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Insider guide to Pays de Gex, France

11/08/2022 by .
Belvedere de Leaz © OTI Pays de Gex station Monts Jura e1660223892250

Andy Mossack uncovers another undiscovered beautiful corner of France far away from the tourist treadmill in his guide to Pays de Gex.

Squeezed between Lake Geneva and the towering Jura Mountains with Mont Blanc a constant companion on the horizon, the Pays de Gex thoroughly deserves this long-awaited shout-out. A petit slice of the Ain Department within the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, it seems to be constantly holding hands with Switzerland like an adoring sibling; Geneva airport at one end, Divonne les Bains at the other, and plenty more border crossings in-between.

So much so, that the Pays de Gex is home to many Swiss commuters simply because it’s so much cheaper to live on the French side of the border and work on the Swiss side. Ironically, well-heeled Swiss head the opposite way to take full advantage of the available retail therapy; a fraction of what it would cost them back home.

© N. Gascard

It must have made perfect sense to somebody all those years ago, but between the 15th century Dukes of Savoy and the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the French/Swiss border around Geneva has more pieces to it than a jigsaw puzzle.

The upshot for us though is a region gifted with rustic French authenticity yet hosting a truly multi-national community, all combining to make this an unforgettable place to visit all year round. There are excellent skiing resorts in winter and magnificent mountain scenery to bike and hike in summer. So, let’s explore just what lies in store in the Pays de Gex.

Divonne les Bains

Lac de Divonne les Bains © OT Divonne

Known simply as Divonne by the locals, this ritzy spa commune at the edge of the Haut-Jura regional natural park became a magnet for wealthy tourists in the 19th century when bathing in thermal waters became all the rage. It was a heady time back then evidenced by the belle epoque architecture still all around the town.

The Grand Hotel du Domaine is a perfect example – a list of former celebrity residents as long as your arm, gorgeous art deco interiors, beautiful, manicured gardens, and a posh casino where channelling your inner James Bond would not be out of place. There are over thirty natural springs in Divonne, but the town’s centrepiece has to be the 45-hectare lake with its impressive sandy beach.

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On sunny days you can hang out at the beach bars enjoying cool music (live bands at weekends) and relaxing food and drink. There are also plenty of water sports available, and a 4K walking trail around the lake perimeter.

Chateau de Voltaire

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The small town of Ferney was where Voltaire spent the last twenty years of his life from 1758 and his impressive chateau and gardens are now a permanent museum. Voltaire was a hugely influential figure in France’s Enlightenment movement. An author, philosopher and poet, his outspoken views drew both support and criticism throughout Europe and ultimately influenced the French Revolution.

Salon daxe© Daniel GILLET Aintourisme

The rooms of the chateau contain plenty of fascinating artefacts chronicling his private and public life and you can walk the extensive gardens in Voltaire’s footsteps, perhaps with your hand supporting your chin contemplating the meaning of life. His personal contribution to the town’s development was so influential they renamed it Ferney-Voltaire after his death and erected a statue in the town centre.

Fort l’Ecluse

Fort LEcluse © N. Gasgard

If you do nothing else in Pays de Gex, this is unmissable. Built directly into the towering cliffs above the mighty Rhône valley it’s a wonderfully restored fortress in two parts dating back centuries and built to protect the French border. There’s a huge lower fort to explore, offering up vaulted chambers where the garrison ate, slept, and stored munitions.

The displays are world-class, everything from state-of-the-art video to atmospheric art installations. There’s even a live feed of the bat colony living in one of the towers. The higher fort is some six hundred feet further up and accessed by a stone staircase up 1,165 steps.

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Along the way, you’ll encounter various battery positions and wonder how on earth those soldiers managed to heave heavy guns up those very steps. All your efforts will be rewarded though with some spectacular views across the whole region, including the magnificent snow-capped Mont Blanc looming as always, like a silent sentinel. You’ll also earn yourself a stairway climb diploma! There is limited road access to the higher fort for anyone with mobility issues, while the more adventurous can climb a via Ferrata course.

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The rest of the higher fort is now used as an adventure climbing course. During the year, the fort is used as a venue for concerts, and I’ve reliably been informed, a spectacular Halloween party.

Col de la Faucille

tyrolienne © Up drone 4

Up in the Jura mountains now, and the Col de la Faucille is an iconic high mountain pass once used by Napoleon’s army, but more recently, as one of the challenging stages of the Tour de France forty-one times. Fortunately for us mere mortals, we can use this pass’s pedigree for all kinds of other outdoor mountain fun. In summer you can buy a low-price ski lift pass and hop on one up to the peak trails, or just have fun riding them up and down.

There’s also one of the longest railed toboggan rides in Europe at over a kilometre, with plenty of hairpin turns and plunging drops. Zipline fanatics can tackle the steepest descent in France from a raised departure platform at the end of a 150m long footbridge. I must confess, walking out along that bridge felt like I was a condemned man about to meet my maker, but my harnessed descent was a thrill.

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Ze Trott embraces the new electric all-terrain scooter craze, and these can be rented here too. Similar to a mountain bike but without pedals, these scooters can tackle off-road trails with ease so grab one and ride up through the forest and enjoy the views of Lake Geneva at the top.

