Foret de Chaux and the Haut Jura

Saturday 8th September 2012, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Over the past few days we’ve been so busy enjoying the hot sunshine during the day and sampling various delicious home produced aperos with our friends of an evening, that we’ve had no real opportunity to keep our reports up to date. And tonight I will have to be brief for once as I managed to fall over this afternoon while walking near the Lac de Chalain in the high Jura. My right hand already suffers from arthritis anyway but I managed to fall so that the tendons of the fingers got bent right back. It could have been worse, nothing was broken, but no way can I hold my fingers straight and it’s all very painful. I managed to drive us home, which had been my initial worry, but now typing is difficult. Hopefully it will be easier tomorrow.

Generally we have been rediscovering old haunts, plus a few new ones. On Wednesday we drove to the small mediaeval town of Poligny, surrounded by vineyards and farmland. Everywhere here is glorious in the sunshine and Poligny, some twenty miles from Champagne, was still bustling with tourists making the most of the holiday season. Poligny is considered to be the centre of the Comté cheese industry with its fromagerie and its Ecole de Lait, teaching students all aspects of the dairy industry. We wrote in detail about Poligny previously including a memorable account – for the residents in particular – of Jill being invited to play God Save the Queen on the carillon of the main town church! It clanged out right across the town. The invitation was not to be offered a second time! We have also visited the museum of Comté cheese.

This time we rediscovered the convent of St. Colette. She set up a convent in the town in the early 15th century and apparently performed many miracles. Later, numerous convents in her name were set up across France. The chapel has an elaborate gold reliquary on the altar containing her skull and assorted limbs. Our attempts to photograph them were thwarted by a devout lady who assumed we were praying to St. Claire and dragged us off to see the tiny museum the nuns had put together. In the church the windows record some of her miracles.

St. Colette restoring someone to life, depicted in the church, Poligny

Nearby is the disaffected church of the Jacobins. It has been left to decay for so long it now looks positively dangerous and smells of must and wine. This is because it has been taken over by a local wine producer who has filled the aisles and altar with massive oak barrels in which to mature his wine. They were being prepared for this year’s fermentation, being hosed through but were leaking badly all over the church where the wood had shrunk over the summer. There is a small door through which somebody needs to climb to clean the barrel from inside. It can be a dangerous job with wine fumes in such an enclosed space!

Church of the Jacobins, now used for wine-making, Poligny

We returned via the massive Fôret de Chaux, overcoming our qualms at its size in search of some cool shade for a snooze. At the heart of the huge forest is the isolated village of La Vieille Loye while at several places can be found the remains of what are called barracks. These are really places where forest workers could live and sleep. One of these has been preserved and offers an excellent insight into the lives of foresters during the 17th to 19th centuries. These included woodcutters, sawyers, charcoal burners and drovers who removed the cut timber and planks from the forest. While working there, they lived in a series of small huts built with lathes and mud plaster with timber planks for roofing. There were communal kitchens and a bakery. A narrow gauge tramway stretched deep into the forest to where the charcoal burners tended their smouldering stacks of wood and turf, keeping the heat constant and ensuring the wood did not ignite. There had obviously been a working demonstration fairly recently and the air smelt strongly of smouldering wood.

Various employments in the forestry industry, Fôret de Chaux
Industrial past of the Fôret de Chaux
Accommodation for forest workers, 17th- 19th centuries, Fôret de Chaux
Traditional charcoal burning in the Fôret de Chaux
Traditional charcoal burning in the Fôret de Chaux

Around the edge of the forest, industries that relied on wood for their furnaces were set up. Tile makers, potteries, glass-makers and iron foundries. It was at Fraisans that the iron was produced and girders forged to construct the Eiffel Tower. Back then the forest also supplied fuel for the city of Dôle and all the surrounding communes. Even today, some of the wood burned over winter by our friends comes from the Fôret de Chaux. Roland and Hugues deal with the entire process, from cutting the trees to chopping and loading logs and towing them back here by tractor and stacking them for the winter. Hugues also works in the forestry industry, travelling throughout Europe and we are now learning just how complex and important a business it is.

