Sunday 11th September 2016, Champagne-sur-Loue
All too soon it was time to move on from Caen, still with so many friends unvisited, and to make our way across to the Burgundy region to return once more to my special village set amidst vines, extensive woodland and huge fields grazed by the brown and white cattle that produce the sweet tasting Comte cheese.
France is a large, rural and stunningly beautiful country when crossing it on minor roads. It seems too that these days far more pride is being shown by the communes. Roads now seem better maintained than in England and villages take a definite pride in the appearance of their main streets. Of course there are still many crumbling and shabby little towns with nobody to be seen anywhere as we pass through, but generally we are delighted and surprised to see how much cleaner and smarter the French countryside has become over the past couple of years. It now puts Britain to shame.
Once we had arrived here in our sleepy, crumbling village and settled ourselves into the flat, we joined Susanne upstairs in her kitchen. Roland was up on the hillside where he has a large wooden summerhouse he constructed some fifty years ago. Usually in summer it is a venue for family picnics amidst the vines and woods. Hugues and Valentin were with him, sawing down sapins that had become too large and cutting them to length for sale to the local palette-making company in the nearby village of Cramens. They then had to haul the timber from the woods and stack it beside the track to be collected. It was work far too heavy for Roland nowadays. With them they had Valentin’s dog, Izoe. She has been trained as a truffle hound. Work finished they took her for a walk and she became very excited. Rewarding her with pieces of Comte cheese they scrabbled away at the point she indicated and found a couple of small truffles which they later showed us with delight. They were grated into butter which was left overnight to release the flavours. The following evening we were invited back for an aperitif of Roland’s crément de Jura with truffles on sliced baguette. Wild truffles were a first for us!
That evening we were invited for supper with our friends. As usual it was a happy affair and we sampled a variety of Roland’s wines. His best we feel is his rataffia which is white wine fortified with his own eau-de-vie. He still retins his hereditary right to produce a certain quantity of this, though it is very tightly controlled.
Monday 12th September 2016, Champagne-sur-Loue
This morning looked as if it might be slightly cooler so by 9am we were on our way to Salins, aiming to get tasks done before the day heated up. In Salins we went to the garage and got our windscreen wipers replaced. The hot sunshine over recent weeks had rotted the blades. A few new technical words were learned and added to our vocabulary. Next we sorted emails in the tourist office, pottered the main street and stopped for a coffee on a shady terrace near the thermal baths. In the mairie we discovered an excellent exhibition of watercolours by a local artist who had travelled widely in the Far East, Africa and South America as well as Europe. He illustrated his travels with hundreds of watercolours which formed the basis of the exhibition. What a wonderful way to record his travels.
By midday it was too hot to move so we returned to the flat for lunch and a snooze. Susanne and Roland had taken the 4x4 up to Lons-le-Saunier for its annual service so we’ve not seen them all day. In the hallway I found a lizard seeking shelter from the heat and then discovered a further two which had sought to cool down in a jam jar half full of water, Then they could not get back out and were sitting in the water with just their heads showing, We gently tipped them on to the grass and they scuttled off to the shade of the wall. Next we drove to Arc-et-Sennen for shopping but returned very quickly to the shade of our kitchen where we remained until after supper when we ventured out in the fading light for a clamber up onto the Clos, the hillside above the village where Roland tends his vines along with the other wine producers from the village. Here there were magical vistas in shades of grey and deep blue of the rising plateau of the Jura by moonlight. We have never been up there in the dark before and it was an experience not to be missed. Fear of stumbling in the dusk made our descent rather slow and we opted to come down onto the narrow, deserted road beside the Loue where we could walk back to the village without fear of twisted ankles, accompanied by skimming bats and the hoot of owls. It made a longer walk but safer in the dark. By the time we reached the village lights were twinkling in the windows of the clustered stone farmhouses and darkness had completely fallen. Our friends’ windows had no lights as they had retired to bed leaving the gates unlocked for our return.
Tuesday 13th September 2016, Champagne-sur-Loue
It was obviously going to be hot again today but we didn’t want to waste our precious days here hiding in the basement. So around 8.30 we drove off to Arbois for a nostalgic stroll around its cobbled streets before it became too hot.
