Sunday 17th October 2010, Champagne-sur-Loue, France
Outside this evening it is cold and dark with a mizzling rain. Inside though, we are happily installed in "our" kitchen in Champagne-sur-Loue. Roland has loaded logs onto the central stove that heats the radiators around the house and we are wallowing in the luxury of space and a proper home around us. We also still have our last bottle of our Hungarian wine to finish so all is right with the world.
We last left you on Friday evening as we settled to spend the night in a cheap hotel on the trading estate up in Pontarlier in the high Jura. We both left with bruised heads yesterday morning where we inevitably hit them on the third bed fixed sideways across the normal double bed.
Back in the town it was freezing cold and raining. The streets though were crowded with protesters. That's one thing the French really do excel at! This time there are "manifs" all over France demonstrating against President Sarkozy's intention of raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. Sometimes we respect French "bloody-mindedness." Sometimes too it works. However, we do feel they are just too eager to strike about anything that changes their cosy way of life. It's not as if France is unique with this problem. All across Europe the retirement age is rising and the French have so far had it considerably easier than most. It's regrettable but stones really don't have that much blood in them and thanks to the irresponsible actions of banks, money markets and governments around the world, many nations are facing the same problems. It's not just the workforce that is taking action either. There are major demonstrations by lycéens and college students, supporting their teachers. National strikes have been taking place last week and several more are planned for next. They are well orchestrated if Pontarlier is anything to judge by and the police are kept busy clearing the marching route of traffic. It does seem lamentable that there were so many children accompanying their parents, shouting the slogans, banging the drums and generally learning at a very young age to protest and shout for their rights regardless. What about negotiation and rational argument? What is the point of vehement protest without any practical ideas for a solution? What are the syndicates or unions doing to intermediate between the government and the workers?
Ten of the country's twelve petrol distributors are on strike and supplies are beginning to run low across the country. There are fears of panic buying. We are at risk from this. We filled Modestine before leaving Switzerland, unsure how the situation would be in France. It's doubtful though whether we have enough to reach Normandy in a few days time.
Having watched the marchers with their umbrellas in the rain we felt sufficiently chilled to go for coffee and croissants in the large and crowded cafe on the main street. Both the coffee and the croissants were delicious and we were feeling pretty good to be back in France despite its sometimes strange ways. The museum was closed – when is anywhere not in France? However, the deconsecrated church had a rather nice art exhibition with paintings of Franche Comté by artists from the locality. By the time we found ourselves back on the wet town square the marchers had returned from their noisy parade through the town and were standing in cheerful groups beneath their umbrellas chatting with friends before invading the cafe to warm themselves up. Strikes and protests can be good business for local bars and restaurants.
We left Pontarlier after lunch and drove through the wet countryside, through increasingly familiar villages as we neared Salins-les-Bains. Now we really were on the home stretch! As we drove through the village of Champagne Susanne was at her door looking out for us. It was almost as if we'd arrived home! Over coffee in her huge kitchen we exchanged news until dusk. While we unloaded Modestine and made ourselves at home in the basement flat Susanne organised supper while Roland busied himself getting together a collection of their wines for us to sample with the different courses! Their son Hugues, has become quite professional with his care of the vines and the wine production. The cave below the house has been changed, the generations old wooden barrels in which the wine has always been fermented have been replaces by new inox ones and everything has become strictly controlled. Now the wines are fermented according to grape variety and no longer can Roland tip all his grapes into the same vat. The resultant wines though have improved and the ones we tried were delicious. So too was Susanne's fortified walnut aperitif which we enjoyed before the meal. We were at table chatting late into the evening, by which time both Ian's and my brain were finding it increasingly difficult to follow the conversation in French. We were exhausted when we finally got to bed – a real bed – where we slept profoundly while outside the cold mist of an autumn night in the Jura mountains clung around the house.
