Poligny and elsewhere

Friday 26th August 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue

Thursday had been a day incessant rain with reports of severe floods across Europe. For us it was a day to rest and recovery with some French exercise in the evening coping with La Fille du Puisier, an excellent but dated film by Marcel Pagnol.

On Friday we drove the 25 Km south to Poligny, in medieval times the capital of Franche Comté. In 1638 it was taken and burned under the orders of Richelieu. At that time much havoc was wrought in the region by the Swedish troops allied to France under the leadership of Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar, which gave rise to the local expression “mauvais comme Weimar” – best not mentioned when we visit Weimar next month. Many of the houses which lined the Grande Rue are of the eighteenth century with elaborately carved doors in classical style. Among them is the Convent of the Ursulines with its arcaded courtyard, established in the 1680s to teach the girls of Poligny to be dutiful housewives.

The Ursuline convent in Poligny

Friday is market day in the Place des Deportés, not a very grand affair, a modest series of stands with local foodstuffs. We noticed a stall with a wide variety of smoked sausages made of an exotic variety of the local and not so local fauna, including bison, ostriches and even donkey! We took a coffee on a pavement terrace in the sunshine, the Croix du Dan looking down from the top of the limestone cliffs that dominate the town – like Arbois and several other towns, Poligny lies at the entrance of a reculée or blind valley, hollowed out from the limestone rocks by rivers.

Market day

We visited the gothic Collegiate Church of Saint Hippolyte which contains an excellent series of 15th century sculptures, several in polychrome alabaster, by local sculptors who worked for the dukes. They included not only saints but notable persons of the period, including Jean Chousat, the founder of the church, complete with his falcon. There was also a series of 1890s stained glass windows of events in the life of Saint Colette who founded the convent of the poor Clares, located just behind the church, in 1415. She was a very busy lady, reinvigorating the order of St. Francis of Assisi and establishing some thirty convents across France and Germany, including places such as Beziers which we hope to visit later in our travels. Despite all this activity she was only canonised in 1804 and a gold casket holds her relics in the convent where she died.

Collegiate Church of Saint Hippolyte

15th century carved reredos in the church

We joined four local people for a guided visit to the pharmacy in the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital set up in 1681 by a religious order, just after Franche-Comté became part of France. The walls were lined with elegantly carved wooden shelving which contained row upon row of ceramic containers, all of them produced by local potteries. They were decorated with floral motifs green, yellow, blue and mauve and labelled in French with the names of their contents. As we were a small group our enthusiastic guide took examples off the shelves to show them more closely, opened some of the drawers which still contained fragile heaps of herbs. She even ventured to open one of the cupboards, apparently for the first time, and was astonished to discover a collection of early books on pharmacy, some dating from the 1680s when the hospital had just been established, complete with copper line engravings showing the different types of apparatus used in preparing medicines.

The pharmacy in the Hôtel-Dieu

In the evening there was an opportunity to climb the tower of Saint Hippolyte where we joined a steeplejack who acted as guide and a family who seemed to be friends of his. With Ian’s fear of heights he never knows why he goes in for such ventures. In this case a short spiral staircase led out into the wide and lofty main body of the square tower, up which a series of flights of narrow and uneven wooden stairs ascended, clinging to the walls and opening onto the cavernous void below. This brought us out above the vaulted ceiling of the main nave and below the roof. We were able to see the holes through which chandeliers could be lowered in the days before electric lighting. Then up another spiral staircase and we emerged some fifty-five metres above the streets of the town, separated only by a low railing from the mosaic of red tiled roofs below us. Our guide pointed out the defensive towers of the city, several now incorporated into more extensive buildings, and the site of the former castle, demolished in the 17th century, its stone being used for buildings such as the Hôtel-Dieu. There were also many former monastic buildings scattered across the town. On our way down we visited the large wrought-iron turret clock which used to control the bells. We had seen the massive weights hanging some thirty metres below as we climbed, and each week it took five-hundred turns of the winding gear to wind the four movements. Small wonder it is now disused. The dusty belfry contained three main bells and a carillon of forty smaller ones. We were puzzled when our guide told us that the bells were inscribed with the names of the godparents, but he explained that these were the individuals who had provided the money for the casting and hanging of the bells. Our guide and his friend climbed onto the cradle from which one of the bells hung and see-sawed until it started to ring. From such close proximity it was deafening! Then Jill was offered the chance of operating the carillon. As she is not at all musical, the long-suffering people of Poligny were treated to a cacophony of sound for a few minutes as Jill attempted to ring out God Save the Queen! We imagined them looking up, fingers in their ears, shaking their heads and saying “Not another guided tour of the tower!” (or even – “il y a quelquechose qui cloche!”)

