It is a town where people come for the thermal water cure, which explains the presence of a casino and a couple of discreetly posh hotels. It is also the place I came to have my first hang-gliding lessons, having been informed that the hills and thermals around here offer the most breathtaking gliding within a day's drive of Paris or the Channel ports. But Alesia?
Well it's obvious, the man explained between sips of Anis Pontarlier, Salins is in the foothills of the Jura mountains, which the invading Romans a couple of millennia ago named after their word for the law. This is where laws were made, this is where the druids hung out, this is where the Gauls, under Vercingetorix, were finally defeated by Caesar's legions.
Leaving the bar, slightly dizzy from Latin quotations and a glass or two of Pontarlier, and convinced by now that I was walking through the pre-Roman capital of Gaul, I wandered up to the Cafe Thermal, the hang- gliders' hangout. There I was told that most towns in the Jura have a pet scholar holding court in some cafe, proving to all comers that they are sitting on the ruins of Alesia. The talk soon turns to more serious matters: the next day's hang-gliding.
The following morning, I turned up at the flying school about half- way up Mont Poupet. My first lessons were on a paraglider, a sort of hang-glider without a rigid frame, at the beginners' level - a gently sloping field full of multicoloured flowers at the foot of the mountain.
Learning to fly is not complicated. You simply run as fast as you can downhill into the wind with arms outstretched and a writhing mass of nylon trailing behind. You keep running as the thing fills with air and rises over your head, run a bit more and you are half-running and half-flying, bounding over tufts of grass with ever-elongated leaps, until the magic moment arrives and you are lifted into the air.
If you get it wrong, however, you keep going until you run out of field, or out of breath. And before the next magnificent person and his or her flying machine runs into you, you have to gather up your paraglider and trudge, sweating and panting, back up the hill, ready to start again.
When you do get it right it's incredibly satisfying, and the odd thing is that there isn't the slightest trace of vertigo. As a person in the air, I had expected to feel like a fish out of water, whereas in fact riding the wind seemed to come as naturally as riding a bike. Is there something of the bird in us, I began to wonder, or is it that we are so used to so many different types of vehicle in modern life that the oddest modes of moving about seem perfectly normal?
Such were the lofty thoughts that occurred after a solo flight of 30 or 40 yards, when Jocelyn, one of the regular fliers, invited me to join him on a real flight off the top of Mont Poupet, dangling under his twin- harness hang-glider.
We drove up the mountain as far as the car would go, then carried the folded glider the last few hundred yards through a dense wood and out into a clifftop clearing.
Approaching the cliff edge I begin to feel slightly uneasy. It was an awfully long way down. I stepped back several paces to watch a couple of people run as fast as their legs would carry them towards the edge, holding a flimsy nylon-and-aluminium structure over their heads. Seeing them disappear over the edge I began to wonder if this was such a good idea.
Just as I was starting to think how pleasant it would have been to have stayed in town for another history lesson, or perhaps a thermal bath, Jocelyn buckled me into a harness for a practice run, which is rather like having a dancing lesson when you follow your partner's steps while looking straight ahead. And then it was the real thing. Before I had time to think of a good reason not to go through with it we had stepped under the wing, co-ordinated footsteps and run like hell until I found myself running on thin air like one of those characters in the Roadrunner cartoons.
The moment of absolute terror I had been sort of looking forward to exploring was overshadowed by a sense of the absurd as I stopped running and stretched my legs back to adopt a more dignified position. I got my first real inkling of what it must feel like to be a bird: rising on thermals, circling, swooping in a spine-tingling downward rush before levelling out in a leisurely arc over the valley of the aptly named river Furieuse.
In front of us were the towers and terraced gardens of Salins, behind us the supposed battlefield of Alesia. Circling round we skirted a mass of beech and oak treetops, which Jocelyn informed me was the Chaux forest, one of the biggest natural forests left in Europe. Looking down through the trees it was easy to imagine Vercingetorix, not to mention Asterix and Obelix, hunting boar and beating up Romans.
We came in to land in a field beside Jocelyn's van, which some of his friends had thoughtfully brought down the mountain, and joined them for a swim in a nearby river. Who needs the dirty old seaside, we remarked, when you can swim in pure mineral water. It was crystal clear, and after a day that had been as exhausting as it was uplifting, it felt like heaven.
How to get there
Salins-les-Bains is three and a half to four hours drive from Paris, or a little over two hours by TGV to Mouchard railway station, 5 miles from Salins. If you book 14 days in advance and stay for at least one Saturday night, French Railways Rail Shop (0891 515477) can offer return tickets from London to Paris for pounds 84. Two trains a day (7.12am and 6.04pm) leave from the Gare de Lyon to Mouchard; price approximately pounds 67 return. The closest airport is Geneva, 50 miles south. Hamilton Travel (0171 344 3344) has a fare of pounds 167 from London on Swissair.
Where to learn
The flying school, L'Ecole de Vol Libre du Poupet, (00 33 84 73 04 56) is open all year. Prices start at 250 francs (about pounds 32) a session, which includes tuition, basic equipment and insurance. The instructors reckon that on average it takes a week to learn how to hang-glide properly, but it is possible to fly off the mountain after three sessions if you're good enough.
Who to ask
The French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123)Reuse content