Try before you buy

During these travels we are repeating many of the things we reported on during earlier blogs. Rather than repeat descriptions and photos we will be inserting blue links into the text to take you back to earlier accounts. You may sometimes need to skim down the entry to find the description. Hopefully this will reduce the number of blogs we will be bombarding you with and give me more time to watch Midsomer Murders on TV, dubbed into French – the plots are convoluted enough in English so an episode here demands my full concentration. It's surprising how changing the voice and language of familiar TV characters also changes their personality and reduces their charm.

Monday 7th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
The pace of life here continues to be leisurely though we are getting very frustrated at our inability to access the internet. It’s something we rely on when we are away from home and so far nowhere in the area can provide us with suitable access. Either we cannot download attachments, the operating system is incompatible with Windows, we are not permitted to use USB sticks or the networked system is locked to prevent us accessing anything but specially approved sites - inevitably French ones so we cannot even get to our UK Hotmail account let alone Blogger or our online bank account!

We have just returned from an early morning drive through fifteen kilometres of wet and misty landscape to leave Modestine with the Citroën "optician" so she can be fitted with a new windscreen. Roland accompanied us with his pick-up truck to drive us home again as a rural bus service linking the villages, as can generally be found in England, simply does not exist in France where the only form of rural transport is the school bus, which is usually impractical for most people. This partly explains why the countryside is so deserted during the winter. Anybody who can, simply locks up their home and moves back to the town until springtime. For those that remain a vehicle is essential, simply to get to the baker, supermarket or doctor. Outside the conurbations though, people have always known how to be self sufficient. In this area almost everybody has a "cave" beneath the house filled with bottled fruits and barrels of wine while cheese and yogurt making is carried out, either at home or at a neighbouring fromagerie. With a patch of land for a vegetable garden, a hutch of rabbits and a couple of chickens in the yard, plus a few goats, cows or sheep in each village, there is generally little need to visit the nearest town - except perhaps on market day for a new ladder, pruning knife, floral-patterned overall, replacement shoes or a new mattress. While fishing in the many rivers of the region is popular here in summer, hunting is the national pastime throughout France during the winter. Around every village during the hours of daylight you can expect to see huntsmen in their flat caps and wellies, their guns on their shoulders while their dogs snuffle in the ditches eager to chase anything that moves out into the open where it can be shot. So within most villages there is the possibility of fresh game, be it a hare, a wild boar or simply an unfortunate thrush or pigeon. Roland does not hunt and complained to us last night that during the winter the roots of his vines are frequently gnawed by hungry mulots – tiny rodents that lives in tunnels beneath the vineyards. In nature they are kept under control by the magnificent buzzards and other birds of prey we have seen soaring above the fields or perched on pikes in the vineyards. Huntsmen though will shoot these with the same enthusiasm as anything edible, claiming they are pests that compete for the rabbits and young hares they are hunting. So these handsome birds are slaughtered and Roland's vines suffer. At least the mice are happy.

Hugues is Roland's and Susanne's only son. A father of three teenagers now we have known him since he was a baby. So it was a pleasure for us when he called over at the weekend with youngest son, eleven year old Valentin, to start work on preparing the vines for the coming spring. Although between them the extended families of Roland and Susanne - who were both born in this village - own many of the older properties in Champagne (117 inhabitants), the properties owned by Hugues are rented out and he lives in Dôle on the far side of the huge Forêt-de-Chaux. From here it is far easier for him to commute daily to Dijon where he works in the forestry industry, and for his children to attend schools in Dôle and University in Besançon. There is much more about the village and its surroundings, the family, the vines and the grape harvest here and the blog entries that follow it. See also our blog for the grape harvest in 2007 and the entries around it.

The weather yesterday was wet and muddy though surprisingly warm. While the men folk were busy tying tendrils on the hillside, we drove to Arc-et-Senans for bread and to top on money. There we discovered the cash machine had been mistaken for a wild boar and was riddled with bullet holes. The protective glass screen had been shattered and a crowbar taken to the surrounds in an ugly attempt to get at the contents! (I just hope the day job isn't replacing shattered car windscreens!) There appears to be more going on in the countryside than we first thought!

Just give me the money!

Still needing money and finding the weather so spring-like we drove from the Loue to the Doubs where we took a riverside stroll near the Grotte d’Osselle (see Wednesday 7th September 2005) and along beside the canal linking the Rhone to the Rhine. We returned via the little town of Quingey where we found a functioning cash machine. Despite being deserted at lunchtime on a Sunday we found Quingey to be a pleasant little town on the banks of the river Loue which at this point runs very wide as it tumbles over a weir with a fish ladder to the side. On the far bank is a very agreeable summer campsite with good views across the river to the town. Our late friend Soeur Martine, who set my lifelong link with this region going when she invited me to spend a year working at the school in Champagne, later ran the Dominican convent in Quingey. It is also where Pope Calixtus II was born back in the 11th century in a tower that looks as cold and uninviting now as it probably did then.

