Back to France

Saturday 1st September 2007, On board Barfleur crossing from Poole to Cherbourg

We were back in Devon for just a month. Time to see our children and a few friends and to bring the garden back under reasonable control. It was good to see our home again and to appreciate how lucky we are to have it there to return to. After four months squashed together in Modestine we suddenly had so much space we could spend our days almost without seeing each other - Ian digging up potatoes at the bottom of the garden and Jill sorting through cobweb covered baby equipment in the attic. Best of all though was having our own bathroom and the occasional chance to lounge in bed with an interesting book and a mug of tea in the morning.

We had intended to return to Champagne-sur-Loue on our way back from Eastern Europe and the Balkans but after our debit card troubles we were obliged to return more directly to Caen to collect our replacement cards. So we promised our friends Suzanne and Roland that we would return to help them with the grape harvest. Their personal vineyard is quite small and the wine produced is not sold commercially. For a few days in September therefore family and friends converge on the hillside above the village to gather in the grapes. We arranged to arrive in the Jura around 5th September, but Susanne phoned yesterday to say that because of the wet summer the grapes were rotting and would need gathering this weekend. So by the time we arrive it is likely that the first harvest will have finished. However, a second picking is expected in a week or so, as many grapes are not yet ready.

Geneviève also phoned to say we are expected for an extended family lunch on Sunday with a dozen or so guests. As usual she is hoping for good weather so we can eat in the garden. It will be good to see everyone again and especially to meet Ayden, the baby son of Lucas and Nisha born last April. (Lucas is Geneviève's nephew whom we have known since he was a baby himself, while Nisha is the daughter of Shirley and Nazir who welcomed us so warmly on our visit to Trinidad last February.)

We have not rented out our house this time as we will be home in early October in good time for the expected arrival of our first grandchild on 5th November. An evening of national celebration is expected to herald its arrival with fireworks and bonfires throughout the country. We are unsure how becoming grandparents will affect our desire to travel. For a few months at least we will probably limit ourselves to shorter, more exotic trips and start investigating Britain in greater depth. Possible candidates for future blogs are Mexico and the Maya sites of the Yucatan, and nearer to home, Pontypridd, Southend and Neasden.

Thursday 6th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
After a couple of days in Caen with Geneviève and her family, where we were spoilt and indulged as much as ever, we have moved on to the Jura in Eastern France not far from the border with Switzerland.

Before we left Caen however, we took part in a belated family birthday celebration for Yves, Geneviève's brother, together with a dozen members of the family. We were thus able to meet baby Ayden, Yves grandson, which was a particular pleasure. Today Nisha is flying to Trinidad to introduce him to his other grandparents, Shirley and Nazir.

Ian meets Ayden

Nisha and Ayden

Yves, Ayden and a birthday cake

Yves and Geneviève

We were also able to join our friends from Caen libaries, Benedicte and Marie Françoise for supper, and Odile for coffee. It is always a pleasure to see our Caen friends again but regrettably time is never enough to see everyone each time.

Geneviève has discovered a collection of documents concerning the book trade in Basse-Normandie. At the time of his death Alain had been working on these as part of a national project to document 18th century book trade personnel across France. Ian has been sorting through the papers and has made contact with the compilers in Paris who are showing considerable interest in the several hundred detailed records Alain has compiled. It is exciting that Ian may be able to assist them to bring Alain's research to a conclusion as a posthumous publication that will be a valued contribution to the project.

When we first retired we stayed here in Champagne with our friends Suzanne and Roland for several weeks. Those blogs, setting the scene and describing the area can be seen at Champagne-sur-Loue at last and the entries that follow.

We arrived here around 7pm last night after two days of fairly uneventful but tiring travel across France along mainly departmental roads. Tuesday night we spent on a chilly campsite at Gien on the Loire. Once the warmth has gone from the day the evenings are starting to feel really chilly. Trying to find yet another route between Caen and here we ended up spending most of the first day crossing the flat, uninteresting plains of northern France where the wheat and yellow rape had already been harvested leaving vast fields of stubble as far as the eye could see. From many kilometres away the towers of Chartres cathedral showed across the empty landscape. Anxious to arrive in Champagne in good time and having seen the Cathedral several years ago we did not stop to visit.