Staircase inside the church tower

View onto Poligny from the top of the tower

The turret clock

Quasimodo in action!

What a carillon!

One of the convents pointed out to us was the Couvent des Jacobins, originally a wonderful 14th century church in a simple gothic style, but now in a sorry state of repair and converted into a temple of Bacchus, as the local winegrowers co-operative had used it as a store and showroom since 1905. Huge barrels had replaced the pews and grubby baroque cherubs peered out over the tops of the racks of wine.

More than enough communion wine!

Our final stop in a varied day was an old garage we noticed just before rejoining Modestine. It contained a collection of a couple of dozen vintage motor cars which the good humoured and enthusiastic owner was only too willing to leave his glass of wine to show us. They were mainly Peugeot, Renault and Citroën cars dating from the 1920s to the 1950s, but there was also a Ford Model T whose chassis was imported in the 1920s and converted by boat builders in Bordeaux who had provided it with polished wooden bodywork. We said that in some ways it paralleled Modestine, whose Citroën Berlingo chassis had been imported and converted on the Isle of Wight. He asked us to collect Modestine and he then examined the only vehicle in our collection with great interest before we finally set off back to Champagne.

Specially for Dick and Marlies who crossed the Andes in an Austin 7!

Saturday 27th August 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue
Today was the annual Concours de Chevaux in Salins with dozens of farmers arriving in the town with trailers carrying beautiful Comtois horses, strong, sturdy, animals with straw-coloured manes and tails, their short-legged bodies a rich golden-brown. The horses seemed to enjoy the day as much as the rest of us, whinnying with delight as they were unloaded and tied to nearby railings with their fellows while their owners busied themselves in varnishing their hooves, brushing their tails and plating their manes. The sun shone, everyone was happy and all the local kids enjoyed endless free rides. There were maybe a hundred horses and foals being put through their paces and tensions ran high amongst their owners.

Lunch, understatedly termed a “casse-croute champêtre” or country picnic, struck us as most extraordinary, being a full menu of terrine forestier with crudités followed by a main course of boiled ham and potatoes in a béchamel sauce. Then came fromage du Comté with a huge slice of cream gateau to follow. This was provided for a couple of hundred people from a camp kitchen on the back of a trailer and served, with napkins and wine, at folding benches and tables under a marquee at the edge of the arena. Needless to say, there was also a van dispensing wine and beer.

Comtois horses at the show

The mane attraction!

Salins is apparently one of the only towns of any size in the Jura that lies in a valley with an exit at either end. Most towns lie at the entrances of blind valleys, or reculés, formed by water erosion on the jurassic limestone. Either side of the town is dominated by very steep hillsides on top of which are a couple of defensive forts. During the afternoon, deciding we needed the exercise more than Modestine, we left her down in the town and climbed the steep, unfrequented footpath 300 meters up the hillside to the Fort St. André. The other, Fort Belin is a nineteenth-century construction, but our destination was one of Vauban’s masterpieces, constructed in 1674 during the final conquest of Franche Comté by France and containing one of the only chapels he designed. Perhaps the greatest military architect of his day, Vauban undertook much work in this frontier region, including the citadel at Besançon and the fortifications at Belfort. It replaced a series of earlier fortifications which had crowned this strategic summit. The various buildings inside still bore their 19th-century labels: prison, guard-room and so on, but were now dedicated to more peaceful pursuits, the barrack blocks being converted to holiday apartments by the current owner while a horse and two donkeys grazed the grassed area inside the fortifications. The views of the town and across the hills westward to the Bresse plain were well worth the struggle up the hill. We left through the massive gateway which bore the Sun King Louis XIV’s boastful motto Nec pluribus impar and, forsaking the footpath, returned to Modestine along the road through pleasantly undulating countryside.

Salins-les-Bains from the Fort St. André

Sunday 28th August 2005, Champagne-sur-Loue
At ten in the morning Rollski Loue, a friendly race for roller bladders, started from Port Lesney to cover the 20 Km to Quingey. We rode our bikes to a road junction in the middle of the fields where we would have a good long view of them approaching. A friendly marshal told us that there were 170 participants including national champions, the eldest of them 80 years old. They set off in two batches, one for competitors on roller skis with sticks and the other for roller blades. They passed us at a great rate of knots in their colourful lycra costumes and helmets, making us feel very unfit. We spent the rest of the morning on a leisurely ride around the village.

Rollski Loue

Jill contemplating on the Loue

Champagne from the bridge

At lunch-time Hugues, the son of our friends Roland and Suzanne called to see us with his son Thibaut having spent the morning working in the family vineyard above the village. They presented us with a bag of peaches fresh gathered from the trees surrounding the vines. Hugues also owns a plantation of poplar trees on the banks of the Loue, which he planted sixteen years ago when Thibaut was born. These will be felled shortly to provide packaging for the French camembert you buy in your local supermarket!

