Besancon and around

Sunday 4th September 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue
Yet another hot day. In the morning Hugues and Thibault arrived from Dole to make themselves useful around Roland’s little domain. He has buildings, and fields scattered around Champagne, including a couple of vineyards. He had dragged wooden barrels out of the cave into the garden to clean them ready for the grape harvest in a week or so and Hugues had come to inspect the vines. They took us up to Roland’s plantations on the hillside above Champagne where Hugues showed us the different varieties of grapes and examined the newer vines that had only been planted a year or two and were bearing their first bunches of grapes. He could visually differentiate Trousseau from Pinot and Poulsard, and Chardonnay from Savagnin by the shape of the leaves and the way the bunches formed, but they all looked the same to us. They tasted wonderfully sweet and were declared ready for harvesting. We also helped to gather the final few peaches, but generally the fruits were disappointing this year – no plums, apples or pears as insects had ravaged the buds.

In the vineyard

It was already hot in the vineyards and the heat continued to increase as we drove in the afternoon to a vide grenier (jumble-cum-car boot sale) at the nearby village of Pagnoz. Stalls were set out along the village streets and up into the meadow above, piled high with old toys, children’s books and assorted bric-a –brac, all in aid of the restoration of the local castle which it was too hot for us to climb up to see. We had been attracted to the sale by the announcement that the Pudding Théâtre were going to be present but they seemed to be little more than two stallholders sitting in coffins amongst a motley collection of unlikely goods who hurled ribald comments at passers-by through megaphones. We purchased a couple of books by Marcel Aymé, whose birthplace we had visited the day before and, it being too hot to poke through the stalls any longer we made out way to Port Lesney where we found shade beneath the trees, bathed in the River Loue and read our purchases. As evidence of how hot it has been, the LCD of Jill’s watch, left in the car while she swam, actually melted! The keeper of the local campsite took a strong liking to Modestine. He was a retired mechanic and said that, if he were younger, he would take photographs and set up in competition for the French market.

Monday 5th September 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue
A marginally overcast day, promising rain so we decided that it was time at last to visit the city of Besançon, some 20kms from here. With 130,000 inhabitants it is the capital of Franche-Comté and is strikingly situated on a horseshoe bend of the River Doubs. It is dominated by a high rock on which Vauban constructed the Citadelle, one of his military engineering masterpieces. Besançon has been an important centre since Roman times, indeed the Porte Noir, a triumphal arch erected in the second century still straddles the end of the Grande Rue, just before it rises past the Cathedral, up to the Citadelle.

It is a lively and interesting city, which was once notable for its clockmaking industry, the riverside fronted by rows of arcaded late 17th century houses and the streets filled with grand buildings, often with polychrome tiled roofs. In one square we could stand on a single spot and photograph the birthplace of Victor Hugo, one of France’s greatest writers, the birthplace of the Lumière brothers, the pioneers of cinema in the 1890s and the birthplace of Charles Nodier (1780-1844), the romantic poet, Hugo’s friend and librarian at the important Arsenal Library in Paris. Another square is romantically set out with fragments of Roman remains unearthed from Vesontium in the 19th century by the archaeologist Castan. With the museums and libraries there is certainly more than enough to fill another day.

Victor Hugo’s birthplace

The birthplace of the Lumière brothers

The cathedral in Besançon

Today’s visit was tinged with a certain degree of sadness. Since we were last here our friend Alain, librarian of the university of Besançon has died and we were aware of a sense of loss.

We found our favourite eating place, Au Petit Polonais, named after a Polish immigrant who had established it in 1870. It had been in the same hands since the 1970s when we had first frequented it, then a lively student haunt with red check tablecloths. It was rather more sedate over lunchtime today, but certainly not devoid of colourful clients who added a curious amusement to our lunch there. (So we are counting our Comtois salad and red wine as our second frivolous expense, courtesy of the local history societies in Devon. Thank you.)

The Citadelle houses a range of places of interest within it defences. Apart from the walk around the ramparts with spectacular views over the river and town 100 meters below, there is a small zoo, a museum of Comtois life, information on Vauban and the Museum of the French Resistance and Deportation. It was to this that we made our way, after enquiring at the entrance gate that it would be possible to visit the documentation centre in pursuit of a local Resistance member. When we arrived twenty minutes later we found that the three staff had all been beavering around and had come up with several items of information. They declined our offer to pay for photocopies and even offered to lend us one of the books to read at our leisure. An excellent service, which it would be hard to better back home. More of our findings at a later date. We gained additional background by looking round the twenty rooms of the museum itself – a detailed and often harrowing collection of photographs, posters and documents tracing the rise of Nazism, the defeat and partition of France, collaboration, resistance, deportation and the final victory. There was much material on the concentration camps where many French people ended up, and touching final letters to family and friends from people about to be executed. Much happened close to home rather than in Germany. More than one hundred resistance fighters were executed by firing squad in the Citadelle of Besançon following intense activity, including hundreds of attacks on local railway lines, canal locks, factories and other strategic targets.

