Observations from the saddle of a bike: Canal cycling France: Baumes Les Dames to Besançon



DAYS 9 & 10 in BESANÇON.

 Farewell to Le Bambi Hotel at Baume-les-Dames and arriving in Besançon.

In 2015 the population of Besançon was 116,676.

At the start of the day whilst attempting to find the start of the bike path navigator Bev managed to lead us up a very steep hill away from the river. After much discussion and further consultation of the map we decided we were going the wrong way and returned to the village. Discussing our dilemma with a couple of locals we found the beginning of the path and set off towards Besançon.

It was a glorious day, sunny but cold. Travelling at this time of the year, despite the disadvantages of hotels closed for the coming winter and the cool weather, it is the best time to ride the Velo 6 as the solitude of the ride makes the discomforts worthwhile.

One of the discomforts, a cold ride through a ’frog hollow’ but well worth the effort for the experience.

Grass resting heavy with frost by the side of the bike path.

Definitely worthy of a stop to admire the view.

Out into the sun after the frosty gorge.

There is little to say about this perfect image.

Likewise, the perfect Velo 6 bike path.

A barge being pushed along the canal, a perfect way, other than by bicycle, for travelling the Velo 6.


Map showing the waterways of France.
Image credit: French-waterways.com

The French call France ‘the Hexagon’ for its approximate shape and the above map shows why. Sides of the Hexagon are bound by the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel, Belgium and Germany, Switzerland and Italy, the Mediterranean Sea and Spain. The Hexagon is divided into eight watery regions and most have designated cycle paths. Besançon, our destination, is in the middle on the right-hand side of the map near Switzerland.

The richness and diversity of France is linked to its eighty navigable rivers and interlocking canal systems. The canal system was built between 1642 and 1966 and because the rivers are joined it is possible for the cyclist to explore almost the whole of France without crossing an alpine range and then, if you have to, you can take your bike on a train.

One of the most impressive features of Besançon is the oxbow that the Doubs River forms as it flows south. An oxbow is where the natural course of a river almost creates an island. If the river broke through the narrowest portion (shown on the following photograph at the narrow band of green vegetation) the Old Town surrounded by the river would then be sitting on an island. This didn’t happen as the land at the narrowest point is not alluvial, it is a 100 metre high mountain and it is on top of this mountain where the Besançon Citadel sits. Later in this post I will take you to the citadel.

River Doubs oxbow and Besançon Old town. Image credit: In the public domain via Wikipedia.

There is a 120m long 1.8m wide tunnel under the citadel and it allows boats to take a short cut eliminating the traverse around the oxbow. The tunnel was commenced in 1878 and completed in 1882. Our approach to the town of Besançon (assuming the image top is north) was along the northern side of the river passing through the tunnel to emerge on the river at the right hand edge of the narrow band of trees.

The entrance to the tunnel under the citadel.

Not only did the canal run under the mountain but the bike path did as well. To understand the reason for such a configuration it is necessary to view the arrangement from above. Following is a Wikipedia image to clarify the layout.

The Doubs River (centre of image) twisting its way through Besançon. Most of the town is outside the oxbow and the Old town is inside the oxbow bend. Image credit: Cnes-Spot image copyright free via Wikipedia.

A cold tunnel exit.

The narrowest point in the oxbow at the far end of the clump of small green trees and the fortified citadel sitting over the tunnel.

It was lunchtime by the time we exited the tunnel and what better place to have lunch but against an ancient stone wall in the warm sunshine.

A deserted lunchtime spot, the citadel on the horizon.

One of the disadvantages when travelling with a bike, especially small bikes like ours, is the difficulty in carrying excess gear, there is simply insufficient space. For example, food can be limited and all we had for lunch on this day was bread and banana and a cup of tea brewed on our gas stove. It was hard to drag ourselves away from our lunchtime spot as it was one of those magic moments that we wanted not to come to an end.

Besançon is renowned for its art, history, museums and greenness, in fact it was voted France’s first green city.  Besançon has a myriad of museums and a long history associated with time.  It was known as a centre for the manufacture of clocks and watches. The Time museum is located in the Granvelle Palace in the town and we took the opportunity to visit it.

The courtyard of the Palais Granvelle, home of Besançon’s Museum of Time.

