Maryline and I paused for a late lunch in the famously pretty village of Baume-les-Messieurs. The restaurant was called Le Grand Jardin, though I saw no evidence of an adjoining garden of any size. With the sun shining warmly and, we supposed, based on the absence of street life, little chance of being accosted by panhandlers, flower-sellers, itinerant violinists, or other passersby, we chose a table outside near the front door, on the main drag.
We ordered poulet de Bresse, vin jaune, and gruyère de Comté, as you do when you are in Franche-Comté. These three foodstuffs are the source of fierce pride among the locals. All have that neurotically official-sounding appellation d’origine protégée designation, in which the French take such great pride. The poulet de Bresse is the only chicken to be so honored. Ours arrived with little metal rings around their scrawny ankles. I asked Maryline, my good-humored companion and guide, if she thought this particular pair had been convicted criminals, shackled and put to work pecking rocks on a chicken chain gang. “Or maybe they were married,” she said.
We never got to the bottom of it. Our speculations were interrupted when, seemingly out of nowhere, a car roared past at reckless speed, close enough to deposit a film of dust on our glasses of vin jaune. In the front seats were two elderly passengers, one male, one female, both jolly and pink-faced, and, jammed in between them, a shaggy dog as well fed and complacent as its owners. In the back, bags and bags of groceries, piled to the roof. I was reminded of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, which ends with the Marx Brothers and a dozen or more extras crammed into a ship’s cabin and somebody wisecracking, “Is it getting crowded in here?”
The car disappeared from view, and its racket subsided. Luxe, calme, et volupté were restored. There might well have been birdsong.
After lunch we crossed the street and inspected the ninth-century abbey, desolate and grand, its austere cloister brightened by potted geraniums, like an Ivy League campus. A few minutes later we sat down on a stranger’s doorstep, in the sun. I squinted at the wall of sheer chalk cliffs that loom over the village. From our vantage point they looked forbiddingly dark and gloomy and cold, as if they were subject to another weather system altogether. The stone of the stranger’s doorstep was warming my backside agreeably, and I thought how happy I was to be down here, looking up, rather than up there, looking down.
The sight of thousands of wheels of cheese, stacked to the ceiling, was staggering. The Fort Knox of Comté
Once more, however, this intensely satisfactory state of affairs was disturbed by the whine of an approaching car engine. The same clapped-out car that had rattled our cutlery earlier rounded the bend, recognizable by the mountain of shopping bags in the back. “Them again. Isn’t that funny?” I said as the car drove by. “Not very,” said Maryline. “Such things happen in Franche-Comté. A lot.”
If you run your finger across a map of France, you’ll find Franche-Comté about halfway down the right-hand side. Franche-Comté and Burgundy, the region immediately to its west, have long been closely, sometimes bafflingly, intertwined, politically and economically, even when, as was the case for centuries, they were independent statelets. In 2016 they were formally bundled together as a single greater region, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Yet in at least one respect they remain quite distinct. This is a matter of temperament as much as topography. A healthy rivalry between Franche-Comté and Burgundy has led the rest of France to perhaps unfairly assume the latter as more grand and more polished.
Franche-Comté might not be the most overlooked bit of France—I would hazard a guess and say the area around Limoges may have that privilege—but it is one of them, and possibly the most unjustly overlooked of all, given its abundance of natural and architectural beauty, cultural riches, and historic significance. And, of course, its cheese. There really is no coming to grips with Franche-Comté without coming to grips with Comté. The region produces other excellent cheeses—Morbier, Mont d’Or, Bleu de Gex—but Comté is king. Among the first things I did was visit Fromageries Vagne, one of many highly regarded cheesemakers in and around the town of Poligny. I might have gotten off to a better, or anyway, more picturesque, start elsewhere. The building itself was a reassuringly sterile light-industrial affair, as plain and functional as a dentist’s waiting room. Nevertheless, the sight of thousands of wheels of cheese, stacked from floor to ceiling on endless shelves, receding far into the distance, was staggering. Unpasteurized bullion. The Fort Knox of Comté.
In the days that followed, as Maryline and I made our way around the region—mostly but not exclusively within the département of Jura, near the Swiss border—food and drink were as much a part of the backdrop as rolling farmland and distant mountains. At one point I said something flippant about feeling a bit overstuffed on Michelin-starred grub. Maryline gave me a withering look. “Nous ne sommes pas en vacances,” she said sternly. We’re not on vacation.
The most surprising culinary aspect of the trip, however, did not involve any kind of eating or drinking. It was the twin monuments of the Grande Saline at Salins-les-Bains and the Saline Royale at Arc-et-Senans, two beautifully preserved former saltworks now run as museums. Both are architectural marvels in completely contrasting styles. One resembles something out of the Wild West; the other is a grandiose feat of neoclassical utopian-industrial architecture. Together they are a powerful and oddly moving reminder of how quickly and dramatically technological development can alter human life. With the arrival of the icebox, salt, once a commodity more valuable than gold, was reduced, practically overnight, to a mere condiment. Merci beaucoup, Baron Kelvin.
Further architectural wonders awaited in Besançon, whose celebrated citadel has been of strategic importance since Roman times. Maryline was keen to impress on me the fact that the city is also notable for ingenuity on a much smaller scale. She introduced me to Philippe Lebru, a clockmaker and impresario of the horological traditions of the region. We chatted in his elegant atelier-boutique, Utinam, among colorful clocks of his own design and watches by contemporary local designers. “Many of us,” he said, “think of the mechanical-watch industry as quintessentially Swiss. Not so. We’ve been doing nanotechnology on this side of the Jura mountains for centuries.”
