Halle-Loue-ja chorus

Monday 14th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
The TGV took less than two and a half hours from Paris back to Mouchard, with just one brief stop at Dijon where the platform was suddenly hazed in smoke as desperate passengers leapt from the train for a few quick puffs of their cigarette and to ring their wives on their mobiles to let them know "je ne suis pas dans le train"! It certainly makes high speed international travel more enjoyable when both phones and smoking are banned throughout.

Strange though that one of the few stops the train makes is at Mouchard, a tiny place of a few hundred inhabitants with a giant clothes peg, currently illuminated with Christmas lights, adorning its central square and nothing more than a bar and kebab take-away for a night out. It must have properties we have failed to discover. For us though it is perfect being just fifteen minutes drive from Champagne.

The air had an icy chill as we climbed down from the train and made our way alone along the dark, deserted platform watched with curiosity by our fellow travellers enjoying glasses of wine and waiter service as the train moved on to the frontier and into Switzerland.

In the darkness outside the station Roland was waiting inside the warm cab of his pick-up truck to drive us across the empty countryside and down into the village that has already come to feel so much like home. Susanne had turned up the heating in our flat and was waiting upstairs to offer us a warm supper after our journey. Are we spoilt or what?!

Until then, we had not realised just how exhausted we both were from our different experiences in Paris. It was 11am before we even woke next morning! Of course by then it was too late to catch the village shop in Arc-et-Senans but with odds and ends from the fridge we produced a very passable vegetable quiche which we discovered cooks well in the remoska. Even the French would have trouble finding fault with our cuisine!

Leaving Ian to write up his notes I spent the afternoon with Susanne telling her about the Christmas lights in Paris and the mulled wine and festive atmosphere in the Champs Elysée.

Throughout the day the weather has been below freezing but at 5pm, as darkness closed in, we left Susanne preparing supper for visitors and set off to walk three kilometres alongside a track on the far side of the Loue to the village church in Buffard for a Christmas concert. As we left Champagne the evening sky was a deep crimson as the winter sun sank behind the hillside, silhouetting wheeling clouds of starlings as they gathered to roost and lone crows perched in the skeletal branches of the riverside poplars.

We saw nobody on our brisk walk. The lights of Buffard and the ringing of its church bell guided us up into the village street where suddenly families were converging on the church and falling snowflakes were sparkling in the headlights of parking cars.

The church door was opened to us by Father Christmas in his jolly robes. "Entrez, entrez, c'est chaud dans l'église". Inside families were meeting and exchanging kisses. People smiled curiously at us as strangers and we found a couple of places near a side altar. We have described the interior of Buffard church on Monday 10th September 2007

The decayed grandeur of the church with its shabby baroque altar, tarnished gilt picture frames and damp-afflicted frescoes looked transformed by dim lamplight. A perfect setting for a winter concert deep in the French countryside. The choir was really excellent. Based in Besançon it is made up of young people ages eight to eighteen. It aims to help other children throughout the world and the money it raises from concerts goes directly to suitable projects. The young people processed into the church wearing long white surplices. The first half of the concert was of religious festive music ranging from the 12th to the 20th centuries and included songs from Spain, Germany and the French provinces. For the second half the choir changed into bright waistcoats in festive colours and sang popular French songs with the audience joining in. We recognised some, including "White Christmas" – a verse of which was even sung in English so we really felt Christmassy – "Jingle bells" ("Vive le vent" in French) and a Negro spiritual, "Everybody sing freedom". At the end there was so much well justified clapping and clamouring they sang several of the songs again.

Afterwards, outside the church, people were gathered in little groups as the snowflakes tumbled, drinking tiny beakers of mulled wine. Lovely as it all looked, we knew nobody, it was very cold and black beyond the pool of light around the church and we had a thirty minute walk back in the pitch dark beside the fast flowing river. Weighing it all up Ian concluded we'd do better to return home and have cold wine in the warm rather than stay and have warm wine in the cold.

The darkness swallowed us as we turned down the track clutching our wind-up torch. Our path was smooth and snowflakes tingled on our faces as we strode home singing "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer" confident we had the countryside to ourselves and would not be overheard.

