Besançon - things to see and do
in a loop of the river Doubs, the ancient city of Besançon
one of the best preserved historic cities in France.
In pre-Roman times, it was the capital of an area known as
Sequania. When the area was conquered by the Romans, Julius Caesar
described this naturally defensive site as "the jewel in my crown".
Today Besançon is the capital of the region of Franche Comté,
a thriving university town, and one of the more popular places to visit
in eastern France.
Its location at the crosssroads of two major
trans-European routes has always made Besançon a strategic
stands at the intersection of the Rhine-Rhone corridor and the historic
main route between Rheims and Milan - or the UK and Switzerland.
Today it is located at the intersection of the A36
Mulhouse-Beaune (Germany-Spain) motorway and the N57 - N83 route from
Nancy to Lyon, as well as on the shortest route from the UK to the
Swiss cities of Lausanne and Neuchâtel.
The city is also served by the brand new Rhine-Rhone TGV
and has direct TGV services from Paris in less than 2h 30, as well as
from Lille, Lyon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Basel and Zurich.
nearest airport to Besançon is the Basel-Mulhouse
boat passing in front of 17th century Quai Vauban
Besançon, capital of the
Franche-Comté region, has
a wealth of tourist attractions. The most visited of these is the
Citadel - a UNESCO World Heritage site - a magnificent example of
seventeenth-century military architecture, designed by Vauban. The
imposing Citadel stands on a massive rock - sheer on both sides - that
blocks the entrance to the loop of the river Doubs. As well as being an
important historic monument in its own right, the Citadel contains a
number of museums, including a folk museum, a museum of the Resistance
and the Deportation, an insectarium, and a zoo.
The Roman "Porte Noire", recently renovated, and
behind it the cathedral
Visitors driving or walking up to the Citadel pass
Besançon's St. Jean cathedral: built on the groundplan of an
Carolingian cathedral, with an altar at both ends, St.
Jean's is a
fine mediaeval cathedral
which also houses one of the great works of the Florentine Renaissance
master Fra Bartolomeo, as well as a great astronomic clock, a fitting
nineteenth-century monument to Besançon's past glory as
French clock and watchmaking industry. Just outside the cathedral is
the Porte Noire, a Roman triumphal arch that is the principal vestige
today of the Roman city that once stood on the site.
The town centre of Besançon boasts two
The most important of these is the city's Musée des Beaux
Arts, one of
the best and oldest provincial art galleries in France. Standing on the
old market square, the museum - entirely rebuilt in the
nineteen-sixties - contains a rich collection of paintings and historic
artefacts. These include Egyptian mummies, Roman bronzes and mosaics,
and mediaeval sculpture, as well as a major art collection with - among
many others - works by Cranach, Bronzino, Bellini, Reubens, Zurbaran,
Goya, Fragonard, Courbet,
Renoir, Bonnard, Signac, Marquet and Picasso. The layout of this museum
is such that the
visitor is taken effortlessly on a coherent journey through the history
of art in a manner that is quite impossible in larger museums such as
Bonnard's Café du Petit Poucet - Besançon,
musée des Beaux Arts
Unfortunately, the museum is closed for full renovation, and
will not reopen until 2017.
Besançon's second important museum is
the Museum of Time -
a legacy of the city's watchmaking tradition - that is housed in the
Renaissance Granvelle palace. The palace itself is one of the finest
Renaissance town houses in France, built for Cardinal Granvelle, who
was chancellor to the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. It houses not only
the museum of time - with its static and interactive exhibits - but
also a fine collection of seventeenth-century Bruges tapestries
depicting the life of Charles V, still hanging in the room for which
they were originally commissioned.
View across the old city, to Vauban's citadel
attractions in Besançon include boat trips on the river
take visitors round the historic city centre and through the canal
tunnel under the Citadelle, and the
birthplace of Victor Hugo - close to the Porte Noire. Hugo - reputed
France's greatest poet - was born in Besançon, where his
posted, though his family was not from the region.
The whole of the old centre of Besançon - the
central area of
which is pedestrianised - is a delightful urban environment that has
survived more or less intact against the onslaughts of modernism; the
old streets are lined with houses and buildings from the
Renaissance to the early twentieth century, built in the local
two-coloured limestone. The city centre is also the starting point for
a number of well-marked hiking trails up and down the valley, and to
the hills around the city.
The Franche Comté
region has masses to offer; firstly its countryside and natural
environment of forests, hills and valleys. The area also contains
plenty of places that are worth a visit.
Southeast of Besançon, a twenty-minute
drive from the
city, lies Ornans, birthplace of the 19th century painter Gustave
Courbet. Ornans is in a beautiful natural setting, in the steep valley
of the river Loue. The town has a recently renovated and very
interesting Courbet museum, in the artist's birthplace.
Southwest of Besançon lie the Royal
Saltworks of Arc et
Senans - designed in the eighteenth century as an ideal city, by the
visionary architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The Royal Saltworks have
long been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
At Nancray, east of Besançon, visitors
can admire the
Museum of Comtois houses, a living history open-air museum housing an
ever-increasing collection of traditional houses and rural buildings
from the region that have been carefully dismantled and rebuilt at
Click here for a ►
of hotels in Besançon at best online rates.
Besancon has plenty of hotel
accommodation. In the town centre, most of the hotels have car parking
facilities. The centre is a pedestrian zone, but hotel access is of
course permitted. Town centre accommodation can be recommended to
visitors staying for a couple of nights or more, as everything in the
town centre, museums, cathedral, citadelle, river cruises, can be
easily reached on foot. Alternatively, hotels on the
town and near the railway station are close to bus or tram routes; and
Besançon is reputed as having one of the best urban public
transport systems in France