By Roger Allnutt
France is a large and amazingly diverse country full of magnificent scenery (just watch the Tour de France on TV for a sample), with a fascinating history, wonderful buildings and some of the best food and wine in the world.
Each region of France has much to offer the discerning traveler. One of my favorites is the department of Jura, just north of Geneva and close to the Swiss border. Part of the region of Franche Comte, it is a rural area with pleasant rolling hills, lots of vineyards and many attractive, historic towns.
Two of the larger towns, Arbois and Lons le Saunier, are important because of the famous people who lived there. Louis Pasteur grew up in Arbois and Rouget de Lisle, who wrote the music which became the French national anthem La Marseillaise, came from Lons. The houses they lived in are both worth a visit. Both are centers for vineyards and the region produces some lovely wine of which the famous vin jaune (yellow wine) is special and very expensive. The village of Chateau Chalon perched on top of a hill is the center for this vintage.
Some of the vignerons have been there for centuries; for example in Arbois Henri Maire’s wine establishment dates back to 1542. In the same town a magnificent old mansion Chateau Peccauld is now a wine museum. At nearby Poligny the Eglise du Jacobins, a 13th century church, is now used as a wine cave.
My wife and I spent a week based near the centrally located town of Champagnolle and were able to do day trips to many interesting sights. South of the town is an area of lakes, rivers and waterfalls with lovely walks available through wooded areas to viewpoints over the lakes. The Cascades du Herisson are the Jura’s version of Niagara Falls, the main falls dropping over 200 feet in a gushing torrent.
Further south near the Swiss border leading to Geneva is a popular skiing area in the Haut Jura near the town of Les Rousses, while St Claude, a small town set in a deep valley, is known for its diamond-cutting artisans, and also for many years it was a center for making smoking pipes.
The Jura has many historic villages and two of the best are Nozeroy and Baume les Messieurs. Nozeroy is a tiny medieval village with ruins of an old chateau (there are grandiose plans for reconstruction). The lovely Collegiate Church of Sante Antoine has an altar surrounded by wood panels and high vaulted ceiling and, surprisingly in a corner alcove, examples of very old bibles in different languages. The village has many old houses, a lovely open square, clock tower and ramparts and flower baskets everywhere including a large display outside the public toilets (pictured, left).
Baume-les-Messieurs near Chateau Chalon is set in a box canyon between sheer cliffs. The village is picture-postcard pretty and the highlight is undoubtedly the 9th-century abbey from which the monks left in 909AD to set up the famous Benedictine abbey at Cluny in Burgundy. The simple abbey is still intact and used regularly; when we were there paintings by a Georgian artist were hanging from some of the pillars and these stark paintings set off the interior of the church. At the head of the long canyon are grottoes that can be visited.
At the northern end of the department the city of Besancon is also the capital of Franche Comte. Victor Hugo, author of “Les Miserables,” was born in Besancon as were the film pioneering Lumiere brothers. The old town is virtually encircled by the lovely River Doubs, popular for boating tours in summer. The old town is full of cobbled streets and quaint buildings, and the Grande Rue which slices through the center of town leads from the river to the famous citadel. (Pictured, right, Hotel de Ville at Besancon.)
Built by Vauban between 1688 and 1711, the fortress-like citadel has walls up to 65 feet thick. Nowadays it contains three fascinating museums focusing on local history and culture. Below the citadel the Cathedrale St Jean incorporates a Horloge (Clock) Astronomique with about 30,000 moving parts.
By being based at one location for a week there were no concerns about finding accommodation each night. If you want to eat out there are hundreds of restaurants in all corners of France, even in the tiniest villages. However, we found that the range of food available at supermarkets (Leclerc, Supermarche, Casino et..c.) is incredible and they have many take-out choices which together with a bottle of local wine make a great meal in the comfort of your own place. We had great summer weather and were able to eat out of doors most nights.
Towns throughout France have a local market day at least once a week and at those markets you find many regional products including fresh fruit and vegetables, freshly cooked chickens, an amazing variety of cheese (incredibly inexpensive), saucissons and other types of salami, marvelous tapenades, and home-made treats like quiches and pies. There are usually stalls selling clothes, jewelry and local handicrafts. Visiting the markets is an experience in itself.