The tiny Territoire de Belfort is situated in the easternmost part of France in the region of Franche-Comté, bordering five French departments and the Swiss canton of Jura. With a population of only 137,000 and an area of just 609km2, this is the fifth smallest department in France, a fact which means it is easily overlooked. Wine and grain are the main earners, and Alstom built the first TGV high-speed trains here. Belfort, the departmental capital, like it's twin town of Stafford in the UK, is a centre for engineering and manufacturing.
Territoire de Belfort has a long history, with archaeological evidence of prehistoric settlement long before the arrival of the Romans. Location has always been the major factor in the department's history, as it is situated in a natural gap between the Vosges and Jura mountains. As a consequence it is known as the Porte d'Alsace or the Porte de Bourgogne, being a "gateway" to both regions. In 1790, during the French Revolution, the department of Haut-Rhin was created which included the present Territoire de Belfort. During the Franco-Prussian War, Belfort was besieged for three months, and the inhabitants refused to surrender until they were ordered to do so following the armistice in February 1871. To honour this impressive show of resistance, the area around Belfort was spared the humiliation of annexation by the Prussians. Unlike Alsace-Lorraine, it therefore remained French and continues to be a symbol of national resistance today. Territoire de Belfort was officially acknowledged as a separate department in 1922.
Belfort is the only city, with a population of 50,000.
500km from any maritime influence, Territoire de Belfort enjoys a central continental climate influenced mostly by its topography. Lying between the Vosges and Jura and oriented south-west/north-east, air currents penetrate easily, so beware of high winds. It can be very cold in the winter months.
Average maximum temperature in Belfort
Belfort has one major tourist attraction in the form of The Lion of Belfort, a pink sandstone memorial to the heroic siege of 1870. It was sculpted by the architect Bartholdi, who is perhaps more famous for creating the Statue of Liberty, and was completed in 1880. With dimensions of 22m by 11m, this is one big lion, so make sure you pose for the obligatory photo.
Belfort's Cathédrale Saint-Christophe is also worth a look. Again constructed of pink sandstone, this is a fine building in the classical style, built between 1727 and 1845.
Museums, galleries and culture
The Musée Jardot in Belfort is well worth a visit, with a collection of 110 works by artists including Picasso, Léger, Braque and Chagall. The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire charts Belfort's military history and the collection also covers the department's prehistory and industrial heritage.
In May every year, Belfort is transformed by FIMU, the Festival International de Musique Universitaire. The first such festival took place in 1986, attracting 400 musicians from France and neighbouring Germany and Switzerland. Today the event is bigger and better than ever and you don't even have to pay to enjoy 250 classical, jazz, traditional and experimental music concerts. Most performers are student musicians and choristers so it's a real opportunity to see new talent. Be sure to book your accommodation in advance, as the population of Belfort doubles to 100,000 during the festival.
Belfort, as the only large town, offers reasonable high street shopping. For food shopping and souvenirs, be sure to visit La Ferme Avicole des Buis in Vetrigne on the northern outskirts of Belfort. The farm shop here sells excellent eau-de-vie, liqueurs, fruit syrups, preserves and meat products including rillettes and foie gras.
Amazingly for its size, the department has over 600km of marked footpaths. Walking is a great way to see the varied landscapes, and take in the views of the Vosges to the North and the Jura to the South. Some of the best routes are found in the Balon des Vosgues nature park. It's possible to download maps for a dozen walks from the website of the local Conseil Generale. Though the site is in French, it's easy to find "itinéraires de promenade", a list of the downloadable pdf files.
Cycling is an excellent way to see the area, and bikes can be hired through local tourist information centres. You could do a circuit of the whole department in a week, or enjoy easy cycling by following the towpath of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin. On its journey through Territoire de Belfort, the waterway flows through the communes of Bourogne, Froidfontaine, Brebotte and Montreux-Château, all pretty villages with some fine churches. These villages suffered particularly at the hands of the 'Ecorcheurs', 15th century mercenaries who sacked and pillaged mercilessly, and completely destroyed many settlements.
Canoeing and sailing are on offer at l'étang du Malsaucy, a lake just 8km north of Belfort. There's even a sandy beach, and angling enthusiasts can fish in the adjacent l'étang de la Véronne.
Food and drink
Food in Territoire de Belfort is influenced by the cuisine of Alsace-Lorraine and Franche-Comté. Montbéliard sausage, from just outside the department, is a tasty local speciality made with pork, cumin, nutmeg, garlic and white wine. Comtois cuisine uses plenty of cheese, both in sweet and savoury dishes.
Ease of access
The nearest international airport is in Basle (Switzerland), just under 80km from Belfort. You can fly from London Heathrow with BA or London City Airport with Swiss. Ryanair fly to Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden Airport in Germany, around 200km north-east of Belfort.
It's easier by train in many ways. Take the Eurostar to Paris, then a direct service from Paris Est to Belfort. There is a journey time of four hours from Paris.
Value for money
Belfort has an excellent choice of hotels (around 60 Euros per night for a double) and there are plenty of inexpensive places to stay in the smaller towns. Eating out is not always exciting, but good value with menus from 15 Euros.
It's unlikely that you would want to base yourself in Territoire de Belfort for a holiday. It's not that there aren't things to do, and some fine historical sites to see, but with the Jura and the Vosges enticingly close, it would be foolhardy not to explore beyond the boundaries of this tiny department.