Wood was also required for shipbuilding and throughout the 19th century hundreds of men, known as radeliers, were employed in floating logs from the Fôret de Chaux down the river Loue which flows into the Doubs, the Saone and the Rhone, to arrive eventually at Marseilles.

Floating logs down the Loue from the Fôret de Chaux

Back here in Champagne we have taken several local walks collecting wild nuts and fruits. Susanne came with us for a morning stroll beside the Loue to the pretty neighbouring village of Buffard. The river has now returned to its normal state of clear green water flowing gently through the peaceful countryside, overhung with trees. The cattle were cooling off near the bridge as we passed. That’s why the dairy produce from this area is so prized – the cattle spend all but the worst of the winter out in the rich pastures rather than indoors with mechanised feeding.

Cattle cooling off in the river, Champagne-sur-Loue

We’d hoped for a coffee at the Auberge de Buffard. It looked delightful when we arrived around 10.30 with shady awnings in the flowering garden beside the church. We were informed however that we couldn’t have a coffee unless we also had a meal. The cafe was open, but meals were not served until midday! We had the impression that the young man on duty was working in sheltered employment and had never been asked to serve coffee before. Disappointed we decided to try out the Cafe-Tabac that has been in existence right back to the time I worked here. It opened at 11am and we arrived on the dot. The terrified lady in the dreary empty bar told us she didn’t serve coffee. Then she recognised Susanne and embraced her. She apologised but told us we’d need to wait before she could make us coffee as a special concession. She obviously didn’t want us there. Meanwhile, from the kitchen came the chugging sound of a percolator and smell of freshly brewing coffee! Bizarre! We returned home and prepared our own. Such an air of suspicion in the villages was common enough fifty years ago - I was once asked if I was a spy – but it was a revelation to find it still exists in some remote corners.

Incidentally, one of the lovely farmhouses beside the river now stands empty. Susanne explained that the owner was killed recently when one of the huge bails of straw he was manoeuvring fell on top of him! On our last visit someone had just been shot in the village phone box. So much excitement in a village of a mere 130 128 inhabitants!

Yesterday we went to the market in Arbois. It doesn’t change at all and it’s not one of the best we’ve seen but the atmosphere is always friendly. Arbois really is a pretty old town of huge sundrenched houses each with its cool cellar for storing its renowned wine. Surrounding the town are the vineyards upon which the town’s wealth is based while in the church we discovered the huge, traditional bunch of grapes known as a biou, placed there every year at the start of the vendange or grape harvest.

Bridge over the river Cuissance, Arbois
River Cuissance, Arbois
Biou or bunch of grapes, Arbois

We spent much of the day in the tourist information centre using the free wifi. There was much for us to do and access can be very problematic when we are travelling. At lunch time we packed up for a couple of hours and went off for a leisurely lunch at our favourite restaurant at La Cuisance - named after the pretty river that tumbles through the town. Our table in the restaurant above the bar overlooks the river so we can watch the ducks between courses. We always have whatever the menu is for the day. Yesterday it was lentil salad with chopped herrings followed by locally produced sausages covered with a creamy sauce of Comté cheese with mixed vegetables. Ian also managed to cope with a bowl of rich chocolate mousse after that. I cowardly opted for a black coffee instead and neither of us could even consider the cheese course! On our way downstairs afterwards the restaurant owner said he thought he remembered us from before. When we said we always came when we were visiting our friends he immediately dragged us off to try his home made sloe gin. Back working in the tourist office during the heat of the afternoon we both felt rather sleepy!

Which brings us to today. It’s the last full day to ourselves before we move on and there is still so much we’ve not done. After an early coffee in Susanne’s kitchen –Hugues and Roland had left hours earlier to spend the day up with their vines, spraying them with sulphur and clearing the weeds from between the rows – we drove through Salins and gradually up towards the high Jura, stopping to explore Champagnole on the way. Last time we were there it was the depths of winter and very cold. Today was market day and a complete contrast. Cafe terraces were crowded, market traders cheerful and tourists were soaking up the sunshine.