As well as making it an ideal spot for a fortress, the geography of Besançon—a steep hill rising from a flat plain, opening up extensive views in all directions, tightly circumscribed by a noose-like loop in the Doubs River—has had other practical consequences. It accounts for the peculiar density of the old town, which, though small, has a sense of compression and bustle that you normally associate with larger cities. Its street-side doorways open into narrow private courtyards of great beauty, typically featuring staircases designed in a style that is unique to Besançon—external in order to create space on the inside. I was constantly zigzagging across streets from one doorway to another, trespassing wildly to see these courtyards, and found no two to be exactly alike. It seemed to me entirely fitting that the Lumière brothers, pioneers of the motion-picture industry, should have lived in this eminently cinematic city.
Perhaps the only other place in Franche-Comté I saw that equaled Besançon for sheer charm was Château-Chalon. There are those who say it is the most beautiful town in France. I have little reason to doubt their judgment. Though it’s not the only place in the Jura to produce vin jaune, the Château-Chalon wine is considered the best. The town, an immaculate cluster of well-preserved buildings, overlooks the terraced vineyards where the Savagnin grapes of which the wine is made are grown.
I had supper a few doors down from my hotel at a restaurant that felt more like a room in a house put to use as a restaurant by the friendly owners, perhaps as a way to engage more passersby and locals in conversation. The space was small, with no more than half a dozen tables. Slightly shiny tablecloths in some indestructible but by no means precious fabric. Net curtains. It was, in its way, perfect. So were the crémant du Jura, the poulet de Bresse, and the tarte aux pommes. There may have been a Macvin du Jura and some Bleu de Gex involved as well. Maryline was having dinner with her mother that night so was not present to keep track. Afterward, when I stepped outside, the town’s ancient walls were cast in the mellow golden glow of sodium-vapor streetlamps—the electrical equivalent, it struck me, of vin jaune. My footsteps on the cobbles seemed embarrassingly loud. Though I could no longer see them, I was aware of the terraces and valley below, the vineyards soft and silent.
I spent my last afternoon in Franche-Comté in Ornans, the town where the great avant-garde realist painter and rabble-rouser Gustave Courbet was born. A visit to Ornans wasn’t part of the original plan. But all of a sudden I got a bee in my bonnet about it and pleaded with Maryline. That morning we’d been in La Cluse-et-Mijoux, sampling the goods at the marvelous Les Fils d’Emile Pernot absinthe distillery. Perhaps that accounted for my high spirits. As an artist, Courbet wanted to knock the world off its axis, and he very nearly succeeded. Surely if the absinthe hadn’t done so already, a quick detour to Ornans wouldn’t knock our world off its axis. We simply had to squeeze it in. As is so often the case with these spur-of-the-moment decisions, it became one of the highlights of the trip.
It wasn’t just the loveliness of the Loue Valley, though that was exceptional—watery, stony, lush, and pungently elemental. The landscape seemed not to have changed much since Courbet painted it so ravishingly 150 years ago. It was a rare privilege to see the place with my own eyes and then to see it once more through Courbet’s, in the paintings at the Musée Courbet. Wonderful as he was at executing huge, complicated group pictures, his small paintings and preliminary sketches on paper could be equally impressive—dense, vivid, exquisitely observed. For me, he is not only the preeminent painter of Franche-Comté but also the region’s greatest ambassador, the finest embodiment of the qualities that make it so special. His position among French artists mirrors that of Franche-Comté among French regions: as magnificent as any other you might care to mention, as worthy of attention and admiration, as capable of both theatrical grandeur and masterful subtlety—though lacking, in the eyes of the world, quite the same celebrity as certain of its peers. And, yes, that means you, Burgundy.
Château du Mont Joly, Sampans
Really a restaurant with rooms upstairs—which is convenient after you have consumed more than your own body weight in morels. It’s a labor of love for Romuald Fassenet (ex-Matignon and La Tour d’Argent) and his sommelier wife, Catherine. This is Jura de luxe. Doubles from $123, dinner for two from $156; chateaumontjoly.com or booking.com
Le Relais des Abbesses, Château-Chalon
An antidote to all that is slick and corporate. Quirky, characterful, and charming, with breathtaking views. Doubles from $95; relais-des-abbesses.fr or booking.com
Château de Germigney, Port-Lesney
A Relais & Châteaux hotel much admired for its restaurant and lovely garden, with chandeliers, vaulted ceilings, and more than a hint of hauteur. There are tablecloths not only on the tables but also on the chairs. Doubles from $170, dinner for two from $195; chateaudegermigney.com or booking.com
Hotel Le Sauvage, Besançon
In the shadow of the great citadel and as creaky, historic, and picturesque as its surroundings. Doubles from $115; hotel-lesauvage.com or booking.com
Le Grand Jardin, Baume-les-Messieurs
Uncomplicated and unpretentious, with a handful of outdoor tables and no shortage of vin jaune. Lunch for two from $100; legrandjardin.fr
Les Fils d’Emile Pernot, La Cluse-et-Mijoux
The ultimate digestif, which you will need toward the end of a trip to Franche-Comté—superior absinthe is distilled on site and served with wit and wisdom by the makers themselves. Free guided tours and tastings daily except Sundays; emilepernot.fr
For more information on the Jura region, visit bourgognefranchecomte.com
This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here. All listings featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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