Chopping wood, baking bread, and picking wildflowers in the middle of one of Switzerland’s most rural cantons. Does this sound like a typical itinerary for an American tourist?
I found myself booking a trip to Jura after browsing the gigs on WorkAway. This website for travelers lists all kinds of places to stay at no charge in exchange for light work. I am currently helping my hosts, Manuela and Miriam, take care of their 300-year-old farmhouse. In return, I have a place to stay and a warm meal every night.
Though I would explore Switzerland’s significant sights on weekends by staying at youth hostels, I cannot help but feel like my month-long stay in Switzerland is more like an expedition than a vacation. Here in Jura, a canton that’s largely unknown by other tourists, I seem to be uncovering hidden gems on a daily basis.
Here’s what I have learned about life in the rural Swiss canton of Jura:
Everyone is a neighbor.
My hosts frequently come home with yogurts, cheeses, vegetables, and other groceries from farms a few kilometers away.
“These are from the neighbors,” they would typically say, even if the goods are not from the farms adjacent to us.
Everyone knows everyone between the vast peaks and valleys of the Jurassic Hills. My host Miriam frequently points out people she knows as we drive by, and even I am starting to recognize them. (For instance, there is a local marathon runner who treks up the slopes, baby stroller in hand, almost every day.)
Everyone looks out for one another, too.
One morning, forty cows escaped from someone’s pasture, spreading out in the region. We found one of the cows on our property when we heard a cowbell ringing frantically. We kept her in check until the owner arrived to claim her. The other neighbors listened for bell sounds as well. In a communal effort, they pitched in until every single bovine had been recovered.
The long and winding road.
Jura only has one highway, the A16. But take a ride into the mountains, and you are sure to encounter bicyclists, hikers, camper vans, tractors, and motorcyclists paving through the many twists and turns.
At least in the region of Raimeux, my temporary home, the roads that wrap around the mountains are typically one-way. However, there is such little traffic that cyclists, pedestrians, and cars have a harmonious “share the road” relationship.
When I go on runs, everyone I pass always waves a little hello and leaves plenty of space on the road.
In the Jura, hiking is part of everyday life.
I am surrounded by an endless amount of hiking trails. And I have almost all of them to myself. The landscape here is largely integrated into the way of life, and you will feel the urge to get at least a little fresh air every day.
Download the Swisstopo app or just take a walk along the roadside. Whichever direction you walk, you are bound to run into some stunning views. Another WorkAway participant and I wandered around for an afternoon and ended up hiking almost 10 miles out of sheer curiosity.
The natural beauty extends underground, too.
One day, my hosts brought me to the Caves of Réclère near Porrentruy - what a treat. The 1500-meter walkway goes past unique-looking stalagmites and stalactites, first discovered in 1886.
It also features the country’s largest stalagmite, called the Pagoda.
The hour-long tour is available in German and French, but not English, though my hosts graciously translated for me. Be ready to go up and down 500 steps, and suit up in warm gear, too. The temperatures drop to about 7 degrees Celcius once you are inside.
They also have a gift shop filled with all sorts of dinosaur gear, if that’s your thing. Honestly, I was very close to buying a Brochasaurus-shaped mood ring...
Saint-Ursanne, the “Pearl of the Jura.”
Sure, maybe for an untrained American eye like mine, every town built in the Middle Ages looks straight out of a fairytale. But there is something special about the little town of Saint-Ursanne on a Sunday afternoon. There is a reason why it is called the “Pearl of the Jura.”
Art galleries, little shops, and musicians line the main road. A handful of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating provide an excellent spot for people-watching.
An acoustic duo greeted me as I walked through the gates that mark the old town. As I strolled, two groups of musicians politely took turns playing songs on either side of the street. Some local kids also showed off circus routines to onlookers in front of the Collegiate Church.
Visitors can check out the “city walks” brochure for a one-hour, self-guided tour around town.