Of all the places I have lived (and I have lived in some charming ones), none has made me so truly happy nor left me such tender regrets as St. Peter’s Island in the middle of Lake Biel.”
This is how Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher and writer, describes the forgotten corner of western Switzerland where I recently found myself basking in the glow of a mid-spring afternoon sun. The superlative review is no lyrical exaggeration on the part of Rousseau, who, in addition to being a precursor of romanticism, was an inveterate wanderer who crisscrossed large parts of Western Europe on foot in his lifetime. In other words, he’d seen plenty of beautiful places. If he described the Ile Saint-Pierre, or St. Peter’s Island, as his all-time favorite, then it meant something.
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.
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.
I also decided to focus my exploration mostly on the Neuchatel area, not only because this northwestern corner of Switzerland is where Rousseau said he was happiest — until he was chased away by local authorities because of his controversial writings on religion and human nature — but also because it has changed the least since the time of his stay.
I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Rousseau’s hangouts around Neuchatel, because I grew up in the area. But for me, Rousseau had always been first and foremost the author of “The Confessions,” an autobiographical work that I’d found an arduous read in high school. I knew that he’d lived in the nearby village of Motiers, but I’d never bothered to stop there. And though I’d visited St. Peter’s Island as a schoolboy, I’d had only a vague idea then that Rousseau had spent time there.
Now, more than 20 years after that painful reading of his autobiography, I was starting to think that I had sold the great writer short. Reading the “Reveries,” I discovered his love of walking in nature — a love I shared — and his eloquence in describing the profound effect it had on his spirits. And having left Switzerland 13 years ago, I could also relate to his exile’s sense of separation from the landscapes he treasured.
So I was ready to give Rousseau a second chance. I picked a handful of excursions that I would go on alone, or at most with a guide, as Rousseau himself would have favored.
The first walk was one that I’d actually been wanting to do for some time. To the sharp and rocky heights of the Alps, Rousseau preferred the softer and rounder Jura Mountains: The limestone that makes up most of the range dates back about 145 million to 200 million years to a geological period known as the Jurassic age. But the Creux-du-Van is an exception to the rule.
The crescent-shaped rock formation was carved by a combination of water and glacier erosion, and it features 500-foot-high vertical cliffs that stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding hills. Rousseau apparently came here one July day in 1765 to pursue his newfound passion for botany.
“I love botany. It is getting worse every day,” he wrote to one of his friends. “I only have hay in my head. One of these mornings I will turn into a plant.”
The Creux-du-Van is now a nature preserve that, fortunately for the modern-day traveler, is in some respects wilder than it was in Rousseau’s time, with lynx and alpine ibex having been reintroduced to the area. Although the lynx — a cousin of the North American bobcat — is an extremely rare sight, I had reasonably high hopes of spotting the ibex — a sort of wild goat with oversized backward-curving horns and an uncanny climbing ability.
The hike starts on the outskirts of Noiraigue, a small village a dozen miles west of Neuchatel. The path climbs steadily upward, but in the spring it gives the hiker the illusion of walking backward through the seasons as the flower-covered meadows at the bottom give way to leafless trees higher on the slope and patches of snow at the top. The view from the edge of the cliff is dizzying, and walking along it can prove treacherous. As I would find out from a sign posted on the way back down, a number of careless wanderers — including one “superb bull” — have fallen to their deaths while picking flowers or kicking rocks.
The sun was regrettably absent that day, but I was rewarded for my effort with an encounter with a herd of 13 ibex grazing peacefully at the summit and posing gracefully for photographs. Not a bad start.
For my second walk, I had decided to climb from the village of Motiers, where Rousseau stayed for more than three years, to the top of Chasseron — one of the Jura range’s highest peaks at nearly 5,300 feet — where he also liked to collect plants for his herbarium. Here, too, it pays to come a couple of centuries after Rousseau. Almost halfway up the three- to four-hour climb, the trail winds its way through a narrow gorge with the help of a succession of bridges and stairs that didn’t exist when Rousseau visited.
