“That bridge goes to the dark side of Besançon,” says my local informant, as he tells me about the punk concert he saw under the bridge 20 years ago… about how the famed German post-industrialist noise band EinstÃ¼rzende Neubauten also played there, grinding metal under the bridge.
That was enough incentive for me, I had to go and explore the punk side of Besançon.
The sounds of Besançon
The capital of France‘s Franche-Comte region, this lovely town is located on a horseshoe bend of the Doubs River in the northeast of France, past Dijon on the way to the Swiss border. Famous historically for watch-making and being the birthplace of Victor Hugo, Besançon has a rich cultural and student life.
I found myself hanging out on bridges in Besançon for the first edition of ‘Sonorama’, a festival dedicated to contemporary and experimental sound, music and performance in various forms – which somehow originated as a brass-band festival and has now morphed into this surprisingly avant-garde enterprise.
Sonorama-Besançon is a large-scale and ambitious event, with four curator/directors bringing together their unique sonic worlds, and over 200 artists engaged to create installations, performances in public places, and a three-day series of concerts in the old factory out along the river. I was lucky enough to negotiate not one, not two, but three bridges on which to play.
This allowed me to play the sounds from other bridges around the world on eight speakers along the graceful stone arches of the Pont de la République; attach various metal and wooden objects to the Pont de Chardronnet, ‘preparing’ the bridge for people to play as they walked across; and finally to hold a concert underneath the Pont Battant.
That concert under Pont Battant featured local group Elwis Presley Lieben Toten – the only post-industrial noise band in town! (I then played the recording over speakers at each end of the bridge for the remaining two days. Surprisingly, this didn’t appeal to everyone, as I watched one man lurch towards the electricity cabinet and hit the emergency off-switch, thus bringing the usual sounds back into place again, however the local entrepreneurs selling bags and sunglasses apparently enjoyed the noise.)
Pont Battant is more punk than you
The Pont Battant is definitely the most punk bridge in town. You can almost always find someone hanging out underneath, enjoying the alternative ambiance while the river flows past. There is a church at the end of the bridge, and if you follow the second road up to the right, some very tasty local specialty shops offering delicious wine and cheese.
I had the excellent fortune to have a regional dish prepared for dinner by Stephanie, one of my lovely friends there, and highly recommend trying the local speciality Mont d’Or cheese – which comes in a full wheel and is baked with a light sprinkling of garlic, onion and wine, then served over potatoes. Stroll along the roads on either side of the river for a gorgeous view of the town, unfolding hills and dark green waters framing the ancient stone walls and architecture.
You might not imagine that there was a dark side here, as it’s a very pretty area, the citadel delicately perched on a sheer hilltop above the town which in turn is nestled into the bend of the river, winding around the embankments of the fortress. There are many historical wonders that I missed, being more focused – as usual – on the ultra-contemporary music and art scene, however I’m sure that you will easily find the fortifications designed by French military engineer Vauban, and ‘La Citadelle’ built by the Spanish during their control of the city in the 17th Century.
Eat & drink in Besançon
The two main cafes frequented by the art crowd and students are in the theatre district, one is the Cafe du Theatre, (3, rue Mairet), which has a cosy bohemian atmosphere and excellent chicken tagine, sumptuous tarte tartin and good coffee, while the alternative choice looking out onto the Promenade Granvelle has fantastic crepes and apple cider. If you’re out shopping in the fancy part of town, drop into la Cafe de la Poste (2, clos Saint-Amour) for a lavish breakfast and friendly family ambience.
Live music takes place in the tiny dark rock’n'roll cafe Carpe Diem (2 Place Jean Gigoux) on the road going out towards the fortress, and on the way to one of my bridges, the Pont de Chardronnet, leading to the Friche factories and the site of a new arts and music complex, currently under construction.
On the other side of the Pont Battant is Les Passagers du Zinc, (5 rue de Vignier) an alternative venue hosting a range of underground and rock’n'roll bands. The tiny ultra-modern bar on rue Péclet also looked enticing – although I never made it inside – with minimal white cube seats and highly dramatic lighting, while absolutely the best bakery in town is located along rue Rivotte, a few blocks from Carpe Diem and has divine pistachio tarts, quiche, brioche and other treats. It’s close by a costume shop, in case you need to hit the streets in disguise, or are invited to a dress-up party!
During Sonorama Festival the Parc Micaud became a sonic playground, with ‘Balassons’ and ‘Cyclophones’, the temporary audio seesaw and pipe organ bicycle installations by Belgian artist Eric Van Osselaer, whose ‘Orgabits’ is a wonderful concert playing vegetables – a flute carrot, radicchio pipe, and pumpkin drums. At other times you may have to content yourself with the ice-cream cart sometimes parked outside the tourist office, and the regular selection of children’s playground equipment.
‘Pause’, the work of Julien Clauss, was experienced in hammocks at the Médiathèque Pierre Bayle (27 rue de République), an amazing auditory sensation where you feel the sound rather than hearing it, as the vibrations are conducted through the bones in your body.
The town opened its chapels for Sonorama, with Alexander MacSween’s piece ‘The Chapel of Love’, filling Eglise Notre-Dame with expanded, stretched and manipulated love songs, while my favourite moment of the show, a sound igloo was found in the building behind the chapel of the centre Diocesain just a few blocks down the road. You climbed inside the DÃ´me and lay back onto the cushioned floor, where sounds from the universe and inside the bodies of the artists Stéphanie Kerckaert & Julien Poidevin were mixed and composed into music for a transcendent experience.
The town is a relaxing haven for visiting artists, with ateliers in the factory along the river, and the new arts & music complex being built, definitely a place that invites many return visits. All the other girls left with new lingerie, so I’m going back to take advantage of the excellent shopping along the Grande Rue and Rue de la République, then ducking into the Irish Pub at the Grand Square…