A view from the Citadel ramparts

Interlude – a local hero
There are not many names on the war memorial at Champagne – nor would one expect there to be from a community of little more than one hundred people. There is one from the 1870-71 war, four from the 1914-18 war and three from the 1939-45 war. The inclusion of Abbé Couteret Germain [sic] among the last intrigued us - how come that a local priest lost his life? We were even more intrigued when, cycling back from Quingey, we noticed on the wall of a house in the village of Lombard a plaque reading “Here was born Abbé G. Coutteret 2 November 1902. He died in deportation 3 May 1945 for acts of resistance.” We asked Suzanne if she knew anything about him and he was certainly remembered locally as the curé at Buffard, just across the river from Champagne, who was arrested after officiating at a service. She thought he had helped a parachutist. Searches at libraries in Arbois and Salins, who have small sections on the local resistance, revealed nothing, so we decided to pursue enquiries at the documentation centre at the Museum of the Resistance in Besançon.

The plaque in Lombard

The war memorial in Champagne

It transpired that Germain Coutteret had a calling as a priest at an early age and entered the seminary at Besançon at the age of twelve. In 1941 he was appointed curé at Buffard and, being himself from local peasant stock he easily fell into the role of providing pastoral care to his country parishioners. In 1943 air raids by the allies increased and numerous pilots who had been shot down sought help from the Resistance. The demarcation line between Vichy France and the German occupied zone ran just a few kilometres to the south and neutral Switzerland was not far away, so activity in this area was particularly intense. So when a parishioner requested help to disguise an American pilot, the curate gave her one of his cassocks. Unfortunately the pilot was captured, the woman interrogated and, under torture by the Gestapo, revealed the name of Germain Coutteret, who was arrested on 31 August 1943. A long period of suffering followed. He was held captive at La Butte in Besançon, then at Compiègne and Fort St. Denis before being sent to Germany. After deportation he went first to Neuengamme and then to Fallersleben. Unusually, the reports of several companions survive. He was known to them as Germaine and continuously exercised his priestly role, comforting, consoling, giving absolution. One of his comrades reports: “We only had very little food each day, just enough to prevent us from dying too quickly, and yet Germain gave a large part of his ration to sustain his companions. He often took the place of a weak detainee to give him respite.” Clement Vanhoutte gives a moving description of receiving Easter communion early in April 1945 and quotes extracts from a diary which was laboriously maintained in pencil, giving an account of his spiritual struggles.

In April 1945 the pace of events quickened. The Germans decided to remove the detainees in trucks containing 120 to 140 men each. After seven days and seven nights of torment the train arrived at Woblin on 15 April 1945. Although suffering from pleurisy Germain forgot his illness and used his remaining strength to help those that he called his brothers. On 3 May having learned of the news of the arrival of the liberators, he breathed his last.

His life was remembered at his native village of Lombard on 25 April 2004 when a square in the village was named after him and a plaque was fixed to the house where he was born.

Kern, Paul, Les jours de notre mémoire (1940-1945) Neuengamme (La Pensée Universelle, 1975).
Vanhoutte, Clement “Qui était donc l’Abbé Germain Coutteret?” Reflet Comtois (avril 2003), 3, 13.
Devillard, René “L’Abbé Germain Coutteret: victime de son dévouement” L’Est Républican, (22 avril 2004).

Tuesday 6th September 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue
When Francoise and Eugene visited us here a week or so ago - time ceases to be precise when one can please oneself each day and the only time displayed on one’s watch is a black blob of melted LCD! – we arranged to visit them with Suzanne when she returned from Brittany. So today the three of us drove up high above Salins, through Nans-sous-Ste. Anne to their home in Amancey where we had been invited for lunch. Francoise used to teach the domestic skills of cookery and needlework to the pupils at Champagne and became a good friend to Jill when she was there. She was always warm natured and very slightly eccentric. In this respect she has not changed at all and her husband is a perfect match.

Their home is chaotic being in the centre of a large overgrown orchard on the edge of the village, surrounded by their huge barns and hangers crammed full of bits of farm machinery, dilapidated caravans, trailers, builder’s rubble, thousands of stacked tiles, and old, rotten timber. The large vegetable garden is filled with ripe tomatoes, leeks, parsley, haricot beans and carrots. Flowers run riot amongst them - hollyhocks, marigolds, geraniums and dahlias (these last, Eugene complained, are being destroyed by ferrets who for some reason love them!) A vine, heavy with grapes covers the entire crumbling façade of the house and a dozen wellies stand upside down on poles under the plum trees (drying out after their son Flavien, a fireman in Paris, brought home a crowd of friends over the weekend to go potholing in the caves to be found everywhere around here). Around the huge, rambling, overgrown garden, thick with nettles, elderberry bushes, walnut trees, and brambles, domesticated chickens, rabbits, doves and pigeons co-existed, awaiting their turn to eventually reach the cooking pot. Francoise gathered up eggs in a basket from odd corners of the garden as we made our tour of inspection and we helped with feeding the dozens of caged rabbits reared for food. This year, a new venture, beekeeping, with 80 kilos of honey produced.

