Its shockingly bright glacial lake overseen by dramatic limestone cliffs popular for summer swimming and boating, Nantua makes one of the most arresting semi-forgotten towns of the beautiful Bugey area.The settlement grew up around an abbey founded in the Dark Ages by Amand, said to have converted the henchmen sent to assassinate him into the new monastery’s first monks.
The atmospheric medieval church of St Michael had most of the Romanesque decorations around its doorway hammered in later violence, but the Last Supper’s table remains set. In the Gothic interior, the pillars curve disconcertingly under the pressure. The striking painting by Delacroix in the choir depicts an alarmingly beautiful, foreshortened St Sebastian.
Stories of Second World War martyrdom in the Ain and Haut-Jura are told nearby, the former prison turned into the harrowing Musée de l’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (t 04 74 75 07 50), the cells put to effective use. Many successful operations are charted, and the help given by the Allies – the first American DC3 Dakota to land in France did so in these parts. Among the most extraordinary objects on display is a wedding dress made from material recuperated from parachutes used in Allied drops.
But in terrible revenge for the strong local Resistance activity, and as the Germans hadn’t managed to unearth the maquisards, many of the menfolk of Nantua between 18 and 40 years of age were rounded up and sent to the concentration camp of Buchenwald. Beside the lake, a chillingly large tomb of a memorial pays homage to them.
For more information on the Bugey and the Ain département, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes.
Copyright Philippe Barbour 2012