The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Besançon, the Citadelle

Looking inside the walls of the Citadelle de Besançon

Besançon’s citadel, the Citadelle de Besançon in French, is the commune’s most unmissable attraction. I mean this literally: Unless you enter Besançon in the trunk of a car it’s hard to not see at least some part of the commune’s fortifications.

The Citadelle is located on a 27-acre site atop Mount Saint-Etienne, a rocky hill between the two legs of a horseshoe bend of the River Doubs that surrounds Besançon’s old town, the historic capital of Franche-Comté. It’s a commanding location that oversees the city and all its approaches. Further strengthening the defense is a network of ancillary forts on the surrounding hills on the outside of the river’s bend. Together with these forts the Citadelle presented a formidable challenge to enemy forces arriving either by land or water.

Julius Caesar recognized the strategic importance of Mount Saint-Etienne as early as 58 BC. But it wasn’t until the 17th Century that the hilltops near this oxbow of the River Doubs were heavily fortified. It was then that a citadel designed by the legendary French military architecture Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban was constructed. As the story goes, construction was so expensive King Louis XIV asked Vauban if he was building the walls of his new citadel with gold.  In the end the Citadelle de Besançon proved to be one of Vauban’s finest masterpieces.

The view of Besançon from its citadel

Vauban’s masterwork stood unchallenged up until the 19th Century when it was attacked by the Austrians in 1814 and the Prussians in 1871. Both forces were repelled. In these conflicts the Citadelle sustained minimal damage. After the end of the Franco-Prussian War the Citadelle saw no further significant action. The subsequent World Wars, which could have devastated the structure with modern artillery, largely bypassed the region. Ultimately Besançon’s Citadelle was repurposed as a museum complex in the second half of the 20th Century.

Today it’s tourists who invade the fortifications. Visitors climb up the hill from the old town and enter the Citadelle de Besançon through its thick walls. Inside there is much to see, much of which is only marginally related to the fort’s military history. Exhibitions inside include an insectarium, a small aquarium, noctarium (a museum featuring nocturnal rodents like dormice and voles), a biodiversity exhibition, an aviary, and a zoo. There is also a three-floor Musée Comtois presenting the region’s life in centuries past, including food, religion and a puppet theatre.

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In our opinion the most destination worthy attraction inside the Citadelle’s walls is the Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation. France has many similarly named museums. They all recall the traumatic time of the German occupation during World War II, the deportation of the Jewish population to concentration camps, and of the French Resistance. Of the museums we’ve seen on this topic Besançon’s Musée de la Résistance ranks as one of the best. The exhibits are well executed, comprehensive, and powerful. Unlike the natural history and regional collections there is good reason that a museum about the French resistance and holocaust deportations exists at this particular location: During WWII, the Germans imprisoned British civilians in the Citadelle and German firing squads executed around 100 resistance fighters inside its walls.

Museums aside, the real attraction for us was the fort. The impressive hilltop citadel complex is well preserved, undoubtedly in part because it is an important tourist site with over a quarter of a million visitors per year. Indeed UNESCO has rightly lauded the historical merits of the Citadelle de Besançon as part of its “Fortifications of Vauban” World Heritage listing.

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