This morning when we got up Hugues had already arrived from his home in Dôle to press the fermented wine from this year's harvest, separating it from the crushed grapes. The wine will now be left to gradually mature over the coming months. The squeezed grape skins though have been put into a barrel where they will wait for a few weeks to be distilled into marc in December, just as we saw last year when we were here for Christmas.
Once the wine was sorted and Hugues had washed all the equipment at the garden tap in the freezing cold, we all went upstairs to celebrate Susanne's birthday with a selection of home produced aperitifs.
We observe that idyllic as it may appear living in a charming village in rural France, the lives of our friends are very hard and demanding. They are dominated by the seasons and the weather. Susanne and Roland are a decade older than us. For them there can be no real retirement. They are less fit than they used to be and Hugues takes on more of the workload. He though has a demanding job in the forestry industry as well as his own home and family.
Up in the communal forest Hugues has cut the family's winter logs into lengths and stacked them to dry. They all need to be brought down to the house but this cannot be done when the wood is soaked by rain. We'd hoped to help with this during the afternoon but it will now have to wait until next weekend as Hugues is at his work all week and Roland's health no longer permits him to drive his tractor into the woods and heave logs around. They all work very hard indeed.
This afternoon, despite the rain, Susanne joined us for a walk around the village in search of walnuts. Her vision continues to decline and she only really feels confident to take a walk when she has company.
Down by the Loue we found a few nuts near the farm of Susanne's brother. Following a track across the sodden fields, where the brown and white Montbéliard cattle stood mournfully in the rain, we found ourselves at Roland's hanger, full of a lifetime's debris of bits of wood, old tiles, coils of rusted wire, dead fridges, buckets, old windows and broken ladders that may one day come in useful. In their field behind the hanger the ground beneath the trees was thickly littered with walnuts. In no time we'd filled three containers which we carried home in triumph.
Tuesday 19th October 2010, Champagne-sur-Loue, France
Yesterday our friends both had all day appointments in Besançon so we were left to our own devices. Our first priority was internet access in Salins-les-Bains. On the way however we noted ominous yellow signs at petrol stations. Despite government ministers swearing blind on the television that there would be no crisis at the pumps and plans were in place to secure supplies, nobody except us believed them. All day Sunday, when protesting took second place to aperitifs and family lunch, strikers had been squeezing the last few drops into their tanks for the coming week of planned mayhem. There must be more full tanks around the country than there would ever normally be! Meanwhile, we realised, we could not possibly make it the 600+ kilometres across France to Caen and the ferry home on what we had in our tank. We decided to panic buy rather than wait and hope supplies improved.
Only one place still had supplies and we joined the long queue for the pumps, though we only had space for 20 litres. Others filling up asked us whether we had protest strikes and pump queues in England. "Rather rarely", we replied. "And when can you retire in England?" they asked. When Ian told them it was 65 and the British working week averaged 38 hours there was an awkward silence. The French have a 35 hour week and the protests are, after all, to keep the retirement age here at 60 rather than the proposed age of 62. Not all though, were in agreement with the strike action and nodded thoughtfully. Even people who are vociferous about strike action appear to be complaining about the chaos it is causing. All strikers lose their salary for each day they are on strike so it will certainly fizzle out eventually. Meantime though, their opposition is being made clear with more and more organisations joining the strike. Less than half the trains are running and airports are closing. The cash machines are not being refilled and lorry drivers are organising blockades on the main roads and driving two or three abreast along the motorways at walking pace, effectively blocking drivers in.
Why the lycéens (high school students) are striking is not clear. Perhaps they fear a saturated job market if people work longer, leaving them unemployed, or perhaps it is simply because it has been instilled in them since early childhood to be as disruptive as possible to all government policies. Certainly French teenagers always seem to be marching around the streets waving banners, encouraged by their teachers, and even burning the occasional car. On this particular issue, it will be 45 years before they will be retiring and inevitably the world will be a different place then. If we look back 45 years, never could we have envisaged society evolving quite as it has. In any case, keeping the retirement age at 60 will put an increasing tax burden on these young people over the coming years. Typically though, the French seem prepared to cut off their noses to spite their faces.
