Glynis Shaw of French Connections provies a personal first hand account of a recent 4 day visit to the Franche-Comte region in Eastern France, where you can discover an unspoilt region with fascinating history and delicious cuisine.
The Journey to Franche Comte
Arriving at Ebbsfleet for the 9.38am Eurostar train to Paris, we had an hour or so to kill before its arrival. There is little to do at Ebbsfleet International other than relax in the cafe with a cup of coffee or go through customs to the departure lounge where there is a further cafe and WH Smith. The departure lounge is relatively comfortable, spacious and clean with seating overlooking the railway lines. It is possible to pre-book parking at Ebbsfleet and this is recommended. Depending on the time, your preferred point of Embarkation and the Eurostar schedule, you may start the journey at St Pancras or join the train at Ashford (more limited service).
Once on board Eurostar the train glides effortlessly through the Kent countryside towards the channel tunnel. From Ebbsfleet we were at the tunnel in 15 minutes, so in no time at all we were coasting through the Northern French countryside, enjoying the changing landscape as you whisk through the French departments to your chosen destination. We were heading for Gare du Nord in Paris where we were required to change and take the 2 stops on the Metro to Gare de Lyon.
In Paris we were met by Cecile Ambacher, the delightful Press Relations representative of the Franche Comte Regional Tourist Board, www.franche-comte.org. Cecile proved to be a delightful companion on our trip and a mine of information on places and activities in her region. She looked after our group exceptionally well during our 4 day trip to France Comte.
We had an hour to kill at Gare de Lyon before our connection, so we went in search of lunch in the form of a delicious baguette fromage and a gateaux. For me, station food in Paris tastes so much better than its counterpart in London! From Paris, we boarded the TGV train to Dijon Ville where we changed for Mouchard, a small pretty village in Doubs (25), one of the four departments in Franche Comte, the other 3 departments being Haute Saone (70), Territoire de Belfort (90) and Jura (39) .
Exploring Franche Comte
Our coach and driver was waiting for us at Mouchard and after loading our baggage into the coach we settled back to appreciate the countryside on route to our first hotel of the trip, in Arbois. The first problem we encountered was that due to an unexpected cycle race through the narrow country lanes in and around Dole, the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, we were required to sit and wait patiently for the cycle race to continue through the town. Eventually we were allowed to progress a further 50 meters which landed us squarely on a little bridge over a small river running through the town, but conveniently outside the home of Louis Pasteur, giving Cecile opportunity to point out this fact and give us further information on Dole itself. Louis Pasteur was born and raised in the Jura region and owned a vineyard near Arbois that is still producing wine today.
The city of Dole was at one time was the capital of Franche Comte when this region was independent from France during the 17th Century. Often referred to as 'the little Venice of the Jura' you can explore the river Doubs by boat, on foot or by cycle on the Eurovelaroute. Dole has a Gothic Basilica, where from the top of the clock tower, one can survey all of the Dole area, the Rhine-Rhone canal and the mysterious Foret de Chaux. There are gastro-restaurants in which to enjoy a meal and at the time of writing (2011), two are Michelin star rated. During the summer there are street theatre, concerts and parades to enjoy, plus traditional feast days, all of which breathe life into the tucked-away little side streets. Finally the cycle race dispersed and we were on our way.... only to be faced with a re-routing 5 minutes later as our coach with travellers and luggage was too heavy to take the bridge for the quickest route to our hotel!
Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Les Planches, Arbois in time for our first gourmet meal with wine tasting. Set within a valley, there are 16 rooms at Castel Damandre in total. We were greeted with aperitifs, starting with Cremant de Jura a delicious sparkling wine, which we drank under a canopy alongside a fast flowing river. At the rear of the hotel a waterfall cascades down to a little river (visible from the dining room) and tumbles alongside the hotel making the exterior an extremely attractive spot to relax and enjoy a glass of wine or two. At night the waterfall is lit adding to the magic. A choice of menu was presented. We started with Trout, followed by tender chicken cooked in local wine and both courses were a speciality of the region. Dessert was strawberries or chocolate gateaux served with dessert wine of the region.
