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The Haut-Jura and Haut-Doubs
On top of the world - the Haut-Jura mountain range in Franche-Comté is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Come and explore the nature, the attractions and the culture with writer Barry Whittingham, a resident of St Claude
Stretching for some 362 km and forming a natural border with Switzerland, the French part of the sub-alpine Jura mountain range (some 178000 hectares in all) covers most of the ancient province of Franche-Comté extending through the Jura and Doubs départements, and rising to a peak in the Ain at the Crêt de La Neige (1720 m). Such is its unspoilt, often breathtaking beauty that 1986 saw the creation of the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Jura, with the aim of protecting, promoting and imparting a distinctive identity to this natural heritage. The name ‘Haut-Jura’ here designates the mountain chain (and not the Jura département) and comprises the upland parts of the départements of the Jura and Doubs (as well as some of the Ain), officially known as the Haut-Jura and Haut-Doubs.
in the Summertime...
Though the landscape consists of a delightful amalgam of mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, the scattering of towns, villages, pastures and farmsteads bear witness to a long-established human presence. But this is always in harmony with surrounding nature. And not only do the activities placed at the visitor’s disposal allow a deeper appreciation of the region’s breathtaking features but they cater for every age and taste: in the summer months you can go mountain-biking, rambling, hiking or horse riding along the many sign-posted paths and trails, angle in the rivers and lakes, or discover the indigenous flora and fauna through a guided walk; while those seeking the thrills of more adventurous pursuits can enjoy canyoning, climbing and windsurfing. What’s more, golfers will be pleased to note that the Haut-Jura boasts two 18-hole courses in the Swiss border village of Les Rousses as well as a spectacularly scenic 9-hole one just a few minutes from Saint-Claude. And if you simply want to spend an afternoon lazing in the sun (with nothing more energetic than a dip or a pedal-boat ride to cool you down) the fully equipped and supervised beaches of the lakes of Lamoura and Les Rousses are ideal spots.
However, it’s in winter that the region really comes into its own. Here again there’s something for every age and taste. Though the gently undulating upland relief makes it an ideal terrain for a snow-shoewalk, the Haut-Jura is, above all, a cross-country skiing paradise where more than 2500 km of prepared tracks lead skiers of all levels through the fairy-like magic of its snow-covered forests. And it all reaches a climax in February when the international 68 km cross-country skiing marathon, la Transjurasienne, sees more than 4000 competitors start at the Haut-Jura village of Lamoura, ski through Les Rousses before heading towards the Haut-Doubs and the finishing tape in Mouthe. Don’t imagine, however, that downhill skiers or snowboarders are in the least bit neglected: for, from Lélex in the Ain through to Morteau in the Haut-Doubs around 200 ski-lifts and some 250 km of skiing slopes await skiers of all levels. And there are plenty of sledging areas for the kids.
It’s not surprising that in a region whose natural beauty is so omnipresent only a few attractions can be mentioned. In the Haut-Jura there’s the spectacular waterfall of the Cascades du Hérisson where ramblers can take advantage of a 7.5 km, sign-posted circuit starting at the car park and bringing them back to their point of departure. And along the twisting mountain road between Saint-Claude and Septmoncel you can’t fail to be impressed by the Chapeau du Gendarme - so named because of the curious resemblance this Jurassic limestone formation bears to the hat worn by gendarmes in the time of Napoléon. Or, if you’re in the Haut-Doubs why not set off from Morteauto discover the source of the River Doubs or the spectacular waterfall of the Saut du Doubs near Villers-le-Lac?
But for a really memorable day out you must take the special sightseeing train, the Ligne des Hirondelles, which crosses the Jura for 123 kms on the Saint-Claude to Dole line. Not only is the scenery of unparalleled beauty but you’ll be given a detailed commentary on everything of interest. And of special interest are the man-made wonders you’ll meet along the way: the tunnels between Saint-Claude and Morez and, above all, the spectacular Morbier-Morez railway viaducts. Built mainly by Italian immigrant labour and inaugurated in 1900, this feat of civil engineering is now classified as a national historical monument. Return tickets are available at tourist offices and can include lunch as well as a museum visit and a guided tour of the old town of Dole. See St. Claude website for timetable.
toys, clocks, pipes and diamonds
The Haut-Jura and Haut-Doubs also share a remarkable artistic legacy. In Gustave Courbet’s native town of Ornans the Musée Courbet proudly exhibits this 19th century artist’s most famous ‘realistic’ paintings (including the controversial Les Origines du Monde); while in Saint-Claude the Musée de l’Abbaye (located above the former abbey palace whose foundations are visible through a glass floor) exhibits a number of 19th and 20th century paintings and sketches including a collection donated by the internationally-acclaimed local artists, Guy Bardone and René Genis. And just a few steps away stands the Saint Pierre Cathedral with its magnificently carved 15th century choir stalls. And I can’t leave Saint-Claude without mentioning the Spring carnaval of les Soufflaculs – so named because of a tradition going back to the Middle Ages which allows night-shirted young men to direct their bellows beneath any woman unthinking enough to be wearing a skirt. It’s supposed to blow away the devil lurking beneath.Being part of the same mountain chain it’s hardly surprising that the Haut-Doubs and Haut-Jura present the same mountain relief. This can’t quite be said of the traditional farmhouse style: for a distinctive feature of the Haut-Doubs farmstead is its ‘tuyé’ – a fireplace and chimney wide enough to accomodate a large fir, spruce or juniper fire and the numerous sausages and hams that were hung to smoke slowly above. At Chapelle-des-Bois a museum has even been created in a 17th century ‘ferme à tuyé’ retracing the lives and customs of the peasant farmers of that time.
And we can’t leave the Haut-Jura mountains without mentioning some of the regional specialities: the distinctive saucisse de Morteau (the terms of reference for this boiling sausage stipulate that it should be smoked in a ‘tuyé’ for a minimum of 48 hours). While in Pontarlier you’ll have to try the local aniseed-based apéritif. It makes a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Pernod or Ricard. And if you’re eating in a restaurant you’ll certainly find the coq au vin jaune to your taste. It’s traditionally served with cream and the distinctively-flavoured, indigenous morille mountain mushrooms. What’s more, it comes as no surprise that this cattle-farming region should be renowned for its cheeses: Comté, Morbier, Bleu de Gex and Mont d’Or are the most reputed. You can even go on a guided tour of a fruitière or a cave d’affinage (there’s one in the former fort of Les Rousses) and see for yourself how they are produced and mature.
So, since Burgundy and Franche-Comté are now part of the same administrative region, why not come along and judge for yourself how much the Haut-Jura and Haut-Doubs contribute towards making the latter an ideal partner? Personally, I can’t help thinking that if the complementary nature of cheese and wine is anything to go by the union has all it takes to make a perfect match.
Barry A. Whittingham is the author of Barfield School, Book 1 in the Call of France series, available on Amazon (paperback or Kindle) at: http://amazon.com/-/e/B00ACXK28K