Clocks produced in Besançon by Joffroy makers, Museum of Time, Besançon.

The abandoned watch-making factory located on the shores of the Doubs River. Our approach to Besançon was along the right hand edge of the river between the road and river.

The abandoned watchmaking factory that has seen better days.

A Montre Lip timepiece made in Besançon. Image credit: Jamin via Wikipedia.

The brand name LIP comes from Emmanuel Lipmann who in 1864 set up a watchmaking business in Besançon. The LIP company’s best year was in 1954 when 1500 employees produced 300 000 watches, making them by far France’s largest watch producer. However, decline set in in 1964 and 200 employees were laid off, a precursor to bad times ahead. Throughout the 1970s there was short-term work, layoffs, and strikes and during the years following management changes the company went into pre-liquidation in 1973. There was a period when the workers occupied the factory and took over production in an attempt to keep the factory running and a slogan ‘100 000 watches without a manager’ was bandied about. LIP ceased production in 1976.

LIP is synonymous with France. Most French people own a LIP watch, probably by inheritance because their parents and grandparents would have owned one. Ten million watches were made and most were sold in France.

Watch assembly line in 1960. Image credit: Musee du Temps, Besançon. Service promotion and enterprise.

According to a Wikipedia article relating to LIP history, workers on the assembly lines were not permitted to talk to each other or move more than 25 centimetres during their shifts.

Well-dressed lads in 1908-1909 making watch parts on small pedal lathes. Image credit: Musee du Temps, Besançon. Service promotion and enterprise.

When I was a lad I entertained myself making things on a small lathe almost identical to the ones shown above. In those days there was no computer gadgetry on which to play games, you simply ‘mucked about’ in the workshop, being creative and learning skills with the hands.

The actual lathe, about 200mm long, on which I made ‘things’.

My father also had a larger model lathe on which at the age of twelve I cut my first screw thread. The old lathe was also a pedal model and was fitted with huge flywheels so once you managed to get the lathe rolling the flywheels kept the momentum going.

Despite the varied fortunes of boom and bust of the watch industry Besançon still remains the capital of the watch industry in France. In latter years it has expanded its micro expertise and gained a reputation for its microtechnology, such as the technology used in automatic ticketing machines.

The Porte Noire, a Roman triumphal arch in Besançon.

Through the Porte Noire is the Besançon Cathedral, which houses not only art works by Renaissance masters but also the great astronomical clock. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the clock, the attendants were at lunch and there is no unsupervised viewing, however I have extracted an image from Wikipedia as it would be impossible not to include it in these writings.

The great astronomical clock. Image credit: Author unknown and according to Wikipedia it is in the public domain.

The question that begs to be asked is what is the difference between an ordinary clock and an astronomical clock. The latter has special mechanisms and dials that display astronomical information such as positions of the sun, moon, planets and constellations and in the case of the Besançon astronomical clock it is meant to express the theological concept that each second of the day the Resurrection of Christ transforms the existence of man and of the world. To achieve these remarkable feats it has 30 000 pieces, including 70 dials indicating seconds, minutes, hours, days and years. The clock is what is called perpetual in the clock world as it can register up to ten thousand years including allowances for leap years. It stands 5.8 metres high.

The citadel standing on Mt Saint-Etienne has not only overlooked the clock and watch-making activities in Besançon but many other activities as well. The citadel is a must visit as it houses three museums: the Resistance museum, Archaeological museum and the museum of Natural History, which incorporates a zoo.

Military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), more commonly known as Vauban, had the ear of King Louis 14th as he was employed to make secure and design the building of forts and citadels throughout France including the Citadel of Besançon.

The dandy military engineer Vauban. Image credit: Painted by Charles-Phillippe (1798-1876) and in the public domain via Wikipedia.

A Vauban tower, a remarkable innovation at the time.

Towers that surround an urban enclosure such as the one above were remarkable innovations because they had two firing levels. The upper one protected the lower cannon from enemy fire raining down from the hills nearby. By today’s thinking standards it would be a logical way to protect the lower cannon but in Vauban’s time such radical ideas were considered remarkable, even though it was in the Age of Enlightenment (1650 to 1780s).

