Franche-Comté is a region in the north-east of France. Since 2016, it is merged with the neighbouring region of Burgundy into the region Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, but for all practical (and touristic) purposes, it remains a well-defined geographic and cultural entity. Franche-Comté is a region of dense forests, rolling hills, small villages, beautiful river valleys, gorges, lakes and waterfalls, thermal baths ... and some very good cheeses. It is not very much frequented by tourists, even when it can easily compare in natural beauty with many other areas, giving the visitor the opportunity to explore the 'real' rural France. It is a perfect destination to go hiking, cycling, kayaking or even cross-country skiing, and when you are tired of that, to enjoy French city life in the beautiful capital of Besançon.
The name Franche-Comté means 'free county', and derives from its status in the Middle Ages as an independent county within the Holy Roman Empire. The Medieval history of the region is incredibly complex and entwined with the neighbouring former kingdom and duchy of Burgundy, with the area changing hands multiple times in the course of the centuries. In 1477, the last Burgundian duke Charles the Bold was killed on the battlefield, and Franche-Comté eventually became Spanish in 1516. The region then played a small but significant role in the Dutch rebellion: the murderer of William of Orange, Balthasar Gérard, was born in the village of Vuillafans.
In the end, the Spanish could not hold on to their possessions, and the French king Louis XIV invaded Franche-Comté in 1674, after which the region was formally ceded to France. Under French rule, the capital was moved from Dole to Besançon, and the French hold was consolidated by building massive fortifications in Besançon by the famous military architect Vauban. Since then, the area has not been politically contested, and has remained a predominantly rural area. Industrial activities were mainly limited to salt works, but in the 19th century new industries developed mainly around Montbéliard. The territory of Belfort only became part of Franche-Comté after the German-French war of 1870, being the only area of the Alsace region that successfully resisted the German army.
The area is largely part of the Jura mountains which reach heights of more than 1400 m above sea level near the Swiss border. Despite their elevation, the Jura mountains are not very rugged, being composed of high plateaus that are intersected by river valleys. The Jura mountains have given their name to the Jurassic era, of dinosaur fame. Since the dominant rock in the Jura is limestone, the area has many so-called karst features, including lots of caves and underground rivers. To the north and west, the Jura mountains give way to the valleys of the Doubs and Saône rivers. In the far northeast, the region extends into the Vosges mountain range.
Much of the region is covered in forest: some 43% of the area consists of beech, oak and pine forests. Some of the forests are designated nature conservation areas, but there is also a substantial forestry industry.
The economy of the area is mostly rural, but a few large industries are found, in particular the Peugeot car factory in Sochaux, and the Alstom train factories. Besançon used to be an important watchmaking town, but these days it is mainly known for its microelectronics. Agricultural production is focused on cheese (see Eat section) and beef, in particular the Montbéliarde cows. The region is also known for its wines (see Drink section). Tourism is mainly concentrated on the ski resorts in the upper Jura mountains, and on the many lakes and rivers.
The area is characterized by substantial differences in elevation, and therefore also has marked differences in temperature. In the low-lying regions, temperatures are mostly pleasant, but the higher elevations are also known as 'French Siberia', with the lowest temperature in France of -41° C recorded in the village of Mouthe. Precipitation in the area is relatively high; moist air from the west will be pushed against the Jura mountains, which can result in prolonged rainy periods in any time of the year. The higher elevations also have substantial snowfall in Winter, making them very well suited for cross-country skiing (ski de fond). The variable weather is one of the charms of the region, but if you prefer dry and sunny holidays, then Franche-Comté may not be your first choice.
The region is crossed by four long distance trails:
The region only has two major autoroutes (A36 and A40/A39), and they are both on the margins of the region, so in order to explore it further you will have to use the national (N) or departmental (D) routes. The D routes usually go straight through the centres of villages and towns, making the going a lot slower. On the other hand, traffic in the region is not very dense, and many of the roads will lead you through scenic countryside. Traffic in towns can be a bit more challenging, especially since most of them have one-way routing systems. However, as everywhere in France, signposting is excellent, and drivers are usually polite.
Parking in city centres is paid, though not extremely expensive, and in most cases you should be able to find a free parking space within walking distance of your destination.
By public transport
The TGVs are convenient but also relatively expensive and they will only get you to a limited number of places. Local trains are operated by TER Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and connect the smaller towns. Apart from the train services, a dense network of bus lines will connect the smaller places.
French public transport is one of the best in Europe, with a dense network of connections and good service - but services may be disrupted irregularly by the frequent strikes that are a fixture of French politics.
The area is well suited for cycling, but make sure that you have a bike that is suited for hilly terrain. Also, the area is known for its rainy weather, so don't forget to bring your waterproofs if you want to do some serious biking. Attractive cycling routes are signposted in many areas, but be aware that cyclists usually have to share the road with drivers; separate bike lanes are rare.
