A famous motto in this eastern French region is “Comtois rends toi! Nenni ma foi!”, “Comtois, surrender! Not on your life!”. And this phrase alone gives you a sense of the landscape and the violent history of the place, where conflict was a part of life up to the mid-20th century.
So it’s no shock that the region is scattered with historic forts and monuments commemorating feats of bravery.
The countryside is just as untameable, with soaring steephead valleys and numerous lakes and waterfalls to discover.
This region was also the birthplace of the likes of Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo and Gustave Courbet, giants of French culture and science.
Lets explore the best things to do in France-Comté:
1. Citadelle de Besançon
The 17th-century military mastermind Vauban designed this citadel high on Mount Saint-Etienne.
Vauban took even the smallest details into account, like building the parapets from brick instead of limestone because its fragments were less deadly after a blast.
It’s been a UNESCO site since 2008, and the walk up from the rest of the city isn’t to be taken lightly.
Once you’re atop the walls though, the sight of the Doubs River and the hilly landscape will make you glad you made the effort, and you can go where your curiosity leads, whether it’s the 132-metre well, the ramparts or gun towers.
Kids will adore the animal enclosures, including kangaroos and lions, and there’s a fine museum about the French Resistance.
2. Lion of Belfort
Frédéric Bartholdi, the man who sculpted New York’s Statue of Liberty, created this enormous monument of a lion just next to the citadel in Belfort.
The lion is 11 metres in height and 22 metres long, and is made from red sandstone, standing out subtly against the grey limestone cliff behind.
The beast was completed in 1880 to commemorate the Siege of Belfort during the Prussian War, when 17,000 men were able to withstand the 40,000-strong Prussian assault for 103 days.
A sculpture of this size is best enjoyed from a distance, but you can also follow a path up from the town to study the work close-up.
3. Fort de Joux
The setting of this castle could hardly be more scenic.
It protects the Cluse de Pontarlier mountain pass on a slender but high rocky spur.
There has been some kind of fortification here since the 1000s, but it was Vauban who had the biggest impact on the site.
In the late-1600s he added a system of bastions, batteries and barracks, and dug the well, which at 147 metres was the deepest in France at the time (listen for how long it takes for a coin to make a splash!). The work was done to such high standards that the fort was even included as an artillery position in the Maginot Line before the Second World War.
Don’t forget to browse the museum, with 600 antique weapons, or descend the famous spiral staircase.
4. Source du Lison
Close to the village of Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne in the Doubs Department is a fantasy-like setting that will stay with you for a long time after you’ve left.
It is the second-most powerful spring in the Jura after the Loue, and the blue-green water emerges at 600 litres a second from a cave at the bottom of limestone cliffs, before spilling over a series of cascades and down the slopes through deciduous woodland.
Even in periods of low rainfall there’s a steady flow of water, and you can climb up the path to the side of the falls for a look around the cavern.
5. Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans
Visiting this 18th-century former salt factory will give you all kinds of fresh perspectives and insights about not just this region, but France as a whole in the 1700s and 1800s.
In part this is down to the design of the saltworks by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who was inspired by the Enlightenment and grouped his buildings with a “rational geometry”. You’ll also learn about the importance of salt to Franche-Comté in this time, how it was extracted from local brine and how the unpopular salt tax was one of the many things that brought about the French Revolution.
6. Notre Dame du Haut, Besançon
Along with 16 other works around the world by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, this unforgettable pilgrimage chapel is now a UNESCO site and considered one of the world’s greatest 20th-century religious buildings.
In 1913 the medieval chapel here was destroyed in a storm and then its successor was hit by German artillery in the Second World War.
What replaced it in 1955 will set your pulse racing.
The structure is made of recycled stones from the chapel’s predecessor, held in a concrete frame, and may surprise people familiar with Le Corbusier’s work because it has curving lines instead of right angles.
On sunny days light streams through the irregular stained-glass windows set deep in the south wall.
If ever a place was made for exploring, it’s Dole, which was the seat of the Burgundian parliament and a regional centre for learning in the 1400s.
It remained part of the Habsburg Empire until it was taken by Louis XIV in the 1660s, after which its parliament and university were shifted to Besançon.
This was of course a humiliation back then, but for us it means Dole has become fixed in time.
There’s a beautiful ensemble of houses from the 1400s and 1550s on tightly-packed streets where wells, coats of arms, stone bridges and palaces with arcaded courtyards can draw your attention for hours.
Louis Pasteur was also born in the city in 1822, and there’s a museum at his birthplace.
