Yesterday the hunting season opened in France. The sangliers or wild boar in the woodland above the village, and any other wild creature that just might possibly be construed as edible, will spent the next few months pitting their wits against the local hunting fraternity. Our walks are now accompanied by the intermittent sound of gunfire. The first casualty of the season has already happened. A hunter propped his loaded gun against the fence while he climbed over. His weight accidentally pulled the wire down onto the trigger and the bullet passed right though his chest, killing him instantly! From the nearby woodland came grunts of satisfaction as the wild pigs looked up from snuffling acorns! This afternoon we passed a lone huntsman with his gun standing near the river. His dog was writhing happily on its back in the middle of a particularly large, glutinous and highly fragrant cowpat. On seeing us he bounded across the field, liberally scattering turds and hay, and hurled himself at us in an ecstasy of delight!
The weather has been superb for the last few days and yesterday we drove up towards the source of the River Loue to Ornans, famed as the homeland of the painter Gustave Courbet. Around midday we discovered a vide grenier being held in the main street of a small rural village. People had travelled from all around and there was a definite air of festivity as stall holders exchanged both gossip and junk. We were sorely tempted by a large metal shield perhaps from a village mairie, painted in red, white and blue with RF (Republique Francaise) across the centre. But then again, a mangold crusher, a church pew and a slipper bath like the one in which Marat was murdered during the French Revolution, also attracted our attention.
This morning Suzanne accompanied us across the river to Buffard where the village historian had arranged to show us around the inside of the church which now has no priest of its own and is normally closed. It turned out to be a fascinating couple of hours as he explained the building and its contents within the context of the religious history of France. We were also given detailed explanations concerning the identification of the various saints according to their accoutrements. The main reason for our visit had been to see the newly inaugurated statue in memory of the Abbé Coutteret, dedicated a couple of days before our arrival by the Archbishop of Besançon. However, it turned out to be the most insignificant part of the morning, overwhelmed by the wealth of other religious artefacts within the church, all of which had far greater artistic merit than the new, horrible, fibre-glass statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Our guide was also interested in French family history. To everyone's amusement it transpired that he and Suzanne were actually related, both had lived within a couple of kilometres of each other for most of their lives, knew each other by sight, but had never realised there was a family connection! He has promised to come over to visit soon, bringing various papers and documents! So it turned out to be a fascinating morning for everyone. As we finally emerged from the church a couple of hours later Roland turned up in his truck, wondering what had happened to delay us and was he ever likely to get any lunch? Ian and I piled into the back and we rattled and swayed our way back along the narrow, partially metalled track beside the river, to Champagne.
During the afternoon we walked through the fields down to the little riverside town of Port Lesney where we sat on the terrace of the Café Edgar with a beer, reading the local paper until we discovered enough energy for the five kilometre walk back along the opposite side of the river. It took twice as long to return as we stopped at each nut tree we passed to gather walnuts and hazelnuts. We now have a couple of bucket loads, most of which we will pass on to our hosts.
That's it for today. Time now to scrape that congealed cowpat off our jeans!
Tuesday 11th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue
Returning from the internet shop in Salins at lunch-time we groaned as we saw a slip of paper stuck beneath the windscreen wiper. Was it a parking ticket? It had seemed such a perfect place to park Modestine. We were relieved to discover it was actually a note written by some English visitors who had seen Modestine in the main street and could not resist telling us they had owned a Romahome for eleven years and lots of happy memories had come flooding back to them! They said they now used more elegant accommodation and wished us luck with our travels. We felt quite touched!
After a trip around the supermarket – the only place still open during the two hour lunch break in Salins – we drove up into the hills high above the town for a picnic on top of Mont Poupet, the highest point in the area. The route was rough and very steep as it wound up through pine forests to eventually emerge in a huge grassy meadow where the only sounds were of the wind blowing gently through the surrounding forest and the bees humming amongst the many pretty wild flowers.
It was so warm and peaceful we could have lingered over our picnic of French bread, tomatoes, pâté and coffee the entire afternoon. Leaving Modestine we climbed the now very bumpy track up to the very edge of the plateau from where the world was spread out below us like a wonderful green map. Indeed, with the large scale Michelin map Ian carries like a Bible, we were eventually even able to locate the tower of the church of Champagne as well as the course of the Loue and the various villages nestling in the folds of the hills below and stretching to the hazy horizon towards the Plaine de Bresse. At certain times the summit is used as a launch pad for hang gliders. Our stomachs squirmed at the thought of hurling ourselves off into the empty void just a few inches in front of us! The advisory notice for hang gliders recommended that they should check they were properly attached before jumping! Duh!!
