Drive me to the Moon

Wednesday 11th April 2018, Chalon-en-Champagne
We are crossing France on the byeways heading in the direction of Germany having left England last Thursday despite both of us still recovering from winter coughs and snuffles. With an increasing number of European friends we both needed and wanted very much to see, we decided we could be unwell just as easily in France as in England. Besides, our friends in Caen had organised several reunions on our behalf and we had no wish to spoil their plans.

Our crossing was calm - I think - I was sound asleep in our cabin throughout the journey. I felt considerably better by the time we reached Geneviève in Caen. We were invited to supper with friends Claire and Bertand where midnight saw us all still chattering at table. During our few days in Caen we met several friends from Caen Library Service whom we have known since our children were very young. Variously they joined us for coffee, lunch, or supper as they usually manage to do on every visit. We also fitted in a visit to the Charlotte Corday exhibition in Caen’s Hotel de Ville. She came from Caen and is chiefly known for assassinating Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution. She was guillotined in 1793.

Poster for the Charlotte Corday exhibition in Caen’s Hotel de Ville, 2018

Charlotte Corday, exhibition in Caen’s Hotel de Ville, 2018

The weather was freezing and as wet as it’s possible to be. Nevertheless our health improved rapidly and by yesterday we were well enough to return Geneviève’s house to her, none the worse for having been turned into a care home for a few days. Thank you everyone in Caen for making our visit so happy and enjoyable. Thank you too for putting up with both of us coughing and sleeping so much!

So yesterday we skirted Paris to the north and spent the night on a campsite outside of Beauvais. When you make plans they so often go wrong. We intended to visit Munich to see our friend Charlotte but that evening we learned that she was in hospital having an operation on her spine and would then go for five weeks convalescence. Although she assured us we could use her house we decided that, wonderful as Munich is, it was Charlotte we really wished to see so we will not now be going to Munich at all. The knock-on effect is that we have revised our timetable for visiting Susanne and Roland in the Jura and we are making our way there at present. Susanne was happy for us to come now as her flat is currently unoccupied, so instead of visiting Nancy and Metz over the coming days, we are heading south via Chalon-en-Champagne to reach Champagne-sur-Loue tomorrow evening. We will re-arrange our Germany trip as we go along as we still have friends we hope to visit in different parts of the country.

So you can put away your atlases now you have located us surrounded by hectares of vines still awaiting warmer weather before sending out those tendrils that will become this coming autumn’s champagne harvest. Today we have driven through countless little villages set amidst the champagne vineyards of northern France. The weather has been endless bright warm sunshine and out amidst the vines there is much activity as the dry stumps of last year’s harvest start to send out tiny shoots that need tying and training along the wires. In just a few weeks the hillsides of this area will be smothered with vines where clumps of champagne grapes will form and ripen. We have seen many vehicles specially designed to drive along the rows of vines cleaning the weeds, and later, gathering the harvest. They are strange looking creatures with the cab set high above the large wheels designed to pass between the rows and above the height of the vines which are set at about a metre in height.

I recall writing about this area before. It is not a particular favourite of ours but today it seemed more pleasant than my recollection. The sun shine makes such a difference. The landscape though is not very inspiring outside the vine growing areas with rolling fields of colza. Spring though lends enchantment. Hedgerows are filled with primroses and wild daffodils. There are pink orchids in the hedgerows and frequent lakes where bright yellow willows droop over the surface mirroring their reflections and adding a luminosity to the landscape.

But today has been special also for a different reason. Our plan with Modestine has been to take her to the moon. Today we passed a major landmark on that journey when she reached 200,000 miles! Almost all of that has been done by us on our ramblings around Europe. We are so proud of her! She needs to stay healthy for at least another 30,000 to have covered the distance from here to the moon at the shortest possible chance but hopefully she can wander on for another 50,000 and make it there in comfort.

Modestine fulfills a personal challenge! Champagne region, France

Thursday 12th May 2018
We spent a second night at Chalon taking the bus into the town for the day. There are several buildings worthy of a photgraph here though very little text.

Town Hall, Chalon-en-Champagne


Rose window, Chalon-en-Champagne


Permanent circus, Chalon-en-Champagne

Arc-de-Triomphe, erected for the visit of Marie Antoinette in 1771, Chalon-en-Champagne

Saturday 14th April 2018, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
We are back with our friends Susanne and Roland in their village that has meant so much to me since 1962 when I was 17 years old and came here to work for a year as an English assistant in a small rural boarding school for country girls, run by a convent of nuns of the Dominican order. It was an experience that was to affect the course of the rest of my life and lead to life-long happy friendships.

