Exploring France's Hidden Gem: Franche-Comté

Today I'm excited to introduce you to Elena of Elena's Travelgram! I really enjoy reading her insight on living in France as an Ukrainian expat on her blog. Here's her expert advice on what to see in her slice of France:

When you think of visiting France, which places come to your mind first?

Bet #1 is Paris! With Lyon, Nice, Marseille, and the Loire Valley coming shortly afterwards. Next you may be daydreaming of gorgeous Provence lavender fields and the rocky allure of the Normandy coast. 

Wine-lovers won’t miss a trip out and around Bordeaux wine routes and charming Alsatian villages in search for the best white wines. 

Corsica recently became a hype summer destination, though it still has a lot of amazing, absolutely deserted beaches, hidden in lovely bays. 

Blissful Biarritz is another fantastic beach destination overlooking the Atlantic and, of course, you’ll discover even more amazing wine routes around Burgundy, along with amazing local cuisine and cheese.

Ran out of ideas for your next trip to France? 

Well, how about visiting Franche-Comté

This is the east-most province of France, separated from Switzerland by the Jura mountain range. The locals themselves often refer to the province as French Switzerland and you would hardly see any differences once you pass the border. 

Same endless emerald meadows, petite neat communes and scenic woods going as far as you can see. 

The natural beauty of the area with the Jura mountains in the background

Till I decided to move to France, I knew nothing in particular about Besancon - the capital city of Franche-Comté (and my new home) or could have imagined what amazing attractions are hidden in the East of France. 

The 2,000 year old capital city of Besancon

Long before the days when “France” was used to name these lands, the city of Bizantium was settled by Julius Caesar somewhere around 2nd century BC. 

Today, you can spot a few columns here and there, plus a lovely tiny park set over the remainder of an amphitheater. 

What attractions you should check out in Besancon

Definitely, the grand Citadel of Besancon - overlooking the city from Mt Saint-Etienne. It's a UNESCO site built in the 18th century by the local military genius, Vauban. 

You can spend the whole day taking pictures and just enjoying spectacular panoramic views of the Old City Center down below, encircled by river Doubes. Or simply wandering around from one inner yard to another and climbing all the fortifications inside to discover new breathtaking angles. 

The view from the Citadel of Besancon

I also like the local Zoo a lot and Comtois Museum with some insights into traditional households. 

Next, check out Saint Jean Cathedral with Fra Bartolommeo murals hidden inside and probably the most amazing clocks I have ever seen in my life! 

Imagine 122 indications estimating whatever it is possible to estimate – date, time, seconds, years, sun and moon phases and much more. Also, the clock has 21 animated figures performing various biblical scenes once an hour.  

The clock tower of the Saint Jean Cathedral

As the former largest watch-making center in France, Besancon has a whole museum (Musée du Temps) dedicated to time.  (Hint: free entrance on Sundays!)  

A few dozen of peculiar clocks – from fragile, engraved watches to a huge atomic clock made of 975 details total with 18kg of gold used for manufacturing. 

Sometimes, when walking up another narrow cobble-stone alley, I think Besancon got stuck somewhere in the late 18th century with all those chimneys and orange-tiled rooftops, ash-pink stone buildings and colorful shutter windows. 

However, it’s only half true. 

Besancon also happens to be a quite large student town, so there are a lot of parties, performances and concerts going on! Ah, and it’s getting tough to find a nice spot at the best hole-in-the-wall bars on Tuesdays and Fridays ☺ 

Besancon at night

Besancon is in a mere 2.5 hour TGV ride from Paris and less than two hours from Lyon and Strasbourg. 

Chateau de Joux

Close to Pontarlier, this stunning fortification overlooks the city from a dramatic cliff.  For the best views, take a short detour to the viewpoint right at the beginning of Route de l’Absinthe – an amazing hiking trail from France to Switzerland and back.  

An 11th century castle upgraded to an absolutely unapproachable fort in late 16th century, today it still looks as glorious as ever with loads of passageways and inner yards to wander around.

There are a few particularly deep wells inside, and as the recent stats say, in 2013 visitors dropped over 20 sunglasses, 20 cameras, one dog (poor thing) and many more weird objects inside.