In the church there is the Biou, a huge bunch of grapes representing the vendange or grape harvest. It is ceremonially carried through the streets and hung in the church until the final harvest is in. Already it was dripping juice all over the floor in front of the altar. Around the walls are illustrations from the bible supporting the local conviction that wine is a benefit to mankind that comes directly from God. Thus images such as the marriage feast at Cana prove wine is meant to be enjoyed. We felt every effort was being made to condone drunkenness!
Arbois remains as charming a little town as ever, beautiful with its early autumn colours and bright street decorations to celebrate the grape harvest. The vines though did not look as laden with fruit as we expected and it seems that this year will not be a good one for the producers. Roland does not produce high quality wines, though admirable for family consumption. With his increasing poor health he cannot even be bothered to harvest his this year. We have offered to stay to help but he says it just isn’t worth the effort. It will be the first time ever it has been left to rot.
Life moves on and even our favourite lunch place has now closed its doors and reopened as a chic and more expensive restaurant. So we took our coffee under the stone arcade on the main street at the sublime but expensive chocolaterie. The coffee was good and the accompanying chocolates helped justify the price.
By noon it was way too hot for comfort and we drove home for lunch. Coffee was enjoyed with Susanne under the shelter of her overhanging balcony while Roland retired to snooze in front of his television. It’s now approaching 4pm but still too hot to venture outside.
Thursday 15th September 2016, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura, Franche Comte
Yesterday we took the train into Besançon leaving Modestine in a shady corner of the car park intended for those visiting the Salines. When we returned the external thermometer registered 40 degrees! It is unbearable!
As last time we found the ticket vending machine on the platform was not working. It didn’t look as if it had worked for a very long time. We got on the train and searched for the guard. As last time, he was not to be found. As we exited the train in Besançon he was waving his little flag at the far end of the train. He would not have appreciated us delaying the Belfort train to pay for our seniors ticket for one stop down the line. So, as last time, we ended up with a free ride into the city!
Already it was too hot to move comfortably and we followed the shade of the trees through the park down to the quays lining the banks of the Doubs.
The market was cool but with little activity so early in the day. We found a sheltered terrace for a coffee and followed the shade and the 17/18th century covered arcades through the city. These are a feature of the towns near the Swiss border where there are extremes of snow and heat every year. It was way too hot to climb to the citadelle. The restaurant we used when we came here as students is still in existence but now rather smart and expensive. Eventually we found a pleasant place for lunch near the birthplace of Victor Hugo and the home of the Lumière brothers. It was in the shade and so long as you ignored the fumes and noise from passing vehicles in the narrow street, it was quite pleasant. The plat du jour was excellent – chicken in white wine with herb potatoes and salad. It sounds more exciting in French of course but it was well cooked and served by a friendly waiter.
After that we discovered everywhere still closes for two hours at lunch time! Even the major stores and all the museums, churches and council offices closed leaving us with nothing to do and no shade. In the parks all the shady seats were occupied by local shop workers and university students with their casse-croute (pic-nic). Eventually we whiled away the time with a beer watching a little boy chasing pigeons around the edge of an ornamental pond with a little fountain. The birds were all desperate for water but he had boundless energy despite the heat. He somehow managed not to fall in.
Behind us in the square were large posters calling people to protest against the recently introduced legislation halving the number of regions and reorganising them into fewer but far larger ones. Brittany stays unaltered but almost everywhere else has now changed. Thus Rouen and Caen, former capitals of Upper and Lower Normandy are now each responsible for different aspects of the greater region of Normany with Caen playing second fiddle to Rouen. Here in Franche Comte, the capital, Besançon, has become marginalised by Dijon, capital of Burgundy, and the region is now designated as Bourgoyne-Franche-Comte. Resentment runs high.
It was a pleasant enough time but too hot to enjoy anything. We struggled back up to the station to discover we had an hour and a half to wait for the return train! The station though was air conditioned with free wifi and a piano for anyone to play. Someone was whiling away the wait playing Scott Joplin piano rags.
Collecting Modestine we drove home through rural countryside, passing fields of heavy, golden, percheron horses with their blonde manes, and the brown and white Comte cattle, all sheltering as best they could beneath trees and hedges. Roland passed us in his big 4x4 tearing down the narrow road to Arc-et-Senens to buy a baguette for supper. He grinned and waved as he squeezed past us.
