Lazy stroll turns into hike of horror

Saint-Pierre Church in Besançon.

Being a city of ancient origins, Besançon has history, lots of it, and not all of it so nice. The weird thing is that they choose to display that history in the middle of a children’s zoo.

Citadel entrance.

We made the uphill climb to Besançon’s Citadel – a Unesco World Heritage Site that was built between 1668 and 1688 on 11 hectares of high ground that culminates in a cliff overlooking the river Doubs.  It is a fortress of spartan stone structures and walls, standing in sharp relief against the city’s other Romanesque, Classical and Baroque architecture.

Stark architecture caps the citadel's naturally advantageous military position.

After entering the gates where we paid 9 Euros each for admission, a process that is weird in that you weave off the path into a fortress gate office where they take your money and subject you to a sales-pitch to buy guides, a history book, audio and more. I could be wrong about this, because the clerk only spoke French, but every time she pushed something at me, I asked “Combien?” and there was a number in her every response, indicating a price.

I don’t mind the sales pitch, but if they are going to have clerks rattling off at tourists, wouldn’t it be nice to have a few who can speak English? I can imagine some sad sap saying “Oui,” to every question just to be friendly and then discover he had purchased $113 worth of history books in a language he cannot read.

The fun was not over yet, as we still had to march up a hill to a second fortress gate that also pulled us through a gift shop where smiling clerks stood ready to entice us to open our wallets. But it was a hot day and our wallets were pasted to our pockets, so we were spared.

We then walked over a stone bridge that rose above a dry moat populated with baboons who were  in a screaming fever over some argument that led to a chase where the loser was forced to  scamper up the vertical walls such that we flinched instinctively, ready to flee should the baboon clear the walls, which it looked like he was about to do.

Even though the baboons terrified us (see silky-haired creatures in the lower right corner), we later saw the keeper hand-feed them.

He never did, although his proven ability to eat up vertical space told us he could easily have landed in our laps, and so we concluded there must be an electrified barrier. At least we hope so. If we open up the news one day to learn of a tourist having his hand eaten by a baboon, we will not be a bit surprised.

From there we made our way to the goat pen, but first we thought we’d stop in at “The Museum of the Resistance and Deportation,” which we thought was some kind of funny translation for something else, but it turned out it was almost exactly the correct name for the stone building, except that it should have also included the phrases, “The Rise of the Nazis,” and “Holocaust,” and “How Hitler Prepped an Entire Nation to Kill Six Million and Mutilate Many More.”

I am capitalizing every word on purpose, to emphasize how graphic this museum was, and so it should be. Wouldn’t you agree, however, that while it does belong inside a military fortress, internment camp and execution site, as the citadel is, perhaps it should not be lodged between the baboon cage and the goat pens? The children’s’ zoo aspect does nothing to prepare visitors for what lies inside the museum’s walls.

Libyans seeking signatures supporting the ousting of Gaddafi.

The museum left us mute and the rest of our tour inside the citadel was done on autopilot, without much enjoyment.

This was all after we had stumbled across a group of Libyan men, standing silent in the plaza overshadowed by Eglise Saint Pierre. They held up photos of their murdered relative’s bloodied corpses, reminding us that while Nazi atrocities had abated, new ones were ongoing at that very moment.

We were in need of emotional resuscitation, so we went to the Musee de Beaux Arts, on the grounds that anything named so cheerfully had to be good, unaware that it housed a section on Goya’s black period where he painted works depicting familial cannibalism.

And that is the essence of Europe: Awesome architecture, horrific history.

I am going to include a gallery of Besançon’s prettier parts, just in case this post leaves you in a dour state.

Click on photos to enlarge, click twice for close-ups.

If you go to Besancon, you can skip the uphill march that Dave and I made. Tour buses will ferry you uphill (in the summer season only) or you can take a car and leave it at a paid-parking site, although spaces are few. Learn more at www.citadelle.com.