Down from my soapbox! The bar with wifi only serves drinks so the hotel bar along the street made us up a couple of ham baguettes to take back to eat at the other bar where sat in a gloomy corner with coffees and spent a couple of hours sorting out emails, blogs, finance and more. How does the barman make a living? Apart from a couple of customers calling in for a quick expresso, the place was deserted while both we, and the barman, used the internet. It has always been so on previous visits.
Salins, on the Unesco world heritage list for its salt mines, lies in a deep valley overlooked by two towering fortresses perched on pinnacles of limestone rock above the wooded gorge. We have climbed up to the Vauban fort on a previous visit. Yesterday we climbed to the other, 19th century ruined Fort Belin. We never really expected to reach it in our unfit condition but amazingly, after about an hour climbing very steeply along rough paths through woods of beeches and oaks, we struggled out, hot and sticky, onto the damp and chilly plateau beside the moat of the fort. The views were superb though hazy. Salins was just a matchbox town far below us.
After exploring the ruins, convinced it was too dangerous to return the way we'd come with wet and slippery rocks, fallen leaves and the likelihood of getting lost on the way, we followed the narrow deserted road, assuming it would lead us down the hillside.
It contoured the hilltop, eventually leading to a pretty village where Salins was signposted as seven kilometres away! It would soon be dusk and we were already weary. Eventually we found a Sentier de Grand Randonner (long distance footpath) leading down through steep woodland and fields of cattle to emerge into a muddy farmyard. From there it was a mere four kilometres downhill on a proper little road to Modestine, patiently waiting in the car park beside the garden centre.
It's good to once again have a place to spread ourselves out and cook proper meals. Last night as we waited for our chicken to roast we watched French news with increasing amazement at the determination of the strikers. They react so very differently from the British when they object to government policy. Much as we love France and the French people the intransigence of many is quite alarming. How far would they go and how do they expect to resolve the situation? This is after all a country that in the 1790s was prepared to bring down the aristocracy, massacre the monarchy, wantonly destroy its magnificent architecture and then use the guillotine on thousands of its own citizens. The mob on the streets has always been a force to be reckoned with.
After supper we settled to watch a couple of dvd episodes of the BBC drama Cranford on our computer. Such a cosy, genteel way of life in 19th century rural England, whereas throughout the same period in France the nation was beset by a series of violent revolutions.
Incidentally, even our little village of Champagne is not untroubled by violence. Earlier this month, as Susanne and Roland were in their kitchen eating lunch, they were startled by gunfire just outside. Police were in pursuit of a man who had attacked his wife at their home in Besançon, shot his son and escaped into the countryside. In Champagne he paused to use the spider-ridden public phone box that we sweep out on every visit before we can phone our children. Here the police cornered him. Without hesitation he shot one of them in the chest. Fortunately the policeman was wearing an armoured jacket but still received a non-fatal wound to the neck. Police fired back, the man was injured, a helicopter arrived to take him to hospital but he was dead on arrival. Because Champagne-sur-Loue is such a rural backwater the event made newspaper headlines in France. This evening, as we passed the phonebox we noticed a bullet hole in the door frame. I hate to think of this delightful little village being contaminated by such a horrid event.
Tuesday 19th October 2010 continued, Champagne-sur-Loue, France
During the morning we worked on our computers so it was not until after lunch that we set off for an eleven kilometre round walk to Arc et Senans. We are nervous to drive anywhere, in order to conserve fuel for our journey across France. We noticed the pumps in Arc-et-Senans were dry so it still looks serious.
It was very cold because of the wind as we strode through the fields where we were kept company by a family of two horses and a foal following us on the far side of the hedge beside the Loue. Arriving in Arc-et-Senans we sought the warmth of the bookshop at the Unesco listed historic Salines, and later sheltered from a sudden shower at the local cake shop where we passed the time with coffees, chocolate éclairs and opera cakes. The walk home had to be faced eventually however and we braved the rain to walk through the village to the church. On an earlier visit we were surprised to find ten 17th and 18th century paintings by notable artists including Rubens and Murillo hanging inside the church. The church being open this afternoon we called off for a second look. They really are a prize for such a tiny town and once formed the personal collection of Monsieur de Grimaldi, director of the salt works.
