Ornans and the Vallée de la Loue – Courbet Country

I explore an area of the French Jura in search of the landscapes painted by Gustave Courbet
Streams, rivers and lakes abound in the northern Jura, a region of eastern France where flower speckled grass lands contrast with tree lined river valleys, protected by high ridges of limestone and dense forest. No wonder the Comite Regional de Tourisme describes the area as being ‘Nature at its best’.

Easily reached by AutoRoute and TGV from Paris and located within easy access of neighbouring Germany and Switzerland, it was surprising to see so few tourists even during late July and August. ‘D’ roads were positively deserted leaving me feeling something of an intruder as I drove through sleepy, flowering villages.
My destination was Ornans, described as the Venice of Franche Comté and it is not difficult to understand why. The river Loue flows straight through this attractive if ramshackle old town. Houses overhang the fast flowing Loue whose waters lap steps and doorways in true Venetian style. Balconies are lined with geraniums or washing and sometimes both.

I arrived at Ornans in late morning and even then it seemed the town was only just waking up. Parking in the shade of the Place Gustave Courbet, I crossed one of the small footbridges over the river which provide some of the most striking views of this photogenic little town and watched for a while as the people of Ornans went about their business.

Everyone seemed to possess an understandable sense of pride as they crossed the bridge, stopping to admire the flowers, peer into the clear waters of the Loue and generally reflect on the scene before them. Two old men sat together overlooking the river; there was no conversation between them as they sat in quiet contemplation, perhaps reminiscing earlier times in their town.

Suddenly a window opened in one of the old houses and a hand lowered a bucket on a rope in to the river. The bucket rested gently in the water for a few seconds before being hauled back to a point just below the window where the rope was secured around a metal bar protruding from the wall. The arm disappeared for a while then a woman returned to the window and placed two bottles of wine into the bucket. The river Loue it seemed held more than aesthetic qualities for the townsfolk of Ornans.

I had found myself in this attractive river town through an interest in the French impressionist painters. More than frequently the name of Gustave Courbet appears an as artist who had considerable influence over such names as Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Pissarro. Ornans was his home and area in which he painted nature.
Born in 1819 his birthplace is now the Musée Natal de Gustave Courbet and stands in a prime position on the very edge of the river. Gustave had been born into a family of rich wine growers and was strongly influenced by the qualities of the landscape around Ornans. The shady river valleys, grassy escarpments and waterfalls all found their way onto his canvas.

As an artist he loved the material elements of the earth and has been described as a geologist among painters. Courbet was in fact one of France’s first artists to emphasise the qualities of nature in landscape painting.

“To paint a bit of country, one has got to know it”, he would say. “I know my native countryside and I paint it. That woodland is near my home, that river is the Loue, go and look at them and you will see my pictures”.
Perhaps not as famous as those he influenced, the art world has without doubt received a legacy from this painter from Ornans. His spirit lies in the landscapes around the Loue and particularly in the heart of the town.
The summer heat intensified as I left the cool interior of the Courbet museum. The town still seemed to be sleeping beside the Loue so leaving its clear trout laden waters, I decided to explore more of Courbet country. But first I had to photograph the famous Miroir de la Loue. This is an attractive spot, a short walk west of the town where the river widens and acts as a mirror reflecting the old houses, the church and the surroundings.
The road from Ornans to Pontarlier provided wonderful views of the Loue, particularly at Lods, another old town with an attractive, rustic appearance and atmosphere. There was also an interesting museum of wine.
Near the village of Moutiers-Haute-Pierre set amidst fields of cherry trees, I found the source of the Loue. Within the limestone Gorges de Nouailles, Courbet’s river cascades from the cliff. The source is best reached from Ornans taking the D443 down a steep hill and parking beside a café at the bottom. From here well signposted walks take you to the cool sanctuary of the source.

It is a calm and shady spot with just a hint of sinister associations. Here at the source of the Loue is the legend of the ‘Vouivre’, a winged serpent. It is said that a cave of treasure is guarded by the serpent all year but between the first and last stroke of midnight on Christmas day the serpent leaves the cave allowing just enough time for the foolhardy and brave to enter and steal the serpent’s treasure.

For me however, the real treasure lies in the river Loue itself as it cascades from the cave and rushes through the rustic countryside that is Courbet country.