Julius Caesar in 58 BC recognised the importance of the site where the citadel sits, however the Spaniards between 1668 and 1672 put in a considerable effort constructing the citadel. In more modern times the German WW2 army occupied the site and during that time German firing squads executed in excess of one hundred resistance fighters within its walls. The most horrific event occurred in September 1943 and at the execution site there is a memorial to those who lost their lives.

Citadel moat, which was home to a mob of baboons until recently. The baboons were shipped off to Algeria because they began extracting stones from the citadel walls

Room in the Museum of Resistance and Deportation. Museum statement: Failure to bear witness would mean betrayal. Image credit : Lifted from the Resistance and Deportation Museum web page.

The museum was founded in 1971 at the instigation of Denise Lorach, a concentration camp survivor. The museum within the grounds of the citadel has to be visited but we took very few photographs as some of the displays are rather horrific and taking photographs was in bad taste.

Bev and I encourage readers to visit Besançon and we also recommend they visit the citadel, especially the Resistance and Deportation Museum, although it is not for the faint-hearted as it is a portrayal of a black period in French history. I would definitely not take young children into the museum.

Entrance to the Resistance and Deportation Museum.

If the reader wishes to read about the period and the circumstances leading up to this dark period of European history, search and read MUNICH GERMANY PART 2 in Odyssey Part 1 2012 of this blog.

Showcasing some of the memorabilia in the museum.

The citadel between 1940 and 1941 was an internment camp where the Germans imprisoned between three to four thousand holders of British passports, all women and children. Conditions were so harsh that many hundreds died of food poisoning, diarrhoea, dysentery and frostbite.

After heavy fighting in 1944 between the Americans and the Germans the citadel was returned to French hands and it was then used to house German prisoners of war.

A monument to the fallen and a man-powered well-house pump in the background.

Why ?

One of the most important aspects of surviving inside the walls of a fort is water. Up until 1692 a reticulation system brought water to the citadel but it was a weak point in its defences. Vauban authorised a well to be constructed, which went to 132 metres through rock and when complete a 4 metre diameter waterwheel was installed to get water to the surface. Two men walked inside the wheel. Unfortunately the effort of well and waterwheel construction was in vain as the water turned out to be brackish.

The citadel courtyard and well-house.

Within the citadel grounds is a zoo and although I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity I am beginning to think zoos are necessary if for no other reason than for conservation of the species and because the human race seems intent on destroying animal habitat. It’s happening all over the world and if some species are not held captive there will eventually be no trace of them. Following is an image showing one bird, the ibis rouge in the citadel zoo.

Ibis rouge (Eudocimus ruber)

A case for zoo conservation is the ibis rouge, a native of Central America. Overhunting (it appears they are like chicken to eat), the harvesting of eggs, selling of young as pets on the open market, nesting ground loss, pollution and, finally, recreational boating have resulted in the decline of this species. Maybe in a short time this species will go the way of the dodo.

The dodo is often referred to in conversation when something has died. ‘Dead as a dodo’ was, and still is, used by my generation to indicate something that doesn’t work anymore, eg a flat battery. The last accepted sighting of a dodo was in 1662. The species was hunted to extinction because it was flightless and easy to catch. Dutch sailors visiting the islands of the Indian Ocean including Mauritius and Madagascar harvested them to extinction. The bird achieved widespread recognition when it appeared as a character in Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Oxford Museum display of a dodo. Image credit: Oxford Museum. Author Bazza Da Rambler.

A living relative of the dodo is the Nicobar pigeon. This pigeon has fared better than its relative, the dodo, but it is still under threat as being a plump bird it is hunted for food. This photo was taken when we visited Papiliorama in Kerzers near Bern Switzerland.

The Nicobar pigeon is found on small Asian islands, India, the Malay Archipelago, the Solomon Islands and Palau. Recently a Nicobar was captured in the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Maybe it is moving to Australia to make up for the loss of other species. From 1788 (when Australia was first settled) to the present day 24 bird, 7 frog and 27 mammal species have joined the dodo in extinction. According to Professor Brook of the School of Biological Science, University of NSW, land clearing and habitat destruction, which is still going on, has been the main factor with species extinction in Australia.

yellow-footed rock wallaby backed up into a rock crevice to keep warm in the citadel zoo.