Our friends no longer bounce. Roland was always rushing from place to place, sorting out a blocked radiator here, a broken drain there, taking a controlled sample of the village water supply, constructing a new roof for a house in the village or simply tending his vines and felling timber in the forest. Now much of his time is spent resting on the sofa and watching the television. Meanwhile Susanne, with her almost non-existent eyesight busies herself with cooking, chatting to anyone who calls and sitting on her balcony watching the few and unremarkable event of the village unfurl. Occasionally a cyclist will flash past on a circuit of the local mountain roads, perhaps causing a grunt from one of the village hunting dogs whose sleep has been momentarily interrupted. For both our friends Life has slowed down but they potter on in the village where Susanne was born well over eighty years ago and Roland came to live as a young child. The village has been the centre of their world ever since.

We arrived on Thursday evening to the usual warm welcome. Roland proudly set a row of various wines produced from his own vines and we spent a delightful and increasingly jolly evening sampling them all. Roland’s Crément du Jura really is perfection!

Since then we have spent most of our time around the village, chatting in Susanne’s kitchen, making coffee for each other and generally relaxing after several days of driving across France stopping intermittently as small towns and villages took our fancy. I have slept for England each night and as yet our energies have not fully returned. The weather though has been superb. Warm enough not to need a jacket while the hedgerows are a riot of colour as the spring flowers explode along the wayside. Today we are venturing up into the land of ravines and forests near Champagnole in the valley of the river Ain.

Sunday 15th April 2018
Yesterday was lovely. We did lots of little things that, thinking back on it seemed to add up to quite a lot – and all of it beautiful.

This really is a lovely, undiscovered area of France dominated by water. There are snow capped mountains, deep, narrow ravines, lakes and waterfalls. There are also blind valleys formed by water at the end of which rivers gush forth from subterranean water courses that have seeped down deep into the calcereous rock and run for many miles through hidden watercourses to emerge once more into the daylight as fully formed rivers, sometimes arriving in the form of a huge waterfall, sometimes as a gently flowing wide river, rarely though as a spring or tiny watercourse.

Throughout the human history of this region water has been the source of power and many of the ressurgences have the remains of 19th century machinery constructed to harness the force of the water to power turbines and water wheels.

So yesterday we drove through the dilapidated main street of Salins and up to the shabby little town of Champagnole. Most of the little towns of the region are a collection of drab, huge buildings lacking in charm set in a breathtakingly lovely environment. What Champagnole lacked in visual charm though was compensated for by the friendliness of its residents. We joined others for the dish of the day in one of the main street bars, enjoying rabbit in a pepper sauce with a salad and chips followed by dark, rich coffee in tiny cups.

The river Ain runs immediately behind the buildings of the main street and finding a narrow passageway between buildings we took a steep set of stone steps overgrown with moss down to the edge of the river, tumbling noisily along its course and cascading over and around the rocks in the riverbed. Here there were abandoned factories from the town’s industrial heyday, some now converted into flats. Champagnole is an interesting town to visit but surely a depressing, lonely place to live in winter!

River Ain running through the town centre, Champagnole. Formerly a factory powered by water. Now residential.

Leaving the town behind we drove to Syam, hoping to find the surprising Palladian-style house there open to visitors. Susanne had told us of its superb library, something unlikely in this isolated region! The house had been closed when we discovered it back in 2015 and we had no better luck today. The village is intriguing, dominated by the forge which, we believe is still operating, producing iron rails. It all looked deserted, picturesque and like something left over from the industrial revolution.

Forge, Syam

Palladian house at Syam, Jura, built for the owner of the forge in 1818.
Interior of the Chateau, Syam.

Interior of the Chateau de Syam.

As we drove up through the village an elderly man with a dustpan in his hand came out from his cottage, tripped on the step and fell headlong into the road in front of us. We stopped and Ian jumped out to help the man. Happily he was not really hurt but shaken. Having recovered he told us he felt silly but things were becoming difficult now he was 85 years old. It is so much the problem in this region. The elderly become isolated as their children move away to find employment and they are left with insufficient help to survive properly, to say nothing of the loneliness.

We continued up through thick pine forests where we saw nobody for miles, eventually emerging onto what seemed to be the next level of the Jura range. Here we rediscovered a tight narrow ravine on the river Saine that cuts deeply down through the rocks. Here water has cascaded for millennia, slicing through the plateau and offering awesome evidence of the force of nature. Beside these cascades there are the remains of mills constructed in the 19th century. How they managed to build them, suspended above the cascades, defies imagination. There are whirlpools hollowed out by nature and a permanent cloud of fine mists thrown up by the boiling foam of water crashing through the ravine.

