When most people travel to France, they naturally go to Paris. Who wouldn’t? The food, the shopping, the museums, the history . . . it’s all there. Of course, all that culture comes with a price: having to subject yourself to the haughty waiter who knows that if you leave, some other slovenly American tourist will take your place, only too eager to be insulted in a language he doesn’t understand.
Instead of Paris, some vacationers choose the Bordeaux countryside. The French are noted for their wines, and this region has the grapes. Other travelers go straight for the French Riviera: Marseille, Cannes, Antibes. If you can afford it, you won’t regret it. Then there’s Chambéry, the gateway to the French Alps. Skiers and mountain climbers alike flock there to push their endurance to the limit or just do a little shopping.
But for those who want to experience France without getting caught up in all the hype and circumstance, we recommend a little out-of-the-way stop in scenic Besançon. Sitting along the Doubs River in the Jura Mountains north of Lyon and east of Dijon, Besançon defines the term “provincial.”
Known as the Greenest City in France, Besançon seems to have evolved out of the mountains organically. It’s as if the buildings somehow rose out of the earth on their own—like mushrooms, only less nutritious. Green parks, tree-lined streets, and public gardens create the rich atmosphere of country life inside a city. It’s the result of a culture that clearly had different values from those of Paris.
Besançon has a university, and the students imbue the city with a vibrant nightlife that rivals any settlement its size. The students also keep the town from wallowing in the past like a Presidential candidate who refers to Ronald Reagan in every campaign speech. As a result, the town maintains a pleasant mix of old and new. Best of all, the local French behave like real people. As incredible as it might be to believe, it’s true: Besançon residents actually respect strangers and tolerate diversity.
We arrived as exchange students and fell in love with the languid pace of life there. What better place to experience a foreign culture than an oasis of liberté? What better place to (God forbid) study than beneath a broad-leafed deciduous on a sunny day? We took advantage of the opportunity and learned our lessons well—both scholarly and worldly. The French we learned unfortunately didn’t stick, but what we learned about the French there has never left us.
Walking around the old city, we remember feeling like we’d been transported to a different dimension, where elements of the 1990s mingled improbably with those of the 1920s. Frisbees whizzed by the old men feeding pigeons in the park. Hippies with guitars sang old French ballads. A pretty girl, after asking for a Gitanes and a light, wove a delightful verbal tapestry that included Jean Cocteau, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and George W. Bush. We understood about half of it, but decided it was a fantasy a la Alice in Wonderland.
In the nearby mountains, outside the city proper but within hiking distance, lies the ruins of an ancient fort called simply The Citadel. The Spanish built it originally, but the Germans used it most recently. Obviously, neither was very successful.
We found the trip into the hills a valuable learning experience. The location afforded us expansive views of the valley, which we gobbled up, while the ruins provided a terrific spot for a picnic of French bread, cheese, and lots of wine, which we lingered over. After our leisurely repast, we took a trek around the grounds to help us work off the calories. The hike, in such an historic and very public place, taught us one of the most valuable lessons we learned all year. It wasn’t a history lesson, but a life lesson: never pass up an opportunity to pee.
Lessons Learned: Besançon might be the perfect place to attend college; it’s said to be among the most popular places in the world to learn French. It’s also a perfect place for a detour during a European vacation. The area still beckons us back across the ocean and across the decades. It might not be the idyllic spot today it was back then, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to change enough not to warrant a visit.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg or Lyon Saint-Exupéry International Airport
Native Population: 135,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The university, museums, history, bridges, architecture, arts (it’s known as one of France’s “art cities”), and music festivals.
Final Point of Interest: The city’s history dates back to before Julius Caesar’s time, but don’t make the same mistake he made. It’s not a city to conquer, but one to savor.