Venturing a little further afield today we caught the train to Besançon, a small university town about 100km East of Dijon. Tucked away in the hills in far Eastern France, Besançon is right near the French border with Switzerland and is famous for its lush green setting, picturesque old town, and for the massive citadel on the hill overlooking town. We love a good castle/fortress/citadel and were pretty excited to see what Besançon had to offer. We were not disappointed: the Le Citadel de Besançon is awesome! It’s huge, and provides spectacular views across the town and the surrounding landscape. The one thing we WEREN’T expecting was to find baboons running around through the battlements of the citadel! Turns out the Le Citadel de Besançon, once one of the largest defensive fortresses in France, now houses a zoo (as well as a museum and various other tourist attractions). Lions in the courtyard? Tarantulas in the watch tower? Errrr….sure, why not?


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Cradled in a loop of the River Doubs, Besançon is one of the best preserved historic cities in France. In pre-Roman times, it was the site of a Gaulish settlement known as Sequania. When the area was conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC the town of Besançon flourished. The Romans built a number of temples and fortresses on and around Besançon’s 7 hills, the ruins of which are still scattered around town today.


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Besançon’s location at the crossroads of 2 major trans-European trade routes* made it an important city, and the its easy defensibility made it an obvious choice as a military centre. These factors all contributed to the city’s wealth, but also made it a sought-after prize amongst warring European factions. Like many border towns, Besançon has been “handed around” a few times and has, over the past 2,000 years, in turn been possessed by the Romans, Franks, Germans, Austrians, Spanish, French, Germand, and French again. Each successive power stamped its mark on the city and the end result is an interesting mixture of architectural styles and a very pretty centre ville with some rather grand old buildings lining the main streets.

*Besançon stands at the intersection of the Rhine-Rhone corridor and the historic trading route between Rheims and Milan.


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Most of the houses, palazzos, and churches in the historical centre date back to the Middle Ages or to the period of the Spanish Renaissance (i.e. 15th to 16th centuries). Some of the best views we had of these old buildings were from the banks of the River Doubs first thing this morning, before the day got too hot and the streets too busy.


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We spent the first part of our visit walking through the old town, just admiring the cityscape. Along the way we got see the birthplace of Victor Hugo, one of France’s best known poets; as well as the birthplace of the Lumière brothers, who devised the earliest motion-picture camera/projector called the Cinématographe (from which the word “cinema” is derived). We had hoped to also see the city’s Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the best and oldest art galleries in France; unfortunately, the museum is closed for renovations and isn’t due to reopen until 2017.


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We DID get to see Besançon Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Jean), the city’s huge Medieval cathedral, built right at the base of Mont Saint Étienne, below the citadel.


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And of course we went to explore the city’s crowning glory: the Citadel de Besançon. Dating back to the 18th century, the Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site and very well preserved. It’s a fine example of military architecture and was designed by Sébastien de Vauban – Louis XIV’s favourite engineer (under the king’s directions de Vauban designed over 40 fortification and upgraded more than 300 existing ones in cities around France).


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Built across the top of Mt Saint Etiennet, the Citadel overlooks the old town and affords spectacular views of the nearby forests, mountains, and the meander of the Doubs River as it curves around Besançon.


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We spent the first part of our visit at the Citadel just walking around the ramparts, enjoying the views. It was here that we first saw the baboons running around below us.


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A few pointed questions later and we had discovered that, once its usefulness as a military fortress had waned, the Citadel was turned into a prison and then into a tourist attraction. Which is why/how it now houses a war museum and a zoo. In all honesty zoos really aren’t our thing – we would much rather see animals in the wild than in cages or small enclosures, but since we were already there, we had a quick look around. The most interesting animals to watch were the Asian lions, Siberian tigers, gibbons and chimpanzees, though really it was all a bit sad seeing animals in such unnatural conditions*.

*Zoos do good work in terms of animal research and conservation, we know, but seeing animals in captivity just isn’t as nice as seeing animals in their natural habitat.


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Far more interesting, however, was the insectarium section, where giant tarantulas, cockroaches, and other creepy crawlies had us both fascinated and repulsed.


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We also took a tour through the World War II museum housed in what was once the Citadel’s main barracks building. The extensive displays housed in this museum looked at how the war affected France (and Besançon in particular*); It paid specific attention to the effects on Jewish people, the Vichy government, and the French resistance efforts. Many of the materials on display were quite graphic and brought home how fortunate we are in Australia to never have had war on our soil.

*The Nazis occupied Besançon ‘s Citadel during World War II and, between 1940 and 1944, the Germans executed some 100 French resistance fighters there.


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By about 4:00pm we were done, having been well baked by the day’s heat* and seen enough history, flora, and architecture to satisfy us for another day. Another easy 56 minute train ride and we were back in Dijon for our last night in Burgundy. Tomorrow we move further South/South-West, inland towards France’s third biggest city: Lyon. See you then!

*France is going through a bit of a heat wave at the moment with the last of the summer heat driving temperatures up to 35C. Even by Aussie standards it’s pretty warm here at the moment!


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Categories: France

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