A Day in Besançon

Morning came much quicker than I had expected. No sooner had I closed my eyes than I found their lids parting once more as the sunlight peaked into my room through the curtained windowed-doors, which led onto the balcony. I turned over and looked at my watch: 07:18. Returning to my position I thought about getting up, but my body declared otherwise and my eyelids closed once more for what seemed only a moment. When I checked the time again I found that it was 08:45. Still though the motivation for waking was not there. With a breath the time had jumped forward to 10:30 and I found myself standing, walking over to the lavatory to ready for the day.

Dressing quickly, wanting to be out the door by 11:00, I met that goal and made my way down the old worn great wooden stairway. The building showed its age, its having been repurposed on a number of occasions. It’s sixteenth century walls serving countless roles over its long life. When this building was first built, Besançon was controlled by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, the Habsburg grandson of Charles the Bold, last Duke of Burgundy. This region had for many centuries since the Treaty of Verdun in 843 been Burgundian, not French.

Rue Charles Pouillet

Rue Claude Pouillet

I had three places on my list to see on Thursday: the birthplace of Victor Hugo, the Musée du Temps, and the Citadelle. As I walked down Rue Claude Pouillet, I noticed a large church across Pont Battant. Walking over the bridge, I chose to try and enter the church, wanting to see what a traditional French parish church looked like. I walked up to the church of Sainte-Madeline, and found the side door on the right unlocked and open. Upon entering I was greeted by a stiff coldness which went right at my bones, as if trying to rattle the skeleton within. The church was grand, baroque in architecture, made of the finest stone. The new Vatican II altar echoed the revival of France after the horrors of the Second World War with the flames of the phoenix running up the side of the dark stone monolith.

As I walked towards the Joseph Altar, I heard someone moving to my right in the closest side chapel to the high altar. There I found a woman laying flowers in vases beneath an altar for those who had died in the War.. The altar beneath which the flowers stood was dedicated to a pair of medieval bishops, perhaps even saints.

L'Église de la Madeline

L’Église de la Madeleine

Leaving the church, I could feel the stillness of the sanctified space, as if I were being watched by generations of the city’s dead. I made my way out of the church and back onto the street, Rue de la Madeleine, which led back onto the Pont Battant and south to the Grande Rue.

Besançon is a lucky city. It survived the rage and destruction of the Second World War relatively unscathed by the bombs. The city’s streets echoed with centuries of history, for in all honesty these same streets have remained practically as they had been when they were first built centuries ago. Only the newer installations, the Galeries Lafayette and Passages Pasteur chief among them showed those tell-tale signs of twentieth century construction.

I made my way south along the Grande Rue, the main street in Besançon. Luckily all three of my destinations for the day were located along this rue, thus ensuring that there would be little chance of my getting lost in a foreign city in a foreign country. Though my French existed, it was not nearly as good as Eve’s, who spoke it with such fluency that at times I wondered if she had ever spoken another language.

Besançon was still quiet, even at its busiest hours. There were hardly any cars, vans, or trucks moving about on the streets. The Gendarme made their rounds on bicycles, as locals and tourists alike wandered about the winding streets and lanes of this old city. The Grande Rue certainly was the widest of the streets, though it still would be counted as a small one-way alley by Midwestern standards. Every few blocks the street to lead into a grand square, such as Place du 8 Septembre, where I was astonished to find an Irish Pub called Madigan’s. Not only did my amusement arise from the fact that there was an Irish pub in this furthest corner of France, but that it would share the surname of my undergraduate French professor at Rockhurst. At last I came upon the Musée du Temps, at about noon. Entering under the grand archway which led to an inner courtyard, I found the glass doors to the museum off to the left of the court. I entered and strode up to the ticket counter, behind which stood a tall woman with lighter brunette hair. “Je voudrais visiter le musée / I would like to visit the museum,” I said.

She replied that the museum would be closing in ten minutes for lunch and that I should return around “quatorze heures,” two ‘o clock. I said “Merci,” and turned, walking back out into the courtyard and to the Grande Rue beyond. I decided to see if I could see both Hugo’s birthplace and the Citadelle before 14:00, hoping then that I would be able to return to the Musée du Temps before meeting Eve at a café at teatime.

I made my way further along the Grande Rue, passing by shops of so many varieties. I suddenly found myself standing in front of an old building whose face bore a bronze memorial honouring it as “la maison natale de Victor Hugo / the birthplace of Victor Hugo.” I entered, and was greeted by the sight of a pile of backpacks on the floor next to the reception desk alerting me to the presence of a school group in the museum. Approaching the front desk, I paid the €2.50, received an English audio guide, and began the tour. The building had been entirely renovated in the last fifty years, it’s distinctly modern feel slightly off-putting, at least considering that I had expected to see an old home whose features had not changed since that cold 26 February in 1802 when the great writer was born.