The nearby cemetery has eight graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In August 1944 a plane carrying both British and Australian airmen came down nearby and the crew are all buried here.
By the time we reached home clutching a bag of wet walnuts we'd gathered along the roadside, we were damp and weary. We passed Susanne and Roland at the gate rushing off to Arbois before the shops closed. We were happy to return to the warmth of our kitchen and start our French bag in box as we set Remoska to cook us a ham quiche for supper. Later we settled to enjoy the rest of our dvd of "Cranford".
Thursday 21st October 2010, Champagne-sur-Loue, France
Thanks to the continuing strikes throughout France our activities over the past two days have been limited to walks around the locality. We may just have sufficient fuel to reach Caen, though it will be touch and go, when we leave here on Saturday but if we use any before we leave we could be stranded somewhere in Normandy unless we chance on a supply somewhere around Orleans. The French government took action to open the fuel depots yesterday but can do little about blockages along the route that prevent tankers from reaching the pumps. Supplies in Haute Normandie and western France are apparently worse than in the south and east of the country.
According to the news, looters and arsonists are causing severe chaos in Lyons where much of the blame is being directed at the students. Cars are being smashed and set on fire, shops looted and windows broken. All this, apparently in support of retaining the age of retirement at 60. Meanwhile, it has been mentioned in the news here that in Britain there is discontent at proposals to raise retirement age to 66, suppress jobs in the public sector and reduce benefits. It is hard for us to have a great deal of sympathy with the French when we have such concerns affecting our own country. The difference though is in the way we address those difficulties. It's hard to imagine the British taking to the streets on a rampage of orchestrated violence whereas here, such an escalation is quite normal. According to opinion polls here, the majority support the current action – except of course for the universally inconvenient fuel shortages - and have confidence that it will achieve results. Hmm.
Yesterday, despite the freezing and torrential rain we took a walk with Susanne around the neighbouring village of Chissey where her grandparents and great grandparents lived. In the churchyard she showed us their grave. The Jurassiens really are tied to their terroir and frequently move no more than a few kilometres from their ancestors. Inside the church we renewed our acquaintance with the strangely carved corbels depicting the grotesque faces of creatures in torment known locally as the babouins. On a side altar is a reliquary of St. Christopher, patron saint of lunatics and safety. Reputedly his jawbone was brought home from the crusades, making the church a place of pilgrimage. It is to him prayers were once offered to drive out the demons from the demented and also, more recently, to bless vehicles and keep drivers safe. We have written elsewhere about this strange church. On this visit though we discovered an unusual stone statue we missed before, depicting the Virgin with a tiny carving of the Christ child on her stomach.
Today, by contrast to yesterday, it has been brilliantly sunny and even warm. We took a walk this morning along beside the Loue to Buffard, returning for lunch with yet more walnuts. Down at the bottom of the village stands the weighbridge, no longer used. During my time at the school here in the 1960s I would watch the cattle being weighed before they were either returned to the fields for a while longer, or loaded into a truck and taken off to the nearest abattoir. The pupils once made me stand on it but decided I was not yet sufficiently heavy to send to market and could teach them for a while longer!
During the afternoon we joined Susanne for a walk up onto the Clos and through the vineyards where the leaves are turning red/gold and the vistas towards the wooded hillsides rising to Mont Poupet were awesomely beautiful beneath the brilliant blue sky. So warm was it that grasshoppers and lizards had reappeared to soak up the last of the season's sunshine. We returned beside the Loue carrying bags of nuts and grapes. These last we had gleaned from the vines, missed during the vendange. They are dark and very sweet. Far too good to leave there to wither.
