Why I keep going back to the Gorges du Doubs…

Between Maison Monsieur and Le Châtelot... (April, 2011)

Anyone who has checked out my images (either on Flickr, my website or anywhere else I share my photographs) will have noticed that I’m not what you might call a ‘location bagger’. By which I mean I tend not to photograph well-known locations just for the sake of having a photograph from that place in my portfolio. And I certainly don’t believe in flitting from point to point, snapping superficial impressions as I go. On the contrary. My philosophy of landscape photography is to get to know a comparatively small number of locations really well over time. I believe that it’s only by constantly challenging ourselves to wring new compositions out of a places we already know well that we can start to make images which do more than merely scratch the surface.

Further investigation of my pictures would reveal that one location appears to get more attention than any other. So what is it with the Gorges du Doubs? Well, I first discovered this beautiful place back in 2006 whilst looking for interesting routes when exploring western Switzerland. My interest in photography had moved up a gear with the purchase of a secondhand Mamiya 645 a couple of years previously but had yet to reach the status of ‘obsession’ so I wasn’t really looking for photography locations, as such. Anyway, it was a sunny day in February. Snow was on the ground. Before crossing the border into France, I stopped at the hamlet of Biaufond – one of the most accessible parts of the gorge – for a coffee and to make this image:

The border crossing at Biaufond. February, 2006...

Not bad aesthetically but technically flawed (That lens flare! Ugh. What was I thinking?), it was, however, good enough to pique my photographic interest in the gorge.

...and the same, three years later.

By comparison with similar landscapes in the UK, the gorge is huge. Up to 500m in depth, it cuts roughly 50km through the Jura Plateau  from Villers-le-Lac in the south to Goumois in the north. As it’s such an easily defended natural barrier, it will come as no surprise that the river Doubs marks the Franco-Swiss border for the gorge’s full length. These fast-flowing waters have also, in the past, powered various types of industry: the remains of forges, glass-blowing workshops and mills can be seen from Le Châtelot all the way downstream to Goumois and beyond. And the locals were not above a certain amount of illicit cross-border co-operation, either – as you might imagine, smuggling was rife here. Nowadays, however, the only industry to be seen is related to the three hydro-electric stations serving the dams at Le Châtelot, Biaufond and La Goule. Tourism plays a part, of course, although specific infrastructure is limited to the area surrounding the Saut du Doubs waterfall. In other parts of the gorge, there is a scattering of restaurants and a couple of fairly basic hotels catering to hikers. Not surprisingly, all the restaurants I have visited serve the freshest and most delicious trout you can find anywhere, cooked simply and served whole.

La Goule, October, 2009

So, apart from the tasty trout on offer, what keeps me coming back? In a word, nature. Much of the gorge is a protected wildlife preserve and, outside of the previously mentioned restaurants and a handful of tiny communities, is managed with the lightest of touches. Trees are left to rot where they fall, the victims of frequent landslips or from having their root-systems undermined by the high levels of rainfall. Moss coats the branches of older trees and there is a great sense of the fecundity of nature in this damp environment.

Above all, it is the feeling of being apart from the modern world that attracts me. You don’t have to walk very far along the river before the only sounds you hear are birdsong, rushing water and the wind in the trees. The air is full of the moist, earthy scent of fertile nature. Despite never being very far from civilisation as the crow flies, you hear no motor traffic and soon forget the hectic pace of life we all endure these days. Being deep within the gorge is an almost womb-like experience, with the steeply wooded sides acting to absorb most exterior sound and the limited number of access points for hikers practically guarantees that, if you walk far enough, you can be completely alone. There are not many places I have been which offer such an experience and it doesn’t take long before my mind is free of day-to-day worries and I can concentrate on absorbing the sights, smells and sounds of this wonderful place.

Near Le Châtelot (October, 2010)

So much for the poetic side. On a more practical level, the gorge offers a variety of environments. Downstream of each of the three dams, the river runs over a boulder-strewn course; its waters white and swirling before being tamed once again by another wide reservoir. At times a rushing torrent, sedately flowing or glassy-smooth, the river changes character depending on where you happen to be. In places, limestone cliffs drop vertically into the water, constricting its passage and escarpments rise like battlements from the densely wooded lower slopes.

There is much to photograph here in all seasons but most spectacularly in Autumn when the predominantly beech woodland turns a deep shade of copper and other trees explode in a riot of colour. This is my favourite time of year in the gorge. But beware. The Doubs is one of the best trout streams in Western Europe and the needs of anglers come first (well, they do pay a fair bit for the right to practise their pastime here) so, from October until February, certain sections of the river are festooned with hundreds of metres of blue twine. Tied to trees on either side and stretched across the full width of the river, it is there to prevent predation of immature fish by cormorants. Sadly, what is a necessity to attract fishermen (and therefore much-needed cash) also renders photography next to impossible – a cause of much frustration! Fortunately, large sections of the river do not require these drastic measures so one shouldn’t complain too loudly…

That, then, is the Gorges du Doubs. Not the most well-known of locations – quiet, tranquil, out-of-the-way, in fact something of a well-kept secret. Actually, I’ll let you into another secret. It’s a horrible place. No, really. Wet, miserable and hard to get to. You would hate it! Yes, best stay well away…. ;0)

So that you can more easily avoid the place, this is where you shouldn’t go:

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2 Responses to Why I keep going back to the Gorges du Doubs…

  1. Sounds dreadful, Julian; I shall make a note to studiously avoid it…

    A very evocative and well-written article. I actually believe I’ve been there, a decade or so ago when doing a bit of walking in the Jura on the way out to an Alpine mountaineering trip.

    I agree with your sentiment about really getting to know places producing better images; at least, producing less common and more interesting, thoughtful images.


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