We bought fresh buttered baguettes filled with ham and cornichons and made our way on to the area of the many sparkling green lakes set amidst green pastures and pine forests, overlooked by the sheer grey cliffs of the high Jura plateau. We parked in the shade beside the Petit Lac de Maclu where we balanced on rocks at the water’s edge to enjoy our picnic. On the smooth surface of the water, at midday the moon was reflected from the bright blue sky! So too were the pines trees and oaks along the further shore, the green leaves just starting to turn with the season.

Picnic spot, Lac de Petit Maclu, Jura

Nearby we discovered a deep ravine with the Cascade de la Billaude dropping 28 metres far below us.

Cascade de la Billaude, near Champagnole

Our aim was to find and climb the Pic de l’Aigle overlooking the Lac d’Ilay. Having parked we set off with our hiking boots and poles over really rough terrain in hot sunshine. Overhead a couple of hang gliders swept low shouting cheerfully to us as they caught the thermal and were swept back high above the forest. Panting and sticky we reached the last accent, a series of steep, uneven steps cut up the side of the rock. A tiny octogenarian with a bandaged knee and a couple of walking poles came bouncing down to pass us assuring us we would make it and it wasn’t much further. We felt rather ashamed of ourselves. When we reached the top it was well worth the effort though. The peculiarity with the Jura is that it is formed as a series of limestone plateaux, rather like the world’s largest staircase. Once you are on a plateau it is fairly level until suddenly you need to go vertically up or down. The ground abruptly disappears from beneath your feet. This is what happened at the Pic de l’Aigle. We stood on the edge of the higher plateau gazing down at the green lake of Ilay on the floor of the level below.

Lac d’Ilay from the Pic de l’Aigle, Jura

Further along we stopped and again approached the edge. From this viewpoint we could see four of the Jura lakes all spread out beneath us.

Belvedere des Quatre Lacs showing Grand Maclu and Lac d’Ilay,

Before heading for home we decided to go for a paddle at Lac de Chalain. Unlike many of the lakes with their deep sides, Lac de Chalain has a shallow sandy ledge around it where beaches have been constructed. It takes the place of the seaside for people so far inland.

After ice-creams to cool down and a quick paddle we were heading back to Modestine when my foot gave way on an uneven patch of ground and I fell onto my hand. Once we were sure I’d not broken it we headed for home as directly as we could before it became too swollen to drive. It now resembles a bunch of squidgy sausages. My fingers are twice the size of those on my left hand and very bent. Time to give up typing for now.

View from our kitchen window, Champagne-sur-Loue

Sunday 8th September 2012, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Today my fingers and the palm of my hand are turning black but the pain feels slightly less acute. I’m making the most of the situation, leaving poor Ian to do anything requiring lifting or wringing. Between us we’ve done a machine load of washing that dried as we watched in the hot sunshine. We’ve also managed to cook Sunday lunch, me giving the orders and Ian doing the donkey work. I think he was as worried about my fall as I was. I hope I will be recovered enough to drive when we leave here on Tuesday.

Hugues came over from Dôle this morning. He and Roland have been busy loading and stacking wood for the winter on their terrain down by the river. Susanne was helping them until she got fed-up with them arguing about where and how the wood should be stacked – it’s practically a work of art. She downed tools and left them to argue it out, returning to join us for coffee in the garden and to tell us yet more absorbing details of the history of this village.

Jill and Susanne outside our kitchen window, Champagne-sur-Loue

Both she and Roland come from here and the names of both their families figure on many of the tombstones in the village cemetery. They are though the end of an era. Hugues loves the village, owns several properties and areas of land here, but his children have all opted for a more modern way of life choosing to follow university courses in physiotherapy, psychology and modern languages rather than continuing the rural lifestyles of their grandparents.

Shortly before lunch-time Roland and Hugues returned, well satisfied with their morning of hard work. The wood is stacked and protected for the winter, while that already arranged for use at the house here really is something to be regarded with pride.