Climbing the hill back up into the village of Champagne we had a surprise. Beside the deserted village church twinkling lights and tiny parcels dangled from the branches of a recently placed Christmas tree. Everything in Champagne is home grown so the tree almost certainly came from the nearby woods on the clos. In front grazed some of the most charming reindeer we've seen, made from logs of wood with branches for antlers. Our American friends Doug and Karen are off to Washington this Christmas to see the National Christmas Tree. This may not be in the same league, but it did a pretty good job for us last night! The village mayor and his committee – several are members of Susanne's and Roland's families – organised its placement and the recent sound of sawing from Roland's garage may well have had something to do with the delightful reindeer browsing in front of the tree!

Christmas decorations in Champagne-sur-Loue

Today it has stayed below freezing all day though we've had periods of brilliant sunshine. In Salins we discovered a bar that offered us free wifi provided we bought drinks. It was fuggy and warm, and the coffees were excellent. Furthermore they cost 2.50 euros including a chocolate almond each and wifi access. A couple of days back similar coffees without the extras in Paris cost us 6.70 euros. We spent a happy hour reading Christmas email messages from friends and sending our newsletter and electronic card.

In the post office we were told we'd put insufficient stamps on our letters to England. Each needed 4 additional 1 centime stamps! The lady behind the counter seemed happy to stick them all on for us and by the time she'd finished the address was just visible through a hole in the surrounding stamps.

Back home we joined our hosts upstairs for an aperitif of Roland's ratafia. It really is delicious and rather powerful. He'd looked out some old photos for us showing the original mediaeval stone bridge across the river at Port Lesney. It was knocked down and replaced in the 1950s by one of the ugliest bridges we've seen anywhere, let alone across a beautiful river passing through a picturesque village of old stone farmhouses.

Tuesday 15th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
All of France is in the grip of a sudden freeze. Susanne says it's the Bise, which is a wind from the North. All we know is that it's mighty chilly but fortunately very dry. There is still no real snow around here though the grass in the meadows is crunchy with ice and the water in drinking troughs has solidified. The temperature has stayed well below freezing all day and has averaged around -5 centigrade. (I can hear our various American friends sniggering from here but compared to average Devon temperatures that's really on the cool side!)

Our original account of the places mentioned below, together with photos, can be seen on 4th October 2005

Today we drove up onto the next level of the Jura for a winter walk through some of the region's loveliest and most intriguing landscapes around Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. We last visited the area in warm sunny weather when the fields were a riot of flowers, ducks paddled in the shallows of the river Lison and the woods and hedges were filled with the sound of birds. Today though, everywhere was completely silent. Everybody was snug indoors behind their heavy shutters, though out in frosty fields a donkey and pony stood miserably together. In the hedgerows tiny wrens searched for something, anything, to eat and we saw several huge birds of prey standing alone on the ground, their feathers puffed up so they seemed even larger.

Driving up through woods we encountered a stag in the centre of the deserted road. Having eyed us thoughtfully he climbed up into the woods and disappeared. Later we encountered several more deer with impressive antlers, in woods as Ian dragged me up the steep and slippery track leading to the ruins of the castle of St. Anne. I'm sure I've mentioned before that Ian always heads for the highest point no matter where we are. This near vertical clamber though was too much even for him and with relief we turned back.

In the woods above Nans-sous-Ste.Anne

The area around Nans is typical Jurassic limestone. Technically it's a karstic landscape and as such is liable to collapse suddenly or just fracture and send rocks crashing down through the woods. Walking is difficult because of fallen stones and slippery surfaces, but the scenery is sublime. The flat limestone plateaux are riddled with underground water courses which have dissolved the rock over millions of years, sometimes forming gigantic underground caverns. Eventually the rock above such a cave might collapse creating a huge hole into which the rivers continue to cascade from the exposed tunnels through which they ran. One such is the Creux Billard. It looked forbidding today as we stood on its edge, with a green pool at the bottom of its sheer walls of grey limestone pocked by several dark caves at various heights, each fringed with icicles.

