“What brings you to Besançon?” asked the sophisticated-looking woman ahead of me in line at Le Trou de Souris (the mouse hole). We were standing at a cheese counter in the covered market of a small city in northeast France. I had eavesdropped on her conversation with the saleswoman. When it came my turn to order, she turned to me with equal curiosity.
A Parisienne, she had come to this university town to help her youngest daughter, who was about to start engineering school, settle in before classes began. And in universal motherly fashion, she wanted to make sure she didn’t go hungry. So she was doing her best to scope out places where her 20-year-old could go food shopping. Having already sampled the other fromageries (cheese stores) in town, she gave this one the highest rating.
That was good enough for me. I followed her lead, and ordered some runny Roquefort to mix with pasta that evening at the apartment my husband and I had rented, and two cheeses that are specialties of the Franche-Comté region, where Besançon is situated: Comté and Morbier. Then I answered her question. We had been hiking in Switzerland and were heading south through France. As avid travelers we enjoy exploring small, livable French cities and were looking for a place to touch down for a few days en route.
The friend who recommended Besançon had attended a festival there. Indeed, that is what often attracts visitors to this city on the Doubs River. Playing off its past as a literary and cultural center, it hosts conferences, fairs and expos throughout the year, including the International Music Festival during two weeks of September, and a book fair, scheduled this year from September 20 to 22. Historic buildings in the old city center, which have been cleverly repurposed for new uses, provide an attractive venue for these and other events.
We were happy to arrive at what locals told us was a brief, serene interval, starting on the last day of August. French day-trippers were ending their extended summer vacations the evening that we dined alfresco at Les Gamins restaurant (10 rue Pasteur), and the place was filled with what seemed to be regulars reclaiming their territory.
The menu, which changes daily and relies on seasonal ingredients, was inventive. Most memorable was the rocket (arugula) gazpacho with a dollop of creamy burrata cheese (an Italian touch) and garnished with a ripe heirloom tomato – a last slurp of summer.
Just a five-minute walk from our apartment, this lead, from our Airbnb host, was geographically desirable, too. And returning to our temporary home, in an 18th-century walk-up on the rue Breton, was sheer pleasure. With high ceilings, decorative moldings and grand old casement windows that faced three directions, it was brightly lit and large for a city pad – about 850 square feet.
The furnishings, mostly from the mid-20th-century, reminded us of the Paris flea markets. Coincidentally, the olive-and-gold brocade bedroom curtains had been purchased at a Hôtel Ritz Paris auction, the owner told us. Nothing matched, but everything seemed to go together – a tribute to her good taste and artistic talent. There was a bronze chandelier in the living room and a sapphire-blue fixture of blown glass over the table in the dining room. Elaborate mirrors everywhere, including one of etched glass that ran the length of the kitchen, made the place seem even more spacious.
By Day 2 we had a favorite boulangerie nearby: 1904 à Nos Jour, at 12 rue des Granges. Their chewy chestnut bread, chunky with apricots and figs, paired perfectly with Comté cheese. For breakfast we couldn’t resist the galette Comtoise – a buttery, eggy, multilayered crepe filled with hints of orange flavoring, drizzled with honey. And what better accompaniment to an afternoon espresso than sèches – a dry flaky cookie dusted with confectioner’s sugar that is a specialty of the neighboring Jura region. The front window of the shop was piled high with them. They dissolved so quickly on the tongue, that I couldn’t possibly eat just one. For better or worse, the place is open long hours, from Monday to Saturday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For food and wine lovers, Besançon proved to be a forager’s delight. In repeat visits to Les Halles (open Tuesday to Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the covered market where we met the Parisienne, we found a gorgeous selection of local produce, meats and cheeses drawn from these two fertile parts of France. Outside, on Place de la Révolution, farmers come to sell their wares on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. This is the place to buy fresh goat cheese, if you love it, and eggs, right off the farm, for a luscious omelet.
An excursion to the village of Arbois, about an hour’s drive southwest, took us to the home of Louis Pasteur and into the Jura – a small wine-producing region situated between Burgundy and Switzerland. Among other things, it is known for its very floral white wines, made from the Chardonnay or Savagnin grape, or a combination of the two. The Jura white is a key ingredient in the region’s send-up of coq au vin, as is its vin jaune “yellow wine.” The latter, named for its deep golden color, is a Savagnin aged in oak barrels for six years and three months.
On the way to Arbois, we visited the Saline Royale, an 18th-century company town in Arc-et-Senans, once devoted to the production of salt, that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. (Smart- phone users can download the free audio guide here.) Good weather enabled us to enjoy a picnic on the grounds and avoid the in-town restaurants, with their overpriced tourist menus. The on-site restaurant, open daily during June, July and August, has a beautiful setting, with tables outdoors and would have been another option, but was closed on the day that we visited. For those without a car, Saline Royale is also accessible by train.
Back in Besançon, we climbed up to the citadel, the city’s must-see 17th-century fortress designed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the military architect for Louis IV. Once an important defense point, today it houses several museums – another example of how this city has put historic buildings to modern uses.
The Museum of the French Resistance and Deportation, where we spent two hours, deserves a better space and is apparently going to get one: It closes January 1 for a two-year renovation. The two other museums housed in the citadel – the Natural History Museum of Besançon and the Franche-Comté Museum – will remain open during this period.
Though the citadel affords a panoramic view of Besançon, we thought a more striking vista was of the ramparts, from the shores of the Doubs River. To see them, we followed part of the walking tour charted on the free map, “Besançon Urban Trail,” available from the local Tourism Office in the Hotel de Ville (52 Grande rue). The tour can be done on foot, or on one of the bikes available for rent at kiosks around the city.
For those who enjoy shopping, the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette has a branch in Besançon, as do many mid-range French boutiques, such as Mephisto (shoes), Armor-lux (Breton striped shirts), Petit Bateau (children’s clothing) and Culinarion (cookware). The selection of French skincare products at Parapharmacie Physio (1 Bis rue des Granges) rivals that of the popular City Pharma in Paris, but without the elbowing crowds.
By the end of our stay, I better understood the question that started our conversation with the Parisienne. This was no rival for Paris. But for four nights and three days it was terrific, unfrenzied French city living at a fraction of the cost.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.