La Maison Natale de Victor Hugo

La maison natale de Victor Hugo / The Birthplace of Victor Hugo

Instead of being a museum which focused entirely upon his life, the Maison Natale gave more focus to those pursuits which Hugo held close to his heart. It had an entire gallery devoted to freedom of speech and of the press, and to those who worked to aid the poor throughout the Francophonie. All of this was neatly tied into the story of Hugo’s life and work. His colourful characters connected to their modern counterparts without so much as a stitch to be seen. The bust of Napoléon III placed just so that it would forever stand in front of a cartoon from a 1982 edition of Le Monde discussing the dangers of press censorship.

I proceeded through this first gallery, listening to as much as I wanted to on the audio guide, which gave me a sense of direction, an understanding of the purpose of the museum. I proceeded into the next room, which was a reconstruction of what the house might have looked like at the turn of the nineteenth century. There was an antique rocking horse in the corner, as if left there by a young Victor, the wooden animal still awaiting its master’s return. Across the room were a series of portraits of Hugo’s parents, his father the Napoleonic general, his mother the woman of culture, his godfather, a man hounded by Napoléon’s regime. From there I walked into the penultimate room, a narrow affair which was dominated by a semi translucent sheet of glass, upon which was printed a famous image of Hugo with his family and friends in his salon in Paris around the 1860s. Behind the glass stood three nineteenth century chairs, as if to represent ones which the occupants of the picture might have themselves sat upon.

On the opposite wall hung a world map, likewise printed onto glass. On it were the countries which Hugo had either visited himself, or had extensive contact with. One such was the United States, whose own struggles with slavery led to Hugo offering his full outspoken support for the Abolitionist cause some ten years prior to the outbreak of my country’s horrible Civil War. On a side note, during the American Civil War, the favourite book of many soldiers on both sides was Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables, which was first published in Brussels, as Hugo was in exile from his homeland at that point.

The final room was more of a converted closet. It seemed bigger than it actually was, in part because the two end walls were entirely glass windows, one looking out onto the Grande Rue, the other onto the stairs which led up from the reception room to the exhibition. On the wall opposite the door hung a series of two bookshelves, upon which live a collection of Hugo’s works, in many different languages. These books were donated to the museum by foreign students and teachers, attending classes at one of the many local universities and institutes. There I saw at least ten copies of Les Misérables in nearly as many languages.

I left the Maison Natale forthwith, and continued on my walk down the Grand Rue, or rather up it as the street began to climb up the face of Mont Saint-Étienne, upon which stands the Cathedral of Saint-Jean, itself once below the older Cathedral of Saint-Étienne, which was destroyed during the French conquest of this region, Franche-Comté under Louis XIV in the late seventeenth century. As I climbed higher, I found myself suffering very much from the rise in altitude. Being very much a lowlander, having lived my entire life below 1000 feet, I have found altitude to always be a challenge. As I passed the Cathedral, I made my way further up the slope, first walking along the street, then up a series of stairways which were carved into the rock of the hillside. I stopped at the top of the first stairway to look down to the east towards le Doubs as it began its curve around the Boucle of the city. Having regained my breath, I chose to continue my long march up the side of Mont Saint-Étienne to the gates of the Citadelle.

It took nearly fifteen minutes, after which I was horribly out of breath, but at long last, sweaty, exhausted, but accomplished I made it to the first gatehouse. A sign was posted in the window of a ticket booth informing visitors that the ticket office had moved 100 metres further up the hill in the second gatehouse. So I began to climb again, passing by a large fenced off area, which was home to a flock of Darwin’s Rhea, a rare large South American flightless bird that is midway between an Emu and an Ostrich. Continuing up the hill, I made it at long last to the second gatehouse, where the ticket office and gift shop stood. There I paid the €8.50 for my ticket and, now being rather hungry, I chose to go across the way to the gift shop to see if there was anything small that I could buy for a snack. I soon realised my misfortune, for finding nothing there, I also had managed to end up on the wrong side of the gate itself, and was now outside of the ticketed part of the Citadelle. I quickly returned into the gift shop, and showing my ticket to the man behind the desk, I said “Je visitais la boutique” to his chuckles.