Hugues poplars heavy with mistletoe

In the afternoon the prospect of eighty hot air balloons all ascending at the same time as a finale to the 31st French championship for Montgolfières drew us to a free air display at Thise airport just outside Besançon. We joined crowds of other people braving the sun, and apparently indifferent to the lack of facilities. We found some welcome shade beneath the wings of one of the light aircraft from where we could watch all those magnificent men in their flying machines. Many were what would be expected on such an occasion: breathtaking aerobatics from small planes, fly-pasts of early warplanes, a parachute jump by a team which formed a stack in the sky, demonstrations by gliders. There was even a French version of the Red Arrows - six blue jet planes flying in formation and trailing smoke. But the most remarkable event of the afternoon was Christian Moullec and his twelve geese! They certainly lived up to the programme’s description of “quelquechose hors du commun”. His microlite flew round the airfields accompanied by the geese, who had adopted him as a squadron leader. They followed him in close formation as he circled and dived, taking up the V-formation of migrating birds. Truly a bird-man with a difference and greeted with warm applause by the French audience who are generally more used to taking pot-shots at anything with feathers and wings. In the end there were no Montgolfiers. The ascent was called off at last minute as ground level winds were too high to allow them to spread out the fabric for inflation. Nobody seemed bothered and everyone had had a grand day out.

Those magnificent geese with their flying machine

Monday 29th August 2005 Champagne-sur-Loue
This morning threatened to be another scorching hot day so we headed for the cool river valleys higher in the Jura hills. By 9.30a.m.we were some 60km from Champagne scrambling steeply along slippery paths through cool woodland in the valley of the Hérisson (hedgehog – although etymologists claim more prosaically that it derives from words meaning sacred water) with its series of 36 stunning cascades or waterfalls. The most spectacular, the Eventail falls in a beautiful fan shape some 65 metres to break in cool spray on the grey rocks below before continuing to tumble along the shallow river-bed through the leafy woods. A slippery climb took us to the Grotte Lacuzon, currently a huge dry cave but in winter it becomes the mouth of another cascade. It is named after the leader who resisted the French in the 17th century and had his headquarters there. The path then passed behind the Grand Saut, 60 metres of white water soaking us in a misty spray as it hurtled past to join the river below. From here we clambered upwards for a further 3 km, the sound of falling water ever present, passing numerous smaller rapids until we reached the highest cascade, Le Saut Girard (coucou G, C, et E.) a mere 35 metres. Wherever the sun penetrated through it was glaringly bright but deep within the forest crowding the river to either side, it was wonderfully cool and damp, though dangerously slippery and muddy – as the seat of Jill’s shorts can testify! It’s a little disheartening to discover road access at the top, but at least it ensured we could enjoy ham baguettes and coffee before starting the 2 hour descent, which was actually more difficult than climbing up had been.

L’Eventail (Fan)

The Hérisson above the Eventail

Grotte Lacuzon

Le Grand Saut

Jill behind Le Grand Saut

Le Saut de la Forge

Le Gour Bleu

Le Saut Girard

As usual Modestine has been attracting attention, this time from a group of Spaniards. We’ve also had a Dutch couple who have taken details of the Romahome company as they are now desperate to buy one! We’ve taken to just leaving the door open if we are around and letting people to go in and look round.

The Hérisson lies in the Région des Lacs near Lons-le-Saunier. There are a number of breathtakingly beautiful pale green, clear lakes surrounded by dark green forests right to the water’s edge. The Hérisson itself is fed by the Lac de Bonlieu and nearby we stopped to enjoy the silent tranquillity of the Lac du Val.

Lac du Val

Couldn’t resist a second view!

Jill was by this time, desperate for a swim. The waters looked so inviting but with the surrounding reeds they were quite inaccessible. Fortunately we discovered Lac Chalain nearby where Jill enjoyed the most perfect pool she’s ever used – it certainly has the edge on St. Lukes at Exeter University. Even here though, Ian could not be persuaded to get even his feet wet!

Lac Chalain

Pausing on our way home in Lons-le-Saunier, the administrative capital of the Jura region, we discovered a statue to Rouget de Lisle in a very flamboyant and patriotic pose. He was born in the town and in 1792 was the author and composer of the Marseillaise, which of course was later adopted as the French national anthem.

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrive!

Even this evening back in Champagne, it has been so warm we sat drinking wine and eating supper by candlelight in the garden at 9.30, the rest of the village completely silent, as seems the case with most French villages after dusk. The stars were bright and in the woods on the hill behind the chateau, owls could be heard.