A Madagascan indri lemur. Lemurs are unique to Madagascar. They are thought to be the most threatened mammal group on Earth according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

The Besançon zoo emphasises its work on the conservation of threatened animal species, in particular big cats (Asiatic lions, Siberian tigers), primates (lemurs, marmosets, etc. with more than 25 species) and birds (some thirty aquatic and tropical species).


Besançon Old Town would be a perfect place to live with its history, easy lifestyle, its greenness and lack of cars. In all of our recent travels there are two towns/cities Bev and I could live, both in France: Beziers in the south and Besançon. If we further expanded our knowledge of the language we could easily blend into French life there.

The old town of Besançon within the confines of the River Doubs oxbow. The above photograph was taken from Mt Saint-Etienne on which the citadel was built.

Riverside Besançon.

Soaking up the sun and indulging in social intercourse at the Café L’Ardoisier.

Café L’Ardoisier, present day. Note no cars.


The site of Café L’Ardoisier in horse-drawn vehicle days. The building in the distance has changed little. For example, the round arches are the same as in the previous present day photograph

Besançon Old Town. Saint-Peter’s Church is a prominent feature.

Cast iron door of some note in Besançon Old Town. A small door within a larger door as shown here is called a wicket gate.

A wicket gate, or simply a wicket, is a pedestrian door or gate, built into a larger door or into a wall or fence. The purpose of the wicket was to avoid opening the main gates to allow entry for just one or two individuals.

Historically, in the sport of cricket the wicket, guarded by the batsman, had only two stumps (the jambs of a door) and one bail (the lintel) and looking like a door it was given the name ‘wicket’. The third stump in the case of cricket was introduced in 1775.

No cars, just trams.

Besançon has had an intermittent tram service since 1896. Intermittent, because wars have a nasty habit of interfering with the norm. In 1939 during WW2 in an attempt to hold back the German advance all the bridges across the River Doubs were destroyed and this resulted in the tram service being interrupted. Electric trams returned in 2014 along with five park-and-ride facilities on the outskirts of the city where one can leave the car and take a tram into the city centre. Smart thinking, many cities in the world would benefit from this approach.

A ride through the London plane trees. London plane trees are the most widely planted tree species in the world.

Taking sun in a park high on Mt Saint-Etienne and dreaming of the things we have seen, done and learned.

One of the learned residents in Besançon was Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) who, as we all know from our school days, was an eminent French chemist and microbiologist whose work changed medicine. Pasteur proved the ‘germ theory of disease’ or simply put, that many diseases are spread between people by microscopic organisms through bodily contact, body fluids such as sneezing and simply by secondary contact such as supermarket trolley handles, door knobs or the toilet seat. Pasteur developed vaccines for anthrax, rabies and created the process of pasteurization of wine, beer and milk. Pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid or food to boiling point and thus destroying harmful bacteria, something that we all do everyday,

And here is the learned man in his laboratory. Pasteur went to school in Besançon and in latter years became a schoolmaster at the same school.

Another image of Pasteur in a 1885 painting by A. Edelfeldt. Image credit: Author unknown and in the public domain via Wikipedia.

In 1885 the parents of nine year old Joseph Meister forced Pasteur into action after the boy was bitten repeatedly by a rabid dog and bound to die if not treated. The pressure was put on Pasteur to inject young Meister with an experimental rabies vaccine only used on dogs up until then. Pasteur reluctantly agreed and despite his misgivings the vaccination proved successful and the young patient made a complete recovery.

Pasteur not only saved lives but he is accredited for making a number of profound statements about life and science. For example: ‘In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind’ and ‘Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world’ and on his death bed in 1895 his last words were, ‘One must work, one must work, I have done what I could’.

Besançon can claim fame to other notables as well and one we cannot ignore is romanticist Victor Hugo 1802-1885. The French know him more as a poet, playwright, statesman and human rights activist but people in the English-speaking world know him for the novel Les Miserables, which is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. The musical of ‘Les Mis’ is officially the world’s longest running performance.

The emblematic image we all associate with Les Miserables: Cosette sweeping. Image credit: French illustrator Emile Bayard via Wikipedia.

