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).
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?