While we’re on the subject of the great outdoors, Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park is 170,000 hectares of protected natural wilderness across the Jura range and a generous portion of it is within Pays de Gex. A place of natural biodiversity, wildlife flourishes in its stunning landscapes just as Nature intended. It is hiker heaven.


In a region where skiing is de rigueur in winter, there are a surprising number of golf courses available ranging from 9-hole tracks (you go round twice to make 18 holes using slightly different tee locations for the second round) as well as a number of 18-hole championship courses. Two courses stand out for me.  Maison Blanche Golf & Country Club has it all. Beautifully crafted by legendary golf designer Peter Harradine, he’s used all the natural contours of this mountainous landscape to create proper golfing drama.

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Huge elevation changes from tee to green, narrow forest-lined fairways, water hazards guarding many greens and some punishing bunkers. A complete contrast, but still on my hit list, is the 9-hole course at Jiva Hill Resort. This five-star Relais & Chateaux property lies on a private 100-acre estate and the golf course winds its way all around the property, but the unique aspect is the fairways are natural grass, but all the tees and greens are state-of-the-art synthetic grass. Apart from making it playable all year round, it offers a very different challenge to golfers used to playing natural greens.

Bleu de Gex cheese

©Syndicat Interprofessionnel du Bleu de Gex

It’s understandable that being in France, food is a serious business here. While Pays de Gex may enjoy all the benefits of typical hearty alpine fare like raclette and fondue it happens to have its own world-class blue cheese. Bleu de Gex has Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) protection which means it can only be made using milk from its local Montbéliard cows.

“So what” you might say, “I can get blue cheese all over the world” which is true. But when I tested it against English Stilton and Roquefort, it still came up trumps for taste. And what’s more, it has its very own ‘brotherhood of farmers’ one of whom I had the pleasure of meeting for an entertaining cheese tasting.

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Nicolas Guitton gave up a lucrative career in aviation to don the pale blue beret of a Bleu de Gex brother as soon as the opportunity arose. A fraternity that has been generational since the 14th century. “The cheese must be on the point of crumbling when you squeeze it” Nicolas pointed out while squeezing a small square tenderly.

“We also age them in our cave, the younger one for 21 days, and 3 months for the older.”  And the result? Give me the older one every time. Those Montbéliard cows also deliver the milk used to make Comté; a double bonus then, two great cheeses in one place. Heaven on a plate. Disappointed I wasn’t granted an honorary fraternity membership though, I would have worn that bleu beret with pride.

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Pays de Gex really is an undiscovered gem. Drop dead scenery, outstanding value for money, excellent facilities for families, and you can pop into Switzerland anytime you want and be back in time to gorge some more on that fabulous cheese.

All images (C) Andy Mossack except Fort l’ Ecluse, hiker and cloud cover images(C) N Gasgard, feature image (C) Belvedere-de-Leaz,

Tell me more about Pays de Gex

Click here for more information about Pays de Gex Tourism

Click for more information about Divonne Tourism

Click for more information about La Faucille Tourism

Click here for more information about Lélex-Crozet Resort

Getting to Pays de Gex

Return direct flights from London Heathrow to Geneva airport priced from €87/£75 with British Airways

Where to stay

One night stay at Grand Hotel du Domaine in Divonne les Bains is priced from €66/£56pp for a comfort room with luxury buffet breakfast, based on two sharing. A taste of a bygone era with sumptuous art deco interiors and generous private grounds. Lovely dining terrace in the summer and glitzy casino.

A two-night stay at La Michaille is priced from €76/£65pp with breakfast, based on two sharing. Excellent B&B farmhouse Gite accommodation in Mijoux, lorded over by the lovely Orlane who will also cook a splendidly authentic local dinner on request. Bleu de Gex on tap.

What to do

Château de Voltaire: admission is priced from €8/£6.50 for adults and free for children under 18

Fort l’Ecluse: admission is priced from €6/£5 for adults and €4.50/£4 for children under 16

Col de la Faucille: Sled rides are priced from €9/£8 for one ride, zipline is priced from €34pp for one descent Ze Trott scooters: Rental for 30 minutes is priced from €22/£18.50 for adults and €16/£13.50 for children

Golf at Valserine: a lesson is priced from €20/£17, a round of 9 holes is priced from €35/£29 and 18 holes from €55/£46

Maison Blanche Golf Visitors can play Monday to Friday from €120 for 18 holes.

Electric Bike rental: €40/£34 for half day rental

Télécabine La Catheline in Lélex: return journey is priced from €9/£7.50 for adults and €6/£5 for children

Music’Altitude Concert hike: free admission to hike and concert at Refuge de Loge

Recommended eating

Bois Joly  Beautiful terrace with impressive views of Lake Geneva and the Jura Mountains.

La Michaille Orlane’s a bit of a culinary wiz for locally fresh rustic meals.

Chez Feodor  Really unusual smokehouse and microbrewery. Everything is homemade each day the smoked meats too.

Jiva Hill  Super 5-star Relaix & Chateaux resort with two restaurants. Le Jardin Italian and Jiva the Restaurant a bistro-style with a tasting menu by acclaimed Chef Jean-François Vasseur.

Airport Parking

Airport Parking and Hotels offers a wide range of parking and overnight hotel stays at all major UK airports. One week of Meet & Greet airport parking at London Heathrow Airport costs from £130 in August 2022. For the latest prices and to book, call 01342 859442 or visit



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