Time to explore Besançon

Time is a major theme in this city, the traditional center of watch-making in France.

We began by taking a look back into the past, at what we would call a folk museum – a collection of representative 18th and 19th century farm buildings from around the region, Musée des Maisons Comtoises. Everything from weaving to baking to cheese-making, basket-weaving and needlework was represented and there were lots of animals around to give the proper farm flavor. This was a fun change of pace.

Then it was back to the city of Besançon for some of its many attractions. Lunch was first on the list, at an Italian restaurant with a French flair. Ever had pasta with pesto when the pesto was made into a cream sauce? Italian the French way – but all very tasty.

Then to the Museum of Time, an appropriate theme for this town built on clocks and watches. The watch industry, for which Besançon remains the French capital, endured a major crisis in the 1970’s when the advent of quartz watches from Asia knocked out the traditional watch industry in the space of just a few years. But they have recovered and focused on the specialty market. Their expertise has morphed into the microtechnology industry, in which they are now leaders. Makes sense. At any rate, lovely things in the museum.

But the most stunning clock of all is in the Cathedral of St. Jean. The Cathedral, which dates largely from the 12th century, houses a 19th century astronomical clock. It is on view for 10 minutes every hour, and we were lucky enough to see it at 3:00, when exciting things happen. Christ falls back into the tomb he rose from at noon, the apostles rotate in the front, a pennant rises, and Mary lifts her scepter. The clock is astonishing, with an incredible range of devices. It counts the seconds and hours of course, shows the time around the world, indicates the phases of the moon and the current sign of the Zodiac. And one dial moves every 400 years to compensate for a leap century. (We missed the event in 2000, but it did happen.) Now that’s a timepiece.

The walk to the cathedral is through la Porte Noire, an arch erected in 175 AD in honor of Marcus Aurelius. Yes, this town has been around for quite a while, with a few other Roman columns to keep the arch company.

And if all that weren’t exciting enough, just down the street is the birthplace of Victor Hugo! Now, Victor only lived in Besançon for six weeks, but no matter – they take full credit for him here regardless.

Talk about neighbors – just across the street the Lumière brothers were born. Just don’t tell Edison they invented cinematography.

And just one more thing (for today) about Besançon: they are known for colorful exterior staircases in the older homes in the city. Nice. Very nice.

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