Monday, March 1, 2010


On our way back from Dijon, Susie and I visited Besançon, the capital of the Franche Comté, which became part of France only after it was conquered by the army of Louis XIV in 1674. Becoming French was a mixed blessing for the residents, who found themselves having to pay much higher taxes.

Louis, whose forces had been able to win the siege of Besançon's old city walls after only a month, decided that much stronger fortifications would be necessary to hold the town in the face of any future attack. He had his military engineer, Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban, design an amazing fortress on the cliffs above the city. Vauban must have been a man of infinite energy, for in his 35-year career he built 30 new forts and renovated some 300 others. This fortress, which sits on the rock outcroppings at the top of an oxbow loop of the Doubs River that encircles Besançon, is one of France's most outstanding examples of 17th Century military architecture and in 2008 was named France's 32nd site on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.

Vauban was an innovator and thinker who developed new defensive systems with novel layers of walls and moats. Entry to the fortress passes over narrow trestles and draw bridges and through massive walls.

Visitors can walk along the parapets, gaining views like this down to the Doubs.

The buildings of the fortress's inner yard have served several functions over the centuries, including service as a military academy and as a prison. The moats now house zoo animals, and the buildings house museums. One of these is a particularly extensive and moving museum of the resistance and deportation, which covers themes that include the origins of the Nazi Party, the Vichy government, the resistance across France, the deportation, torture and murder of European Jewry, and the liberation of the concentration camps and of France; exhibits include actual false identity papers and the tools with which they were made. Even in the best of times, it could not have been a cheery place. But it's great to see Vauban's great work now accessible to all and housing educational and cultural institutions.

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