We do most of our touring on Saturdays, hence we often happen upon weddings, photo shoots and receptions. We have not ever eaten at any of these weddings. Really.

Metallic directional arrows are imbedded in Besançon's sidewalks to help tourists find their way around town, however, we found this particular set pointed in the opposite direction indicated on our map. Coincidentally, it points toward the casino. Coincidence?

Besançon is one of France's undiscovered beauties.

A children's carousel in the Saint Pierre Church plaza.

If you go to Besançon, make sure to explore these unmarked gates that lead to intriguing private courtyards. Do not get arrested!

We found these scoured steps up to legal offices inside one of the courtyards. Maybe lawyers aren't so well-paid in France.

Inside a courtyard. These are hidden neighbourhoods nested inside the city streets. They surprise visitors - sometimes leading to parks, sometimes to hotels, sometimes to private fountains.

After the holocaust museum, Libyan tragedies and Goya's cannibalistic works, Dave finally finds something to smile about - a Picasso!

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Eat on the street at Au Grill’on

Photo captures male diner's facial expression as he absorbs yet another insult from his haughty French waiter. He revels in the satisfaction of knowing he is paying for the best arrogance France can deliver.

Dave and I arrived in a famished state at Au Grill’on, a corner cafe that wraps around  Rue JDV Proudhon and Rue Francois Louis-Bersot in Besançon’s old quarter.

As is our custom, we first whetted our appetite by scrutinizing the menus and clientele of about 12 restaurants beforehand, deeming each one unsuitable, until we arrived at Au Grill’on too tired and hungry to care about the quality of food or service. This was France, after all, where there is no bad food, theoretically speaking.

We parked ourselves at a table at the point of the corner to enjoy a commanding view of the pedestrian-fashion show going up and down both streets.  I stepped away to discreetly take a few photos of said fashion-show and when I returned Dave was seated at a new table.

The waiter, a young man who when he first appeared wore an expression so disinterested that it took a few minutes for us to conclude he was not a loitering Dylanesque artiste, had moved Dave to another table hemmed in on one side by what appeared to be a trash bin and on the other by an ad board.

Dave, being of English stock, did not realize the waiter was asserting dominance. I, having a good measure of pre-Revolutionary French blood, appreciated the artistry woven into this insult and drew my sword, figuratively speaking.

I moved us to another table. True, it was worse than the one the waiter chose, but there was no time to quibble. Dave, seeing he was but a pawn in our power-struggle, sighed and took up his newly assigned post. I wonder if we had kept on like that for 20 minutes or so how many tables we could have made Dave sit at. I would guess at least five.  He is a very good sport.

The view from our table.

The waiter, seeing he had a rogue diner on his hands swept by our table as though we did not exist, a sort of shot-across-the-bow move, then returned to our table and assumed a bored posture – his weight thrown to one side, shoulders slack, chest cratered inward and head slightly tilted as though falling asleep. I managed a few French words at which his eyes flickered with hostility.

Some say that everyone under 25 in Europe has a working knowledge of English, but the waiter gave no recognition of our English and even less of our French. We would have done just as well in Hungarian, even though neither of us speak it.

The waiter communicated in one-syllable words so low that they could have signaled a digestive complaint, but he toyed with our hopes by allowing a slight intonation of language into his grunts. He was a good-looking kid, but he somehow transformed his eyelids into shadowy hoods and his lip curled slightly upward while the rest of his facial features took on a gargoyle-like profile.

The view on the other side of the street - sure the avenue is jammed with tables and pedestrians, but why not drive a sports car through it? We've seen this in Switzerland and France - owning a sports car is apparently a license to drive anywhere, any time, any way at all.

You have to hand it to the boy. He should not be in some provincial backwater, but instead be waiting on tables in Paris where he could contribute to France’s international reputation for waiter-haughtiness.  We were delighted to finally get our money’s worth in cuisine culture.

