The Citadel of Besançon is an imposing 27-acre fortress on a bluff high above the city’s Renaissance-era center, which spills out from a teardrop-shaped oxbow on the Doubs River. This is now eastern France, about an hour from the Swiss border, but the unusual topography has drawn military attention at least since it was Celtic Gaul: Julius Caesar noted its potential as a defensive stronghold on his way through the region. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Louis XIV’s celebrated engineer, designed the current structure, one of his 12 fortifications that collectively made the Unesco World Heritage list in 2008.
I was one of those castle enthusiasts as a kid, so after I climbed up a steep road and stairs (you can also take a bus), I headed straight for the ramparts. But just before reaching a staircase that led up to them, I noticed a feature not often found in 17th-century French military fortifications: a red kangaroo. The Citadel, it turns out, is not just an architectural marvel, it is also part zoo, with animals from the Natural History Museum housed throughout. And a museum dedicated to the French Resistance (the Germans executed dozens of Resistance members there). And yet another museum, the Musée Comtois, which covers the culture of the region of which Besançon is the capital, Franche-Comté.
If this all sounds unfamiliar, you’re not alone: Not a single stateside friend or family member I mentioned my trip to had ever heard of Besançon, or of Franche-Comté — though some knew of Comté cheese, the nutty, buttery local product that has a worldwide following. Numbers confirm that the region — which at 6,200 square miles is continental France’s second-smallest region, about half the size of Maryland — is mostly unexplored territory for travelers. Last year, American tourists arrived in greater Besançon at the rate of only seven per day; the vast majority of those who do visit are French.
That’s a shame, especially since both Besançon and Franche-Comté (which will be combined with Burgundy when French administrative reforms take effect next year) are perfectly poised for budget travelers. There are surprising museums, fascinating and fragrant cheese caves, charming villages. Its cuisine is hearty and its best restaurants are quite reasonable, with dishes that, unlike cassoulets from Languedoc and bouillabaisse from Provence, are hard to find in, say, New York.
It’s also just over a two-hour trip from Paris on the TGV, France’s high-speed train system, with round-trip tickets from 40 euros ($44 at $1.09 to the euro). Regional attractions dwarf Paris’s costs: The most expensive place I visited was the Citadel, which, at 10.60 euros for a Unesco-blessed monument and three museums, isn’t bad. (A tip: Before you leave town, visit La Cave aux Fromages for picnic supplies and spend a whole day up there. My three-hour visit felt incredibly rushed.)
The city has several other worthwhile attractions. Victor Hugo’s birthplace, for example, is just 2.50 euros, and there’s a free and good English audio tour of the lively museum devoted to the writer’s political and literary life, which hadn’t even started when he left the city as a baby of six weeks. (He was essentially an army brat; his father was briefly stationed at the Citadel.)
It’s one example of how the region makes the most of relatively scarce material. Another is the Musée du Temps, the Museum of Time (5 euros). The name is a nod to Besançon’s historic role in the French watchmaking industry, though the museum celebrates not just gorgeous clocks and pocketwatches dating back to the 16th century, but also time writ large — for example, artwork related to the passage of time (end times included).
The best clock in town, though, is elsewhere: a mid-19th- century, room-size number commissioned by the archbishop at the time, which ticks to this day in a small room in the city’s cathedral. (A tour in French or English is 4 euros.) Its dozens of interconnected, mechanical displays show the timing of eclipses and the tides in various outposts of the French empire around the world (useful if you’re planning to jet down to the Indian Ocean for a swim off Réunion Island, perhaps). Your smartphone can do all that, you say? Can it also pull levers that ring the clock tower bells high above, and use mechanized figures to re-enact the Resurrection of Christ every day at noon? I didn’t think so.
Budget travelers will be very happy with the town’s bike-share program (2 euros for a weekly pass), plus its excellent bus and tram system. But to get out of the city you pretty much need a car, and when I tried to book, the standard agencies all charged more than 50 euros a day. So I checked Drivy, a peer-to-peer car rental service, where I found a compact 2009 Renault Clio. My total came to about 30 euros, and included something you won’t get at Hertz: a personal thank you for liberating the region from the Germans.
The owner had left the keys with her 84-year-old mother, Noelle, who was thrilled to meet an American. Back in late 1944, she recounted, after she spent three days taking shelter in a basement from Allied bombing, the American soldiers arrived — including a tall, strapping soldier named Bill, whom Noelle clearly still had a crush on seven decades later. She told the story with a gusto that could only be possible in a region not accustomed to seeing Americans in these intervening decades.
I was glad that I rented the car — driving around the area allowed me to happen upon villages like Lods, in the Loue Valley, which rises from the river of the same name into the hills. I approached from a winding road above, inching down precariously steep and narrow Rue de la Vierge into the storybook town, which didn’t have anything obvious to offer travelers. I spotted only the closed Musée de la Vigne e du Vin, a museum dedicated to the area’s viniculture, with limited hours off season, and the atelier of a German painter, Annette Lucke, which I think was open by accident. Only her husband, Erwin, was present. “We’re in the center of Europe and it feels like the end of the world,” he said, which seemed just right. (There are a couple of small inns along the river below. And you can certainly stay nearby in bigger Ornans, which is notable as the hometown of the artist Gustave Courbet, and has a museum dedicated to him.)
I was also happy to have made two cheese-related stops. First, at yet another impressively original museum, the Musée des Maisons Comtoises, where traditional homes from across the region (and across the centuries) have been dismantled and, rather astonishingly, reconstructed as exhibits amid a rolling 40-acre landscape. Admission (8 euros) includes daily events and tours, and I was just in time for a tour of the fruitière, the local name for a facility where a collective of farmers drop off their milk daily for it to be transformed into butter and cheese. A guide took the tour group (just me and a French couple) through the elaborate Comté cheese-making process, demonstrating with a sequence of century-old tools whose names in French were lost on me.
