Return to Franche-Comte

Sunday 2nd September 2012, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Well here we are once more back in my special French village tucked away in the foothills of the Jura. We arrived around 6pm yesterday and were quickly whisked away to join our friends Susanne and Roland for supper and to sample some of Roland’s wines. The years pass, we and our friends grow gradually older, but our friendship stays as warm as ever. It is now half a century since I was invited, as a teenager, to spend a year in a convent school for girls here in the village, ostensibly teaching English but in reality, learning French. Susanne and Roland, in their twenties, were newly married then. Susanne taught the girls French, mathematics and domestic science. Roland was caretaker at the school and builder, decorator, roofer, carpenter and anything else of a practical nature around the village. Susanne, along with my late friends Danielle and Soeur Martine, took me under their wings when I first arrived and helped me to feel happy here as over the months I gradually came to terms with the French language and the way of life in a rural French village back in 1962.

We are staying, as usual, in the basement flat of our friends’ home. It’s strange to return here from time to time on our travels and find everything as we left it, right down to the half-read French novels in the hall cupboard that we bought at nearby a vide-grenier seven years ago. Every time we return here the bookmark moves on a few chapters.

Yesterday morning was very cold when we left the campsite at Saint-Seine and made our way by minor roads across country, avoiding our usual route around Dijon to eventually approach Champagne from the north. We’ve never travelled this route before and it was strange not to see vineyards as we passed through the countryside of Franche Comté. Usually we travel across the centre of the Burgundy vine growing area around Beaune but this route took us through forests, open farmland and small pretty villages.

At Lux we stopped for croissants at the village bakery and to admire the scene of the old mill on the river.

Abandonned mill, Lux

At Bèze we stopped again, charmed by the village centre and intrigued by a poster advertising the forthcoming fete of “les andouiettes et les cornichons”. Any excuse for a celebration! The town was a delight! Such a tiny place but with an ancient monastery and convent, a series of caves and a natural spring forming the birth of the river Bèze.

River scene, Beze
Mediaeval schoolhouse, Beze
Mediaeval communal oven, Beze
Lavoir at the convent, Beze
Lavoir at the convent, Beze
Ancient tower, Beze

The area around here is a limestone, karstic landscape and rivers do not usually start their lives as insignificant trickles, as does the Seine. Here they tend to burst out of the cliffs or rise up from the ground as fully formed rivers. There are many within a few miles of Champagne-sur-Loue, (including the Loue). The little river Bèze was formed underground and ran through a series of caves before rising up from the river bed at the head of a small, blind valley. Immediately it was a fully formed, though shallow, river as it flowed down through the village.

Source of the river Beze
River scene, Beze
River scene, Beze
River scene, Beze

We had to stop once more at Fontaine Française. Our road passed right beside the magnificent château overlooking its lily-filled lake. On the other side of the road was the castle mill on the banks of a river flowing down into another, even larger lake.

Château of Fontaine Française
Castle mill, Fontaine Française

Our lunchtime destination was the town of Gray striding the banks of the river Saone. It is the largest town around and we expected to enjoy lunch in a cafe somewhere. We arrived to find the town eerily silent. All the shops were closed and our footsteps echoed on the cobbles of the deserted streets. We recall a visit some years ago when the sun had been shining and it had seemed a pleasant place. Now though, it was chilly and everywhere as grey as the town’s name. Saturdays can be like that in France.

At least the Hôtel de Ville, built in 1568, was something beautiful to look at with its stone arcade, decorative columns and huge roof of glazed tiles so typical of Franche Comté. It is considered one of the gems of renaissance architecture in the region.

Hôtel de Ville, Gray

The old town of Gray is built upon a steep hill at the summit of which is the basilica with its characteristic bell shaped roof, again typical of the region. Inside we discovered a minute statue of the virgin, claimed to be miraculous as testified to by the hundreds of small marble plaques thanking her for her help in times of need. There was even a plaque from the town mayor in gratitude to the statue’s miraculous powers in returning him safely to Gray after the war when he was interned in Buchanwalt concentration camp.

Basilica, Gray

Our final stop before reaching Champagne was at Pesmes on the banks of the Ognon, a mediaeval town that has definitely improved since we saw it last when it appeared rather shabby and neglected. Now however, the town has found a sense of pride in itself and it is a pretty place to explore with its narrow, winding streets.