Another noted novel by Victor Hugo is The Hunchback of Notre-Dame which he began writing in 1829, largely to make his contemporaries more aware of the value of Gothic architecture which was neglected or destroyed by the authorities. It was the writing of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that saved the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. In the PARIS post of the blog I wrote about his efforts in saving the cathedral.

Hugo was born in 1802 and died from an infection in Paris in 1885 at the age of 83. More than two million people joined his funeral procession in Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon where he is buried. Picture a funeral procession of 2 million people along the Champs Elysee. It would have been staggering. I wrote extensively about the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee in the PARIS post. Go to the photos and imagine two million people following Victor Hugo to his place of internment.

A stern looking Victor Hugo in 1876. Image credit: In the public domain via Wikipedia.

Looking at the above portrait of Victor Hugo I got to wondering why he was looking so glum. I have come to two possible causes. The first is in 1876 cameras had a relatively slow fixed shutter speed and the sharpness of the image was relative to how along a person could hold a pose for. A smile was difficult to hold for any length of time whereas a frown was easier. This explains why subjects in many old photographs all look stern, as if the world was coming to an end. In the case of Victor an additional reason for his glumness could have been because he lost three of his children. Two died and a third was placed in an asylum, enough to wipe any smile from within.

Bev riding past the Victor Hugo School in Besançon, the site of Pasteur’s education and subsequent employment. The school was given the name of Victor Hugo following Hugo’s death in 1885.

The birthplace of Victor Hugo in Besançon.

Two days in Besançon was far too short but it was time to return to Switzerland to visit our exchange student daughter in Bern before returning to Australia.

The train station was located opposite the Ibis Budget Hotel where we were staying and it was a simple matter of wheeling our bikes into the compartment allocated for bicycles, there was no need to fold them or even take the panniers off. European trains cater for bicycles admirably. I only wish we had such an efficient system in Australia. In retrospect we should have stayed on in Europe and ridden more of the Velo 6. Maybe we will return and realise my dream of riding from Nantes on the Atlantic Ocean coast of France to the Black Sea in Bulgaria (Ed. note: maybe some portion of it!).

Music at the station on departure.

The red flag indicates to the driver that there is a cleaner on board. Once the flags are removed the train can depart.

Switzerland here we come.

That’s the final post relating to our short (200 kilometre) but rewarding ride along part of the Euro Velo 6. The next post will be the first in a series of posts (Encountering the Past) when we visited Tasmania Australia in 2017. There are some remarkable stories and photographs and we invite you to stay with us.

Should you wish to be alerted each time we do a new post click on FOLLOW and please make a comment as it’s the comments that keep us going.


About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey #5 2017: Cycling in Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Observations from the saddle of a bike: Canal cycling France: Baumes Les Dames to Besançon

  1. Zan says:

    Hi Fred and Bev, thanks for producing a great travel blog. Will you be posting any more pages? I’m looking forward to reading about your Tassie trip and any other trips you’ve taken since 2017. Thanks so much.

    • tbeartravels says:

      Hi Zan
      Pleased you enjoyed our travel blog. Yes there is a lot more to come in fact I am putting the finishing touches to the first of the Tasmanian trip now. It will be another week I guess. Also after about six Tassie posts there will be a few on a trip we did just recently to Thursday Island. I am not sure about how much you know about the geography of Australia but it is as far north as you can go in Australia. I’m sure you will look it up.
      In 2019 I think we are going back to Europe to start where we left off during our Velo 6 ride, there will be a lot to write about once more. The 2019 trip will take us through France, Belgium and Holland and anywhere else that takes our fancy. This week we bought two new sleeping mats and a new tent so we are anxious to get on the road and do minimalist camping whilst making Observations from the Saddle of our Bikes.

      Regards Fred and Bev

  2. Kevin and Sue Dewar says:

    Hi Guys,
    That was so, so interesting, no wonder 2 days was not long enough.I thought all watches were made in Switzerland ! another fact I have learnt from the research from your blogs. Great photos as always.
    Cheers Kevin and Sue

  3. Wendy says:

    You’ve just WOWed me again! Never been to France but surely now I must go to these two special places you mention. So much history and the stories you unearth simply amaze me. My how the world changed in just a few hundred years! I usually print these out and read later but I could not stop once I read first few pages.

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