For the rest, over the past few days we have made several walks from the village into the surrounding countryside, along beside the fast flowing, green waters of the Loue with its silver reflections of the wide grey sky, heavy with mizzling rain and billowing clouds. Today, not having any form of transport until Modestine returns, we have walked a ten kilometre round trip in the rain to the nearest shop to buy a felt-tip pen! Just one of the healthy activities available to us here – actually it's pretty well the only one! Still, as yet we are not bored and the contrast of a few days in Paris will ensure us a high level of excitement.

Sometimes we have been accompanied on our walks by Susanne who recounts stories from the past – various floods when the Loue burst its banks flooding the houses at the bottom of the village; the route across the fields and through the village taken by the wooden pipes that once carried the salt water the fifteen kilometres from Salin-les-Bains(Saturday 27th August 2005)to the salt works of Claude Nicholas Ledoux at Arc-et-Senans(Tuesday 11th October 2005); villagers hiding Resistance fighters moving between the occupied and the Free French zones during the War - the boundary ran very near here. Although ten years older than we are and suffering from limited vision she casually mentioned that her nephew recently took her up for a ride above the village and its surroundings in his microlight aircraft! She said it was more exciting, but over more quickly than her frequent rides in her friends' hot air balloon which is stored here in the barn.

Roland's winter fuel supply, Champagne-sur-Loue

Roland's hanger. He's always convinced a dead fridge, a tractor tyre and a pile of tiles will come in handy one day! Champagne-sur-Loue

Susanne and Jill investigate Roland's pile of fence post, Champagne-sur-Loue

This last weekend has been dominated by the Telethon, France's version of Children in Need. Despite every town across France holding fund-raising events the weather and the economic situation meant that the money raised was a disappointment. Salins was doing its bit with ladies line dancing and firemen dangling around on ropes and clambering up ladders outside the tourist office. Actually, dressed in their red firemen suits they looked remarkably like the santas that hang from so many windows and balconies throughout the town. For us though the best Telethon event in town was French rap. We didn't understand a word of it but were filled with admiration at the agile way the singer got his tongue round the French language while maintaining the steady rhythm of the music.

Line dancing for Telethon, Salin-les-Bains

Local volunteer firemen doing their bit, Salin-les-Bains

We have also spent time upstairs with our hosts enjoying yet more of their home produced wines and aperitifs. Roland explained that he has the right to distil his own alcohol, though it has to be done at an official still in Port Lesney and a signed declaration made to the local administration as to exactly how much he has produced.

Tuesday 8th December 2009, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Well for once we woke to bright sunshine and the countryside seemed transformed. The fields were a brilliant green with long shadows from the poplar trees along the river bank. The sky was blue and whisps of cloud still hung around the hilltops as we set off for a morning stroll beside the river and up through the woods and vines above the village. It became so warm we ended up carrying our jackets. Down beside the Loue the road was flooded following days of rain on the higher plateaux and the recently melted snow there.

Back in the village we just had time for lunch before Susanne and Roland came down to our kitchen where we had invited them for coffee and mince pies while our CD of Christmas music played softly in the back ground. Ian had even managed to hang shiny red and green streamers around the room! Both our hosts declared English mince pies to be a success.

Roland drove us into Salins during the afternoon where Modestine stood waiting for us, happily wearing her new windscreen on the Citroen garage forecourt. All seems to have been carried out successfully and they even remembered to glue the tax disc holder back on the left side of the screen.

By mid afternoon the weather had suddenly turned really cold and we shivered as we explored some of the little wine producing villages between Salins and Arbois. Later we stopped in Arbois searching for a couple of gifts, one to thank Roland for his help and one for Cecile for the use of her flat over the coming days in Paris.

We've discovered buying presents can be rather a lot of fun. Having investigated the range of regional produce on offer we decided not to buy Cecile one of the famed sausages of Mortain or a pot of unctuous concoillotte cheese laced with the local wine. Instead we explored Arbois' most celebrated and long established chocolaterie which recently won the award for the best chocolate maker in France. Their chocolate boxes are in bold reds, mauves and browns bedecked with shiny ribbons. The smell inside the shop was rich and warm while the trays of chocolates all look far too lovely to eat. Best of all though, there were selections on the counter for us to try before deciding to buy! Of course we both needed to try at least a couple each and we can confirm they tasted as good as they looked and smelt. The French chocolate buying experience beats picking up a box of After-Eights from the supermarket any day - but then, we'd never buy these any day!

Chuffed with our purchase we continued searching for a gift for Roland. Just because he makes his own wine does not mean he doesn't appreciate something different. However, he is passionate about his "terroir" - which means this area of the Jura. We've always wanted to see inside the cave of Henri Maire, perhaps the most famed of the Arbois wine producers, and this provided the perfect excuse. Inside we were seated on little stools with glasses of vin jaune d'Arbois and a plate of Comte cheese balanced on top of a wine barrel while a young lady explained its properties and offered us other wines to taste. We knew what we wanted though and I had to drive back so we selected a bottle of the yellow wine, usually drunk as an aperitif, for which Arbois is so renowned. We know Roland loves it and it's something he does not produce. Who could have thought shopping so enjoyable? Maybe we should have had the chocolates after the wine but never mind.

This evening Etienne rang from Toulouse to arrange to meet in Paris just before we return so he can have the key to Cecile's flat as he will be in Paris at the weekend.