Ever since my first visit to Besançon, I can’t stop wondering why this region has remained so undiscovered. After spending a year in Franche-Comté and traveling extensively throughout the region, I have seen only a few foreigners except for myself. So today I’m sharing a number of reasons why you absolutely need to add Franche-Comté to your travel bucket list.
1. Numerous Castles and Fortifications.
The Loire Valley usually comes to mind when thinking about chateaux in France. A stunning place to explore for sure, however, Franche-Comté has even more ancient (and dazzling!) places to see. There are over 60 castles scattered over the emerald hills of the Doubs Department and 14 forts in Besançon alone!
One of my favourites is the Citadel of Besançon. This colossal fortification, overlooking the city from Mount Saint-Etienne, is a classic example of 17th century military architecture. It was built by Vauban, the engineering genius who created over 300 fortifications in various cities around the country. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, the citadel underwent a recent renovation and looks as glorious as ever.
Climb on the walls and enjoy the awe-inspiring views of the old city center and the sparkling oxbow of the river Doubs. Wander through inner courtyards and pay a visit to the local Zoo with over 60 unique animal species.
Just as marvelous is the Château de Cléron, situated just 25 kilometres away from Besançon. Built in the early 14th century by Humbert de Cleron, the vassal of the Count of Burgundy, the place is absolutely charming with fairytale towers and gorgeous inner gardens.
Today the castle is privately owned by the Montrichard family; however you can explore the garden maze in summertime and visit the Saint-Simeon church (the original 14th century chapel was rebuilt in the 18th century) with rich decorations and a roof top made of lava stone.
2. Natural Caves and Grottoes
Due to the pre-historic nature of the local mountains, there are over 4000 natural caves and grottoes hidden all around the region. Inconspicuous from the outside, most of them become true “Caves of Wonders” once you make a few steps underground. Hidden in the Jura forests around Arbois, the Moidons Caves were unknown to the public until 1966. These are just one of the stunning gifts that Mother Nature has for us in the region. You can take a one- hour guided tour through the caves and marvel at the biggest and the most beautiful stalactite formations in the country.
The Grotte d’Osselle boasts surprising stalactite colours, frilly formations and a history dating back to the pre-historic times. Over 50,000 years ago it was home to a huge population of bears before the first people settled here. The cave is open to the public all year round. However, mind the temperature. It doesn’t get warmer than 13 C even in summer.
3. Ornans – the Local Venice
Due to Ornan’s position lying low over the river Loue, it appears that all the colourful houses float on the water. A number of bridges crisscross the city, providing spectacular views of the gleaming river and skyline.
Ornans was the hometown of the talented Gustave Courbet who immortalised the beauty of the local landscapes in numerous paintings. “Burial at Ornans” is one of the most famous. In 2011 the museum was finally opened after long renovation with a huge collection of early Courbet works featured all year round. Don’t miss visiting Église Saint-Laurent – for the décor inside the nave.
4. Jura White Wines
It’s rare that you’d be offered a bottle of Jura wine somewhere outside Franche-Comté. The locals prefer to keep it regional, producing a limited amount of bottles each year.
Arbois, the local wine capital, is home to numerous vineyards, most of them owned by the same family for decades. Take a tour around various caves du vin within the city and explore other wines at Château-Chalon, Côtes du Jura and L’Étoile.
On your way back, don’t forget to grab a few bites of the local organic cheese to complement the perfect drink. Again, most of them are made specifically in this region and you won’t find the same taste anywhere else.
5. Spectacular Scenery and Hiking
Franche-Comté is the perfect place for randonnées. There are numerous trails around Besançon, leading up the hills to amazing vistas. Hike up to Fort Bregel for views over the city.. Here’s a map to follow.
Not into hiking? Than grab a bike and ride the spectacular routes along the river Doubes. Get out of town and explore the nearby villages, immersed in the beauty of nature and the endless emerald, yellow and golden fields around you.
And don’t miss visiting Lac Chalain just a few kilometres from Fontenu. Beautiful all year round, it makes for the perfect summer getaway because of the swimming, sunbathing, fishing, and water skiing. There are a number of lodging options to choose from depending on your budget. A simple B&B costs around 30-40 euros per double room. Or you may consider renting a spacious villa overlooking the lake for long-term stays. Camping spots are available for those who love staying close to nature.
You rarely find jostling crowds anywhere in Franche-Comté. The local lifestyle is relaxed. Think lengthy strolls, long talks over a cup of coffee on a terrace, and enjoying each bite of the local cuisine. (Needless to say how delicious it is!) People are extremely friendly and always try to be helpful even if you don’t speak French well.
Drive around the small towns and communes. Each place will have something very unique to offer you – a gorgeous mansion, a medieval cathedral or simply the allure of provincial France with green fields, wildflowers, and colourful shutters everywhere.
I hope the region’s local charm will captivate you, too, once you arrive in Franche-Comté.
Twenty-something Elena Prokopets has settled as an expat in Besançon, France (for the time being!). On her personal travel blog Elena’s Travelgram, she shares stories about her life in France and past travels around Asia and Europe. She’s a travel planning ninja,and knows how to have awesome adventures on a tight budget. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram for the latest updates.