I’m not even going to start at the beginning because neither you nor I have that much time on our hands. Suffice it to say that the region of Franche-Comté has a long history. This is France after all and the old girl, with all her beautiful parts, is getting on in years. To begin, we’ll start with a little background information just to give a little…background.
Wikipedia will tell you that the term “Franche-Comté” first officially appeared in 1366. Before that, the region belonged to the comte de Bourgogne. Hence the meaning of the region’s name: free county (of Burgundy). The region exchanged hands as a result of inheritance, marriages, wars, and treaties. The 1678 signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen finally annexed Franche-Comté to France.
Geographically speaking, the region of Franche-Comté is almost in the centre of Europe, sandwiched as it is between the region of Burgundy and the country of Switzerland. This makes for easy movement of goods and people, specifically to/from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Economically, this benefitted the region but, as you can imagine, the region suffered greatly during WWI and WWII.
Le papy, la mamie, and D’s uncle E have told me stories about what is was like for them during WWII. Neither went into great detail as the period was a very difficult time for them. They were all kids during the German occupation and recounted stories of fathers leaving town, leaving their wives and children behind. D’s grandmother’s house was taken over by Germans as many homes in the area were. Uncle E showed me the marks on the stairs left by the boots of German soldiers. For me, it’s all unimaginable and incredible and unforgettable.
« Comtois, rends-toi ! Nenni ma foi ! »
Let’s take a small step back in time, back to the 17th century. During the siege of Dole, in the course of battle in 1636, the attacking French army called out “Comtois, surrender!” (“Comtois, rends-toi!”) to which the people of Dole replied, from the ramparts, “Never, by my faith!”. This reply has become the symbolic motto which clearly reflects the stubbornness and determination of the Comtois people.
And, if you ask a Comtois “qui est le chef?” (who is in charge?) don’t be surprised if the answer is “nous sommes tous chefs!” (we’re all in charge!).
On a side note, while doing some reading on the region’s history, I came across a response to an article discussing the reunification of the regions of Burgundy and Franc-Comtois. When I mentioned this article to D his quick and immediate response was along the lines of “we didn’t fight all those wars for nothing!” It seems you can take the boy out of the region but the attitude is there forever!
In terms of language, Frainc-Comtou (spoken in Franche-Comté and Swiss Romande) is a langue d’oïl (oïl for yes). Oïl became oui in modern French. I am only familiar with the following because D added them to my vocabulary: cheni (dust) and pelle à cheni (dustpan). At the time, I did not realize that they were Comtois and it wasn’t until I used pelle à cheni in conversation with a few non-Comtois that it was explained to me.
The other quirky thing I’ve learned about the Comtois is their use of the definite article ‘the’. It appears where you least expect it and has even crept into my spoken and written French. The Comtois will almost always refer to someone with a definite article. Saying his or her name isn’t enough; it must be preceded by ‘the’. For example, you would likely say “hier soir j’ai vu Michel“; a Comtois would say “hier soir j’ai vu le Michel“. Even when speaking to Michel or Marie the article appears. Non-Comtois would say “Hé Marie, comment ça va?” Comtois? They would say “Hé, la Marie, comment ça va?” Crazy, non?
If you find yourself in the region rest assured: there is more to see than those sweet-faced Montbéliard cows. If getting out and enjoying nature, the valleys, rivers, waterfalls, and the Jura mountains are yours to discover. In terms of cultural sites, I’ve listed just a few must-see spots.
Le Lion de Belfort (The Belfort Lion) – sculpted in 1880 by Bartholdi (creator of the Statue of Liberty). It was erected in memory of the victims of the siege of 1870-1871. The Lion was carved from red sandstone of the Vosges and measures 22m long, 11 m high. It is an enduring symbol of courage and bravery of the people of Belfort. The Belfort Lion was classified as a historical monument in 1931.
Citadelle de Besançon (Citadel of Besançon) – the walled city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Les Salines de Salins-les-Bains (The Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains) – salt mining played a large part in the region’s history. The Saltworks were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
Les clochers Comtois (Comtois bell-towers): an emblem of the region. There are approximately 700 Comtois bell-towers in the region, each differing in size and the type of covering.
Rouget de Lisle (Lons-le-Saunier): officer and composer; composed Le Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin which was adopted and sung by the Marseille troops who were marching up to Paris. It was renamed La Marseillaise and later was adopted as the French National Anthem 1879.
Louis Pasteur (Dole): scientist. He had the idea of heating wine to 57 °C to kill the germs. So was born the process of pasteurization. It was his vaccination against rabies, however, which earned him international recognition.
Peugeot Family (Montbéliard): Visit the Peugeot Museum in Sochaux to learn more about the family and their business of making cars, bicycles, motorcycles and helmets, salt/pepper mills, coffee mills, and tools.
Gustave Courbet (Ornans): realist painter. He was criticized as being “a painter of ugliness” because he chose to paint what he saw. A few weeks ago, while in Paris, I visited the Musée d’Orsay and it was there I first encountered Courbet’s work. To say his work is ugly is a huge lie. To say he had nerve, given the time in which he lived, is an understatement. If you didn’t see my original reference to monsieur Courbet click here. (And yes, I was pleased to learn that he was a Comtois.)
Georges Cuvier (Montbéliard): biologist and paleontologist. He was discoverer of the science of compared anatomy, explaining that an animal’s organs are dependent upon each other.
Auguste and Louis Lumière (Besançon): biologist (Antoine) and chemist (Louis). The brothers played a key role in the history of cinema and photography. Following in their father’s footsteps, they went on to invent the cinematograph in 1895.
On our next stop in the region we’ll take a look at why I call Franche-Comté the Texas of France!