Even though we communicated our order caveman-style, that is,  by pointing on the menu, le garcon brought me something somewhat different – and more expensive – than what I had ordered. He correctly detected Dave’s likability and first brought him his exact order – chicken breast, which came sans bone and skin in a  mallet-flattened filet along with a square of delicious scalloped potato.

Hopefully no waiter-spit is in here. This tasted a lot better than it looked, although I could not detect any garlic. The waiter must have reported my misdemeanors to the chef!

Then he brought my steak, which I had ordered, topped with what appeared to be giant raisins, which I had not ordered. I would have put up a fight about this, but I am still waiting for the day that a European waiter brings me the correct order, so I just picked up my knife and started hacking at it only to see my plate transform into a murder scene, complete with red blood pouring out into the beige-coloured sauce (a nice complementary colour scheme, by the way).

The waiter was winning.

I sent the plate back to the kitchen where for all I know the entire staff gathered around to spit on it.

When the steak returned, it was still rare, but it no longer flinched under the fork. It was perfectly tender, a good piece of meat, and although a little lacking in the usual hint of garlic for which French chefs are famous, it still was delicious.

The waiter, as is almost always the case with European waiters, had exacted his revenge by making sure I did not escape the region without dining on the local delicacy, morilles mushrooms, which is the name for the raisin-like globules atop the steak. It is hard to hate a waiter so wise.

The morilles added nearly 10 dollars (Cd) to the price, but were worth the freaky experience of having their raisin-ribbed surface tickle the inside of my mouth. Did I say it was freaky? It’s worth saying twice.

Sadly, their flavour is weak as compared to more common mushroom varieties.

Despite our waiter’s lofty ways, he was very quick with bringing the food, and I’m fairly certain he did not spit in it, although with all that sauce and crumpled morilles, who can say for sure?

Out of 10, with 10 being the top:

Service: 4

Cultural service experience: 10

Food:  Chicken:  10  Steak: 8

Price: $12 for the chicken, $24 for the steak.

Ambiance:  8

Besancon Bits

12th Century portion of Besançon's Cathedral Saint Jean. At least, that's what the guide inside the church said.

As is our custom on most of our travels, we made our first stop at Besançon’s tourist office so Dave could pose by it with a frustrated expression at finding yet another French tourist office closed on a weekend. They say retired couples should find a hobby they can do together and this is ours.

Dave expresses his opinion of France's tourism bureau, which laughingly seems to be closed just when visitors are most likely to show up. To be fair - this office was open the following day.

Then we made our way across the bridge to Besançon’s Ancienne Ville, an old-town that dates back to the 16th century, and even older is Besançon’s outstanding St. Jean Cathedral, parts of which herald from the 12th century.

Despite the fact that Besançon’s national identity eddied about in the streams of conquest (last post), it appears that its conquerors did more to build it up than to tear it down, and so for a small city, it has the pricy ambience of a large one. Some writers have described it as a miniature version of Paris, and rightly so.

Like Paris, it has broad pedestrian avenues flanked by stone buildings ornamented with elegant woven wrought iron balconies. Unlike Paris, its old town is impoverished when it comes to trees.

The stone streets are just that – horizontally laid stone blocks trimmed with the vertical stone of the buildings. On our first walkabout in the evening, it felt barren, but when we returned Saturday morning, the French compensated for the shortage of shrubs by filling the street with colourful bedecked citizens, caravans of cafe umbrellas and quirky street

Besançon's Revolutionary Square, which is a lot bigger than it looks in this photo.

vendors. This is not to say the city didn’t have greenery – it had plenty, just not in the old quarter.

Unlike Paris, Besançon does not strip visitors down to the last penny.  Visitors can sip on an espresso at a sidewalk cafe in the town’s broad Revolutionary Square for only 1.50 Euros. We almost fell off our chairs when we saw the bill.

And for those on a budget, a cheap lunch can be had at Besançon’s “Subway” sandwich restaurant – and before you turn up your  nose at eating at an international food chain, the French do things with bread even in a franchise operation  that seem impossible in North America. We handed over 12 Euros for a fresh lunch for two, thus allowing us to splurge on our supper bill.  Whether the supper was worth it, I will tell tomorrow.

