Back to the Jura

Tuesday 1st December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
This evening we are warm in our cosy flat beneath the house of our friends Susanne and Roland. Outside it is cold and very dark, the ground sodden with constant rain which has caused the the Loue to flood the pastures along its banks, which in summer are home to the beautiful golden Comtois horses with their blonde manes that are so characteristic of this region of rural France.

Once again we have returned to our favourite village near the border with Switzerland. It is the first time we have chosen to stay here so late in the year. We arrived last night. So too did the snow which has settled in white patches on the summit of Mont Poupet, the highest point in the area. Morning temperatures here are around 1 or 2 degrees but warm up slightly as the day continues. It’s all very grey, misty and miserable though with the clouds tumbling down through the folds of the hills to lie as a thick white blanket in the valleys.

Today has been spent trying to sort out a replacement windscreen for Modestine. Shortly before we arrived she was hit by a stone flying up from beneath a huge trans-European juggernaut which disappeared into the distance oblivious to having left her with a split spreading rapidly up her windscreen – or perhaps it was really an accelerated particle escaped from the nearby Hadron Collider! Whatever the cause, given the state of the weather, we count ourselves lucky the glass did not actually break.

We arrived safely in Champagne where our friends Susanne and Roland made us as welcome as ever. Temporarily shelving our worries we joined them for supper in their country kitchen upstairs where we sampled various of Roland’s wines. Last year was particularly good for his red, and the sparkling Cremant rosé served for dessert with Susanne’s bottled mirabelles was superb. Tired from our long drive across France, coupled with the wine, chatting in French and the warmth of the log-heated house we eventually tottered downstairs to our flat where we fell into bed and slept solidly until late this morning.

Salins-les-Bains is the nearest place of any size to our village. It is a dark, dank, miserable place in winter. It consists of a main street of tall, crumbling buildings crowded in at the bottom of a narrow valley where two huge, abandoned, military forts, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries tower on the cliff tops to either side. Here we found a Citröen car dealer. As we feared, the answer was a new windscreen and we returned to Champagne to phone our insurance company for clearance to get it fixed. Thank heavens for friends! The emergency number for overseas calls had been changed and we were transferred to a premium rate number. If we’d been using a call box our French phone card would never have lasted the twenty minutes or more that it took us getting transferred around the different departments as we listened to piped music and pressed keypad options until we found ourselves back at the point we’d started!! Grr!! We could have been in a really serious accident on the roadside and it would have been impossible to get help!

So now we have to hope the windscreen holds until the garage can replace it next Monday. They say they need it for 24 hours to fix the sealant. Fortunately Roland will drive us home and back to collect Modestine as there is absolutely no public transport in this rural wilderness.

Since we set out once again on our meanderings our progress across France has been leisurely to say the least. It is over a week since we left England. We crossed on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth arriving in Caen around 8am. Geneviève’s house is still a building site following the disastrous fire she had back in September. She is currently living nearby, taken in as a homeless waif by her brother Yves. Bless him, he was charming enough to also take on his sister’s friends and invited us to spend the couple of nights we wished to stay in Caen at his home rather than at a hotel as we’d intended. So we were able to see far more of Geneviève and her family than would otherwise have been possible. We also managed brief visits to other friends in Caen. (If we did not see you all this time we hope you will understand why.)

We knew the house had been badly damaged but it was still a shock to see the state it is in. All the contents have been removed and the ceilings replaced but the walls are still covered in an oily black film, the floors need relaying, the radiators have been removed for stripping in acid, there are holes waiting for new windows to replaced those burst during the fire and the wooden staircase and all the internal doors are black, awaiting stripping and renovation. Even outside the cream rendered walls are streaked with black smoke! Our friend is being very positive in a situation that would daunt most people, and looks forward to turning her “new” house back into a home when she can return to live there. Currently this is expected at the end of January.

The next stage on our journey was Alençon, just a couple of hours drive from Caen. Here Ian needed to spend time researching the regional archives in pursuit of 18th century French provincial printers and booksellers. I am not only his personal driver it seems but also his research assistant. Despite suffering from a bruised behind from recently falling down the stairs back in Exeter, I spent the afternoon wading through indexes, hot on the track of an Alençon printing dynasty ironically named Malassis! They were not the only ones!!

There were no all-year campsites in Alençon so we spent the next couple of nights at one of France’s less glamorous hotel chains out on the local trading estate. There is nothing wrong with Formula 1 hotels. They are clean and functional but they are all identical and very mundane. They are also very cheap sleeping up to 3 people per room for 30 euros a room. There appeared to be a local conference for paint mixers to judge by the number of vans with the same logo in the car park. And they all seemed to be sleeping three to room! Luxuriating in a room four times larger than Modestine with a bed to spare we set up our dvd player, opened the wine and spend a pleasant enough time there. It was warm and clean with a comfortable bed even if the loo and shower were down the corridor.

