One of the memorable things about our visit to Besançon is that it happened to coincide with our ten year anniversary – it’s always nice to spend special occasions discovering new places!
After completing the usual task of finding a decent spot to leave the van for the day, we were soon trotting across a footbridge over the Doubs River, the wide body of water that sat between us and the old town of Besançon. The shimmering blue surface gave way to green tinges of the foliage growing beneath. Ahead of us was a sheer, impenetrable rock face on top of which stood the equally impenetrable looking fortress wall of the citadel. The imposing feature loomed over the city and since we didn’t have a pre-decided direction, we decided we may as well head that way.
A gateway appeared before us. An impressive stone archway with turrets either side, the sunlight bounding off the pale, sandy stonework. The dark tiles of the pointed turret roofs contrasting against the brilliant blue of the sky behind. Just beyond, in the shadows, was the staircase which would start our ascent. For such a quiet road it was a pretty dramatic entrance – we were officially inside the city walls of the old town.
The Doubs River envelopes the old town of Besançon in a perfect river curl, the inner diameter of which is around 1000 metres. This area was first settled in the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC, and became the initial city development of what can be seen today. The citadel itself is perched on a small hill, Mont Saint-Étienne (371m), at the neck of the river curl. There is actually a barge canal that cuts right through the rock under Mont Saint-Étienne, a watery short-cut bypassing the meander. The citadel is flanked on either side by two larger hills, two of six other elevations around Besançon. It is hard to imagine a more perfect defensive design for a city.
Our climb to the top was steady and meandering, heading up the east side of Mont Saint-Étienne. The pathway followed the city walls, sneaking between the small gardens cut into the land and following long sections of stone steps. The trees and shrubs hanging languidly over these walls offered a pleasant shade throughout our climb. Every so often an old observation slit would give way to a fleeting view of the river below. Towards the top the history-steeped passageways opened up to a zig-zagging gravel track leading up to the entrance of the citadel.
We had no idea what to expect when we got up there, but we definitely weren’t expecting a zoo! I have to admit the emus and monkeys caught us quite by surprise at first, but once we bought our tickets it kind of made sense (kind of!) I’m still amused by the fact that the main entrance into the citadel crosses a moat that is filled with baboons.
The 17th century fortress is considered one of the finest masterpieces of military architecture designed by Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban. The fortification is extremely well preserved and has become an important tourist site within the area. As well as the obvious history of the structure it also hosts several museums, the Natural history element comprising a zoo, an aquarium, an insectarium, vivariums, a noctarium and botanical gardens, amongst others. Not to forget the cafes and shops that go hand-in-hand with tourism of this nature.
One ticket covers everything – so we thought, why not?
Several hours were spent exploring the grounds, taking in all the different things on offer to us. It is quite minimalist inside, not detracting from the building itself and allowing a good impression of its military life to be captured. And despite there being so much to see, for us the most enjoyable thing was being able to walk along the ramparts, talking about the various historical epochs this fortress has survived. Being able to enjoy the quiet (relative quiet – ignoring the calls of the peacocks) whilst looking down over the spreading city was delightful. It was nice to pause and enjoy the far reaching views, the bright summer foliage contrasting with the rustic red roofs of houses, all encircled by the vibrant blue ribbon of the Doubs.