The view from the top of Chasseron is spectacular. To the north are the endless ripples of the Jura Mountains, and to the east and south lie the Neuchatel and Geneva lakes, the Swiss Plateau and what seems to be the entire Alpine chain. Directly below is the town of Yverdon-les-Bains, where Rousseau stopped briefly before being kicked out once again just before moving to Motiers.
After gulping down a rivella — a local soft drink made of whey and herbs that tastes better than its ingredients might suggest — at the Hotel du Chasseron, I headed down with a small detour to a waterfall and an adjacent cave that Rousseau relished. I’ve never been much of a waterfall person, so I didn’t linger.
The third walk — more like a short stroll — was not premeditated. I’d wanted to visit the Rousseau Museum in Motiers, but it was closed for renovations. Roland Kaehr, the museum curator, agreed somewhat reluctantly to let me in, and we convened to meet one morning at the Motiers train station before proceeding on a tour of the village’s Rousseau highlights.
Rousseau arrived in Motiers in 1762 and enjoyed himself in this village in the western part of the Val-de-Travers valley. When he wasn’t writing, he would go on day trips, alone or with his botanist friends. Locals apparently didn’t mind the arrival of a newcomer whose celebrity drew a constant flow of visitors. But eventually, as was often the case with Rousseau, the relationship soured.
“This is the place where the pastor railed against the antichrist,” Kaehr says as he tries to push open the locked door of the village church. The tirade would prompt villagers to throw stones — their size is still being debated — at Rousseau’s house, and he would once more decamp.
A cursory look at the dates etched on the village houses confirms that most were around when Rousseau lived here. That’s one of the town’s charms: Today’s visitor can see the village pretty much as Rousseau saw it.
“Motiers is really the place where Rousseau lived that hasn’t changed,” Schlup says. “Everything has remained very pure.”
Once inside the museum, which consists of the two remaining rooms of the house where Rousseau lived for three years, Kaehr is quick to point out the anachronisms, such as the 20th-century fireplace. But it doesn’t take much to picture the philosopher in his study or his partner, Therese, busying herself in the kitchen, where she apparently “did wonders.”
The tour is interrupted by another visitor, who blatantly ignores Kaehr’s objections and steps inside. Raymond Dublineau is from Montmorency, France, where Rousseau lived before coming to Motiers. What follows is a duel of “Rousseauistes,” in which the two enthusiasts exchange anecdotes and obscure details of the philosopher’s life at a rapid clip — all while Dublineau’s wife waits for him in the car.
Before my final walk, on St. Peter’s, I stop by Neuchatel, a beautiful medieval town that Rousseau rarely visited. “He didn’t like cities,” says Alain Cernuschi, the president of the local Rousseau Association. “Rousseau was a weird guy. He was a bit of a savage.”
My last walk starts on a boat, even though you can now walk to St. Peter’s Island since the water level was artificially lowered and a narrow causeway was built between the island and the shore. But otherwise little has changed here. Cars are virtually absent, and the landscape is just as Rousseau described it in the “Reveries.” His room in the former monastery — the island’s main building, which is now a hotel — still contains what my guide Barbara Wernli says is the original furniture.
Rousseau stayed here only six weeks, and leaving was heartbreaking. “It was like the flight from paradise,” Wernli says.
Rousseau never again saw Switzerland after his departure from St. Peter’s.
The next day, in Geneva, I decide to take one last stroll to check out Rousseau’s birthplace and other locales from his early years. Although the house where he was born still stands on a picturesque cobblestone street in the old city, he wouldn’t recognize most of the places he frequented: The house he grew up in is now a major department store, and his favorite bookshop is a juice bar.
Walking through today’s Geneva is hardly a chore, but unlike St. Peter’s and Motiers, the city has definitely moved on since Rousseau himself did.
Brulliard is a freelance writer currently based in Jerusalem.