A church in Besançon. Wouldn't it be nice if I knew its name?

Knocking on Victor Hugo's door - or at least, the door to the apartment building where he was born on February 6, 1802. See how I hang my head? It is from years of knocking on doors as a reporter, steeling myself for abuse. Let's face it, I deserved it.

Besancon: French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Roman, Hungarian, then French town.

You don't expect to see an elaborate Egyptian display at a small French city with a population of about 120,000, but the French are known for their elegance, so why not?

A four-day weekend, such as we have just had, is a great time to take off to places further afield, but we did not do that.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we have not fully adjusted to the vigour that Europeans apply to their “mini-breaks.”

In other words, by the time we got down to booking train tickets and hotels, there was not a seat or a bed available. We could not have gotten onto a train to Vienna unless we were prepared to ride Tom-Cruise-style, that is, on the top, while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a John Voight look-alike.

We should have remembered this from our time in Madrid, when we discovered that six-hour, two-hundred mile traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city over long weekends was a normal event.

And so we satisfied ourself with shorter jaunts – the earlier trip to Neuchatel being the first. That turned out exceedingly well, and so we braved the French border once again (you may remember our last venture into France started with getting electronically kicked out of three hotels, before landing in an expensive Waldorf).

We headed to Besançon, an ancient town settled by Gauls in the Bronze Age (1500 BC) in the oxbow of the river Doubs, and, because its location presents such a strong military advantage, Julius Caesar’s boys naturally showed up and said, “We’ll take that.” Which they did.

We think of modern Europe’s borders are being permanently marked with indelible ink, but the Europeans did not treat it that way.

Besançon was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then was accorded independence, which is a way of saying no military power would defend it, and so it subsequently came under the Habsburgs (through marriage, not war, although some would say the two are the same).

Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology with origins dating back to 1694, although this building, a former grain hall, only dates back to the 1800s. In the 1960s its interior was completely refurbished by Louis Miguel, a man who is forever doomed to only be addressed as "a student of Le Corbusier." He deserves better. The interior is spectacular. Did I mention this town has only 120,000 inhabitants? And yet they somehow pulled this off. We mock the French, but we have to hand it to them. They have culture.

That means the Austrians – or was it the Hungarians – were in charge, and then, in some kind of closet-cleaning decluttering exercise, they handed it over to Philip II, King of Spain.

Spain is nowhere near Besançon, and as soon as the Spanish realized the inconvenience of managing such a far-flung district, they tried to hand it back to the Austrians via marriage, but the Austrians were not to be fooled for long and less than a hundred years later, the Spanish discovered Besançon had somehow crawled its way back into their closets.

That was in 1667, but whether it was French, Spanish, German, Prussian, Hungarian, Austrian or just plain Catholic was not decided yet,  because French monarch Louis XIV fancied Besançon and claimed it, but then lost interest and within months ‘forgot’ it on Spain’s doorstep.

It boomeranged back to the French, then in 1814 the Austrians had a change of heart and bombarded the city. Finally, the Germans, probably sick of all the back-and-forth, grabbed it, but finally it ended up back in French hands after the Nazis were routed out, but not before executing 100 French resistance fighters there.

What all this leads to is that Besançon has a fascinating museum with great archaeological finds, including an intact Roman soldier’s helmet and a second-century BC Neptune mosaic. The museum is 100 years older than the Louvre, and is a good place to see the works of Matisse, Goya, Picasso, as well as an Egyptian mummy display.

Egyptian stone works are right out in the open, and I couldn’t resist drawing my hands along the pharaoh profiles, touching the same granite and sandstone as the long-ago artisans, which I really should not have done, at least that’s what the museum security detail told me, but the rebuke was brief, as though the French are resigned to their collection of sculptures and hieroglyphics getting pawed by Americans.

Which I am not. I am Canadian, but why tell the French that when they are so happy to think otherwise?