Ah, and a few travelers were locked inside the basement by accident, but I think it’s a joke.

Note: Chateau de Joux is open for visiting from April 1st until November 2nd.

There are over 100 castles scattered all around Franche-Comté. Most of them have been significantly renovated and definitely worth the visit! I've listed the best castles in Eastern France that can easily compete with the Loire Valley's chateaux (and even out rate, maybe?).

The imposing Chateau de Joux

Comtoise cuisine and Jura wines

Ok, so you can’t leave Franche-Comté without trying the local cuisine.

The more I live and travel around France, the stronger becomes my belief that “The best way to explore France is through food!”

Each and every region (administrative and historical) has its own unique cuisine! Sure thing, you can try let’s say coq au vin or Salade Lyonnaise in Paris too; however the most exquisite dishes are prepared regionally. And taste better too!

When in Franche-Comté try…

  • Croute aux morilles – morel mushrooms gathered in the nearby woods, served in a delicious creamy sauce with crunchy croutons. 
  • Coq au vin jaune or Truite au vin jaune – chicken or trout cooked in Vin Jaune (local strong dry white wine), seasoned and paired with vegetables. 
  •  Raclette – a dish similar to Swiss Fondue, yet made in a different way. Basically, all you need is potatoes, ham, sausages, and a good piece of raclette cheese. Slice the cheese, put it on a small tray over the fire to melt (usually, a special appliance is used). Then just scrape it all over your food. 

Jura wines 
While wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Cote d’Azur already have made a name for themselves all around the world, wines from Jura are rarely known outside France. Yet it by no means makes them less delicious! 
There are five grape varieties grown in the Jura vineyards - Chardonnay, Savagnin, Pinot Noir Trousseau, and Poulsard, producing five different styles: white, red and rose wines, Crémant (sparkling wine), Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille, a delightful sweet straw wine.

Take a trip to Arbois – a small town, carrying the proud title of the Franche-Comté wine capital.

If you have a chance, come on the first Sunday of September, when Le Biou ceremony takes place. It's a fun old ceremony where the best grapes are tugged into a huge installation and carried all around the city to the church as a generous offering to the local patron Saint Just.

Besides, a lot of local artisans take their best wines outside to sample and a small fair’s usually held where you can buy fresh local foods and dairy.

Jura’s postcardish wine is Vin Jaune – deep-colored yellow wine made of late harvest Savagnin grapes. It’s a mature dry wine with a strong flavor and nutty, somewhat sherried after-flavor. I can’t say it is my favorite regional wine, yet I know a lot of people who genuinely love it!

Franche-Comté Cheese 
Now that you have a bottle of Jura wine, how about pairing it with one of the local cheeses? 
The best AOC cheeses produced in Franche-Comté are: 

  • Comté: hard cheese made of unpasteurized cow milk (only taken from Montbeliarde Cattle), typically aged for 12-18 months. 
  • Mont d’Or: soft cheese made of cow milk with a grayish-yellow washed rind. It can only be produced seasonally from August 15th to March 15th, and sold from September 10th until May 10th. Best way to eat it – bake it in the oven for 10-15 min, break the crust, and voila. Enjoy! 
  • Morbier: semi-soft cheese was first made in 1875 in Morbier, a mountain village of Haut-Jura. It’s easily identifiable by a dark charcoal layer in the middle. The flavor is rich and creamy, yet with a slightly bitter aftertaste. 

The French-Swiss border near Pontarlier

In Franche-Comté you’d rarely hear a word of spoken English, yet the people are friendly and charming. I often hear “Bonjours” from strangers I pass along on a weekend randonnée.

Probably, I could talk endlessly of all the amazing hiking routes crisscrossing the Jura mountains, with all those gorgeous alpine lakes and deep icy caves to explore.

Yet, I’d rather keep that for your own consideration after you travel to Franche-Comté ☺

About the Author: 
Elena ditched her common sense and followed her heart to Besancon. She shares her stories of life, travel and French food on her travel blog Elena’s Travelgram, along with past adventures on a shoestring budget around Europe and Asia. 

All photos compliments of Elena.