In the orchard

Feeding the rabbits

Eugene hunts every day during the season and stockpiles his game in the freezer for the winter months which can be very hard in the mountains. Hunting here is nothing like hunting in England and is done on foot with a dog. Eugene’s seems far too docile for such an activity and is called Tintin. A good dog will easily fetch £600! So long as one has a license to hunt anything is allowed it seems. On a bad day he will bring home nothing but a couple of thrushes, a grouse or a partridge. On a better day Francoise will have to skin, clean and quarter a wild pig or a mountain goat.

Inside, the house is bursting with character. Eugene courteously removed his rifle from the chair beneath the crucifix so Ian could sit down. On the opposite wall hung another gun, two stags heads, an assortment of hunting horns and a fishing basket. As town dwellers, this all strikes us as astonishing, which is why we repeat it now, but it must be recognised that it is a completely different way of life here and to them it is us who are slightly strange and rather colourful! Francoise used to work in an orphanage in French Gabon. Here she cooked the local produce for the children. This included wild monkeys. On our last visit, amongst the half dozen bottles of home produced wine and eau-de-vie on the table at the end of our meal, she casually placed a bottle containing a pickled uterine ape she had discovered one day inside the stomach of the lunch she’s been preparing and had kept as a souvenir.

Today was tame by comparison. We ate a superb lunch where absolutely nothing came from a supermarket. (No such thing 600 metres high in Franche Comte!) Only the bread, cream and cheese were not home made and even they came from within the village. We started with aubergine pate, followed with stuffed tomatoes and hardboiled eggs in homemade dressing and then came the main course. (Vegetarians can skip this bit.) The most beautiful, tender and succulent meat we have ever tasted. Wild sanglier, the result of a recent foray on the hills above the house. This was accompanied by haricot beans picked within the hour from the garden. To follow, a platter of local cheeses and finally fresh raspberries completely smothered by chantilly cream. Each course brought yet more bottles onto the table. Jill was driving so had to be content with home-produced apple juice, but Ian and Eugene sampled everything from home produced wines to eau-de-vie produced from their own pears. Conversation was fast and furious and as usual Francoise and Eugene held different conversations simultaneously with us. Our brains were straining to follow half of what was said to us on topics as diverse as the German officers quartered with Eugene’s family during the war, the “imbecility” of officials trying to implement hunting regulations, the spate of fires in Paris that is keeping Flavien so busy and the lack of fruit this year as a result of infestations of insects and the ravages of birds – at this point Eugene got up from the table, picked up his gun and rushed into the garden to stop them eating his grapes. Their way of life is as different from ours as it could possibly be, but their sense of goodwill and friendship is completely sincere and we feel very privileged to have experienced such genuine hospitality.

After the meal

Francoise gave us a newspaper cutting from their local paper that she had seen by chance. It showed both of us taking part in the Morbier cheese-making session at Nans-sous-Ste Annes recently. We had no idea it had been taken but she had recognised us from the photo.

All good things come to an end eventually. Having bought several jars of their honey as presents for friends, we were about to leave when the storm that had been threatening for days arrived with a violent wind, crashing thunder and lightening. Within seconds everywhere was a river of water. Impossible to leave until it eased. The worst was the swirling force of the wind! I could never have controlled Modestine on the mountain roads in the near darkness produced by the storm clouds.

Eventually it eased and we made a run to the car. The roads, right the way down the mountains were completely covered in greenery and branches torn from the trees and there were a number of rocks washed down from the banks. Until the storm the roads had been baked relentlessly by the sun. Now steam rose up in clouds ahead of us, and, most amazing of all, crevices in the rocks by the roadside, and in the surrounding fields were white with hailstones that had fallen in such profusion they lay in frozen drifts around us! This remember, is two days after Jill’s watch melted from the heat!

The roads were completely deserted as we made our way gingerly down to Salins-les-Bains and home to Champagne. Here there has been heavy rain, but nothing like the storm up at Amancey.

Wednesday 7th September 2005
We didn’t manage to leave for Germany today. Problems in getting access to the internet delayed our departure, so this afternoon we visited the Grotte d’Osselle, pleasantly situated on the banks of the Doubs about 10 KM north of Champagne. They are among the largest networks of limestone caves in the Jura with more than 1300 metres open to the general public, and they have been known since the Middle Ages, being on the regular tourist route since 1504. There have been wild theories as to their origins in the past, but one of the scientists who undertook serious research on them was the geologist William Buckland who excavated the skeletons of cave bears in the 1820s which he promptly removed to the British Museum. An interesting link with Devon, as he also worked on fossils on the Devon and Dorset Jurassic Coast at about the same time. Beside the normal displays of stalactites and stalagmites, many beautifully coloured by trace elements in the limestone rocks, we saw caverns where priest had taken refuge during the French revolution and where banquets were held in the 18th century, one of the visitors being Voltaire. At about that time a bridge was constructed over the underground river, which fortunately for us, now flows through caves at a lowerlevel than in previous times. The stones had to be dragged more than a kilometre from the cave entrance.

Part of the Haas mineral collection

Limestone formations in the caves

The skeleton of a cave bear, found in 1970

The bridge over the underground river, built in the 1750s