You might have some Comté lurking in the fridge, stocked up on Aldi’s bargain Crémant from the area, or even driven right through it on the A39 to go skiing. But the chances are you’ve never actually visited the Jura, a delightful départment in eastern France.
This undiscovered region is little known by the British, who bypass it on their way to more famous destinations. But this year, it experienced a boom among staycationing French tourists, and has now had its verdant landscape showcased during Stage 19 of the Tour de France.
Whoever organised this stage was kind to the cyclists, who’ve covered the hardest terrain ever this year: they eschewed the steep mountain roads of Haut Jura for the valleys of La Petite Montagne. It’s a gentler way to approach, and the landscape here looks like a piece of material pushed together, with flat, straight roads running between the folds of rolling hills.
I’ve been coming to this region every year for the past decade, first as a tourist and then as a second-home owner. Even now, my French husband and I are still discovering new treats as well as revisiting old haunts.
One restaurant that lures us back time and again is Chez Bouvard in Balanod, a village to the west of the Stage 19 route. Here chef Philippe Bouvard serves up a bargain menu du jour for around €15/£13.70. More often than not, it will feature Bressan chicken in a Vin Jaune sauce, while on the à la carte menu you can sample Bouvard’s signature Comté cheese soufflé or the region’s famous Morel mushrooms.
Either menu can be washed down with Jura’s famous white wine, made from the Savagnin grape variety. Recently, restaurant staff who spot my British accent have hesitated when I’ve ordered a bottle. “Are you familiar with the taste?” is the usual refrain. Some visitors, on encountering the heavy, sherry-like flavour think the wine is corked.
But the white here is made “sous-voile”, meaning that barrels are not topped up during the maturing process and develop a layer of yeast on the top.
The wine region in Jura starts near the pretty town of Saint Amour and snakes up towards Lons Le Saunier, the département capital, and beyond. From Saint-Laurent-la-Roche, an isolated village perched on a high plain south of the city, there are stunning views over the vineyards of Rotalier and Vincelles.
The Tour de France competitors might not have had time to stop for a tipple, but it’s the ideal place for a bike ride with some wine-tasting thrown in. Finding the owners in situ is a matter of pot-luck, as these are small, family-run operations, but at Domaine Joly in Rotalier, owner Claude is often on hand to crack open some Poulsard, the local light-bodied red.
Likewise, there’s usually the opportunity for a tasting at Domaine Pignier in Montaigu, a picturesque village which offers panoramas to the south, and from the other side of the road, over Lons le Saunier. As with many French towns, the vista has been marred by unimaginative municipal buildings. But Lons, which means City of Salt (Ledo Salinarius), is a grand place. Its fortune, like nearby Salins-les-Bains, was built on “white gold”, and in the 19th century, thermal baths were constructed in a fine building which is still in operation.
The spa is not the city’s only claim to fame. It’s also the birth place of Rouget de Lisle, composer of La Marsellaise, and home to La Vache Qui Rit. Fans of Laughing Cow cheese can visit the museum, which shows how the brand has developed over time.
With its arcaded streets and squares, Lons is definitely worth a visit, especially on a Thursday morning when there is a bustling market. While restaurant La Table de Perrault is a good choice for a romantic dinner, for lunchtime ambience we always choose Brasserie Le Strasbourg (or the Pink Café, as it’s known to my children). It’s best to turn a blind eye to the newly installed crushed velvet banquettes, and marvel at the gorgeous fin de siècle lamps and chandeliers instead.
From Lons le Saunier, the route of the 2020 Tour heads towards one of the more recognisable villages in Jura: Château-Chalon. It’s designated one of the “Petite Cité Comtoise de Caractère”, and is renowned for its Vin Jaune, a yellow wine which is aged sous-voile for six years and three months and best drunk with a slab of nutty Comté.
The most atmospheric way to approach is on foot: we park in Voiteur and take a footpath which climbs through the vines, arriving via a stone stairway in the midst of hollyhocks and rose gardens, before sampling the wine at Domaine Geneletti.
Jura is a paradise for walkers, but to experience the next step of the Tour route, jump in a car. The landscape here is noted for its “reculées”, or blind valleys, and the best place to view this stunning geographical phenomenon is from the Belvédère du Cirque de Ladoye. There’s also a testing walk up the side of the Haute Seille valley, with the start just next to the entrance to the spectacular caves near Baume-les-Messieurs and its famous Abbey.
The Jurassic Period is named after the Jura mountains, so it seems appropriate that the end of this stage of the Tour should pass close to Loulle. The village itself is unremarkable but my children were bowled over by the incredible set of dinosaur footprints there: made by sauropods millions of years ago, and discovered in 2009.
That to me is reason enough for this area to be more famous than it is. But if the dinosaurs don’t get you here, then the fresh air, forest walks and fine food certainly should
How to do it
Jura is easy to reach by car, and is just six hours’ drive from Calais to Lons Le Saunier. If you prefer to fly, then both Lyon and Geneva are good options. It takes 90 minutes to drive to Lons from Lyon, and up to two hours from Geneva
Le Château de Marigna (chateaudemarigna.com) in Marigna Sur Valouse is the perfect base to explore La Petite Montagne. There are four gites next to the château, which dates back to the 11th century. Prices start from 690 euros a week.
Maison D’Eusebia (maison-eusebia.fr) is a former 17th century library that has been beautifully restored and occupies a prime location in the heart of Château-Chalon. There are five rooms and prices start from 85 euros a night.