The Citadelle is a magnificent piece of seventeenth century military engineering. It’s walls rise up out of the hillside to not only defend the city below from attack, but also to impress upon the Comtois people themselves that they were no longer franche or free of French royal authority. I walked through another gate and found myself in what was the central pair of courtyards in the fortress. To the right I found a restaurant, which became my first port of call. I enjoyed a delicious selection of local sausages for lunch, and soon was back on my way to explore more of Vauban’s masterpiece. I decided to climb the stairs that led up to the walls, along what was called le chemin de reine (the Queen’s walk). At the top of the wall I was greeted by a large French tricolour flag, waving proudly as ever in the Alpine breeze. Across the Citadelle on the opposite parapet waved the grand blue flag of the European Union, its circle of yellow stars visible from a significant distance.

I walked along the wall as far as I could go, getting a bird’s eye view of the entire Citadelle. On the other side of the wall I had a spectacular vantage of le Doubs as it flowed past the Boucle of Besançon and around a great hill which stood directly opposite Mont Saint-Étienne and the Citadelle. When designing the fortifications, Vauban chose to raise the elevation of Mont Saint-Étienne so that it would be higher than the surrounding hills, thus saving it from any chance of aerial bombardment, at least before the dawn of modern military aviation in the First World War.

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The Citadelle gave off the impression of being something old, yet surprisingly fresh and new. Despite being constructed some three hundred years ago, it was under renovation, as a new Biosphere was being built at the far end of the Zoo at the back of the complex. The fortifications now seemed less a seventeenth century construction and more a part of the hillside. It was as if they had never been built, but rather had been carved out of the rock. Such a geological marvel as this could not go unnoticed, yet from my observations from atop the rampart, it seemed as though those who walked in its shadow did not notice the Citadelle above. In fact, as I later discovered, the Citadelle was not the only human engineering feat undertaken on Mont Saint-Étienne. In the Twentieth Century a number of road tunnels were dug into the rock, connecting the eastern and western approaches to the Boucle of Besançon. Alongside these, a railway line ran parallel to the street in the shadow of the Citadelle far below it’s rocky expanse.

After about twenty minutes I descended from the rampart and made my way towards the Musée Comtois, which is dedicated to the history of the Franche-Comté region. A uniquely alpine area, Franche-Comté has seen influences not only from France but also from its neighbours in Germany and Switzerland. I quickly began to hear the differences in the Franche-Comté accent, such as their preference for a revoir, pronounced “á voix” rather than the au revoir, pronounced “eau voix” as I had learnt it. I actually quite like the Franche-Comté accent, as it feels quite natural and in some ways pleasant to the ear.

The Musée Comtois is home to many artefacts from throughout the region, its grandeur celebrating the traditions of the people themselves, less so the customs of the rich. One particular display showed the sort of pottery which one would find on a dinner table in Franche-Comté from the neolithic age to the present.

I made a quick procession through the Musée Comtois, leaving within about 15 minutes, as I knew the main attraction in the Citadelle would take around an hour to see. On the way there I stopped in at the exhibition detailing Louis XIV’s conquest of Franche-Comté and the construction of the Citadelle by Vauban in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oddly the museum staff had chosen Handel’s Water Music as the soundtrack for the exhibit, and while Handel certainly is of the right generation, I felt that someone like Lully or Charpentier would be more fitting for an exhibit about le Roi Soleil.

I could not help but notice the elegance of the clothes of the seventeenth century gentlefolk, whose images graced the walls of the exhibition. The fine lines of their coats, the stockinged and knee-breeched legs, the elegant hats with feathers gracefully announcing themselves like those of some grand Versailles peacock. I admired and dreamed of how my own time and place in history would look if we dressed as well as this.

Leaving the Vauban exhibition, I found myself confronted with what I had hoped I would not see. The largest exhibition in the Citadelle, the Musée de la Résistance et la Déportation was closed for renovations. So, I decided to see the Zoo, which was housed in the back of the Citadelle. Within minutes I was confronted by a pride of Asian Lions, all of whom turned to look at me, with one even standing as I entered the Zoo. I was certainly frightened, knowing that these lions could well be lethal if given the chance, but I had a feeling of eager daring do which led me down a dark, covered path along the lion enclosure.

The lions displayed an air of nobility, of grace. They are the ultimate cats, the fullness of feline dignity and grandeur. While I was concerned by their approach, I also felt a sense of respect for their honour, their dignity. They were beautiful creatures, their coats looking as healthy as possible, their slender muscular bodies gracefully curving and straightening with each motion of the body. Beauty knows no beast lest it have an understanding of the lion, for with the lion beauty finds its most natural form.

