Citadel of Besançon

The Citadel of Besançon in Franche-Comté, France, is one of the military architect Vauban’s masterpieces. The Citadel occupies eleven hectares on Mount Saint-Etienne, one of the seven hills that protect Besançon, the capital of Franche-Comté. Mount Saint-Etienne occupies the neck of an ox-bow formed by the river Doubs, giving the site a strategic importance that Julius Caesar recognized as early as 58 BC. The Citadel overlooks the old quarter of the city, which is located within the ox-bow, and offers a magnificent view of the entire city and its surroundings. The fortification is well preserved. Today it is an important tourist site (over a quarter of a million visitors per year) due both to its own characteristics and because it is the site of several museums. These museums include a museum of the Resistance and deportation, a museum focusing on traditional life in Franche-Comté and the region’s archeological history, and a museum of natural history that includes a zoo, an insectarium, an aquarium, vivariums, a noctarium, a climatorium, a pedagogical exhibit on evolution, botanical gardens, and a children’s farm. There is also a restaurant and shops.On July 7, 2008, UNESCO listed the Citadel, together with nearby Fort Griffon, as a World Heritage Site. Since 1942, the French Ministry of Culture has listed the Citadel as a Monument Historique

Construction (1668-1711)

The Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678 gave the region of Franche-Comté to Louis XIV, who decided toimprove significantly the city of Besançon’s defenses. In March 1668 Louis appointed the military architect Vauban to design the Citadel. The initial construction, which took place under the supervision of Ambrose Precipiano, took six years. Work continued over thirty years with the result that by 1711, the Citadel was one of the strongest fortifications of the period. The construction was so expensive that – so the story goes – the king asked Vauban if he was building the walls of gold.

In the following centuries, successive French governments used the Citadel as a prison or a garrison. The prisoners included the accomplices of the Voisin, accused in poisonings during the reign of Louis XIV, deserters from the armies of Louis XIV and those of Louis XV, and Royalists during the Revolution. During the First Empire the Citadel housed Austrian, French and , Spanish prisoners of war. Still, in the nineteenth century, the Citadel performed its military function when it withstood attacks by the Austrians in 1814 and the Prussians in 1871, attacks that caused little damage. During the First World War, Besançon was sufficiently far from the front that the fighting left the Citadel untouched. Instead, its primary role was a logistical one. During World War II the Germans captured the Citadel in 1940. Later, between 28 April 1941 and August 18, 1944 during theOccupation, German firing squads executed some one hundred resistance fighters. The fighters included eighty Frenchmen, five Spaniards, two Italians, a Luxembourgian, one Swiss and one Pole. The most painful episode occurred on Sunday 26 September 1943. The sixteen Resistance fighters who died on that day included Henri Fertet, a seventeen year old who, like Guy Môquet, wrote a poignant last letter confirming his commitment to the cause. A memorial, in the form of four stakes standing between the well and the chapel of Saint-Etienne, commemorates the “les fusilées” – the men who were shot. After heavy fighting, the Americans captured the Citadel in 1944 and used it to hold German prisoners of war. After the Second World War, the Citadel initially served as a military depot.

Current use

In 1958, the city of Besançon acquired the site from the French government and decided to use the Citadel as a tourist site and the locus for various culture activities. Thus, it now contains several museums, both historical and scientific. The number of visitors is now approaching 300,000 per year, making the Citadel the most visited monument in the region of Franche-Comté

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