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In search of 'white gold' in Franche-Comte

By Ron Smith

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The church built into a cave and water source, Grotte de Remonot, Les Combs.
The church built into a cave and water source, Grotte de Remonot, Les Combs.

The Bourgogne Franche-Comte region of France is largely unknown by UK tourists. It has immense character and charm, tucked away against the mountain border with Switzerland.

There are marvellous towns like Dole, where Louis Pasteur was born, Lons le Saunier, where Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, who wrote the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, was born. There are many other great towns. There is a declining rural population, so not much changes and even less in the innumerable small villages.

In the UK, farmhouses tend to be on the farm. In this region of France, the farmers lived in small villages and went out to the fields. The village has a church, now closed, a “lavoire” (a communal wash house), a fountain, and if the village was the centre of a “commune” of villages, a shop and a Mairie (now usually closed as well).

In this peaceful countryside of small fields, undulating hills, and forests, there is suddenly some industry. Peugeot cars come from here, and at Sochaux, between Besançon and Belfort – with its massive lion monument on the vast fortress – is the Peugeot car factory with its Adventure Museum. This is full of generations of cars, and also saw blades, sewing machines, construction kits, coffee and pepper grinders, and all the many things that the company manufactured.

The Peugeot museum at Sochaux.
The Peugeot museum at Sochaux.

At Morez you will find the museum of telescopes and an active industry making spectacles and frames, usually by hand. Not far away is Morbier, where my favourite cheese comes from. Quite how they get the thin layer of ash into the middle of the huge cheese wheel still mystifies me. Pontarlier is renowned for producing Absinthe. This potent drink was banned in 1914, right up to 1921, as it was supposed to drive you mad.

If you are interested in wine, go to the Chateau Du Clos De Vougeot. This historic monument is home to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a body dedicated to promoting the best wines produced in Bourgogne. To eat a meal here and taste the wines is an exceptional experience. It sits in the middle of the “Climats” – individual vine plots specific to the area. These Unesco-listed parcels of small vineyards cover the best hillsides around here and produce the most expensive wines in the world.

As you drive along, you will suddenly see that you are about to enter the free republic of Saugeais. This collection of 11 villages along the frontier with Switzerland used to be independent, and in the 1970s declared that they still were. They have their own national anthem, stamps and pride.

As you head towards the “capital” on Montbenoit, you pass a token frontier post to arrive at a modern restaurant with a large smoke house where thousands of sausages and meat joints slowly absorb the smoke from a smouldering pine tree sawdust fire.

The lion monument on the fortress at Belfort.
The lion monument on the fortress at Belfort.

Perhaps the most interesting industry, and one that made the area wealthy and very important, was the production of salt. It was so valuable that they called it “white gold”.

Since Roman times, salt has been highly valued, used even as payment for the soldiers, and the famous Roman roads were built to transport it. They started exploiting the salty waters that came to the surface in Franche-Comte. Eventually, at Salins les Bains, a huge salt works was established.

The rock salt is found in three areas of the region, where springs bring it to the surface. It was evaporated in huge pans, fired by the local timber. In those days salt was vital for preserving food, tanning, dying, and a growing chemical industry. It was also taxed heavily, which caused perennial problems. In the 13th century the salt works dug down to obtain water that had a greater concentration of salt, eventually reaching down 165 metres. It can claim 1200 years of salt exploitation.

The Chateau du Clos de Voguent.
The Chateau du Clos de Voguent.

In April 1773 a law was passed to construct an additional salt works at Arc et Senans. The architect, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux was brilliant. It was built between 1775 and 1779. It is 17 kilometres from the source at Salins, so a pipeline was constructed to bring the saline solution to Arc et Senan.

Arc was situated in the centre of the huge Forrest of Chaux. His vision was immense. A semi-circle of buildings, “as pure as the sun on its course” included model houses for the hundreds of workers, each with a garden, and facilities that were far advanced for its day. A massive “graduation” building was constructed, around 500 metres long, where the solution was evaporated to increase the salinity, until it went into the huge pans and the water boiled off.

Today, this marvellous collection of 11 buildings is open to the public, with Europe’s only museum dedicated to an architect, Mr Ledoux, and rooms for conferences, weddings, expositions, and even 30 rooms as a hotel. It receives 140,000 visitors every year.

There is so much to discover in the Bourgogne Franche-Comte.

Picture: Tourism Bourgogne Franche Comte Region
Picture: Tourism Bourgogne Franche Comte Region

Need to know

Tourist information

Have a look at bourgognefranchecomte.com

How to get there

There are no easy ways to get to this lovely corner of the world. KLM Air France flies direct from Aberdeen to Paris, from where fast trains take you to Dijon (capital of Burgogne) and local trains delve into the Franche-Comte region.

Alternatively, KLM can take you via Schiphol, Amsterdam to Geneva, where trains take you over the border to Lons le Saunier (another salt town – “saunier” is the name of a salt worker).

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