We continued, bypassing Orléans, following the north bank of the Loire to Gien. Next we made our way eastward through the wooded and hilly national park of the Morvan - once the homeland of the former French president François Mitterand. Here we stopped for a stroll beside the Lac des Settons, actually a reservoir prettily set in the hills, surrounded by pine forests. In the warm afternoon sunshine there were several pleasure boats plying the lake, filled mainly with large groups of retired French holidaymakers, all thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Lac des Settons

At Autun we stopped for a quick visit to admire the romanesque tympanum over the west door of the Cathedral. It was too dark and filled with scaffolding to see much of the interior. The lady in the tourist office confounded us by asking "Etes-vous venus en triomphe?" Why would we be triumphant? Seeing our blank stares she explained there was an English rally of old Triumph vehicles in town today! The town is of Roman origin with several notable sites to visit including a theatre and a temple of Janus. However, we were expected for supper with Suzanne and Roland and were already very late so another visit to Autun is called for.

Tympanum at the cathedral, Autun

Roman gateway at the entrance to Autun

Once we arrived we were greeted with the traditional warm welcome. After our long and tiring journey it was such a delight to find ourselves once again with our friends around the large wooden table in the kitchen that overlooks the grounds of the old convent where Jill once taught English. Beaming at an excuse to try out a selection of his own wines Roland poured liberal quantities of ratafia (grape juice reinforced with eau de vie) to accompany the dried sausage we nibbled as an aperitif before moving on to his red wine with the main meal followed by his vin mousseux with the desert – an apricot tart made from their own fruit. The foaming cascade of wine was for us every bit a good as a traditional champagne with a rich fruity flavour and a golden sparkle.

By the time we reached the coffee our French had degenerated into incomprehensible rubbish, though our friends seemed somehow to understand us well enough. The evening ended abruptly when Ian excused himself and rushed downstairs to our flat feeling sick. The combination of two days of tiring travelling, not drinking enough water and then drinking too much wine and coffee had taken its toll. By the time Jill followed him downstairs – feeling well hard and happy to be back - he was sound asleep. This morning he woke at 9 feeling fine again.

Today has been spent settling in again and taking an afternoon walk beside the Loue and across the fields to the neighbouring village of Buffard with Suzanne and her friend Colette. The sun was warm and bright, reflecting off the green, fast-flowing waters of the Loue where fish swam in the shallows, no doubt thankful that the fishing season has finally ended and that from Sunday it is the turn of the wild boars in the surrounding woods to avoid the wiles of the local hunters. Both Champagne and Buffard are looking smarter each time we visit. Within commuting distance of Besançon luxury new homes are starting to appear on the edges of the villages but the white stone houses with their large arched doors look far better cared for than in the past. In the 1960s it used to be possible to buy a property in the village for little more than the price of a new car!

Along the garden walls and across the façades of the huge old houses vines support huge clusters of purple grapes. The hedgerows are heavy with shiny blackberries and along the roadside are scattered wild ripe cherries and damsons while there is a regular rain of nuts falling from the many walnut trees.

Back home in the garden Roland's wine equipment is drying. It includes troughs and racks for removing the stalks from the grapes and a set of vicious rollers for crushing the grapes. We missed the main harvest last weekend and already the processed grapes are fermenting in the cellar beneath our flat with Roland rising during the night to stir the brew while it gradually settles to a less volatile fermentation.

Saturday 8th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Please follow links back to our 2005 blog for fuller descriptions of places mentioned in the Jura.

It was the weekly market yesterday in Arbois. Always a happy experience, it was particularly pleasant in the bright sunshine. Compared to Caen it was no more than a travelling, provincial market where the shops come to the residents as the towns do not have the capacity to provide such a range of clothes, shoes, household goods and foodstuffs. These markets also provide the opportunity to meet friends, organise business and exchange views on anything from the latest reforms of President Sarkosi to the pruning of the vines.