Overnight it rained!! The air was heavenly this morning and the temperature half what it had been yesterday! Now it is raining steadily and we cannot decide where best to go in a downpour! Humans are never satisfied. Given the choice though I will choose the wet in preference to the inferno of yesterday any time. Today the roads are soaked, there are puddles on the grass and the sky is grey and heavy with the promise of plenty more rain to come. I love it!!!
Friday 16th September 2016, Champagne-sur-Loue
Yesterday was a good 10 degrees cooler than Thursday had been and we woke to the sound of rain! The rain soon passed and with our increased energy levels we decided to drive out and potter the back streets of Poligny beyond Arbois. We have always loved the town and on each visit we discover things we’d not noticed before. The mainly 17th century buildings along the main street have wonderfully carved and decorated doors barring the main entrance and there are several spectacular fountains that previously supplied the residents with water. The town has a school dedicated to the teaching of dairy production, an essential part of the local culture which depends almost entirely on cheese, wine and wood. There is also of course a school teaching about wood – building construction, carving etc. The most interesting though for me yesterday was a display about the study of wine production or viticulture. This embraces far more than producing and marketing a good quality wine and at an exhibition displayed in the Eglise des Jacobins I became completely engrossed in the geology of the region and how it affected the landscape making certain areas ideal for producing certain kinds of grape. Then there were the diseases to which the grape is vulnerable and how certain areas and soils seem more resistant to disease than others. While Arbois and Poligny continue to thrive as wine producing areas for example, the vines have gone from around Salins, where they succumbed to disease. Photos showed vines covering hillsides around Salins where now they have completely disappeared.
At the bottom of the main street we heard a loud hubbub of voices coming from the bar/restaurant. Otherwise the town seemed very quiet at lunch-time. Ian was feeling hungry so we investigated. The room was packed with workmen covered in paint, plaster or oil depending on their trade. There were also a few women but the clientele was primarily local tradesmen and ouvriers taking a two hour lunch break with a jug of wine on every table. The staff knew them all and put out their wine as they arrived. We asked if we could also eat there and were shown to a table in the corner- the only unoccupied places. It was a great place for people watching and there was a delightful, friendly atmosphere with people calling across the room to each other while the two waitresses efficiently managed to feed some forty people their three course meal with coffee. There was no choice. You had what you were given. We were served paté en croute (sort of pork pie with finesse) accompanied by dressed salad. This was followed by two pieces of tender pork braised in a herb gravy served with French fries, peas and carrots. Then came fruit crumble or lemon cream tart, or a selection of local cheeses – Morbier, Comte, Rebluchon, Bleu de Gex – or soft cheese such as Concoiotte or Petit Suisse. Finally came coffee. This banquet cost each person 11 euros or just over £9. I had to forgo cheese and desert as I was just too full and we couldn’t eat a thing for the rest of the day. So much for the British politicians claiming the EU is the cause of high food prices in Britain. Don’t believe them. Price and quality are both better here. We know, generally we are self catering and are aware of food prices both here and back home.
Having explored the back streets and visited the wine exhibition in the church we decided to give the cheese museum a miss as we have seen it before. It started to rain so we made our way back towards “home”. Ian suggested we continue to Quingey where we indulged in another coffee outside the PMU (licensed betting pub) under umbrellas in the rain. By the time we finally got home, still too full to want supper, I was fit only to go to bed where I slept for 12 hours. I think Ian slept for about half that time. He was at the kitchen table working on his computer when I went to bed and that is where I found him this morning.
This morning Hugues arrived having taken a day off work to help his parents. They all disappeared for lunch with family members over in Buffard and as the rain had stopped we drove off to take a nostalgic look at the source of the river Lison near Nans-sous-Ste Anne. It’s a fair drive away but up pretty, steep, winding roads offering spectacular views of the hills and deep valleys around Salins until we were up onto a higher level of the Jurassic plateau.
We have been back to Nans and the Lison on every visit and never tire of their bucolic charm. It is usually deserted and apart from a couple of other vehicles on the winding roads it was much the same today. France is such an empty country. The people can have little idea of just how crowded and congested our roads are in Britain. France is a mainly rural country and outside of the larger towns and cities life is lived at an altogether slower pace. In the villages around here the technology revolution has largely passed the population by. Here in our flat we have no access to a radio, the TV doesn’t seem to work and neither Susanne nor Roland have any idea of how to fix a digital TV. They told us they’d ask Hugues, but he is always too busy. It was like it last year and still nobody has managed to fix it. I don’t think anyone except possibly the mayor has internet access and neither of our mobile phones will work. So we have renounced the outside world and become part of the rural French population who know little of what happens in their own country beyond the limits of their commune!