Town gateway, Pesmes
Rooftops of Pesmes on the banks of the Ognon

The Fôret de Chaux is possibly the largest deciduous forests in France. It stretches for much of the way between Dôle and Arc-et-Senans. It stretched away for many kilometres on either side of the die-straight road we followed for over 15 kilometres through the heart of the forest. It has always struck us as a very frightening place in which to be lost.

Within seconds of leaving the forest we were on familiar ground, following the Loue up to the village of Champagne. The river is very high, brown and fast-flowing, nothing like the tranquil, clear green waters we expect at this time of year. The rain has been very heavy here recently.

And so we arrived and settled into our flat. Susanne invited us upstairs where over her home-produced aperitifs round her kitchen table we caught up on family news while we waited for Roland to return from Dôle where he’d been helping their son Hugues to cut and lay flagstones in the courtyard of his house. Nothing changes with Roland. He should long since have settled for fireside and slippers, but as Susanne complains, he does not know how to stop. He’s always busy with something – the vines, raking the wine, up in the forest chopping trees and preparing logs for the winter, down on the Loue with his boat or off in his 4x4 to his hanger down by the river. This last a mystery place where he stores all the building materials, tiles, bits of pipe, window frames and other equipment he’s accumulated over the years that just might come in useful one day. Bucolic as we find it here, with advancing years it cannot be an easy life and each season makes its own demands.

Today we woke early, eager to venture out to rediscover the delights of the village. Outside the road has been resurfaced. It looks smart and smooth with proper road markings! This year the Tour de France passed through the village so the roads were upgraded beforehand. The villagers seem to have enjoyed the excitement with several imaginative, cycle-related sculptures along the route and the names of their cycling heroes painted on the road to give them encouragement as they sped through. The best though was a locally produced Amphibocycle, adapted from an invention for an early pedelo. It has been used successfully on the Loue over the summer.

Amphibocycle, Champagne-sur-Loue
Amphibocycle, Champagne-sur-Loue
Tour de France, Champagne-sur-Loue
Tour de France, Champagne-sur-Loue
Tour de France, Champagne-sur-Loue
Tour de France, Champagne-sur-Loue

The roadside is bursting with autumn’s bounty. Hedges are heavy with sloes, blackberries and elderberries while the ground is crunchy with fallen hazel nuts. We returned with a bag of these and almost all of them were sound.

Village property, Champagne-sur-Loue

Our friends went for a family Sunday lunch in Dôle to celebrate Tiphane’s eighteenth birthday. She will be starting her degree in psychology at Besançon University in a couple of days so it was an important and exciting day for the family.

Having discovered there was a vide grenier at Pagnoz we drove over this afternoon to enjoy the atmosphere safe in the knowledge that we could not be tempted to buy anything as we have no spare space in Modestine. By the time we arrived however there was little left beyond a few badly carved or painted Madonnas, several crucifixions, a very tempting 18th century wooden machine for carding wool, thousands of bottling jars, a wine press or two and a few heaps of assorted junk of uncertain usage.

Monday 3rd September 2012, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
The last day for the village children to enjoy the sunshine before the start of the new school year tomorrow. There appears to be nothing else of equal importance on the news today. Children are interviewed and psychologists consulted over the effects it will have on the little dears and how best to help an 18 year old teenager cope with the shock! Our four-year-old granddaughter Deyvi starts school this week too but she’s looking forward to it and seems to be taking it all in her stride, as I am sure most children do in Britain.

This morning we worked flat out catching up with photos and blogs. Sitting in the garden for our mid-morning coffee we noticed two things. Huge orange slugs were munching their way through Susanne’s geraniums and weeds had run riot in the flower beds. We should have brought our own gardening equipment as we seem unable to resist the lure of the soil. Ian worked until lunch-time cutting grass and pulling out weeds. It has made some impression but there will be several more mornings of dibbling while we are here.

During the afternoon we drove to Salins-les-Bains where, for the price of a couple of coffees in the Café-du-Théâtre we could use the internet for a couple of hours to deal with emails and loading our pictures onto the blogsite. We save everything to our USB stick and sort and edit it back here at night. It takes hours! So when you ask what we do to fill our evenings, it’s generally that.