The course the subterranean rivers take is frequently unknown. They may converge with others and travel great distances before finding an exit cave, usually at the head of a blind valley, from which they gush forth as already fully formed rivers.

In the woods near the source of the Lison. Note the height of the sheer limestone cliffs at the head of the blind valley

The source of the river Lison is one of our favourite "resurgences", not least because it's possible to climb right up the side of the waterfall and into the cave itself. It's the first time we've seen it in winter. As we crunched through beech leaves crisp with ice, along beside the green torrent of the river we could hear the sound of its cascade before we rounded the rocks and found it. It flows from deep inside the cliff face, smooth and silent, to crash down into its new riverbed. A cloud of spray always overhangs the fall, in summer deliciously cooling the hot air. Today though the spray looked like steam and where it touched the bare branches of overhanging trees it froze, turning the entire wooded cliff face white. Later, as we left the river behind and climbed up through the woods, we could see, across the far side of the recullée (blind river valley) the gigantic hollow in the cliff face known as the Grotte Sarrazine. A river flows out from its base. Usually it is just a small trickle but at times of heavy rain or melting snow it can become a violent torrent in a matter of minutes.

Woodland path beside the Lison.

Resurgence du Lison, with surrounding trees frosted by the spray

Grotte Sarrazine seen across the reculée. See how flat the plateaux are above.

Eventually we emerged into fields high above the village and made our way down, remarking on the various farms and houses as we reached the edge of the village. Suddenly everything became rather surreal. "Hello, are you English?" a voice called from somewhere invisible. "Yes, where are you?" we replied. "Down here, I can't open my catflap, can you help?" A little black and white cat appeared. We'd not been eating magic mushrooms and anyway if it was a talking cat wouldn't it speak French? We peered down into the sunken garden of an old stone house to discover an English lady with a frozen catflap and a dish of cat food. She told us she lived in the village and was looking after her neighbour's cats, one of which was stuck inside, the other outside. As we chatted the flap was eventually forced open. "That's good, lucky I overheard you talking. Must dash, I'm meeting someone for lunch" said our fellow countrywoman. And that was that. She rushed off to her waiting car and we continued our walk. It's the first time we can recall meeting anyone English here, let alone in a tiny mountain village. It's not an area expats choose and is largely undiscovered.

Coming down into Nans-sous-Ste.Ann

Eventually, after further woodland rambles we returned to Modestine, having left her near the old water powered Taillanderie. This is a working museum during the summer and since the 18th century has been a forge making sharp-edged farming implements. We seem to have adapted to the cold and felt quite cosy back inside Modestine where we made mugs of coffee to eat with our picnic sandwiches before setting off for the afternoon stint to the top of the precipice beneath which the village nestles. This was the failed ascent to the ruined chateau of St. Anne mentioned above. For pictures and more about Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne see 22nd August 2005

So we drove on up to Amancey where my friend Françoise lives. She used to do the cooking for the convent and school at Champagne when she was 19 and I was 18. She is a delightful and rather eccentric personality who takes it completely in her stride as I walk in and out of her life every few years. We are rarely in contact between times. She welcomed us into her warm cluttered farmhouse, sweeping the Catholic newspaper from a chair but leaving the dead thrush lying on the table as we sat to chat. Her husband Eugène was as usual off hunting. He's off every day, all day. The thrush was yesterday's offering. For all she knows, today could be a wild pig, a deer or a mountain goat. It could also be nothing at all or perhaps a blackbird. She says she's given up trying to dissuade him but fortunately he brings home fewer things now he's had his hip replacement and needs to walk with a crutch under one arm and a gun under the other!

Her honey production enterprise continues to flourish and we bought a kilo tub as a Christmas present for Susanne. Françoise says we must go for lunch before we leave the Jura. She will order Eugène to stay home from hunting one day in our honour. Last time we had wild sanglier. This time it might well be four and twenty blackbirds!

There is a fuller description of Françoise's home and a delightfully alternative lunchtime spent there. See entry for 6th September 2005