And contemplating the island’s gentle slopes, covered with oaks and vineyards, its beaches of sand and pebbles and the snow-covered peaks of the Alps in the background, I had to agree: In a country chock-full of pristine landscapes, this one was a gem.
Rousseau’s Switzerland: Where to stay, what to do and more
This sort of epiphany was what I was looking for when I decided to take a trip that would follow in Rousseau’s footsteps. This year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth, and the occasion is being celebrated across French-speaking Switzerland, from Geneva — Rousseau’s birthplace — to countless smaller towns, with conferences, museum exhibits and theatrical performances.
The aspect of Rousseau’s legacy that interested me most was not his influence on revolutionaries worldwide or his groundbreaking ideas on pedagogy. What I found most compelling was his unrelenting passion for meandering through Swiss forests or meadows and hiking Switzerland’s Jura Mountains in search of rare plants or inspiration.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more competent guide to these parts than the author of “Reveries of the Solitary Walker.” From his autobiographical essays to his fiction, Rousseau peppered his writing with vivid descriptions of the scenery. His depiction of nature as an object of contemplation rather than a source of imminent danger triggered a flow of foreign visitors eager to see the Swiss countryside for themselves. Some used his novel “Julie, or the New Heloise,” as a travel guide.
“Scores of English romantics came to Switzerland,” says Pierre Corajoud, the author of a Rousseau-inspired Swiss walking guide, “and they were actually the first tourists here.”
Rather than carry Rousseau’s complete works, I decided to take my guidance from Corajoud’s small book, “Le chemin de Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” Rousseau’s own “Reveries” — an unfinished collection of 10 walks — and a new initiative called the Via Rousseau that seeks to connect the various locales associated with the philosopher through hiking trails.
For now, the Via Rousseau is limited to western Switzerland, but eventually it could be extended to neighboring Italy, where Rousseau traveled in his youth, and France, where he spent a significant part of his adult life and where he died, said Michel Schlup, former director of the Neuchatel library, who is spearheading the joint public-private effort. At each Rousseau site, a sign in French, German and English explains the place’s significance in the writer’s life.