Welcome to the Haut Jura Regional Natural Park – an unspoilt mountainous region in eastern France, right next to the Swiss border. 118 little towns and villages nestle within the park’s borders - like this one, Champagnole. But with fewer than 46 inhabitants per square kilometre, the chief delights of the Haut Jura are its natural wonders.
Extraordinary geological formations in the Jura’s limestone surface can be found wherever you go. These wave-like folds and ripples were created by violent seismic activity millions of years ago. This particular formation, which resembles one of the bicorn hats worn by Napoleonic-era policemen, is known locally as the Le Chapeau de Gendarme (the policeman’s hat).
The first Jura mountains were formed about 35 million years ago in the wake of the violent tectonic shifts that raised the Alps. Today, from the Crêt de la Neige (1720 m, 5643 ft), you can get amazing views across the Swiss border to the Alps. On clear days Mont Blanc can be seen rising above the other peaks.
Wildlife flourishes in the Haut Jura. The dense forests are home to stags, deer, hares, wolves, wild boar and even lynx. In the upland meadows herds of chamois can be seen in summer, nimbly picking their way amidst the rocks.
There are many places even motorists and cyclists might feel like chamois clinging to the region’s limestone cliff faces and escarpments.
Water has shaped so much of the park’s dramatic landscape by cutting through the limestone to create gorges and waterfalls. This one, known as Le Grand Sault, is one of a whole series of spectacular cascades along the Hérisson river.
There’s a gentler side to the Haut Jura landscape too. Peaceful lakes, such as the Lac des Rousses, are ideal for boating and swimming while the lush meadows gently sloping down to the water’s edge play an essential part one of the region’s best-loved products.
Say cheese! Rich pastures, Jura’s very own Montbéliarde cows, and centuries of local skill combine to produce a whole array of wonderful local cheeses including the famous Comté cheese and other equally delicious delicacies: Blue de Gex, Mont d’Or (made only from summer milk) and Morbier, with its distinctive streak of ash running through it. Grazing alongside Montbéliard cows, the park’s meadows are also home to region’s very own breed of wild horse – the Comtois – with its distinctive russet coat and caramel-coloured mane.
The distinctive landscape of the Jura was immortalised in the 19th century by the region’s most famous artist, Gustave Courbet. A native of Ornans, a town to the north west of the park, Courbet roamed the whole region painting its forests, cliffs and rock pools. This View of Ornans, probably dates to the mid-1850s, not long after his monumental Realist painting Burial at Ornans (1849–50) scandalised Paris.
View of Ornans (probably mid-1850s) by Gustave CourbetThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Église de Saint-Laurent which features in many of Courbet’s depictions of Ornans, still stands today, as do many of the town's picturesque houses cantilevered over the River Loue.
Travelling south from Ornans you reach Arbois. Birthplace of Louis Pasteur, the famous 19th century microbiologist and chemist, the town is also considered the wine capital of the Jura. On the first Sunday in September it hosts the Fête du Biou procession, where crowds gather to watch local winemakers carry huge bunches of red and white grapes through the streets before hanging them in a service at Saint-Just church.
But putting festive crowds – and even wine and cheese – to one side, the true allure of the Haut Jura Regional Natural Park surely lies in its wide open spaces and the sheer drama of its unmistakable beauty.