In 990 AD, Bysiceon was Archbishop Sigeric’s 59th (LIX) place of rest on his return journey from Rome to Canterbury. Throughout history Bysiceon has played a strategic role in the Via Francigena, otherwise known as the road through France. For millenia, many pilgrims, soldiers and merchants have trod this famous path. And, in today’s world, the Via Francigena and Besançon still play the same key strategic role.
Besançon is located in a key strategic position between France and Switzerland. The Jura Mountain range is the only barrier between the two nations! Consequently, the Citadel fortress was built to overlook and protect the city.
The River Daubs almost encircles the city. So the Citadel was built at the only entrance point to the city to guard access. The famous architect, Vauban designed and built it between 1668 and 1683. Also, he rebuilt the city walls making the stronghold complete.
The Citadel has many remarkable features. Firstly, it covers 11 hectares and lies more than 100 metres above the old town. Obviously, there are panoramic views from its high city walls. Best of all is the watch tower with its stunning views from its oval windows. Clearly, it is a great place to spot the enemy coming! In 2008, the Citadel was listed as a UNESCO World heritage site.
Besançon Citadel in the Second World War
The Citadel was occupied by the German army in 1940. They used it to billet troops, as a prison and a place of execution for Resistance fighters. However, the American army liberated it in 1944. The army continued to occupy it throughout the 1950s . Then in 1958 city purchased the Citadel and opened it to the public.
Besançon Citadel Today
The Via Francigena and Besançon are intimately connected. So, a visit to the Citadel is an essential way to explore the city’s history. Today, there are 3 museums to visit. And surprisingly, there is a zoo, which actually has kangaroos! Other natural history museums include an aquarium, insectuarium, noctarium and naturalium. You will have to visit to find out what these are! So aside from walking the city walls, and visiting the ancient buildings, the museums will keep you informed about the city’s history.
La Porte Noire
La Porte Noire is a Roman Triumphal Arch. Marcus Aurelius built it around 175 CE to celebrate his military victories. It was designed as an analogy between the worlds of gods and humans. And its mythological scenes can still be seen today. Somehow, its weathered effects make it more fascinating.
The arch was constructed at the southern of the city. Originally it was 3 metres high and had an attic supporting the imperial statue. Also, its base is now one metre underground.
Today, the arch is a part of everyday life in Besançon. It is a gateway to the city and to St Madelaine’s Church. It also gives access to a path leading to the Citadel.
Via Francigena and Besançon
It is a 26 km walk from Besançon to Foucherans. Via Francigena Stage VFF44 starts at St Madelaine’s church and follows the Daubs River, past the Citadel and then ascends steeply into the Jura. There is a lot to see in Besançon, so it is a good place to take a rest day!