Diamonds are forever
Carolyn Reynier heads for eastern france and discovers the beautiful Haut-Jura, a little-known gem of an area nestling on the Swiss border
This month we visit a hidden gem in eastern France which may well fit the bill for anyone seriously considering moving to France and who wants to work but also wants to live in the country. If you also fancy a bit of skiing but nothing too testing, lovely lakes and miles of gorgeous countryside to discover on foot, horseback or mountain bike – all within the setting of a protected parc national regional (PNR) – then jet off to the Haut-Jura.
We are in the region of Franche-Comt�, which is made up of four departments: the Haute-Sa�ne and the Territoire de Belfort in the north, the Doubs and, in the south, the Jura. And for lovers of chocolate and cuckoo clocks, the region shares a 230km border with Switzerland.
The southern end of the Jura is known as the Pays du Haut-Jura. Its capital, St-Claude, lies at an altitude of 440m at the confluence of the Bienne and the Tacon rivers. Given that almost 50 bridges and walkways cross these two rivers and the third one flowing through the town, the Ab�me, a bit about bridges seems appropriate at this point.
One of the oldest is the Pont d’Avignon. Back in the 13th century, the bridge-building monks from St-B�nezet near Avignon in the Vaucluse were called in by the local monks to build a solid stone bridge over the Bienne. In lieu of payment, they were given the use of the entire hillside dominating the bridge and founded the nearby village of Avignon in tribute to their place of origin.
The Pont d’Avignon, which has been repaired numerous times, was reconstructed in the 18th and 19th centuries. And it was in 1860 that the building of the Pont de Pierre began. Supported by six arches, the new bridge certainly facilitated traffic with Salins-les-Bains and Besan�on to the north but it also improved access to the Grand Plan limestone quarries above the station, which provided the building stone for the town and for the bridge’s own construction.
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The right bank of the Bienne remained uninhabited until the bridge was finished, and then buildings sprouted up between the bridge and the Chemin de la Papeterie.
The reinforced concrete Grand Pont as you see it today, 10m wide and rising 50m above the Tacon, was built in 1939 to replace the timber suspension bridge built in 1844. That original wooden construction marked St-Claude’s entry into the era of communication by opening up the Haut-Jura to the markets of Bresse, which for centuries has been famous for its all-singing, all-dancing and more recently appellation d’origine contr�l�e chickens, and the Lyon area.
The project to replace the bridge saw light of day in the 1920s with the arrival of the lorry, which would obviously not have been able to use the pont suspendu. The work, which took 18 months, was carried out slap bang in the middle of the Second World War – quite a feat.
You can learn much about a place from its bridges. Meanwhile, to find out about the property market in the Haut-Jura, I spoke to estate agent Beno�t Pryen, part of the Attractiv’Immobilier network, who has offices at St-Claude and Morez.
The Haut-Jura lies on a plateau at an altitude of around 1,000m. The peaks of the Jura massif, which gave its name to the geological Jurassic period, rise to 1,700m. Pryen covers the entire skiing sector known as Les Quatres Villages des Rousses – Les Rousses itself, Pr�manon, Lamoura and Bois d’Amont – as well as other sectors of the Haut-Jura. “We’ve got a bit of everything,” Pryen says, “log chalets, apartments, stone-built village houses, farmhouses already renovated or for renovation.”
Property prices in the Haut-Jura have been less affected by la crise because of the area’s proximity to the Swiss border. Prices in Switzerland are quite expensive (no surprise there) so people tend to live the other side of the Haut-Jura mountain chain around Les Rousses, Morez and Morbier, even as far as St-Claude, says Pryen, and work in Switzerland. “So we have a double market: touristique et frontalier.”
The former is primarily in holiday homes. Around Les Rousses, one out of two apartments is a second home because, in common with other ski resorts, the Haut-Jura has two distinct seasons: summer and winter tourism. Prices per square metre for new building programmes around Les Rousses and Morbier are between €2,700 and €3,000.
St-Claude – population 12,000 and world capital of the curious combination of pipes and diamonds – is an industrial town with work primarily provided by plastic spare parts subcontractors that supply a range of manufacturers from toys to cars to perfumeries. It doesn’t have an historical town centre because it burnt down in 1799 but it does have a handful of immeubles haussmanniens. “At €1,000-1,200/m�, prices in St-Claude are almost half those of the winter stations,” says Pryen.
There is building land available although given the mountainous nature of the terrain, it can be quite hard to find and flat plots in particular are difficult to source. However, there’s no shortage of old farmhouses and barns, either already renovated or waiting to be done up. Expect to pay €1,500-2,500/m�. The traditional franc-comtois architecture is one of substantial farmhouses with large cut gable end roofs.
Investment potential is good, with long-term lets in and around St-Claude and Les Rousses for all those frontaliers working in and near Geneva (the closest airport otherwise is Lyon St-Exup�ry), plus seasonal rental income from winter and summer tourists. Pryen quotes a price of €500-600 for a high-season week in the snow in a two/three-bed apartment. “We’re a lot cheaper than the Savoie,” he says.