Walking around the village this morning we met Collette whom we have not seen for a couple of years. She was walking her husband’s hunting dog and greeted us very cheerfully as if it were only last week we’d chatted. She says that after living here for 12 years, since retiring from her job in Paris, she is only now coming to terms with life in the French countryside. She complains that she never sees her husband because either it is the fishing season and he is somewhere on the riverbank with his rod or it is the hunting season and he is up in the woods with his gun. Which reminds me that I sat in the garden recently sipping my coffee and listening to the sounds of the countryside. Bees were still humming amongst Susanne’s roses, cattle were mooing peacefully in the meadows beside the Loue, the hunting dogs chained up at the door of the barn next door were howling and from the woods up on the Clos came the constant sound of gunfire as Collette’s husband and friends chased a wild boar from amongst the vines. We are actually too scared of being shot to go for walks up there now!
Tuesday 20th September 2016, Vichy, Auverne
We left our friends in Champagne with reluctance on Sunday. It was pouring relentlessly with rain all day. Hugues gave us another truffle found by Izoe as a leaving present and Roland dragged himself from his rest to wave us farewell. He is looking rather tired and fragile nowadays but still managed some of his sparkle to send us on our way.
Throughout the day we drove along deserted roads through the relentless rain. Actually it was rather pleasant. Lorries are banned from the roads on Sundays and everyone else was sheltering in their houses from the deluge. Passing through a village we found possibly the only bakery in France still open at around 1.30pm. We parked up and made ourselves ham baguettes and coffee before continuing to Mâcon, a town previously unknown to us on the banks of the Sôane where we left Modestine and hurried off with our umbrellas to find the Musée in the Couvent des Ursulines.
It was open free of charge as part of the Journée du Patrimoine. Leaving our brollies on a growing pile in a large puddle on the entrance floor we spent a very agreeable afternoon learning about the local poet and political champion Albert de Lamartine.
There were also collections of local furnishings, rural painting, pottery, local archaeology, the local wine industry and viticulture. The museum has a specially made wooden bookcase in which to house the town’s copy of the texts and illustrations of Napoléon’s campaign in Egypt around 1798. (And to think there was a complete set of these in the Exeter local studies library which, after Ian had retired, was unrecognised as of any value by staff who disposed of the text volumes! The illustrations volumes have now lost much of their value without the descriptive text!
Eventually we were thrown out as staff wanted to go home. We waded through a now sizeable puddle inside the entrance to retrieve our brollies amidst those of other visitors and returned back into the rain along with those Mâcon residents who had ventured from their homes on such an afternoon. Returning down to the riverside to rejoin Modestine we passed the Musée Lamartine housed in the impressive Hôtel Senécé.
Much of the documentation had been transferred to the Couvent des Ursulines so we had already seen some. Neither of us is familiar with his writings. He was a poet born in Mâcon. He was also a Politician, and a supporter of the anti-slavery movement. He wrote a biography of Tousaints Louverture, a black military leader from Haiti who was imprisoned in the Chateau Joux on the French-Swiss border until he died there in 1803.
We found a campsite beyond the town, located on a lake. On a wet evening it did not look inspiring but turned out to be okay. We shared it with a contingent of Bulgarian grape harvesters who were housed there every September as they were brought over to gather the grapes for the Mâcon wine.
Next morning the sun was back but the weather far cooler than previously. We walked around the lake before leaving. It was beautiful. The nearby TGV line had trains speeding past every few minutes and sounding like aircraft taking off. The previous evening we’d wondered whether we were near the Mâcon airport. Obviously we were mistaken.
Passing a fisherman we noticed his line suddenly bend violently. We stopped to watch as he played his fish, gradually reeling it in. Soon it was splashing and flipping until he netted it and hauled it up the bank. It was a huge carp. He reckoned it was around 10 kilos. Having photographed him with it he then returned it to the lake. Probably carp are inedible but he said he caught the fish for the sport alone.