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Besançon is a thoroughly modern city, described as 'an old town, young at heart.' Yes there is an abundant history to be told but it certainly doesn't eclipse the here and now. The place has a buzz about it. There are plenty of green areas, parks and tree clad squares, and an interesting mix of buildings of blue-cream stone and alleyways revealing old courtyards from different epochs. The town's important location on a loop in the River Doubs has stood it in good stead throughout the ages. Stand on the Pont Bregille and look across the modernistic arts centre (above) designed by Kengo Kuma up to the Citadel beyond to see the melding of history.
The centre is easily explored, and you can get about on the reasonably priced buses or the super sleek tram system. A note here, many bus services finish at 21.00 hours.
Its location has been the making of Besançon. The town occupied the entire loop in the river, protected by its ramparts, with the steep rocky hill behind making a natural fortress and defensive line. Julius Caesar recognised its potential and another great military strategist, Vauban, used it to advantage. The town has now grown into a city, the capital of
Franche-Comté, and expanded outwards with prosperity.
A Walk around town
The oldest exhibit in town is Porte Noire (left and centre), by St-Jean's Cathedral. This is an intricately carved triumphal Roman arch, dated 175 CE. In the pretty Castan square opposite, the Roman theatre of Vesontio (the old name for Besançon) has been identified.
From here walk round the back of the cathedral into the tower to view the Astronomical clock (above right). This incredible piece of engineering dates back to 1857 when Auguste-Lucien Vérité designed the 30,000 working parts to show times, dates, seasons and even solar and lunar eclipses at 20 locations around the world. There are guided tours at ten minutes to the hour, 9.50, 10.50 and 11.50, then 14.50, 15. 50, 16.50 and 17.50 daily except Tuesday from April 1-Sept 30. Also closed Wednesday the rest of the year.
From here you can walk up the steep hillside to the Citadel, or take the less strenuous option, the bus from the Porte Noire (there are also other stops in town). In 2008, 12 of Vauban's fortresses, including Belfort, were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The Besançon Citadel, considered one of the finer fortresses, is vast, and to bring the place to life there are some diverse attractions. The barracks have been turned into museums - one shows the history of domestic life in the Franche-Comté, another explains the Second World War and the Resistance Movement, and a third pays homage to Maréchal Vauban. There are audio presentations, guided tours, panoramic views and a natural history space and zoo. Visitors delight in the long haired Gelada baboons in the dry moat as you enter. A ticket to the Citadel is 10.50 per person, the most expensive of the entry fees we found in Besançon. If you arrive by car, head for la Rodia car park which is free of charge and from there a bus will take you up the hill. There are limited parking spaces at the Citadel, charged per hour.
The covered market off Rue G. Courbet is a must for foodies. Here the regional specialities, particularly Comté and Morbier cheese and Montbéliard and Morteau sausage are in abundance, and under the covered alleyway, there is a thriving lunch-time restaurant frequented by locals. The market is open Tuesday to Saturday from 7.00 to 19.00 and on Sunday mornings from 8.00 to 13.00. Outside in the Place de la Révolution, there are more stalls and also a vide grenier area selling all kinds of bric-a-brac, Tuesdays and Fridays 7.00 to 13.00, and Saturdays 7.00 to 19.00.
Other attractions in the town include a museum to honour Victor Hugo who was born here, a museum celebrating the town's clock and watch-making heritage in the Palais Granvelle and some fine art museums. Around the corner from the Palais in Rue de la Préfecture the terrace of Brasserie Granvelle overlooking the leafy
square is a good place for a drink or a meal and for people watching.
To get an overview of the scenery and the town, take a boat excursion along the River Doubs starting at the Pont de la République. The tourist office can suggest hiking, mountain biking trails and paved bicycle paths in the protected natural areas around town.
Places to visit nearby
La Saline Royale Arc-et-Senans
A-Z Franche-Comté - some
highlights at a glance
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