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A-Z Franche-Comté - the highlights at a glance
The Franche-Comté has been part of Burgundy in the past and was joined at the hip again at the beginning of 2016 when administrative changes were made by the French government. Due to its close proximity to Germany and Switzerland, its geographical complexities and its turbulent history, this French region is a melange of cultures and influences, seen in everything from its architecture to its food and festivities. It is a fortified area not just in bricks and mortar - the people have learned to live with upheaval from invasion and diverse weather. The generations have become strong and resilient as you might expect. The region experiences long cold winters with plentiful rainfall and hot dry summers.
Engineering and micro-technology make the economy tick: Peugeot has a factory at Montbéliard; the TGV is manufactured in Belfort; clock and watch making, micro and nano technology and items such as automatic ticket machines for car parks are the big industry in Besançon. Dairy farming produces some of France’s finest cheeses such as Comté and Vacharin Mont d’Or, Raclette and Morbier (40 million tons are produced a year). Over 40% of the land mass is covered with forests and woodland to provide associated industries. Then there’s tourism with two Natural Parks, the Ballons des Vosges in the north and Haut-Jura in the south to enjoy in the region as well as the host of other attractions.
Then there’s the wine growing region centred at Arbois, producing golden Vin Jaune and the sweet Vin de Paille. Baume les Messieurs nearby with its cob houses and red tiled roofs, wedged between three glacial valleys is classified one of the most beautiful villages in France. As if that wasn’t enough, you can take the scenic Swallow railway through the Jura; look across to the Alps in Switzerland from the Haut Jura; hike past Château de Joux perching on a precipice of rock, or relax at the spa in Lons-le-Saunier, the main town in the department. All told, an area well worth exploring.
The region is dissected by the mighty river Saône. In the north east, the Natural Park of the Ballons des Vosges straddles Alsace, Lorraine and Franche-Comté. It offers snow-clad granite peaks in winter giving way in spring and summer to alpine flowers, waterfalls and gorges with well charted hiking routes including the GRs 59, 532 and 533.
Vesoul is the administrative centre of the Haute Saône area and looks down on the green Durgeon valley. The town has seen periods of prosperity interspersed by invasion and war. Nothing has been certain in its long past and consequently the motto was adopted ‘moderata durant’, moderation lasts. Solid sandstone buildings give the air of permanence. The Vesoul-Vaivre lake is the focal point for leisure activities along with the 21 km hiking, biking and roller blading nature trail.
In Ronchamp you will find one of Franche-Comté’s prize possessions, the Chapelle de Notre Dame-du-Haut designed by Le Corbusier (shown far left at the top of the page). It is a place of religious pilgrimage, but in addition, this iconic modernist chapel brings architects from around the globe to pay homage to one of the world’s finest and most innovative designers. The sweeping concrete roof, inspired by a hermit crab shell looks modern over 60 years on. It is now a listed UNESCO Heritage Site.
Gray, a large river port on the Saône, is active in holiday cruising and Luxeuil-les-Bains offers spa and wellness facilities.
Formally part of Alsace, tiny Belfort resisted being annexed by Germany between 1871 and 1919 largely due to Colonel Denfert-Rochereau, ‘the Lion of Belfort’. The people are very proud of this fact and their most famous statue, an 11 m high lion by Auguste Bartholdi (of Statue of Liberty fame) is a permanent reminder of the area’s resilience in the siege. Being a buffer, it has had to defend itself time and again. Marshall Vauban had a citadel built here which has a visitor centre.
One of the major events in the Belfort calendar is the Eurokéennes Rock Festival attracting 80,000 pop fans by Malsaucy Lake.
This is a region of valleys, most notably the beautiful Doubs and Loue valleys with their timbered houses on stilts. It is a flatter area than the rest of Franche-Comté, ideal for more gentle pursuits such as walking and cycling. In the Loue valley look out for Lods, and Ornans with its attractive waterways and cherry orchards producing the famous Kirsch alcohol, an essential ingredient in fondue.
Besançon stands in the horseshoe, ‘la Boucle’ of the river Doubs. This is a thriving university town described as ‘an old town, young at heart’. The architecture has Germanic influences offering one of the most beautiful historic centres in France. Here you will find another of Vauban’s famous fortresses. Five of the six towers are still standing and UNESCO has given it a World Heritage Site rating.
If nature and outdoor activities are your passion, there is no finer place than this little known region of France. The tourist offices have copious information and guidelines.
By road: The A36 passes through the centre of the region from west to east from central France to Germany and Switzerland. The A39 connects Dole to Lyon and the south of France. From the north, the A31 comes to Dijon in Burgundy and then the A39 continues to Dole.
By air: The region is served by Dole, Geneva, Basel- Mulhouse and Strasbourg airports plus Paris Charles de Gaulle which is linked by TGV to Besançon.
By train: TGV from Besançon to Paris (2hr 05) and Lille (3hr 35) via airport Charles de Gaulle. Montbéliard-Belfort TGV to Paris, (2hr 20). TER train from Vesoul (3hr 15) to Paris. Trains from Basel-Mulhouse to Vesoul and Paris. Also a new line from Dijon to Besançon and Mulhouse.
Note: The Michelin guide, shown left, is in French