Next day I abandoned Ian to his archives and escaped to explore Alençon. There are some pleasant corners to the town with streets of older houses with granite façades. French markets are lively places and I enjoyed wandering round the stalls set up against the city walls. Alençon though is most famed for its lace though the museum was closed for the winter. Back in the 17th century the king had the monopoly for Alençon lace making. Only those trained and employed in the royal lace works could produce lace. Anything else was considered counterfeit and the penalties were heavy. So Alençon lace-makers were left to starve until the monopoly expired ten years later.

In common with many French towns, the local library houses a wonderful collection of early printed books. We never cease to be astonished at just how much material is available in even a modest town the size of Alençon. The collections are a result of the Revolution in 1789 when the assets of the nobility were seized. Much was wantonly destroyed but the rest eventually found their way into the care of the local municipality.

Alenon is also the town where, in 1873, St. Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus was born. She is one of the most famous recent saints of the Catholic Church known also as St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Little Flower. Her family home is treated as a shrine and a small basilica has been built beside it. Inside, the walls are covered with marble plaques expressing gratitude for her intervention in times of personal troubles. Leading off from the basilica is the room where the saint was born and where she frequently hid as a child to contemplate, undisturbed, her relationship with Jesus. When she was fifteen she entered the Carmelite order in Lisieux where she stayed until her death in 1897. She was canonised in 1925.

Next we called on English friends Susan and Ray in Loches, just south of the Loire, for a couple of nights. There we were treated to non-stop entertainment by their new and highly energetic kitten Eliot. He’s taken to living in the bathroom where he spends the night asleep in the wash basin. He’s only too willing to help with pushing the soap into the bath, sorting out the loo roll and flushing the cistern! Our friends made us most welcome of course. We spent a very wet Saturday morning shopping for bread and vegetables in Loches market and in the evening we attended a local concert in one of the nearby villages where Susan sings with the choir. They are accompanied by an orchestra of young musicians with high aspirations, boundless enthusiasm and a talent that has yet to burgeon. However, the atmosphere was very cheerful. An excuse for people from every generation to get together on a wet winter’s night to cheer on the kids, sing along with the choir and enjoy a shared buffet with wine afterwards.

It was raining when we finally left Loches to continue our long journey eastwards across France. The countryside was quite deserted, barely a cow in the fields, a car on the roads or anybody around in the many villages we passed through. Such is provincial France during the winter. Long before we reached Beaune, set in the heart of the Burgundy vineyards, darkness had fallen while the rain continued to stream down the windscreen. Passing a Formula 1 hotel we decided to call it a day and checked in for the night. This meant that next day we could spend the morning browsing the beautiful but chilly streets of Beaune where almost every ancient building was once a convent, a church or a religious hospital. Almost all are today connected with the wine industry and as such freely open to the public. This enabled us to explore inside a charming 15th century cloistered Franciscan convent housing an exhibition about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Of course the purpose of it all was to sell excellent but expensive Burgundy wines to people with palates and bank balances significantly more sophisticated than ours.

Courtyard of the Franciscan monastery, Beaune

Nearby stands the Hotel Dieu, a stunningly beautiful building with its coloured roof tiles that are so typical of Burgundy. We visited it once when Modestine’s predecessor exploded as we were returning to England, forcing us to spend several days in Beaune when we should have been back at work, waiting for a second-hand engine transplant! (Never a dull moment with Maxted Travels!)

Hotel Dieu, Beaune

Roof of the Hotel Dieu, Beaune

Glazed roof tiles, Chateau de Beaune

Mobile wine bottling plant, Beaune

Despite Modestine being injured on the final stretch of our journey, just outside of Beaune, we arrived safely and hopefully she will have her new windscreen before we need to go to Paris next week.

Thursday 3rd December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
We are now comfortably settled and feeling very much at home. Yesterday the weather was crisp and dry and as we were both longing for a good walk and some exercise we left Modestine in the courtyard to recover and wandered the familiar tracks through the woods and vineyards that surround Champagne. So empty is the winter landscape that we were out for six hours and never spoke to anybody! The trees along the banks of the turbulent Loue are bare of leaves but bright green with the balls of mistletoe that cluster thickly on all the branches. Along the way we collected a bagful of fallen walnuts which we shelled back home as we watched several of what must surely be the most fatuous television channels in the world!

Mistletoe on the banks of the Loue

Mistletoe on the banks of the Loue

We’ve been having great troubles getting internet access. This part of France seems particularly bad. Our plan to buy a French dongle for mobile internet access came to nought as reception almost certainly won’t work in the village. The only public access internet places seem to be in libraries. They are open on average 6 hours a week and internet is usually reserved for subscribers. Today we found a tourist information centre who said we could use their wifi, but the configuration wouldn’t work with our laptop. It seemed a stroke of real luck this evening when we discovered a new little library in nearby Mouchard where the librarian said as we were only temporarily staying in the area we could access the internet and borrow books, dvds and cds for free if we liked! Unfortunately the computers were all Apple Macs with French keyboards and so tied down with safeguards that we couldn’t get into our email anyway.