Arbois is the centre of the Jura wine growing area and its sweet "vin jaune" is the speciality of the region. The grape harvesting season coincides with the feast day of the town's patron saint, St. Just. At the weekend a huge bunch of grapes, a good two metres high and one in diameter, was carried in procession through the streets of the town before being hung in the church in front of the main altar. The fruit was donated by the local viticulturers, arranged in bands of white and black grapes and topped with the flags of the town and the region. By the time we discovered it yesterday there was a gradual pool of fermenting grape juice developing on the stone flags below!

Arbois with the church of St. Just

Grapes hanging in the church of St. Just, Arbois

After queuing on the market to buy a cooked chicken with a barquette of roast potatoes to take home for supper, we drove up to the Cirque de Fer à Cheval, situated on the first of the three levels of the Jura plateaux. At Arbois it forms a blind valley or reculée around the town with vertical walls of Jurassic limestone, permeated by caves and subterranean streams. This is very much the nature of the landscape here and it can be quite awesome! Standing on the unprotected edge of these plateaux, looking down onto the green fields of the valley floor, dotted with cattle or striped with a corduroy of vines, there is a struggle between curiosity to see right over the vertical edge and a terror of slipping. Somehow, being an enclosed valley, it seems so much more intimidating than the coastal cliff-tops of Britain.

We followed a track up through the woods and along the edge of the plateau to its highest point with a vista back along the valley to the pretty town of Arbois nestled at its entrance. The sun was comfortably warm and around us the air hummed with the sound of bees as they worked their way systematically amongst the flowers scattered in the meadow grass. Fluttering butterflies taunted us, leading us ever closer to the cliff edge in our eagerness to see their pretty markings.

On top of th plateau, Cirque de Fer à Cheval, near Arbois

Ian, Cirque de Fer à Cheval, near Arbois

Arbois seen from the Cirque de Fer à Cheval

In a Jura meadow

In a Jura meadow

On our way home we stopped beside the river Loue to gather the walnuts scattered along the roadside, many crushed beneath the wheels of the village tractors laden with crates of grapes.

This morning, Saturday, we cycled Hinge and Bracket the few kilometres down to Arc-et-Senans, past the snail farm and the field of golden-maned Comtois horses beside the Loue. In the village we found the 19th century church open with a lady sorting the altar flowers for tomorrow's mass. Around the walls we were amazed to discover ten 16th and 17th century religious paintings by Murillo, Rubens and Claude Vignon. They originally formed part of the personal art collection of M de Grimaldi, former director of the salt works at Arc-et-Senans.

Mill near Champagne-sur-Loue

Comtois horses near Champagne-sur-Loue

La Vierge aux Donateurs, attributed to Peter Thyss, Church of St. Benigne at Arc-et-Senans

Having completed our shopping we cycled through the surrounding woodland, stopping for a sunny picnic lunch before continuing across the fields behind the Saline, an architectural achievement of Claude-Nicholas Ledoux in 1773. Beside the road we passed a tiny chapel to the Virgin Mary, filled with flowers and erected by the commune in gratitude for being spared from the cholera that was sweeping the region during 1854.

Wasps nest discovered at our picnic spot

Can I join the picnic?

Wayside chapel near Arc-et-Senans

During our stay here in 2005 we became interested in the story of the local priest, Germain Coutteret, arrested by the Gestapo while saying mass in Champagne in 1943. He was accused of helping a British aviator, shot down in the area, to escape. Our original report, Interlude – a local hero is recorded on 5/09/2005. Today we discovered we have just missed a special service at Champagne's neighbouring village of Buffard when a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, commissioned by local subscriptions in his memory, has been placed in the church. We cycled over to Buffard to take a look but found the church closed. The only person holding a key was away from the village for the day but his wife has promised to arrange a special visit for us next week. It turns out they are friends of Roland who seemed really pleased when we told him of our meeting. Their daughter is the mayor of Buffard and one of her adjoints has written a history of the church and the village so should be able to fill in some of the gaps in our earlier account of the Abbé Couteret.

Church at Buffard

Ever since we arrived there has been a smell of fermenting grapes wafting up for the cellar beneath the house. When we arrived home this afternoon we found Roland had left the door at the bottom of the steps wide open. In the dark, stone-vaulted tunnel, covered with cobwebs and dust, we could just discern the wine-making equipment and the various vats and cauldrons containing this year's bubbling brew.

Roland's cellar