Bike rentals can be found in all towns and major tourist attractions.
Cirques are amphitheatre shaped valleys formed by glacial erosion during the last Ice Age. The cirques in the Jura are extremely pretty since they are always found at the end of narrow valleys and gorges, where you will find the source of a small river, sometimes with beautiful cascades as well.
A must see is 'Region des Lacs' consisting of around 9 lakes of crystal blue water. Here motor-powered boats are prohibited and fishing regulated. It runs from Clairvaux-les-lacs, to Doucier Via Les Frasnois and the Cascades du Herisson. The lakes are a haven for locals on a hot weekend in June/July and a great place for a barbecue or picnic, water tempertaures are usually around 20deg (depending on the time of year) and make for a very refreshing dip after a long hike.
The cascades (waterfalls), are a must see, while somewhat difficult in winter when the walking tracks can be frosty and slippery, it is a nature lovers heaven. Falls vary in volume of water with the rain, but range from 60m high to almost flat rapid filled rivers full of both wild and introduced trout, along the way you pass the ruins of ancient mills, which used the rivers constant flow to produce flour and other goods.
At the top of the Cascades du Herisson, is 'la Fromagerie' meaning cheese factory, there is no cheese factory here, however I believe there are plans to open a small store selling cheese from the region. here you will find free parking, (rather that the 5euro fee at the bottom), a wooden souviner store specialising in porducts from the area and a Friendly bar/coffee shop run by a young French/Australian couple with local dishes available. (if you ask nicely they will give you their WiFi Code.)They host concerts on the occasional weekend.
Accomodation in this area consists of guesthouses and 'campings', however if you are travelling with a tent you can pitch it almost anywhere without concerning the locals (obviously discretion is to be taken) there are facilities for camper vans all over France and can be parked/slept in in most public parking areas.
The Franc-Comtois are proudest of their cheeses, which are very much appreciated throughout France and beyond. Since the area has a considerable proportion of highland, most of the cheese classifies as 'mountain cheese', with corresponding seasonal modes of production. You can buy them straight from the farm at fruitières that are dotted throughout the region.
The main cheese varieties are:
Franche-Comté is also the origin of La Vache Qui Rit, a product that has very little to do with real French cheese, unfortunately. You can visit the factory museum in Lons-le-Saunier.
The most famous sausage of the region is the Saucisse de Morteau, a smoked pork sausage, that you will find in many local dishes.
The area is well known for its trout that is found in the many rivers in the area. There are many places where you can go trout-fishing, and you will find it on the menu in many places - a favourite combination is with Comté cheese and Morteau sausage.
High End: 'Le Eoilenne' - Le frasnois, (top of Cascades Du herisson) mains average 25 Euro,Beers from 4euro 250ml coming back after a period of 'distaste' among tourists and locals alike. Not the place for a quick eat, but a good place for the yes sir no sir of a traditional Jurassien restaurant.
The wines from Franche-Comté are quite different from those in other regions, and not very much appreciated outside the area. However, when you are there you should certainly taste them and judge for yourself. The best known wine producing region is found around the town of Arbois, but you can find vineyards all along the western slopes of the Jura mountains.
Both whites and reds are produced. The white wines are mostly Chardonnay, often combined with the local grape Savagnin, which makes for a stronger taste than most whites. However, the Savagnin is more famous for being the grape used for the vin jaune (yellow wine) that is matured for at least 6 years and 3 months in wooden barrels. The process used and the resulting taste are very similar to Spanish sherry wines.
Red wines are made from Pinot Noir grapes, or from the local varieties Poulsard and Trousseau. The reds are very light in colour and rather acidic in taste, but the good ones are really nice and will give you a completely different experience from any other French wines.
The region also produces vin de paille (straw wine), a sweet strong dessert wine made from grapes dried on straw (hence its name).
Another typical drink of the region is macvin, a liqueur wine made from grape must and marc (pomace brandy). It is stronger than wine (16-22% alcohol) and has a nice sweet taste, similar to Floc de Gascogne and Pineau des Charentes.
The Jura mountains are also the birthplace of absinth, the drink famously labelled as the green fairy in the 19th century for its slightly hallucinogenic effects. While it was first produced in the town of Couvet in Switzerland, the town of Pontarlier was the site of the Pernod factory opened in 1805. The drink was banished in France in 1914 because of its perceived health risks, but it has been revived since the year 2000, although no distillery is found in the region as yet. The name Pernod, of course, survives as one the best known brands of pastis in France.
Until a few years ago, craft beer was almost non-existent in France, but this has changed rapidly, with micro-breweries popping up everywhere and producing good quality beers. And in fact, brewing you own local beer fits perfectly with the French appreciation for regional food. You will find them mostly in wine shops; supermarkets may have some on stock as well. For local draft beers, you will have to do a little bit of exploring, only a small number of bars will have them available.
The neighbouring regions in France are: