Paris is the first city that will inevitably come to mind when you think about France, and it isn’t hard to understand why. The City of Love is full of memorable architecture, beautiful people and more. There are however other spots in France that are just as charming, if not more so, than Paris. Besançon is one such place. While it was often overlooked by tourists and under-appreciated by guidebooks touting France’s best spots, Besançon is guaranteed to charm your socks off.
Then, Le Tour de France announced its 21 stages for the 2014 race and there, in the midst of all the action was Besançon. Athletes will overrun this small city and bring with them the media, fans and tourists hoping to catch the action and the spirit of Le Tour de France. So what will all these tourists see? Let’s take a closer look at Besançon and what makes it so endearing to everyone who passes through it.
Cradled in the loop of the river Doubs, the ancient city of Besançon is one of the best preserved historic cities in France. Back in pre-Roman times, it was the capital of an area called Sequania and when it was conquered by the Romans, Julius Caesar described this site as “the jewel in my crown.” Today Besançon is a thriving university town and is the capital of the Franche Comte region.
Besançon has a historic centre which is sure to charm almost immediately. From the sloping rooftops and 18th-century storefronts to the cobbled courtyards and sweeping external staircases of the townhouses on the rue Mégevand, the old town is an entrancing collection of twisting roads, wonderful squares and centuries of architectural prowess.
It is easy to spend days upon days here without hearing a single word of English or seeing a single tour bus. It’s a quiet escape to the real French way of living that hasn’t been engulfed with entrepreneurs trying to make a quick buck off stereotypical French culture.
In Besançon you’ll find high-class art exhibits with some of the best permanent collections of art outside of Paris. Locals even call their Musee des Beaux Arts the “little Louvre” in reference to the collection’s artistic importance.
Perhaps the best part of visiting Besançon is the fact that it is a well-kept secret. While the town may be buzzing during the Tour de France, normally, there are some upsides to being in a smaller, secluded French city. Paramount among those upsides is that the cost of living is significantly lower than in the city. Prices drop to make accommodation reasonable, make a morning coffee more than a splurge, and to make entrance fees for new experiences easy to pay for.
The other major upside is the lack of tour buses and crowds. You will hardly ever have to wait in a line and if a museum or building is crowded, it is nothing compared to the normal jostling you’d experience in a similar place in Paris.
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Image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Bresson.