The Haut-Jura is little known outside France and so remains undeveloped in terms of international tourism. Pryen has sold property to British and South African buyers but it’s only a couple of sales a year.
In comparison with the French Alps, property prices are cheaper but the resorts are also smaller and don’t have hundreds of kilometres of downhill runs. “C’est la petite station familiale,” says Pryen, with cross-country skiing (220km of runs) and snow-shoeing as well as some ski de piste. And being in a PNR (Parc Naturel R�gional) there’s plenty of walking and riding. You can traverse the Jura following one of the GRs (grande randonn�e, long-distance footpaths) going from g�te to g�te by horseback, mountain bike or on foot.
If you think the Pays du Haut-Jura sounds just what you’ve been looking for and you plan to buy an apartment as a main residence or for rental income, you will inevitably meet up with that sine qua non of much of the French property market, le syndic or property management company.
J’estimmo, based in St-Claude, manages 7,000 properties throughout the Haut-Jura including the ski resorts. The estate agent has three jobs, explains the agency’s Patrick Jeunet: sales, property management of residential apartment buildings, and rental management. His firm deals mainly with the last two, with 70% of their income coming from property management and 25% from rental management.
The company deals with all communal matters concerning shared ownership, including lifts, stairways, pools, tennis courts and general upkeep, as well as heating and water. If you want to rent out your Jura acquisition but don’t want the hassle, le syndic will do it for you.
As well as the appeal of the lakes and mountains, says Jeunet, the Haut-Jura is easily accessible. It is the nearest ski resort to Paris, an hour and a half from Lyon and only 60km from Geneva. With Switzerland so close and the Haut-Jura being home to Comt�, one of my favourite cheeses, and Morbier, there are plenty of cheese-based local specialities.
A word about Morbier. In times gone by the Franche-Comt� paysans delivered their cows’ milk to the village fruiti�re, the name given to a co-operative type place for cheese-making in the Jura, Savoie and Swiss Alps. The sometimes harsh climate often rendered these journeys difficult so the canny farmers decided to make their own cheese.
To fill the huge rounds, they added the afternoon milk to the morning milk, and to protect the curds obtained from the morning milk they added ash – and a delicious 8-10kg cheese with an ash stripe was born. Today the distinctive dark line is produced with vegetable charcoal.
You can get a real feel for the area by hopping on the Ligne des Hirondelles, the name given to the railway line linking Dole in the north to St-Claude because the viaducts in the mountainous parts make the journey seem like a swallow’s flight. It is a voyage of over 120km through the Chaux forest, the famous Arbois vineyards of the Bas-Jura, the vast plains of Grandvaux and the Bienne valley.
Pipes and diamonds
And when you get to St-Claude do pop into the Mus�e de la Pipe et du Diamant. Here you can admire the biggest pipe in the world created in 1998 by the Confr�rie des Ma�tres Pipiers de St-Claude, which measures 7.5m and weighs in at 600kg – and the smallest cut diamond of 0.6mm.
Pipes apart and putting diamonds aside, how has the economy in the Haut-Jura capital fared over the years? It was adversely affected during the world crisis of the 1930s which resulted in the departure of many recently arrived immigrants and was followed by the deportations of 1944.
This decrease in the available workforce coupled with the very enclosed geographic location resulted in an economic downturn. This was eventually reversed thanks to the opening of the Plan d’Acier industrial zone in 1970 which allowed various industries to leave the incommodious town centre.
In 1974, the merging of five bordering communes provided St-Claude with 450 more inhabitants and some building land. But the authorities had to cast their gaze towards the Bienne valley to find flat zones suitable for new industrial establishments. This was a done deal in 1993 with the creation of the Val de Bienne community of communes.
The mairie has a helpful site for those of you who may be thinking of moving to St-Claude (provided you’re thinking of moving in French) and the Centre d’Initiatives Territoriales pour l’Economie du Haut Jura (CITE Haut Jura) exists to promote work and economic development in the area.
The invaluable INSEE economic stats tell us that although the population density of the Haut-Jura is below the national average, the population itself is younger than the regional Franche-Comt� average. From 1999 to 2005, the Haut-Jura gained 900 inhabitants. The population should continue to grow until 2015 when it will tail off slightly to reach 52,000 inhabitants in 2020, an increase of 1,300 from 1999.
The Haut-Jura is a rich mosaic of natural milieux, 40% of which are considered to be of important biological interest at national level. The quality of the environment – mountain forests, alpine meadows, peat bogs, lakes, steep-sided valleys – is one of the reasons for the existence of the Jurassic park.
So, if you have fallen in love with the Haut-Jura and are ready to put your house on the market and make the move then here is a quotation from the polar explorer and writer Paul-�mile Victor, who spent part of his childhood in St-Claude, where his father owned a pipe factory.
“Ce n’est pas ce que nous sommes qui nous emp�che de r�aliser nos r�ves; c’est ce que nous croyons que nous ne sommes pas.” This translates as: “It’s not what we are that prevents us from realising our dreams; it’s what we believe we are not.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. n