By Julian Moore
I wish to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace and interior joy.' The architect Le Corbusier's wish is manifest in the white purity of his Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, perched on a hill in the southern Vosges mountains of eastern France. It's a perfect introduction to Franche-Comté's natural, unspoiled pleasures.
Belfort, on the aptly named Savoureuse River, has the oldest grocery store in France: opened in 1825, Chez Perello is fragrant with spices, its goods displayed in neat wooden compartments. A 168-step climb up the rose-pink cathedral tower offers a bird's-eye perspective of the medieval town nestling beneath its protective citadel, with 17th-century fortifications by Vauban. The Lion of Belfort, carved in stone on the citadel, celebrates the city's successful stand against the Prussians in 1870, when Franche-Comté remained resolutely French.
At the confluence of the Rhône-Rhine Canal and the Allan and Lizier rivers, with the Doubs on its southern outskirts, Montbéliard is crowned by the ruins of its 15th-century château. At the Musée Peugeot, as well as vintage models in period decor, there are Pike's Peak race winners and the Pope's glass 'Papamobile'.
The calm waters of the Doubs meander through lush wooded hills and emerald meadows as you cruise from Montbéliard to Besançon. Built on seven hills around a horseshoe bend of the river, Besançon was always a strategic town caught in a constant tug-of-war between France and Germany; it finally became French in 1678 when Louis XIV made it the capital of Franche-Comté. Its hilltop Citadelle, circled by Vauban's rampart walk, contains several museums, including a most moving Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation.
The Musée Gustave Courbet, in the 18th-century house where the great pre-impressionist painter was born, overlooks the Loue River in Ornans; a short walk away you can see the spot where he painted Miroir d'Ornans, showing the quayside houses reflected in the tranquil mirror of the river.
Farther down the Loue at Port-Lesney, I woke to the cooing of turtledoves and a tinkling fountain at the Château de Germigny, recently converted into a luxury hotel. Nearby, at Arc-et-Senans, the Royal Saltworks are visible proof of 18th-century avant-garde architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux's theory that 'beauty brings goodness.' A feeling of well-being pervades this oldest visitable factory in France, and its neoclassical buildings have the perfect symmetry of a sundial.
Louis Pasteur's childhood home on the Cuisance River at Arbois is just as he left it, complete with the laboratory in which he worked each summer; his vineyard, on the Jura slopes, is now a stop on the Route des Vins. Arbois's celebrated vin jaune, a sweet golden nectar, can be tasted at the Jura Wine Institute in the Château Pécaud.
caves and country cooking
The Rhône-Rhine Canal joins the Doubs at Dole, Pasteur's birthplace. A dramatic medieval backdrop rises above the modern marina and the Tanners' Canal where Pasteur's father worked, with beautiful tile-roofed and turreted stone houses clustered around the 16th-century church. Deep in a nearby cliff, the Grottes d'Osselle are thrilling, well-lit caves with fantastic rock formations, walkable for a mile-and-a-half round trip.
The valley of the river Saône is dotted with sleepy villages like Scey-sur-Saône and Ray-sur-Saône. At Champlitte's Musee Albert Demard, with its remarkable presentation of folk arts and implements, Jean-Christophe Demard showed me far-from-folksy scenic replicas of rural life in the time of his father, who organized the collection. 'It's not just about objects', he emphasized, 'it's about the people behind them.'
No place could be more like the France of 50 years ago than Pesmes. Its rue des Châteaux has six of them, four inhabited by the same families since the 12th century. The Château des Forges, beautifully converted by its architect owners, was once a cannonball factory for Louis XVI. At a cozy auberge on the river Ognon, the patronne served sumptuous country cooking: Fougerolles cherries with local charcuterie including Morteau sausage, a vast platter of the region's famed cheeses-Comté, Morbier, Mont d'Or, Mamirolle-and a light red Côtes du Jura. An earthier moment of peace and interior joy is hard to find.
For more information on Eastern France, call the France On Call Hotline at (202) 659-7779 or visit the web site at: www.francetourism.com