Rail route of the month: on the slow line through forests and meadows in the Swiss Jura | Train travel

TThe man on the slow train through the Swiss Jura wants to connect. When I mention that I’ve just traveled from Scotland, he leans forward and confides, “I can understand how they feel up there. We had to fight for our independence from Bern.”

The Jura region’s vote to secede from the canton of Bern in 1978 may not seem like much of an upheaval in the wider sweep of European affairs, but questions of identity and autonomy run deep in the folded hills of the Swiss Jura. More than four decades later, the largely French-speaking République et Canton du Jura is still the youngest in the Swiss Confederation. But this chance encounter on the train reminds me that there was a time when the jurassienne question caused heated debates and even riots. There isn’t much talking Jura libre in the hills these days, but there is still a palpable sense that this region is a place apart, a semi-isolated part of Switzerland with its own distinct identity.

Free travel for guests

“We have our own way of doing things,” says my fellow traveler. “We even have our own rail carrier.” Les Chemins de fer du Jura is a company with strong local values ​​that offers bus and train services throughout the Jura. It is an area blessed with excellent public transport and the slow trains and buses are the perfect way to enjoy the pace of life here. Even better, it might not cost a cent. There are free travel programs for visitors in many Swiss cantons, with particularly good arrangements in Ticino and Appenzell. In Jura, the passport to free travel is the Jura-Pass guest card, given to guests by accommodation owners. offers free transfer on the entire public transport network within the Vagabond pricing union (Moutier and Tramelan, as well as Jura) and is valid from the time of arrival at your hotel until midnight on the day of departure (maximum 15 days).

A farm in the Jura region. Photo: Hidden Europe

I stayed in Glovelier, far up the Sorne valley from the cantonal capital of Delémont, my choice of base being mediated by Glovelier’s central position in the transport network. This is a part of Switzerland made even more accessible to rail travelers with the happy re-opening in late 2018 of the long-standing railway that runs southeast from the French town of Belfort in Switzerland. It is now possible to travel from Paris to Glovelier in just three hours and 33 minutes, with an easy change at Belfort-Montbéliard, where the train to Switzerland departs from the upper level platform above the TGV station.

Know the terrain

Of the various rail trips from Glovelier, the most interesting for newcomers to the area is the 32-mile (51 km) line to La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is not in the canton of Jura at all, but just over the border in neighboring Neuchâtel. The Jura-Pass visitor card is valid until La Chaux-de-Fonds.

La Chaux-de-Fonds
La Chaux-de-Fonds Photo: Mario Nowak/Getty Images

The red CJ train from Glovelier to La Chaux-de-Fonds is not in a hurry. The route takes 75 minutes, with more than a dozen stops along the way. The railway, like the main roads of the region, runs on the grain of the land. The Jura is a series of long ravines trending from north-east to south-west, and the narrow-gauge railway cuts a similar course. It was the line of least resistance for the engineers who built the route between 1892 and 1910.

But it has its topographical challenges as I discover in the first few minutes of the trip. We climb into the wooded Tabeillon valley, the hillsides sloping steeper and steeper. Faced with steep slopes ahead, the train stops at a remote platform, where it reverses. The driver makes his way through the train, exchanging greetings with several passengers, apologizing that we’re already two minutes late, and then starts driving around the other end. Soon we are on the move again, zig-zagging up the hillside to gain the flatter land on the ridge above.

The train to La Chaud-de-Fonds on the platform at Glovelier
On the platform at Glovelier, the starting point for Nicky Gardner’s journey. Photo: Hidden Europe

Our starting point in Glovelier was just 500 meters above sea level. Soon we crest the 800m contour where we stay for the rest of the journey to La Chaux-de-Fonds. There are two large areas at over 1,000 meters. The secret to successful Jura travel is to gain altitude and stay high. The flattest land is not in the rock-tormented valleys, but high up near the top of the cliffs. Here the meadows and woods have a lovely mid-summer park quality. But that seemingly manicured appeal disappears when fierce winter storms sweep through the region. The scenery around the railway can be harsh when hit with snow, but eventually the winds die down and the sun comes out to reveal some of the best cross-country skiing terrain in Europe.

The Jura: A snowy wonderland in winter.
The area is swept by blizzards in winter, turning the countryside into a snowy wonderland. Photo: Dukas Presseagentur/Alamy

Jura radicalism

My interlocutor on the train exhibits typical Jura skepticism towards the Alps. “Why head for the big peaks where all the resorts are so full?” he asks, feeling that I think these landscapes are seriously underrated.

But the appeal of the Jura is not just about the landscape. The CJ rail routes, especially the main line from Glovelier to La Chaux-de-Fonds, offer truly wonderful slow travel experiences. It’s a chance to follow the warp and weft of the land and stop at small communities along the way. Among my favorites are Pré-Petitjean and Le Bémont, both good for country walks.

The tame veneer of Jura villages and towns covers a fascinating social history. These places have always punched above their weight in politics. Lenin and Kropotkin were caught up with the radical ideas that underpinned life here. It is an area famous for its watchmaking. Not, you might think, a natural springboard for revolution, but the communal and anti-state instincts of the region’s watchmakers were important in shaping European anarchism. With this in mind, it is easier to understand why the Jura is truly a special place and how jurassienne question could spark such discord.

Musée International d'horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds
Musée International d’horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Photo: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy

These are thoughts to ponder as we descend towards La Chaux-de-Fonds, where the obvious first port of call is the Musée international d’horlogerie, an excellent museum documenting the history of watchmaking.

Travel notes

Trains run hourly from Glovelier to La Chaux-de-Fonds. It’s free with the Jura-Pass visitor card or from CHF 25 (£23) one-way (return fares are double). There is no advantage to booking in advance – just pay on the day. Interrail cards are valid. The writer stayed at the Hôtel-Restaurant de la Gare in Glovelier, where the emphasis is on good local food and watching the trains come and go (doubles from £126 B&B).

The 17th edition of Nicky Gardner’s book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian Bookshop. She is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine

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