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France’s secret city of Besançon

The city of Besançon keeps itself to itself, which makes discovering its pretty squares, fine galleries and belle époque bars all the sweeter

In November 1885, a New York Times journalist set out to introduce his readers to a city which, despite its “delightful” attractions, remained almost unheard-of outside France. “I have called Besançon an unknown capital,” he wrote. “But [of] those who pass it by, three out of four, I dare say, are bound for less interesting places.”

Today, more than 120 years since those words were sent across the Atlantic, his conclusion remains as valid as ever. When I mentioned to some Francophile friends in Paris that I was heading to Besançon for a mini-break, I was met with blank stares. They weren’t able to find it on a map, let alone recognise it as the capital of the eastern Franche-Comté region or the birthplace of Victor Hugo.

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