Besançon, France’s Capital of Time

Towering over Besançon and the River Doubs below, the 17th-century citadelle designed by Louis XIV’s master military engineer, Vauban, is an amazing sight. It’s just one part of the immense fortifications that surround Besançon, and which were deservedly given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. In almost any other town the size of this – around 120,000 people – it would be the crowning glory. Besançon though, has something that tops even Vauban’s masterpiece.

Citadel and River Doubs, Besançon, France
Quai Vauban and River Doubs, Besançon, France
Porte Noire and cathedral, Besançon, France
River Doubs, Besançon, France
Town fortifications and River Doubs, Besançon, France
Place de la Revolution, Besançon, France

Taking up one side of the Place de la Révolution, the Musée des Beaux-Arts lays claim to being the oldest public museum in France. Founded in 1694, it has an incredible Gallo-Roman archaeological collection, of which the bronze three-horned bull of Avrigney has to be the finest piece. It tells you everything you need to know about the importance of Vesontio, as the Romans called it.

That alone would be worth a visit, but it is also home to an incredible wealth of paintings from the 15th to 20th centuries. Artists include Cranach (father and son), Rodin, Bellini, Titian, Rubens, Tintoretto, Goya and Matisse. Literally one of the best museums I have been into, not only because of the range of world famous artists, but because it has some of their finest pieces. Bronzino’s Deposition of Christ and Cranach’s Suicide of Lucretia and Adam and Eve are just three of many.

Yet Besançon is so much more than its two most famous attractions. The old town is almost an island encircled by water, and this constrained space is filled with lovely 18th century houses, pleasant squares and ancient churches. It is also home to the birthplace of Victor Hugo,  France’s most important writer. They make a good effort to explain Hugo’s life, but since he spent so little time here it feels like a bit of a stretch to have a museum at all.

This was our last stop on our way back to Brussels and we knew little about Besançon before we arrived. It was an inspired if lucky choice for our last couple of days of this road trip. The absence of any major tourism, a youthful, relaxed vibe, and lots of nice bars and restaurants, gave us a really good feeling about the town. On hot summer evenings, we sat out and had drinks and food on car free streets as the world passed by.

To seal the deal with Besançon, there was even a small festival taking place in the tree-shaded Place Granvelle. We had a delicious lunch of tagine from one of the street food stalls accompanied by live music. Afterwards we visited the citadel – a steep climb on a hot day – and walked through the Roman-era Porte Noire to reach the impressive Cathédrale Saint-Jean, where it was at least cooler. In part of the cathedral is an 1850s astronomical clock.

It turns out that Besançon is nicknamed the Capital of Time. Following the French Revolution it became a major clock and watchmaking centre, and that story is told in a great museum housed in the Renaissance Palais Granvelle. The museum is a celebration of  man’s quest to measure time and is packed with ancient mechanical timepieces. The centrepiece of the museum though, is a fully functional Foucault pendulum proving that the earth is turning.

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, France
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, France
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, France
Vauban statue, Citadel, Besançon, France
Citadel, Besançon, France
Citadel and River Doubs, Besançon, France

If you’re ever in Besançon, there is one other thing you shouldn’t miss: a boat trip slowly navigating the River Doubs around the town. It would be pleasant enough even without the one thing that makes it extra special: the Tunnel fluvial de la Citadelle. A water tunnel hewn from solid rock directly beneath the citadel that you can sail through on a boat tour. Like Besançon itself, it was quite wonderful.

3 thoughts on “Besançon, France’s Capital of Time

  1. Yes, the boat trip is extraordinary. When I was there, the two boats making this circle tour were called the “Vauban” and the “Victor Hugo”.

    1. Such a lovely and surprising town. The boat trip under the citadel really was the cherry on top.

      1. Here’s a link to my blog post about the circle cruise in Besançon:

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