8. Château d’Oricourt
This castle in the Haute-Saône department is a French Historic Monument, built in the 1100s and completely open to the public.
It’s considered the best-preserved piece of Medieval military architecture in the entire region.
There are two rings of walls and ditches: The outer containing the manor’s farm buildings, and the inner has structures dating from the 1100s to the 1400s and all guarded by two 25-metre-high stone towers.
It’s a real thrill to find all of the surviving details, like the original bread ovens, cistern, well, cellars and the large vaulted dining hall.
9. Les Cascades du Hérisson
If you’re around in summer, the best time to see this natural wonder in the Jura Lakes is after a heavy rainfall or the cascades might be a bit dry.
The rest of the year there’s a torrent, apart from in mid-winter when the falls are often completely frozen.
The seven falls are caused by the Hérisson River descending 300 metres elevation in just three kilometres.
There’s a walking trail following the course of the river, and you’ll have lookouts from which you can contemplate spectacular waterfalls like Le Grand Saut and L’Éventail, 60 and 65 metres high respectively.
This is an endearing little riverside commune in the Loue River Valley in the shadow of the craggy Roche du Mont hill.
The sight you mustn’t miss is the riverfront from one of Ornans’ two bridges from the 1600s.
The old houses here, with their sloping roofs, seem to huddle up against each other next to the water.
The realist painter, Gustave Courbet was born here, and his feted work Burial at Ornans was painted in the town, as the title tells you! There’s a museum about him in the town.
Also make time to saunter around Ornans, stopping by at the Church of Saint-Laurent from the 1500s, in a mix of gothic and romanesque, and both the old and new town halls.
Even smaller but just as charming is the village of Lods, also on the River Loue.
This is officially another of France’s “plus beaux” villages and like Ornans the best vantage point is from the bridge on the Loure.
From there you can see the village’s stone houses as they bank up on the steep green valley.
Many of these belonged to winegrowers in the past, and you can fill yourself in on Lods’ viticultural heritage at the small Musée de la Vigne et du Vin.
There’s also an ethnological museum showing the tools of local trades in days gone by, from the wine press to the blacksmith’s forge.
12. Région des Lacs du Jura Français
At the centre of the Jura Department there’s an abundance of lakes: 15 in total, and all created by glacial activity.
The scenery is sublime, with wooded karst escarpments forming the backdrop, and the larger lakes, such as the 230-hectare Lake Chalain, offer campsites and fun both on land and in the water in summer.
One of the many conservation initiatives is that motorised boats are prohibited on the lakes, which helps to maintain the sense of tranquillity.
You can come for a swim in July and August, making the most of the three supervised beaches and maybe renting a pedalo for a cruise around the shore.
Also one of France’s “plus beaux villages”, Baume-les-Messieurs in the Jura department is dwarfed by its stirring limestone environment.
The human landmark to check out is Baume Abbey, which has its roots in the 6th century.
What you see now is mostly gothic, and the marvellous renaissance retable behind the altar is more than enough reason to drop by.
But for many people the headliner is the scenery, as the village is tucked in a valley that forms a cirque, capped with cliffs 200 metres above the valley floor.
Pick up the local trails for awesome views of the village, visit the 600-metre cave and see if you can find the Cascade des Tufs, a fantastic set of waterfalls.
14. Outdoor Recreation
Winter means snow, but apart from the stations at des Rousses and Métabief, there’s an absence of Alpine skiing in this region; instead you can strap on your cross-country skis at a host of locations, particularly to the north and east, and embark on an adventure through snow -dusted forest and past frozen lakes.
In summer the quiet roads are a road-cyclist’s paradise, and nowhere typifies this better than the rolling green panoramas and hairpin turns on the the Ballon d’Alsace at the far north of the region.
This climb was a mainstay of the earliest days of the Tours de France.
15. Try Regional Cuisine
If you’re going self-catered you can feast on the region’s best products without having to spend much time in the kitchen.
That’s because it’s mostly about charcuterie, like brési, salted and smoked beef, and Morteau Sausage, smoked in traditional pyramidal chimneys.
Cheeses are also prominent, like Morbier, Mont d’Or and Comté, which is melted in fondues and goes perfectly with the region’s Vin Jaune.
Absinthe is also distilled in Franche-Comté and there’s even an Absinthe Trail, snaking through the Jura Mountains and entering Switzerland.
At Maison de l’Absinthe in Môtier and the Pontarlier Museum you can find out all you need to know about the “Green Fairy” made notorious by late-19th-century artists and writers.