds were breezy and the heat wave of last week had passed after a recent thunderstorm, so I decided to take a long walk the down the valley to investigate the ruins of a tower I had noticed on our last trip to Delémont, the largest town within ten miles. The ruins were located on a promontory between Delémont and Soyhières, a village at the base of the valley, and a medieval chapel perches slightly below the tower. After a lunch with Sebastien of homemade calzones, I packed a few things into a backpack and headed out of town. I estimated it to be a 5 mile walk down the mountain along the road, and perhaps another mile or so in trying to find the footpath to the tower, called the Vorbourg.

I thought I might try to follow a hiking trail down and avoid the cars on the narrow winding road, so I turned off on the first little yellow sign with a hiker icon marked “Delémont.” The hiking paths can be quite circuitous in Switzerland, often made up of logging trails or farm roads, and frequently criss-cross directly through privately owned pastures and require going over or under electric fencing, turnstiles, wooden fences, gates, what-have-you. Sometimes the intersections are unmarked, and one has to venture a guess and potentially lose some time in trying one direction, then another, before finally finding the right way to the next destination. I’m still wary of passing through what seems to be private property, but it seems to be quite normal to put in a walking path adjacent to a farmhouse, even with the little yellow hiking diamond nailed directly into the wall of someone’s home or barn, as a marker for public use.

This particular path led in the opposite direction of the road, which wasn’t a good sign, but I thought perhaps it might lead over the hill, so I followed to an unmarked intersection. Choice 1: path leading under electric fence marking cow pasture. Choice 2: path leading through electric gate of said cow pasture. I chose #2. As I passed through a herd of black and white dairy cattle, the sound of bells filled the air and the cows steadily gathered around me, nosing my clothes and hands for food. Within about twenty meters, I passed through another electric gate and left the cows behind me and followed a footpath along a logging road into a forest of tall trees stretching a hundred feet up into the sunlight. At another unmarked intersection, I had a choice of a short path leading to another electric fence marking another pasture, or a steep, deeply rutted logging trail leading further in the opposite direction of the road to Delémont. I decided to retrace my steps and return to the familiar, well-paved road which I knew would lead me directly to where I wanted to go.

The road from Pleigne winds 3.5 kilometers to Mettembert and loses 161 meters (528 ft.) of elevation, passing between sloping pastures, grainfields, fruit trees and forest. Mettembert itself is little more than a street or two lined with houses, a school which doubles as an administrative center, and a post-office. Another 4 kilometers and a drop of 248 meters (813 ft.) leads one to the pretty village of Soyhières. Along the last kilometer, I notices a footpath following a rocky stream just under the side of the road railing, so I scrambled down the slope and followed the path into town.

Since I expected some kind of signage to indicate the hiking path to Vorbourg, I went in the direction of Delémont and kept glancing at the surrounding cliffs until I saw the object of my journey: a promontory extending high above the road, matched by a hillside cliff of similar proportions on the opposite side. On the northwest face of the outcropping to my right, with a view to both north and south, perched two stone structures: a tower with broken walls and below it chapel below it, both surrounded by trees but clearly visible from all sides of the valley. The tower was destroyed by the “Séisme de la Saint-Luc,” a massive earthquake which occurred on the feast day of Saint Luke, October 18, 1356, and which also destroyed part of Basel and most of the surrounding castles and churches. The chapel below it is a shrine to Mary dating from the year 1000, to which many people travel on pilgrimage. I noticed a sign at an intersection which indicated a 45 minute walk to the Vorbourg, but as I followed it, I lost the thread of its direction, and ended up making several attempts in different directions before a young woman along the same path approached me and offered help. Relieved, I attempted to communicate in my paltry French: “Je vais á Vorbourg. Désolé, je ne parle pas français, mais je parle l’anglais et l’allemand.” She was very friendly and switched to German with a laugh, saying she hadn’t spoken it in a while, but we made sense to each other. She was heading along the same path, with the intent of picking flowers in a local field. As we walked, she turned right at a path passing between a stable and a farmhouse, ducking underneath an electric fence and greeting the woman outside watering her garden with a casual “Bonjour!” As we passed, I noticed a small yellow hiking sign nailed to the gatepost underneath the branch of a rose bush. I had walked right by it, not even thinking that the path would lead so closely through someone’s private property.

“This one here, this is good for sleeping,” she said, pointing to a small golden flower I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t chamomile, so I was curious what other flowers she was collecting, but our paths separated after a kilometer or so. After struggling to remember the German word “Bauernhof,” she finally made it clear to me that the path would continue past a farm, and then to a restaurant just below the Vorbourg. Then she slipped away with a friendly smile and a wave, continuing down another path.

From this point it was easy to find what I was looking for, and within another two kilometers up a winding farmroad, I had reached the Restaurant du Vorbourg, which was surrounded by fields, stables, large barns, and was itself an impressive old structure, with a high roof and many rooms with shuttered windows looking out towards Soyhières. I followed the signs to a path edged by trees, around rocky outcroppings, until I reached the railing and a bench with a lookout point. Directly behind and above this area stood the tower, and I was quick to duck into the bushes and clamber up the rocks and stones until I found the tower itself. It was so tempting to continue climbing and get to the very top, and I examined every side, looking at possible holds, stones which jutted out, which would have made an ascent possible. I thought about many of my climbing friends in Alaska who would have scaled it in a matter of minutes and sat jauntily overlooking everything, swinging their legs and taking photographs. But I contented myself with a few panoramic shots from a safer vantage point and a brief rest before heading back down.

I was interested in visiting the shrine as well, but sunlight was fading, and I knew I had a two or three hour walk yet to go, and wanted to reach Pleigne before nightfall. I headed back to Soyhières, and this time followed the footpath into the forest, as its signage claimed that it lead to Mettembert and Pleigne. It turned out to be a gently sloping logging road, which I followed all the way until the turn-off for Pleigne. It was slightly longer than the road, but I was relieved to avoid the cars, and was able to leave the darkening forest for the open skies of the upper plateau near Pleigne around ten in the evening. With just enough twilight to be able to find my way, I crossed a few pastures until I found another paved road and followed its winding path for two or three kilometers before finally reaching Pleigne and Sebastien’s familiar wooden door. Looking forward to a good supper of potatoes, cheese and a pot of tea, I checked my tracking device to find that I had traveled almost 18 miles on foot that day! That was definitely a record for me, and I found it relieving to know that I could travel so far in just six and a half hours, without reaching a point of exhaustion. I went inside to find Malwina at the table, and enjoyed a long conversation with her about the day, both her experiences and my own.

For photographs and videos from the hike, you are welcome to view my Flickr album:  Vorbourg, Jura.  

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