Situated near the Swiss border in eastern France, Besançon is the capital city of the Franche-Comté region.
The town has a long history dating back to the age of Julius Caesar, however today Besançon has a very young feel to it thanks to the large population of foreign students that reside there. Besides it rich history, Besançon is now best known for its local micro-technology and watch-making industries. In fact, the town is considered to be one of France’s leading technology centers in a variety spanning from biotechnology to telecommunications.
Besançon had strategic significance throughout its history due to its geography, with the Alps on the city’s south providing a natural defense. Caesar mentions the town in his journals in relation to his conquest of Gaul. He refers to the city as Vesontio and describes the wooden palisade that surrounded it at the time. Over time, the town’s name slowly transformed from Basantio, Besontion and Bisanz before arriving at the modern French title of Besançon, stemming from the ancient heritage of the Bisontine.
During the Middle Ages, control of Besançon initially fell under the Duke of Burgundy then the Roman Empire from 1034 before returning to the Dukes of Burgundy during the Renaissance. Mary of Burgundy’s marriage to Maximilian I again returned Besançon to the Roman Empire under Spanish King Charles V. Until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 it remained part of the empire, following which it came under Spanish sovereignty. Within a few decades however, the French took control of the city.
The French heavily fortified the city, reinforcing the citadel, building a wall to surround the city as well as a moat system. Six forts were also built on the hills around the city.
During WWII Besançon’s citadel was occupied by the Nazis, and the site was used by the Germans to execute fighters from the French resistance. The town saw very little action during the war otherwise and therefore incurred minimal damage. The citadel now serves as a museum.
Having been a place of significance throughout history, there are several historic sites to visit in Besançon with several classic stone buildings from the Middle Ages and Spanish Renaissance remaining within the city. Be sure you take the time to visit the Roman ruins such as the Porte Noire and Square Castan, 16th century Palais Granvelle, the Cathedral of St Jean, the citadel, église Sainte-Madeleine church hall as well as taking in the beauty of the riverfront.
The Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology is also well worth a visit, containing some of the finest artworks and ancient antiquities outside of Paris. Museum buffs will also enjoy the Museum of Time, Museum of Franche-Comté and the Museum of Natural History.