The Citadel of Besançon, Charlottesville's Sister City

Jan 25, 2018

Besançon has been Charlottesville’s sister city since 2006. In spite of their cultural differences, Charlottesville and Besançon are set in similar regions, and have similar vibes. There is one tourist attraction that doesn’t have its equal here though: Besançon’s 17th-century military citadel. Marguerite Gallorini was there over the holiday season and paints this picture for WMRA.

Welcome to Besançon, Charlottesville’s French sister city. It is situated in the region of Franche-Comté, in the east of France - close to both the German and Swiss borders. The region is somewhat similar to Central Virginia from the start, with predominant wide green patches of fields and forests. Both regions rely heavily on agriculture, and both also produce wine.

[People on the downtown mall]

Like Charlottesville, one of the focal points of Besançon is its university, and a renowned teaching hospital. And like Charlottesville, Besançon has a pedestrian downtown mall, where people like to gather to meet for coffee or for a stroll. Here’s Antoine Naas, an English teacher in the area who’s lived here.

ANTOINE NAAS: I've studied in Besançon for about five years, and it's a beautiful place. Besançon is not a very big city, but there's still a few things to do around, and I really like the look of it with all the white stones.

Unlike Charlottesville, Besançon has its own citadel, a fortress that was built to protect the city. It occupies a strategic position that even Julius Caesar recognized more than two thousand years ago. You may access it by car, or if you’re up for an adventure, by climbing up the stone stairs of the hill on which it rests.

[Walking sounds]

Walking through the main gate, one stumbles upon ostriches and vicunas, small relatives of llamas. A zoo isn’t a usual feature for a citadel, but a popular one, says the site’s heritage interpreter Hermine Chapron.

HERMINE CHAPRON (voiced by Emily Richardson-Lorente): The big hit is obviously the zoo. We do have rare species: Asian lions…

[Roar of the lion]

CHAPRON: Siberian tigers, monkeys from Madagascar...

[Monkeys chirping]

CHAPRON: A lot of people come for the Natural History Museum, and then they discover that it is a rich site with lots of other things to do, so they come back. One day is really not enough to see it all!

The citadel offers three museums – the Natural History Museum, with the zoo; a museum on the history of the region and its traditions; and a Museum of French Deportation and Resistance. There is also an extra room dedicated to the fortifications.

CHAPRON: The citadel was built in the 17th century. It is the work of a military engineer named Vauban who worked for King Louis XIV. The purpose of Besançon's citadel was to protect the city but also to keep watch, because it was a brand new conquest from the Sun King because the region had belonged to the Kingdom of Spain up to then.

Now, since 2008, the citadel is a World Heritage Site. With more than 250,000 visitors each year, it is the most visited site of the region. A lot of them are locals with yearly subscriptions, coming to enjoy the many cultural events organized there or simply to take advantage of the serenity of the place.

Besides locals, 10 to 15% of visitors are foreigners, mainly from neighboring countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands or Germany. Here’s visitor Lina Hilgert.

LINA HILGERT: Hi, I’m from Germany, and I just came here to visit a friend. I didn't know a lot about this region before, but now I visited the museum with my friend and I read all about how it was constructed, about the wars going on in the area and everything.

Some of that history is still recent: the citadel was occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and 100 Resistance fighters were executed there. After the war, the site was used to house more than 6,000 German prisoners until 1948. It is only in 1959 that the city of Besançon purchased the Citadel to start renovations and set up the museums. And more projects are planned.

CHAPRON: We are toying with the idea of creating an Escape Game at the Citadel. Another ongoing project is an app to visit the monument, as well as family investigation games; the idea is to develop other paths to discover all the other areas of interest of the place.

And, how about taking more advantage of the sister city relationship with Charlottesville?

CHAPRON: I think it could be interesting to do more things with our sister city; I know I'd be interested in receiving an American group, for sure!

Thanks to Emily Richardson-Lorente for providing the voice translation for Hermine Chapron.