That was an old-fashioned fruitière, complete with cellar, where milk comes in and is fully aged, and where 90-pound wheels of Comté cheese come out. But my next stop was Fort St. Antoine, an old underground fort that had been repurposed into a cheese cave by Fromageries Marcel Petite, one of the region’s larger affineurs (which means they only age the cheese). The 7-euro group tours are held Wednesdays and are run by the local tourism office at Pontarlier; they’re in French, though group tours in English can be scheduled (starting at 80 euros for a group of up to 16 people). You’ll especially want that translation at the end, when one of the company’s tasters explains how he evaluates the cheese, a process that includes extracting a taste from the wheel without leaving a mark.
I had brought along a picnic lunch from La Cave des Fromages, and was delighted to discover that the pleasantly funky 18-month Comté cheese I had been snacking on all day was indeed Marcel Petite. (At less than 8 euros a pound, it had cost at most half what I’d pay at a New York cheesemonger.) At La Frutière, another shop in Besançon, this one selling cheese made by a local cooperative, I had bought their own award-winning Morbier (a sharp, impossibly creamy cheese) and Comté that they vacuum-packed for me to bring back (legally!) to the States.
When I returned the car at 9 p.m., there was Noelle again. Apparently she had found an outlet in me: Her World War II storytelling has grown old to relatives. “No one wants to listen anymore,” she said. “ ‘Toi et ta guerre,’ they say.” You and your war.
That night was my second of three staying at an elegant suite (not a phrase I use frequently) at the Résidence Charles Quint, formerly an upscale hotel converted into gracious rental apartments tucked into a courtyard between Besançon’s cathedral and the hill leading to the Citadel. I paid a total of 220 euros for three nights, getting a 20-euro break on the price I found at Booking.com through my patented method of calling and asking if there was a discount for booking directly.
While that’s not cheap, it’s an amazing deal. And I like to live well when I’m in cheaper cities. After a mediocre meal at an inexpensive cafe the first night, I adopted the same attitude for meals, keeping costs low at some of the best restaurants in town.
That was easy at L’Affineur Comtois, where the least expensive entree, poêlée comtoise, is also a house specialty: a plate of sausage, ham and potatoes served with a dish of heated cancoillotte, a soft local cheese, meant (a post-dinner Google Image seemed to imply) to be poured over chunks of Morteau sausage, a heap of thinly sliced ham and potatoes. I did it fondue style, which worked just fine. The cancoillotte — which the restaurant’s owner produces himself — was especially magical on the browned, bite-size chunks of potato.
My other great meal was in one of Besançon’s quirkier spots, Le Vin et L’Assiette, a restaurant whose stone walls and rough-hewed ceiling beams make it look as old as the 15th-century building it’s in. The prix fixe lunch at 21 euros is a great deal; the day I went it included a juicy bavette steak in wine sauce and a crème brûlée (with local sherry-like vin jaune mixed in). It also includes two glasses of wine, each chosen and delivered to you, by the owner.
Figuring I wasn’t likely to find myself back here anytime soon, I added a 7-euro starter, a croustillant au maroilles — pungent, nearly molten Maroilles cheese from the north of France and smoked pork belly wrapped in a crackling thin pastry the shape of a blintz. Final tally was 28 euros for a three-course meal with three paired wines.
It was with three glasses of wine down the hatch that I visited the Citadel, which, come to think of it, may have increased my wonder at finding kangaroos. But there’s another animal to look out for at the Citadel: the cute gelada baboons from Ethiopia. I say that because you can see them only from a distance; they live in the moat. Not sure what Louis XIV would have thought of that, but as a tipsy tourist I heartily approved.
If You Go
By far the easiest way to get to the region is the TGV. Be sure you book a direct trip (slightly more than two hours) from Paris’s Gare de Lyon to Besançon’s Viotte station (and not the regional Besançon-Franche Comté station). A recent search found round-trip tickets from 40 euros, though prices range wildly. From the station it’s an easy tram ride (1.40 euros) to the Old City.
Where to Stay
The elegant and affordable rental apartments at the Résidence Charles Quint (above) are at the edge of the Old City, on a back street by the Cathedral. They are administered through the more expensiveHotel Le Sauvage (hotel-lesauvage.com), and start at 80 euros per night.
Le Vin et L’Assiette (no website) at 97, rue Battant offers a prix fixe lunch for 21 euros, including a main course and two glasses of wine chosen by the owner.
L’Affineur Comtois (restaurantlaffineurcomtois.ex-flash.com) is a cozy spot also on Rue Battant, serving affordable fondues (minimum two people) and dishes with house-made cancoillotte cheese.
The Musée de Maisons Comtoises (maisons-comtoises.org), in Nancray, is a virtual village of historic homes from across the region, dismantled and reconstructed with historically accurate interiors. Entrance 7 euros. For those without cars, there is limited bus service on Line 81 from Besançon.
Musée du Temps (mdt.besancon.fr) celebrates time and is situated within the 16th-century Palais Granvelle in Besançon’s Old City. Entrance 5 euros.
The Maison Natale de Victor Hugo (besancon.fr/index.php?p=1328) is where the author of “Les Misérables” lived briefly as an infant; it is dedicated, however, to his entire literary and political life. Entrance is 2.50 euros.
Tours of the Marcel Petite cheese cellars are given on Wednesdays (in French) through the Pontarlier tourism office (pontarlier.org) and are 7 euros.
The Frugal Traveler column last Sunday about the Franche-Comté region of France described incorrectly Morbier, a cheese sampled by the writer. While it is a sharp, creamy cheese, it is not a blue cheese.