Meanwhile, Roland spent the afternoon chopping wood for the furnace. It takes a small trolley load every day to keep the entire house heated. He spends happy hours removing nails from old planks and sawing then up for fuel. Nothing gets wasted and he is always busy with a hammer, a saw or a monkey wrench. Summer or winter he's always active with something. If he isn't repairing a radiator or fixing a loose tile he's probably driving his tractor around the village or attending to his wine in the cave below the house. As age begins to limit his activities he is finding it very difficult to adjust to doing less and watching the TV a little more.
Friday 22nd October 2010, Champagne-sur-Loue, France
Today has been our last day here. While Ian spent the morning working on his printers, I went for a nostalgic walk across the meadows beside the Loue with just a few of the massive, Montbéliard cattle grazing in the muddy pastures for company. On all sides were the fields, woods, vineyards and rising hills, overlooked to the east by the familiar outline of Mont Poupet. Beside me the Loue flowed noisily, fast and clear, carry along the leaves that tumbled continuously from the low, overhanging trees. Just across the river, no distance away but inaccessible before the bridge downstream at Arc-et-Senanas, stood the picturesque Château de Roche. But the countryside here was deserted. It is rare to pass anybody walking in the fields – a tranquil place to think back over the past half century that this French village, perhaps no different from hundreds of others in the region, has influenced my life.
Back home over lunch the television news was not encouraging. Force is being used in an attempt to break the strike, inevitably leading to conflict and increasing the determination of the strikers. Blockades are now being set up around supermarkets to disrupt food supplies. Meanwhile, this being a week of national holiday in France, the nation is setting off on long drives across the country without knowing whether the fuel situation will have improved by the time they wish to come back!
This afternoon we walked with Susanne up into the woods above the neighbouring village of Buffard, across the river from Champagne. Up here there is a statue of the Virgin from where there is a wide view stretching to the hills, far away on the horizon. Centre frame are the villages of Buffard and Champagne nestling below the wooded clos that is topped by the local radio transmitter. From here we could see the vines where we made our walk yesterday.
We returned down the steep slope towards the village, walking around a group of chickens scrabbling loose beside the track and stopping to pat a couple of gentle donkeys. Back at the bridge at Champagne as we leant across the parapet searching in vain for fishes, we were joined by a fisherman who told us that although it was not the season for fishing, there were very few fish in the Loue these days. Apparently recent analysis of the river shows that it is being badly affected by pesticides and its ecosystem is suffering badly. He seemed very much to know what he was talking about and claims that whereas certain pesticides have been banned in most countries of Europe, they are still permitted in France because people at government level have a vested interest in their continued use. Use of these products in France however is forbidden near water courses but he claims the law is ignored in the interest of producing crops rather than waterside meadows used only to produce grass and hay. He also says water levels in the Loue are falling. This is quite possible in a karstic landscape such as the Jura where the rivers appear fully formed from the rockface and can disappear underground again only to reappear in another part of the region. This is the case with the Loue, a resurgence of the Doubs that is later recaptured by it. Sink holes in its bed nearer the source can lead to falling water levels. So, glorious as the Loue appears, it is actually sick. It's a sad note on which to leave this wonderful area of France.
Other blogs that may be of interest:
Back to the Jura Entry for 3rd December describes Pontarlier.
Champagne on ice Entry for 21st December describes distilling the marc.
Bees, bisous and la montagne de ModestineEntry for 22nd August 2005 describes Salins, the Salines and the thermal baths.
Polingy and elsewhereEntry of 27th August 2005 describes Salins and the Vauban fort of St. Andre.
Back to France Towards the end of the entry of 8th September 2007 there is more on the paintings in the church at Arc-et-Senans.
Swiss Roll Entry for 1st September 2005 describes the strange mediaeval creatures decorating the interior of the church at Chissey.
Absinthe makes the carp grow strongerEntry for 10th October 2005 describes pollution of the Loue by Absinthe and the meaning of a Resurgence.