Ian is attending a conference in Paris next week and needs to get together some notes and prepare a short presentation. All the information he needs is safe in his email but we cannot get at it! We need to know too, where and when we are meeting people in Paris. Again we cannot get at the information! We did manage to download certain files but when we tried to open them back home they are incompatible with Microsoft and quite illegible! How can life become so complicated?

This morning we forced ourselves awake before daylight. The days are so short that unless we set off early we cannot go far if we are to be back before nightfall. We have no wish to be caught out on mountain roads in the dark. On this, the first of the three Jura plateaux, the snow has disappeared but as the month continues the weather is likely to get worse. So today we decided to make our way up onto a higher plateau while we still could. Strangely, we have never visited Pontarlier, always skirting it on our way to somewhere else – usually Switzerland. So today we made our way steeply up beyond Salins to the next plateau. It’s strange struggling slowly up a constantly spiralling bend until the land flattens out completely and we find ourselves driving across a white desert of snow smudged by dark patches of distant pine forests. Here we were between 700 and 800 metres up. The road had been cleared and the snow left heaped beside the roadside. Sometimes we would pass a huge ruined barn beside which a small group of cows or horses huddled together in the rain for warmth, the air around their heads misted with their breath.

Wintery landscape on the Jura plateau

With a population of under 19,000 Pontarlier is smaller than we imagined and far nicer than the sprawling industrial and trading estate on the outskirts led us to believe. We thoroughly enjoyed strolling around its wide streets and open squares. It has several very large, attractive buildings including the Hotel de Ville, the hospital, the church of St. Benignus, the city museum and the Bernard Blier theatre. It was originally a walled town and houses have been built along the ramparts. The main gateway, St. Peter’s Gate, was built in 1771 and forms an impressive entrance to the town.

St. Peter’s Gate, Pontarlier

Pontarlier is famed for its absinthe factories which existed for over 100 years, from 1805 when Henri Pernod set up the first distillery. At one time there were up to twenty distilleries employing one third of the town’s population. In 1915 absinthe was banned by law and the factories declined. Since 2002 absinthe has started to be produced again in Pontarlier.

Outside the cities most of France closes down for two hours in the middle of the day -frustrating when you are trying to make the most of the daylight. After an excellent value lunch in Casino (supermarket chain) with coffee and a sticky cake for Ian, our intention was to drive the few extra kilometres over the border into Switzerland, in search of a minaret free zone. They’re not particularly thick on the ground in France either but the news here seems obsessed with Switzerland’s refusal to allow them to be built on their mountainsides. It seems the Calvinist Swiss fear imams calling the faithful to prayer from a minaret on the banks of Lake Geneva might clash with the yodellers of Vevey calling their flocks for milking.

We decided it was altogether too dark, rainy and cold to drive further on into Switzerland so turned back, via the town of Champagnole. The main street was full of decorative patisseries, chocolateries and charcuteries. Their windows were such works of art you had to look twice to work out which was which. Dozens of inflatable plastic Santas with bulging sacks were climbing up shop fronts the entire length of the main street and decorated Christmas trees on the pavement were being eagerly enjoyed by the local canine population. Festive it may be, but with the rain trickling off our noses we couldn’t fully appreciate it and headed on back home. It was already dark before we arrived.

Friday 4th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Today we received a key in the post. It gives us access to Cécile’s flat in Paris for the duration of our stay next week. We have been having difficulty finding a suitable hotel. Both of the ones we have used in the past are temporarily unavailable and our friend Geneviève rang her daughter to ask her to search out an hotel for us. Instead she has sent us details of her own place assuring us that she was planning to visit a friend in Belgium next week anyway! We are so very touched at the boundless kindness shown to us by our French friends who have a knack of solving any problems for us.

It was drizzling this morning as we set off for the weekly market in Arbois. Like many of the towns in the region many of the streets are arcaded with large stone townhouses built out over the pavements providing shoppers with shade in summer and shelter in winter. Despite the rain there were people queuing in the wet market square for the seafood that even here, as far from the sea as it is possible to get in France, was waiting to be sold. Crabs, oysters, mussels, sea bass, cod, mullet and langoustine are appreciated as much here as they are in coastal regions.

Arbois has a completely different atmosphere to Salins. In summer it lies spread on the warm hillsides surrounded on all sides by the vineyards that produce the vin jaune and vin de paille for which the town is famed. Through the centre of the town flow the green waters of the Cuissance, winding between the walls of huge old stone buildings fronting directly onto the river, curling under bridges and falling in several picturesque white waterfalls. It was in Arbois that Louis Pasteur lived as a child and where he returned in later life to continue running the family tannery and undertake his experiments into a cure for the devastating disease phylloxera that was decimating the wine industry at that time. A fuller, earlier description of Arbois and Louis Pasteur can be found here.

Back in Champagne, after lunch the rain had eased and we intended taking a walk around the village in search of more scattered walnuts. However, we went upstairs for coffee with Susanne who was in a talkative mood and by the time we had all put the world to rights darkness had fallen, so we simply went back downstairs again for supper! This is certainly proving to be a relaxed and lazy interlude, one we are both relishing for a while. It’s ages since we’ve found time for so much reading and pottering around the countryside.