Roland’s woodpile up at the house, Champagne-sur-Loue

Once they felt clean again we all moved upstairs to the balcony for the usual delicious home produced aperos before lunch. It was good to see Hugues once more. We’ve followed his life since we first met him as a small boy aged five when he sat on Ian’s knee and we all played snowballs up in the mountains on a visit into nearby Switzerland.

Jill with Hugues, Susanne and Roland on their terrace, Champagne-sur-Loue

It really has been too hot to move today. We’ve hardly left the house. Perhaps it was Roland’s ratafia, but after lunch I ended up settling to read in the cool of the bedroom and fell sound asleep for most of the afternoon! Later it was Ian’s turn to doze, so we’ve done little more than take an evening stroll down near the river and explore the village cemetery.

Monday 9th September 2012, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
As we were out of both bread and milk we drove across to Arc-et-Senans intending to enjoy a breakfast treat at the bakery of fresh croissants and coffee. We’d forgotten that everywhere around here is closed on a Monday and in any case there is a conspiracy to ensure nowhere in this area is prepared to serve the English with coffee!

There was no option, we decided to drive the extra 12 kilometres to the little town of Quingey hoping to catch the baker unawares. Every attempt was made to prevent us. First the main road was blocked and traffic diverted back through Champagne! (We had no bread or we’d have given up at that point.) Next we encountered two heavy logging lorries with trailers trying to pass each other on the narrow road between the fields of eye-high maize. Eventually one lorry reversed its trailer backwards down a side track and we then followed behind the other trailer of six massive tree trunks all the way to Quingey, hoping the load had been better secured than the bails of straw had been.

It was worth the effort. Not only was the bakery piled high with crunchy baguettes and fragrant croissants, but Ian was able to answer the quiz for the day especially posed for the schoolchildren recently returned for the new term at the primary school next door! The question was one of simple arithmetic – how much change from five euros if Louise buys two croissants at 75 centimes and a baguette at 1.20 euros? It’s a nice way to encourage the village children to learn their sums and their mums to bring them in to buy bread. Ian was praised for his correct reply and told he didn’t have to go back to school after all.

Nearby was the cheerful terrace of the Bar PMU (licensed betting office). Here we finally got our morning coffee to enjoy with the most deliciously fresh croissants possible. Overhearing us talking we were joined by a very pleasant Frenchman trying out his English. Like us he was retired. He’d been born in Besançon but worked as a paediatrician at the hospital in Rennes. He now lived in St. Malo but owned his late father’s house in Besançon so came here frequently. He loved both areas. He also owned a sailing boat and frequently crossed the Channel to sail the west coast of Britain up to Scotland and even the Shetland Isles. He knew the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man and had sailed around the entire coast of Ireland. By this time we were back chatting in French. He was a linguist and the conversation drifted on to language derivation, he and Ian even ended up speaking German. He was quite impressed to meet an Englishman capable of speaking anything more that his own language. I felt rather proud of Ian. Our companion was very interested in French politics, explaining to us that there is much controversy at present over government plans to tax the super rich. Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men in Europe, has just opted for Belgian nationality to avoid paying the heavy taxes demanded by the new socialist French government. We also discussed the current problems concerning the euro and what Britain’s position is at present. The consensus from everyone we’ve spoken to is that we are better off out of the euro. However, the French have always tended to see England as a land of milk and honey, but with little understanding of our true economic situation, and are generally aggrieved that we are part of the EU but are not helping to shoulder the debts of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Italy. It was a very enjoyable coffee stop with such a friendly and knowledgeable table companion.

Quingey, like so many of the little towns along the Loue, seems much brighter and smarter than we remember. We explored its ancient back streets and walked down to cross the river. The town’s chief claim to fame is that Pope Calixtus II was born there in the 11th century. In the church we discovered a painting depicting him as a saint hovering protectively over the town of Quingey.

Quingey seen across the River Loue
Pope Calixtus II and the town of Quingey

Related links
For earlier blogs see our general index under
France: Franche Comté for Arbois , Buffard, Champagne-sur-Loue, Salins-les-Bains, Poligny, Quingey, Champagnole and the surrounding area.