If you drive a few hours north of Geneva into France, you will come across a small town called Saint-Claude. When you start walking through the center of Saint-Claude, taking in the fresh mountain air you will eventually find yourself at a memorial. If your French is good enough you will discover that 75 years ago 302 innocent people were arrested by the Gestapo and taken from this town to Nazi concentration camps. 108 of these people were never to be seen again, that number may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of the Nazi invasion but when you consider Saint-Claude minute population that number very quickly appears a lot bigger.
Saint-Claude is a part of the famous Comte region in the east of France which is known for its gentle mountains, agricultural valleys and pine forests. The town is situated right in the heart of the Jura mountain range, which runs parallel to the Alps. This allows for some stunning photos as the Jura sits on average 3,000 meters below the Alps. The mountains might sound dwarfed when compared to their world-famous neighbors, but they still attract many visitors, from Parisians looking to get away from the city and going for a weekend ski break, to even in 2017 the Tour de France (probably the most famous cycling event in the world) passed straight through the Jura and Saint-Claude. The small town is not just full of sport but nature too. There are hundreds of stunning waterfalls in and around Saint-Claude. There are not just waterfalls and forests but mesmerizing rock formations, the most famous being the ‘le chapeau de gendarme’, which translates to ‘the gendarme hat’ it gets its name from the cocked hat worn by the Napoleonic gendarmes. The geological folds are made of multiple layers of thin limestone are were slowly moved into place over centuries by the mountains above.
Saint-Claude’s history begins in the 5th century when a monastery was established by two brothers, a monk and an abbot (a leader of monks). These monks were won over by the silence of the place, the location was perfect for reflection and prayer. A city slowly grew around the monastery and was first called Condat, from the Celtic Condate, which means ‘confluence’. By the end of the 5th century, the city’s name had changed to Saint-Ovend-de-Joux, after the abbot Oyand. Saint Claude became a monk in 639, he died on the 6th of June 699. Amazingly 4 and a half centuries later in 1160, his body was found perfectly preserved. The name was then changed to Saint-Ovand-Saint-Claude and became a significant pilgrimage. In the 15th century, Pope Louis XI canonized (to declare a deceased person as a saint) Saint Claude. The name was finally shortened to Saint-Claude and remains a favored site for pilgrimage.
Saint-Claude used to be the world capital of wooden smoking pipes as the native monks had been turning wood since the 7th century. So, when tobacco was first introduced to France Saint-Claude already had a good infostructure of wood workshops so they were able to hit the ground running. Saint-Claude grew a reputation for an unrivalled level of craftsmanship and expertise. Saint-Claude has a very friendly community with lots of helpful people around. The most famous food from the region is comte cheese, it is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk. It’s mild creamy and ever so slightly sweet taste means that throughout the French-Comte region around 64,000 tons of the cheese is produced each year. One thing that might catch an unsuspecting tourist off is the shops or the apparent lack of them because except maybe a few newsagents the only place that you can buy any food is at the Thursday food market where everyone who grows something in their garden of has a few cows comes to sell there produce. There is always some sort of public event going on let it be a parade or a dance festival in the city center. This small French village always has something going on.
A big problem facing Saint-Claude isn’t homelessness, crime, or overpopulation but the opposite as the population has seen a massive decline in recent years. In 2006 there was a population of 11,950 people, but in just 11 years that number had fallen by 22% to only 9,279 residents in 2017. Out of the 4,832 homes in Saint-Claude, 620 were vacant in 2007. This is largely due to the falling birth rates and the ageing population.
Saint-Claude is a fascinating town with amazing people it has a rich culture and a lot of history, not all which is good this small village has seen more than its fair share trouble. But the town and its people have bounced back and left their dark past in the where it belongs in the past.