Salins looked cleaner and tidier than we remember. Maybe it’s because it’s summer and has been smartened for tourists. It was though a very hopeful sign as it has always seemed a bit neglected and mournful sunk deep in the valley overlooked on each side by towering, rocky fortresses guarding the route.

Tuesday 4th September 2012, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
This morning a tiny cluster of traumatised children, burdened by heavy schoolbags and all wearing new shoes waited outside the church, near our flat, to be collected by the school bus.

Mid-morning we drove to Dôle, some 25 kilometres away beyond the Fôret de Chaux. It’s quicker to cut through the forest but prettier and less creepy to drive around it as far as is possible, passing through all the sleepy, charming villages with their huge overhanging roofs, such as Arc-et-Senans and Chissey-sur-Loue that skirt the very edge of the forest.

Dôle is a remarkably picturesque old town on the banks of the Doubs. It was, for many centuries the capital city of the free state of Burgundy. It has seen fierce fighting in the past when Burgundy was forced to become part of France under Louis XIV. It has however, been spared more recent damage having escaped bombing in WW2 thus keeping intact its cobbled squares and streets of impressive stone buildings all with their characteristic grey shutters. It is a really beautiful old town on a sunny day, its riverside walk bright with hanging baskets and shady seats. It is where Louis Pasteur was born. His home is now a museum telling the story of his research into rabies, bacterial infection and, of vital importance to the French wine industry, Phylloxera, a disease that decimated the vines here in the 19th century. Although a pleasant quarter of the town today, at the time of Louis birth it was a damp and filthy area where his father worked as a tanner on the banks of the river, skinning, cleaning and treating animal skins.

Approaching Dôle from the river
Tanning pits, Dôle

Today there was a street market on the square outside the main church, where Pasteur was christened. Here we found a sunny terrace for coffee along with pains chocolat from the neighbouring bakery before exploring the rest of the city. The art gallery is astonishing for such a small city (c25,000 inhabitants) with works by local painters as well as paintings depicting the major battles of Franche Comté against the troops of Louis XIV. In this part of the town the streets are wide and impressive with several major buildings and a fountain depicting the Sun King. They were laid out in the 17th century and used by the military of the time.

Siege of Dôle in 1636 by Nicholas Labbé seen in the art gallery
Siege of Dôle in 1674 by Jean-Baptist Martin seen in the art gallery
College de l’Arc, Dôle

The Médiathèque, down beside the river, is also housed in a magnificent 17th century building next to the lycee of a similar date. It is where both Susanne’s grand children, Thibault and Tiphane studied. The Médiathèque provided us with free wifi and an hour of cool repose from the heavy heat of the day. It occupies the former site of the Hôtel Dieu or charitable hospital. It is constructed around a central courtyard with the museum and exhibition galleries on the ground floor and the library above. We took the opportunity to peep inside the museum as the door was open and nobody on duty. Inside the original pharmacy of the Hôtel Dieu remains exactly as it always did with wooden shelving filled with ceramic jars that once contained potions, ointments and compounds.

Original pharmacy in the Hôtel de Dieu, (now the Médiathèque) Dôle

We were amused to note that there is a long-distance cycle route passing through the heart of Dôle running between Nantes and Budapest. Some bike ride! Pity our lazy folding bikes refused to come with us this time, preferring to lounge in the garage back in Exeter where they got smothered in sewage. Serves them right.

Eat your hearts out Hinge and Bracket! Dôle

This particular corner of Franche Compte, so important to us personally, lies along the border of the departments of la Loue and le Doubs. Indeed, the boundary stone between the two departments lies on the edge of the village of Champagne.

Boundary stone on the edge of Champagne-sur-Loue

The Loue is actually a resurgence of the Doubs, having diverged from it underground higher up on the Jura plateau near Pontarlier. It later rejoins it near Besançon. Both rivers are vitally important to the area. Thus, in Dôle there is a lovely fountain depicting the rivers as cheery companions sitting on a globe.

Le Doubs and la Loue come together at the fountain, Dôle

Related links
For earlier blogs see our general index under
France: Franche Comté for Champagne-sur-Loue, Salins-les-Bains, Arc-et-Senans, Chissey, Dole and Louis Pasteur, and the surrounding area.
Gray, 2005
Absinthe makes the carp grow stronger See entry for 10th October 2005 for an explanation of the resurgence of the Loue.