Day 2 continued with a visit to the Valley des Planches and a guided tour of caves at Grotte des Planches. Under the guidance of the owner of the caves, we were able to wander through a level of galleries 250 metres beneath the Jura plateau, with easy access in the heart of a deep network displaying remarkable phenomena caused by erosion. The fossil gallery with its ochre-coloured rounded forms, is somewhat of an art gallery which has been polished over thousands of years by the course of water, resulting in the smooth, soft forms of the potholes, the only one of their kind in Europe. The active gallery, a jagged and imposing setting where the water is green, pure or fiery, creating a swirling world in which lakes alternate with waterfalls, depending on the weather!
This visit was swiftly followed by a visit to Poligny and the Comte Cheese house museum. Comte cheese is a thousand year old cheese and more Comte is produced than any of the other special cheeses that bear the AOC seal. (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) which guarantees that the cheese has been made in the French Jura Mountains, famous for its crisp air and its clean lush pastures.
Comte is still made according to traditional methods in small dairies called 'fruitieres'. The addition of artificial colouring, additives or chemicals is strictly forbidden. After months of care in cellars, Comte bring you all the natural flavours of the land where it is made. We were given the opportunity to sample both 21 month and 6 month cheeses. Certainly the quality of taste was exceptional and although the cheese can be bought further afield, tasting the cheese at source added to its flavour! There were many recipes on offer so that one can experiment with different ways of appreciating the cheese other than simply enjoying it with a glass of wine. For example try our recipe for Potato and Comte cheese tart.
Our last trip of the morning took us to the Abbey of Baume-les-Messieurs in the Jura lakes area. The shrine in the fifth century, enlarged in the ninth century, grew into a very famous Benedictine abbey. It was from there that Abbot Bernon and twelve monks departed in 909 to found the monastery at Cluny. The church, with its early Romanesque architecture reflecting the passage of centuries, has rich and varied sacred objects inside.
Lunch was taken at a pretty nearby village at the Restaurant des Grottes where once again we were treated to local fish and chicken dishes and accompanying wine. For the afternoon we had a walking tour of the Herisson Cascades. The Herisson river originates from the Saut Girard, which is fed by the waters of Lake Bonlieu and the Ilay Lakes. You can visit the 31 waterfalls and torrents of the Herisson on a 3 hour hike (7.4 km round trip, less for the faint hearted!) and be amazed by this fascinating valley. For almost 7 centuries, the Herisson Valley has been a place of intense activity. Humans first settled here to use the driving force of the water and the area's wealth of natural resources: hemp, iron ore, grain, wood, etc. You can see industrial remains along the length of the hike: they bear witness to the activity that lasted until the advent of electricity in the late nineteenth century. Our second night was spent at the Moulin des truites bleus, Fort-du-Plasne and dinner was at the Hotel du Bois Dormant.
Our 3rd day started at Salins-les-Bains - a traditional spa town in the Jura mountains. In Salins-les-Bains, the saltworks bear witness to a thousand years of salt extraction in the Franche Comte. Up until modern times, this was the second most important town after Besancon in the region. The religious and public buildings still show evidence of its splendid past. You can discover the 1200 year old history of salt and of its exploitation in the Franche Comte.
Lunch was in Ornans at the Hotel de France in the Vallee de la Loue and apart from fish and chicken options a smoked sausage dish was presented. The setting here was very pretty as the restaurant was nestled amongst the greenery and trees and majestic limestone cliffs. Alongside the restaurant a tumbling waterfall cascaded down to the river and although the fall was not so great at the time of our visit, one can imagine that after significant rainfall the cascade would look very impressive.
Our last evening was spent in Besancon at the newly refurbished and very modern Hotel de Paris. In the 18th century this hotel used to be a coaching inn called the “Hôtel de France” and became the “Hôtel de Paris” in 1855. From this prestigious location visitors can visit a remarkable range of monuments and museums. It is also the starting point for great walks in the historic town centre, hemmed in by the loop of the river Doubs.
Our final morning was spent up at La Citadelle in Besancon. To fully explore this site it is recommended that you allow a minimum of half a day, however, there are enough things to see and explore to keep you busy for a whole day. Constructed four hundred years ago, Vauban’s citadel still appears to keep a watchful eye over the city of Besançon today as it sits nestled within a loop of the river Doubs. With its huge walls and impressive architecture, the citadel is one element of the defence system Vauban designed as protection for the city of Besançon and as a symbol of the king’s power over the city and the province.
By midday we were heading for Viotte Besancon railway station to begin our journey home via TGV and Eurostar.
Franche Comte Key Facts
1.168,000 inhabitants (1.8% of the French population)
16,202 sq kilometres
4 departments within the region