Les lions asiens

Asian Lions

I passed a sleeping mongoose, and then came upon a large enclosure, my path protected by thick plexiglass and metal walls. Every few feet there was a monitor hanging on the top of the wall showing what appeared to be an empty room, where presumably some large animal slept.

Then I saw it, up and moving. It’s coat sent signals of warning, of danger, of the fact that it was willing to be a threat, and I was quiet, careful not to make any sudden movements. There, not more than fifteen feet in front of me stood a full sized adult Siberian tiger. I watched as it walked to and fro in its enclosure, and hoped beyond hope that it would not look at me, for I truly was afraid of it. I felt like a spy who had suddenly walked into some secret room as I stood there, motionless, my camera recording the tiger’s movements back and forth around a large boulder. It turned my way, but did not appear to see me as the lions had. I held my breath, looked at my watch and seeing that it was fifteen minutes until two, I decided to make my retreat.

Le tigre siberien

The Siberian Tiger

Quietly, steadily, without a sound I walked out of the tiger’s viewing area, and past the lions who all now were laying down on the ground, sleeping as any cat would do in the afternoon. I quickened my pace as I left the Zoo, and walked out of the Citadelle, stoping to buy a commemorative coin, honouring Vauban’s work on the complex. Within five minutes I was out of the front gate and making my way down the front of Mont Saint-Étienne, past the Cathedral and along the Grande Rue.

In the shadow of the Cathedral I came upon an old Roman column, then I looked up at the arch which the column supported. Curious, I crossed the street and found a plaque explaining the history of the arch. It was known as the Porte Noire, the Black Gate, by the local Bisontins, yet for me this arch was an amazing moment, the first time I had come face-to-face with a monument dedicated to one of my favourite Romans, the great stoic philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

I later learnt that Besançon is in fact one of the oldest cities north of the Alps. Known in the ancient world as Vesontio, it was first recorded in 58 BCE in Book I of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico. In the Middle Ages, the city’s name shifted from Vesontio to Besontino, then to Bisontion, and finally to Besançon. Linguistically this makes perfect sense. Of all the consonants, the letters V and B are closely connected. Consider the fact that in the Cyrillic alphabet the letter В represents the English and French “V”. Likewise, as can be seen in all of the Romance languages, there is often a softening of the suffix “-tion” to a sound closer to the French “-çon”. Thus Vesontio was able to fluidly develop into Besançon.

La Porte Noire

La Porte Noire – built in honour of Marcus Aurelius.

I walked along the Grande Rue, past Hugo’s house, to the Musée du Temps, which was now, at 14:10, reopened. Once inside I found the reception hall filled with a camera crew, presumably there to film something for the local tourist board. I walked past them, bought my ticket, and made my way into the museum itself. On the ground floor were two rooms, the first home to a collection of paintings by local artists, the second home to an old clockwork and a great model of Besançon at the turn of the eighteenth century. I looked closely and saw Rue Claude Pouillet, and the building within which my apartment today exists. With a smile I walked back to the main staircase, and proceeded up into the main museum.

The Musée du Temps tells the story of how the Bisontins invented the most accurate clocks in Europe. In fact, as Eve had told me at dinner the night before, many modern Bisontins commute to work each day to Switzerland, which is not far at all to the southeast, there lending their talents to the famed Swiss watchmakers. While the museum was interesting, I was more focused upon my own pressing need to keep to schedule. I walked amongst a large collection of clocks and watches, climbed the stairs to see the pendulum and great views of the city from the tower, and saw some fantastic tapestries depicting the life and accomplishments of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, who was once the imperial master of Besançon, then a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire.

With time running short, I made my way back towards the centre of Besançon along the Grand Rue, passing over the Pont Battant alongside the tram, and arriving at last at Kaffe Öst, which sits along the Quai facing le Doubs on the north bank of the river. There Eve was waiting for me, having just finished her last class and exam as a student in the city. We talked for a while about the usual things, before another American woman turned to address us.

She was wearing a University of Virginia sweater, and her accent immediately reminded both Eve and I of home. She introduced herself as Hannah, a teaching assistant at one of the local lycée, or high schools. The three of us began to talk about jobs, teaching, and our own academic careers. Like me, Hannah had majored in Religious Studies as an undergraduate, though she had hardly focused on Catholicism. Hannah and I were in a similar situation, both of us waiting to hear back from prospective employers back home. She hoped to teach at one of a number of different elementary schools both on the east coast and further inland.