Deep and narrow ravine using the forces of nature to provide power for 19th century industry

Raw energy, Jura

A path lead us up beside the cascade through the woods. At the very top we came upon a small but fully functioning modern electricity generator, using the full force of nature’s bounty to feed energy into the national grid.

19th century factory using the forces of nature, Jura

Water powered mill, Jura.

Already feeling we’d had a full and interesting day we started our journey back towards home before deciding to return to a village we discovered a few years ago. Nozeroy is constructed, along with its mediaeval castle, on the summit of an imposing hill dominating the valleys to every side. This was once the centre of a mediaeval kingdom composed of many fiefdoms and a fitting place from which to rule the surrounding lands. It reminded us of the bastide towns of the Midi, standing on an impregnable summit with sheer-sided cliffs overlooking the surrounding lands. Inside the strong walls and defensive gateway the layout of the town was more rambling than in the bastide towns of the south, with cobbled streets and a large central square with the church to one side.

Gateway into the fortified town of Nozeroy, Jura

Inside the town, Nozeroy, Jura.

Plaque recognising an important son of Nozeroy, Jura.

Time then to head for home. We returned around 7pm, still daylight, and after supper Susanne joined is in our kitchen for coffee and a resumé of the events of the day in Champagne. Hughes had been over with his little dog Azoe. Unfortunately we missed him and will be gone before he comes again.

Sunday 15th April 2018 continued
Today the sun was shining. Our hosts set off early for Dole looking very smart for their family lunch appointment. Today being our last day here we were spoilt for choice as to what to do. We decided on coffee in Quingey about 10 kilometres away. There is a sunny terrace by the church where we usually call at least once on our visits here.

Mass was obviously something special. There were several young priests in white robes and it looked from the terrace of the bar as if they were being ordained. There was much happiness and hugging as they processed out of the church, next to the terrace of the café where we sat watching, at the end of the mass.

While we sat enjoying the sunshine and watching the mass through the open church doors, I received a text from some English friends we met through our blog some years ago. They live just across the Humber from Neil and his family near Hull and we met up with them when we were here for Thibault’s wedding three years ago. They were in residence, as we’d hoped, in the huge farmhouse they have been restoring for fifteen years. We decided to call on them on our way back after our coffee.

We worked out a route to the village where Martin, Maggie and their son Dean were busy sorting out the garden. The changes they have made on the house since we last saw it on a very wet and rainy March afternoon are quite spectacular. The floors have all been surfaced, the walls painted, a new kitchen, built entirely from scratch by Martin back home in Linconshire and brought over here in his car. Stoves have now been installed in most of the rooms so visits no longer need to be confined to the warmer months. We really admire their courage and skill. It was a massive undertaking and no easy matter getting there from North East England when they are both still working! Martin is now semi-retired from his teaching post as a CDT teacher. He obviously is well skilled in technical matters which stands him in excellent stead for the task he has set himself of restoring his French home before he fully retires.

When we arrived they were all working in the garden. Trees have been felled, a terrace constructed, flowerbeds are being cleared and Martin has already planted out his vegetables in neatly hoed beds. He will leave them to grow when they return next week to England until June. In the autumn too they will be back for the grape gathering where they join with their neighbours to help with the autumn harvest. We have great admiration for what they are achieving and wish them every happiness with their project.

After a chat and a mug of tea, followed by a tour of their domain we left them to their gardening and continued along the winding road that rambles its way through the rolling pastures where the Comté cattle graze, making our way down to Salins and thence back to our own special village. The two villages are only a few miles apart on the map but by the time we’d followed the rambling road down into Salins and driven home we’d covered over thirty miles! The vistas from the road were delightful as we contoured the impressive mass of Mont Poupet where Louis Pasteur carried out his experiments in microbiology. From the top hang-gliders were flying with the thermals, gliding and sweeping across the summit.

Back home we prepared lunch and later took a walk around the village and up onto the Clos to see how the local vineyards were progressing. Again the wide blue-green views of the lower slopes of the Jura mountains and the rugged profile of the hills are what makes this region so very special.

Our progress was slow. I still have not fully recovered from the dreadful cough I had back in Caen and needed to stop regularly to rest and recover my breath. I begin to fear age may be beginning to take its toll!