Unlike other cities in France, Besançon the birthplace of Victor Hugo remains one of those off the beaten path and non touristy place despite its bygone charms. Set along the meandering Doubs river in the Franche Comté, this remarkable old city of Besançon is an architectural garden with remnants from the times of the Gallic Roman era, Gothic, Renaissance to Baroque styles. Walk around the winding streets to discover some of its ancient highlights or cycle up hill to get great aerial views of the city.
From the Grand Rue lined with Renaissance style buildings, take a detour to the Place Granvelle. An impressive 16th century palace with arched columns and colourful slooping rooftops, built by Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle advisor to Emperor Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Restaured in 2002, the palace today is home to the Clock Museum (Musée du Temps) Walk through its cobbled courtyards to discover some hidden stairways and numerous fountains strewn throughout the city. Then take a coffee break in one of the restaurant terraces at the Place Granvelle and relax under shady trees.
As part of the Holy Roman Empire since the 11th century, the city fell under its jurisdiction and became the Archdiocese of Besançon. Churches proliferated. Take a stroll along the streets and see some of its most impressive religious buildings. After a dip into spirituality, walk along the Quai Vauban on the River Doubs and from the Pont Battant, see the famous 17th century classical style buildings with arched pillars.
Among the religious buildings in the old city is the must visit Saint John Cathedral located just behind the 2nd century Roman era Porte Noire or the triumphal arched gate located next to the archaeological garden with its Roman columns (Square Castan) The Cathedral of Saint John was built on an ancient foundation that went back to the origins of Christianity in Besançon in the 3rd century. Rebuilt in the 12th century with successive styles from the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque era, the Cathedral is home to some hidden masterpieces.
Such is the unique astronomical clock made by August Lucien in the 19th century. Another treasure is the beautiful painting depicting the Virgin and the child named “Our Lady of the Jacobins” painted by the Florentine artist Domenico Cresti in 1630. Formerly kept in a Dominican (Jacobin ) monastery, today it finds its home at the Eucharist Chapel of Saint John. According to its origin, the painting was miraculously saved from a shipwreck, that sailed from Italy to France. ” Our Lady of the Waves” as it is also known was regarded as a miraculous story, and attracted many pilgrims and believers, even revolutionaries were afraid to touch it.
A Visit to Besançon is certainly not complete without seeing UNESCO heritage site of Vauban Citadel. If you are feeling up to it, climb up the so many steps until the top otherwise there are buses that can take you up till the entrance. From the ramparts there is a fabulous panoramic view of the city. Spend half a day to explore the site. Picnicking is allowed so it can be a great day outing. Inside the fortress are museums and a unique open air zoo part of the City’s Natural History Museum, aiming at protecting endangered animal species. Designed by Vauban Marshal of France, renown military architect in the 17th century, the fortified citadel is truly a masterpiece, vast and impressive where today the green flowery moat is home to gibbons, colubus monkeys and baboons, a delight for visitors entering the fortress gates.
Climb higher just beyond the Vauban Citadel for more fabulous panoramic views of the old city, passing through the vantage point next to the Franciscan chapel at Chapelle des Buis, then head for the church of Our Lady of Liberation built in a crypt of a former military fortress. The church and the 7 metres statue of Mary holding the child memorial to World War II are dedicated to the fallen ones. In 1940 Maurice-Louis Dubourg Bishop of Besançon made a wish that should the city be spared from destruction, he will put up a statue of Mary. The statue carved by Henry Ray, a local artist was later inaugurated in 1949, alongside names engraved on the crypt walls of the diocesans and all the inhabitants of Besançon who died during World War II.