After an hour or so wandering around the edge of the sunlit summit identifying landmarks below, during which time we say nobody at all, we returned to Modestine and made our way down and home along a different route that followed the flank of the mountain, cutting through a limestone gorge and passing through the isolated little village of Ivry. In the centre we discovered a monument to commemorate the atrocities carried out in the village during 1944. Such a lonely spot seemed an unlikely place to have been disturbed by nazi forces. The inscription indicated that it had been a hide-out for the French Resistance, known in this area as the Maquis. Presumably it had been discovered and reprisals taken.
Our route eventually brought us out onto the road back to Champagne at Lombard, right beside the house in which the Abbé Coutteret had been born. There is so much history concerning the Second World War around here. Near to Germany and nearer still to neutral Switzerland, with the demarcation line between occupied France and the Free French running nearby, it is not surprising that there was so much covert activity in the area.
Wednesday 12th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue
In the 17th century the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, swept through Europe, decimating the countryside sparing neither rich nor poor, young nor old, peasant nor aristocrat. Across France it killed perhaps fifty percent of the population. At Recologne today we discovered a cemetery for its plague victims lying in woodland just outside of the village. The Plague struck Recologne in 1632 killing over half the inhabitants. So many died each day it was impossible to bury them in the churchyard and they were buried in communal graves without coffins or shrouds in unhallowed ground. Most died long before the priest could give them the sacrament of extreme unction thus, according to the beliefs of the time, they could never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Later Suzanne told us that here in Champagne, when she was a child, her father was digging for sand beside the Loue and dug up skeletons from a previously unknown plague pit. We once read a not very cheery novel about La Peste by Bernard Clavel – La Saison des Loups, set in the village of Aiglepierre, just a few kilometres from Champagne on the road to Salins. Healthy men were forced to work as corbeaux – going around the village with a cart, collecting the bodies and taking them to the plague pits where others were forced to dig the pits and bury them. Sooner or later they all contracted the disease and died whereupon others were forced to take their place or be killed anyway. Those with the disease, or having been in contact with it, were shunned and isolated from the rest of their community. Almost all succumbed sooner or later and were dead within hours.
We discovered the site today in a deserted spot at the end of a woodland path along with a couple of picnic table! Somehow the thought of eating our lunch there was not appealing. The mid 17th century was a time of turmoil and tragedy for the region of Franche Comté. No sooner had it started to recover from the plague than it was ravaged again in 1635 by Richelieu and the forces of France who carried out appalling atrocities in the struggle to overthrow the independence of the region and annex it forcefully to France. This was eventually achieved in 1678.
Otherwise however, today has been quite sunny and cheerful! We drove across to look at the town of Vesoule which somehow we have never managed to visit before. It is a pleasant enough little place with a few handsome, if somewhat decayed buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. After a picnic lunch in the park by the river, overlooked by a gruesome statue commemorating the deportation of local civilians as forced labour during the Second World War, we continued to the village of Pesmes, on the select list of France's most beautiful villages. We have never seen it before and while it is certainly beautifully set on the river Ognon, with high defensive walls, it is in rather a dilapidated state within. People are living in the crumbling remains of the once handsome old buildings. The interiors looked dingy and decayed through the open windows with damp plaster and peeling paintwork. It is not clear why this village should have been chosen when there are so many others far more deserving of the title. There was a funeral at the church and the entire village was gathered there. From inside came the sound of singing while the square outside was crowded with people standing around in groups chatting. Most looked very casually dressed for such an event. Suzanne later explained that it is common for people to attend a funeral but not to go inside because they are not Catholic! I have to admit to being astonished at such an attitude today! I was even more astonished, and shocked, to see that the church wall was being used quite openly as a lavatory by certain male mourners during the service! I don't think I will ever understand why the French have such an unsavoury attitude concerning standards of public hygiene. Salin-les-Bains is the only place we have discovered a reasonably clean public convenience since we left Caen! In the very few places they can be found they are usually Turkish and are never cleaned. None provide toilet paper or soap – in the unlikely event of finding a basin with a tap.
Thursday 13th September 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue
During the day temperatures rise dramatically but out of the sunshine there is a freshness to the air. At night the temperature drops right down and by the time we go to bed we are beginning to shiver in our semi-troglodyte flat.
This morning the sky was a brilliant blue and the day promised to be hot so we decided to drive over towards Switzerland and the Château de Joux. This is a defensive castle protecting a narrow gorge edged on either side by sheer walls of Jurassic limestone offering a natural route into France through Switzerland from Northern Italy. The castle was first built in the eleventh century but was of course extensively reworked by Vauban, as were so many of France's great defensive military works in the late 17th century. After Franche-Comté became French the castle was used as a prison and among the more notable prisoners were the writer Mirabeau (who actually spent most of his time in the nearby town of Pontarlier where he seduced the young wife of the Marquis de Monnier), the German writer Heinrich von Kleist in 1806, and the leader of the slave revolt on Haiti Toussaint Louverture, who died there in 1803. Unfortunately our latest attempt to storm the castle was unsuccessful as we arrived just as it closed for its two hour lunch-break. However the views were worth the effort of climbing up to it in the heat. Last time we tried, also unsuccessfully, to visit it was wintertime and the snow was blowing in icy flurries from the Alps.
We entered Switzerland through the mountain village of Les Fourgs, which claims to be the roof of the Haute-Doubs, where huge dilapidated farm houses straggled along the main street. It was here that Jill used sometimes to spend the weekend with Françoise and her family when we were both working at the convent school in Champagne back in 1961/2. In those distant days we would take the train up to Pontarlier on Friday afternoon, collect Françoise's youngest sister from her convent boarding school in the town and take the evening bus along the valley, past the Chateau de Joux and turn off up the steep route leading to the highest plateau of the Jura massive and the village of Les Fourgs. The snow would be feet deep beside the road and morning and evening the plough would be out keeping the route open for the bus and farm vehicles.
Françoise's parents home was an enormous wooden building with a steep roof to throw off the snow. One side was living accommodation, the other the barn and stable for the cattle. In the warm kitchen cooking was done on an iron range fuelled by wood from the surrounding pine forests. The door opened directly from the kitchen into the stable where the cattle were all inside over the winter period. Their warmth helped raise the temperature in the chilly bedroom above where we climbed a ladder from the stable at night to sleep. Rural France was still very Catholic at that time and our bedroom walls had several holy pictures and a crucifix for decoration. Through the low window we could see the winter ski slopes behind the house. Back in those days such an experience for an English teenager was something rare, as was the chance to learn to ski. I cannot claim to be a naturally gifted skier, indeed Françoise spent most of the afternoon pulling me out of snowdrifts and turning me the right way up again! It was the first and last time I ever tried skiing, though it was certainly good fun. The best bit though was returning to the house to change into dry clothes and sit by the fire reading Tintin in French while one of the family's rabbits simmered in a pot on the iron stove for supper. (Many of the rural inhabitants here still keep cages of rabbits as a winter source of fresh meat.)
Just up the road, even nearer the border with Switzerland, lived one of Françoise's married sisters. We would walk up the village street, the snow piled beside the road higher than we were, to visit her. She taught me how to assemble cuckoo clocks – a cottage industry for many women at that time. One day we walked on up to the Swiss border where we eventually persuaded the frontier guard, who came from the village, to allow me through into Switzerland for a brief walk as I had stupidly left my passport back at the school in Champagne.
Les Fourgs is very different today. There are still some of the old farm houses on the main street but also many newer developments as the village has become a winter ski resort. There are chalets and flats for rent and places for hiring skis and all the accompanying equipment. We found it impossible to be certain of the family home but think we found the right one, or if not, it was very similar. The family name appears several times on the war memorial in front of the mairie. One young man was lost at Verdun in 1916, another in 1918 and a third during the Second World War. From official notices pinned up outside the mairie we saw that the present mayor is also a member of the family, possible Françoise's brother.
We are still in contact with Françoise. She and her husband Eugène live at Amancey, about thirty kilometres from Champagne, leading an almost self-sufficient lifestyle and have become honey producers.
I may have had trouble getting across the French/Swiss border all those years ago but today it was completely deserted as we drove across. Almost immediately the landscape and villages were subtly different. Wide green pastures swept up to the darker green of the pine forests above. In the meadows were the remains of the yellow gentian plants from which a powerful digestive is distilled. Cattle roamed across the fields, held together as a troop by the continuous gentle clanking of the bells they each wore around their necks. Scattered across the hillside, were isolated farmsteads in huge wooden chalets. They all looked smart with their bright shutters and troughs of flowers, so unlike the untidy collection of dilapidated wooden buildings in Les Fourgs.
We stopped for lunch in a deep ravine as we descended steeply down towards the valley floor. Around us the sharp grey rock and forests of pine trees hemmed us in - the Swiss mountains are very different from the sheer, flat escarpments of the French Jura. During the afternoon we followed mountain roads up towards Le Locle, lying to the north of the lake of Neuchâtel. Time was passing too quickly for us to drive as far as Neuchâtel, so we stopped for a walk around Fleurier, one of the tidy little Swiss towns we passed through before turning up a steep winding road that lead us back into France as inconspicuously as we had left it.
We reached home a couple of hours later, travelling along near deserted roads all the way, passing through woodland, tiny villages and pastures bounded by dry-stone walls. Occasionally we would hear the distant clanging of cowbells.
We both felt in need of a walk after so much driving today. The sun was still warm and bright so we strolled across the plain below the village to the banks of the Loue, stopping to gather yet more walnuts on the way. It was dusk by the time we returned and already the heat was draining from the day.