After about thirty minutes, Eve had to leave, while Hannah and I stayed put, continuing our conversation about our respective Religious Studies programmes. After ten minutes, she also had to go, telling me that she was going to the Gare to meet a friend. I quickly replied that I too had to go up there to collect my Carte Jeune, and tickets for Friday’s journey back to Lyon. Without further ado, we collected our things, paid our bills to the kind proprietor, and made our way around the corner and up the street, stopping briefly in the Church of the Madeline, which I had gone into that morning, yet ironically Hannah had yet to step foot in. Following that stop, we walked north, up a hill to Gare Viotte, Besançon’s central station. In front of the station stands a beautiful, solemn monument to those who died fighting in the World Wars. The circle is lined by iron walls, with the names of the dead carved into the iron, the collections of names coming together into the figures of the soldiers. At the centre of the circle stands a large stone sculpture, of similar nature to the Martin Luther King, Jr Monument in Washington, dedicated to the Resistance.

We passed over a road, which lay in a deep moat, cut into the hillside by Vauban’s workers as a defensive fortification for the city, and entered the gare. There Hannah and I parted ways, after only having met not even an hour before. She went towards the signboards to see when her friend’s train would be arriving. I walked to the left, towards the ticket office. Eve had recommended that I speak directly with a ticket clerk, asking for one who spoke English, as I would not be able to collect the Carte Jeune from the machines in the main hall. After 30 minutes of trying to confirm my identity, the ticket clerk was at last able to print out my tickets and carte jeune, giving both to me. A box remained empty on the Carte Jeune, which was printed on the same card stock as the train tickets themselves. The box was meant to be filled with an official photo of myself, and I set about immediately finding ways to print such a photo.

I walked across the station to an empty photo booth, and tried my best to figure out how to work it. Unable to succeed in this endeavour, I decided to search the city for a photo shop where I could get such a photo taken and printed for my Carte Jeune. However, Eve assured me that as long as I had some form of photo ID on me, I would be fine.

With that I returned to the apartment, and quickly found myself drifting off to sleep. I awoke about two hours later, close to 20:00, and decided that if I was going to get dinner I had better do so soon.

I was up and out of the door by 21:00, figuring that I was running late for dinner, even by French standards. The streets of Besançon were changed, quite different from before during the daytime hours. The people seemed slightly different as well. What few tourists had been walking about during the day were now nowhere to be seen. The white limestone walls of the buildings now seemed less friendly and more threatening than before. The streets were populated by long faces, by the unnatural lines and figures of people preoccupied by their nighttime reveilles. My eyes too were unsure of what they were seeing, though perhaps that may be more due to my poor eyesight, combined with my mildly intense hunger, which cut at my stomach like a dull tooth wanting to bite into the flesh yet lacking the energy to do so.

I walked back through Place de la Révolution and down a street, heading south, always knowing where I was. At the next cross-street I turned west, walking back to the Grande Rue, figuring that I would be able to find a restaurant that seemed fairly nice, and that I could be sure would serve French cuisine, rather than that of any other country, along that street and around the squares on its route.

At Place du 8 Septembre, I had a look around. I had seen a number of restaurants around the square during my previous walks along the Grande Rue, so I figured that I would be bound to find somewhere to eat. I walked in the direction of Madigan’s Pub, Besançon’s Irish Pub, and turned right at the next corner. There I found a fairly quiet, clean, nice looking restaurant called Le Royal. I had a look at the menu and decided that it would suit my preferences well.

Le Royal was a sleepy sort of restaurant. It’s large wooden bar covered most of the left wall of the room, with a series of booths and tables on the right hand side. I was greeted by one of the two men who were working there that evening, and was led to a table near the back end of the bar. On the back wall I could see the Liverpool v. Manchester United match which was happening back in England. I set my coat down on the chair, and took a seat across from it on the booth. The waiter went back to the bar, and retrieved a menu for my perusing. After about five minutes I was ready, and ordered the chicken escalope in a forestiers sauce with frites on the side and a glass of water to drink.

Having at this point been in France for just over a day, I had come to the honest conclusion that, when properly prepared, it’s hard to not enjoy the local cuisine. In the case of my dinner, well it was sublime. The chicken was perfectly prepared, while the forestiers sauce, as I soon discovered contained mushrooms, which I have in the past avoided out of concern for my health. However it all generally tasted pretty good! Likewise the frites were fantastic, perfect in my opinion. I ate at my usual pace, and was done well before the gentleman sitting behind me, who had arrived just before I had. I payed the bill and was on my way back through the nocturnal streets of Besançon.

L'Escalope du Poulet dans la sauce forestiers avec les frites

Escalope du Poulet dans la sauce forestiers avec des frites.

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