Wherever there was a large bend in a major river, you can be sure that a city will occupy the center of the bend and use the river as a significant defensive obstacle -- a natural, medieval moat, if you will. Even better, if the river valley was deep, there will be fortresses atop the hills with cannons aiming downward at any potential intruders, be they by land or sea.
This perfectly described Besanšon, a marvelous citadel city built inside a loop in the Doubs River southwest of Belfort. Sporting fortresses and towers in and around the city, Besanšon must have appeared to be virtually inpenetrable in its heyday, but that did not stop several armies from trying. In modern times, though, Besanšon welcomed invaders of all types to visit its old shopping district, its many museums, and its magnificent Citadelle with breaktaking views of the river valley, as suggested in the first photograph.
I arrived by train at the main station on the comparatively gentle slopes outside the bend. On the way down the hill to the river, I passed by the Esplanade Col Maurin, one of the city's forts. This was an immense structure, with bastion walls scaling twenty meters high (now a major road runs between the bastions), ending with towers at the bottom. The second photo shows the one remaining tower that was converted into a restaurant on the outer bank of the river. To orient you, I was standing at the north corner of the bend, roughly where the river in the first photo disappears.
The Doubs was a pretty big river, and Besanšon grew quite a bit on both sides of it. The structures on the outer bank were pretty much new, while the inside was dominated not only by towers like the one in the second photo, but also large military buildings that formed a barrier snugly against the riverbank. Only a few bridges crossed into the inner city, and the main one, which was just off the second photo to the left, was merely a pedestrian bridge.
Following the river, I walked almost all the way around the city and rather enjoyed it. There were plenty of parks and points of interest along the way. Among the sights I paused for were the Church of Saint Madeleine, shown in the third photograph, the City's University Building, and the Jewish Synagogue. I finally crossed the river on the western side into a huge park called the Promenade Chemar and followed the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle along a number of fantastic structures -- the palace-like hospital and the Chapel de Refuge with its gold and green tiled dome.
Much of the inner city was a pedestrian area, although there was plenty of room for bus and car traffic (mind you, parking was definitely scarce). There were two main streets, the Grand Rue (shown in the fourth photograph) and the Rue des Granges that cut through the town center. These streets were tiled like a department store floor. Walking it was like wandering through an American shopping mall without the roof.
The downtown was filled with interesting sights, among them were other churches like the Eglise St Pierre in the center of the city, Pasteur Square with its bizarre fountain, the Place de la Republique that hosted the Saturday market, and the Square Castan. This final attraction was the result of an archaeological dig that found Roman ruins. A small park was made out of the square.
As the first photograph would suggest, getting up to the Citadelle was a bit of a climb, and masochistic me, I did it on foot. The Grand Rue climbed steadily south of the inner city, and the first thing I saw was the Cathedral St Jean, a magnificent Cathedral that doubled as a historical museum (it advertised a fantastic astronomical clock).
The road became very steep at that point, but because it curved so much I had no clue how much further I had to go. When I emerged into an open area, it occured to me that the top of St Jean's steeple was not as high as the base of the hill leading to the Citadelle! So, take that as a hint, if you wish to visit the Citadelle but aren't in good shape, drive or take the bus.
The Citadelle was much, much more than just a fortress. The city converted it into a major family entertainment center, with a zoo and several museums and exhibitions. I wasn't so much interested in the exhibitions, I wanted the view, and there was plenty of that available! This was because the river bend was so tight that it almost created a perfect loop. The Citadelle was constructed at the neck of that loop so as to lord over both sides of the river bend. The view opposite from that of the first photo faced several of the other fortresses that sat atop nearby hills -- the nearest being the Fort de Chaudanne that was equally well preserved.
It was clear that a significant part of the Citadelle complex had been restored, which I didn't mind. The parts that had not been restored were crumbling badly and looked quite dangerous. Therefore, they were not accessible to the public.
I returned to the market square around lunchtime and ventured around the pedestrian zone for awhile. After lunch, I ventured back along the east bank of the river and headed up the Esplanade again to head to the train station, and on to my next stop.
The walking plan was probably about the best I could have drawn up. I saw just about everything I wanted to see in a short time, and did it in a single pass. The only adjustment I would make would have been to go a little down the east side first, because that was where the Tourist Information Bureau resided.
Besanšon had to be one of the most fantastic fortress cities I had ever seen. It was easy to see how a defensive strategist drew up the plans for the city, and the sights inside and out were breathtaking. This one should rank high on any list of excursions.
Trip taken 15 February 2003 -- Page Last Updated 04 October 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin