House swapping in Franche Comte, from the Herald Saturday magazine on September 1, 2012
When I opened an email on a grim winter's day offering a holiday house swap for a cottage in the mountains near the border of France and Switzerland, it didn't take me too long to reply "ooh, quelle bonne idee". We hadn't planned a foreign holiday but free accommodation in beautiful surroundings seemed too good to turn down.
House swaps are growing in popularity and I am registered on a swap website. However, once we made a mistake and ended up sweltering in a suburb of an industrial town in France in August while everyone in the neighbourhood fled to the seaside. But the mountains of Jura looked much more promising, and a flurry of emails passed between myself and Sophie, the French maman, before she posted me the keys. It is not everyone who would post their keys to a complete stranger and I suspect, like us, most house swap families are easygoing.
Sophie's place was an hour's drive from Geneva airport. The area, Franche-Comte, is real Heidi country, full of steep pastures above neat villages. In the evenings, the cows, large bells slung round their necks, clang their way towards milking. Since medieval times the tradition has been to mix pasture and woodland so that cows graze on herbs, shrubs and fruit as well as grass, and produce a sweet, complex milk which is turned into a number of aromatic cheeses. Legend has it that a peasant lad once rescued an elderly monk from a terrible storm, carrying him to safety. In his gratitude, the old man gave him a secret recipe for a very smelly cheese. Tres francais.
We decided it was possibly the cheesiest place in the world: once, we saw a food van pulled up in the square of a village – we went over expecting to see an array of fish or produce, but it was the weekly cheese van.
My son's pidgin French doesn't go much further than "Les baguettes, le fromage!", but it came in handy and we ate so much of these that after a week everything seems to taste of cheese, including cups of tea.
Even here, industrial farming seems to be threatening the traditional wooded meadows threaded with wild flowers and tiny wild strawberries. Many are gradually returning to wilderness while large fenced fields appear elsewhere – a sad diminution of this beautiful landscape.
The many lakes are ideal for families, as most have sandy beaches with lifeguards. Our children loved the simple, relatively quiet Clairvaux-les-Lacs, with its beach and warm water. We hired a pedalo with a chute on it and they had great fun sliding in and out of the warm, turquoise water.
We also visited an enormous, 35km man-made lake, Lac de Vouglans, formed in the late 1960s by damming the river Ain. There is a small, submerged church at the bottom of the lake which divers like to visit. The most popular spot is Lac de Chalain, the area's largest natural lake, with its parade of shops and bars and a busy campsite.
After one of our many daytrips, it was nice to return to la famille Sophie's spacious, five-bedroom home, where we would visit the boulangerie each morning and enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the sunny terrace soothed by the sound of the millstream.
A house swap can feel a little odd at first as you are in someone else's home, but it was tastefully decorated, clean and easy to settle into. They had not emptied wardrobes – nor had we – so we kept our things in our suitcases which was fine – we each had a small bag of light summer clothes.
One part of the house was still a building site but my husband, whose favourite French shop is Monsieur Bricolage, a DIY store, seemed to enjoy having a through inspection of someone else's efforts and my teenage son enjoyed strumming at the collection of guitars.
The French family also enjoyed their Scottish trip – they too made lots of day-trips, and visited Loch Lomond. They also looked after our cat. Tout ensemble, une bonne vacance.
WHERE TO STAY
There are lots of house swap websites and travel companies. One of the oldest and biggest is Homelink International (www.homelink.org.uk), founded in 1953. Others include: www.exchangehomes.com; www.luxehomeswap.com, www.homeforhome.com; Global Home Exchange www.home4homex.com, and, for gay or gay-friendly home exchangers, www.gayhometrade.com.