The unexpected thing unfolded slowly in a chain of events that started with an altogether predictable event: I went over to thank my friend for the party and she told me all about how well things went with Francis. She said he spent the night.
I let my imagination tell me what that meant.
Her eyes kept falling out of focus and her speech would trail off as her mind drifted to thoughts of him. She’d abruptly snap back to reality and pick up the conversation, as if to cover up for the momentary laps… but she wasn’t fooling me. I could tell she’d fallen for him.
Just a few days later, the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny.
Lea and I were strolling on the main pedestrian street, fittingly called the “Grande Rue”, looking for a place to eat… The cathedrals and churches had finished tolling out twelve bell tones about five minutes earlier. The shopkeepers had pulled their shades and locked their doors with the clunk, clunk of big metal parts giving way under the pressure of large metal keys.
In France, everything (or almost everything) closes from twelve to two: it’s lunchtime and everyone needs to eat. That is the pace of life. Time to take a break, go to a brasserie, head home for a meal.
The pedestrian traffic was so heavy at noon that on the Grande Rue, the street pavers, worn smooth and gently undulating like fondant on a cake, were barely visible under the multitude of leather dress shoes, high heels and converse.The air was gently buzzing with conversation punctuated by the tap of shoe-soles drumming the granite street pavers.
Five glamorously dressed model-thin high school girls stood in a group whispering and smoking in front of a street vendor that was peddling brioches and ready-made sandwiches for a cheap chain restaurant, a group of three men in their twenties all wearing business pants and dress shirts covered by light v-necked sweaters in various shades of grey surged past and the girls checked them out and laughed together with complicity.
A gang of school boys came running through the crowd with impish grins, laughing and shouting at each other as if they’d just stolen a magazine from the newspaper stand and were mischievously making a get-away. The crowds parted as they forced their way through the masses and before the curtains of people closed behind the little gangsters… I saw Francis.
He was coming up the street toward us.
I was surprised to see him wearing a particularly silly shirt that read “Shark Attack” in English: it seemed rather dorky compared to what he usually wore. I was studying the shirt when I felt his eyes on me.
He must have recognized us, his body turned to head in our direction as though suddenly drawn by a fishing line.
I raised my gaze. My eyes met his for less than the fraction of a heartbeat. My eyelids involuntarily fluttered as I my gaze darted instinctually away.
How peculiar. Our eyes had met and I felt shy. I wanted to look up to see if he was still looking at me but instead I looked down at my black patent-leather Mary Janes. I had on black tights and a “baby doll” dress made of a deep crimson red Indian fabric covered with black block printed motifs. I’d had the outfit since high school but I didn’t wear it often so it still looked new.
When he reached us, his greeting was warm and friendly. I was relieved that Lea responded with exuberance.
She quickly learned that he was heading home for lunch.
They kept on talking but he kept looking over at me.
Each time he looked at me, I took it as a cue to elaborate on Lea’s staccato French fragments and truncated sentences. Sometimes, it was unclear to me why he needed clarification so I was beginning to feel a little like a parakeet repeating her statements with improved grammar and eloquence. She was clearly getting annoyed by what she perceived as my apparent need to constantly correct and upstage her.
Somehow, ruffled feathers and all, it was decided that we would share a picnic lunch.
Francis led us off the pedestrian thoroughfare to a parallel street. In many places the big stone buildings lining the street squeezed out the sidewalks and we had to fall into a single file line.
We continued past shops and restaurants until the street became decidedly still and devoid of commerce. There he stopped. He opened a door that I never would have noticed and we ducked into a hip little hole in the wall that specialized exclusively in transforming baguettes into sandwiches.
It takes very little to make a marvelous sandwich from one of those delightfully long French breads. Oh, that softy fluffy crumb contained in a crackly golden brown crust. I, myself, had become a master of the poor-student version: bread and cheese.
Here, the choices ranged from classics like ham and butter to more elaborate things like chicken with lettuce, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise.
Once each of us was armed with a torpedo shaped sandwich, the aluminum foil wrapper sparkling in the sun, we headed to the “Gare d’Eau” an expanse of riverbank just outside the old city fortification walls. The weather was so beautiful!
The green park was bustling with activity: families lounging on picnic blankets, children running, a big German Sheppard pulling his owners behind him on a leash, a gang of scroungy punks drinking and juggling, lovers making out, young women sunbathing, old ladies wobbling unsteadily along the uneven cobble stone path… We wound our way through the labyrinth to a triangle of green that a mother with young children had left as a safety buffer between her and some fire jugglers.
It wasn’t easy to sit on the grass in my dress and tights. Leah and Francis settled in comfortably while I struggled to find a way to keep my dress under my bum and not show what I was wearing beneath. In the end I had to settle for an uncharacteristically feminine pose: passersby definitely would have thought I was trying to mimic Copenhagen’s “little mermaid” statue –If they bothered to notice me at all. Which is doubtful.
I remember Francis telling us that his dream was to marry an Irish girl and spend the rest of his life living in Ireland as a high school English teacher. (It must have been a short-lived dream because he no longer remembers it.)
Lea had to get back to class, but since he and I didn’t have any pressing engagements, he proposed we stroll around the cobblestoned path that ran along the river banks parallel to the city walls all the way around the old city center.
You’ve probably never heard of his hometown, Besancon. So I’m going to have to pause a moment to describe it so you can picture the beautiful, romantic setting in which all this was taking place.
Besancon is France’s “best kept secret”: that is why you’ve never heard of it. I’m not making that up, those are the words of the British newspaper, The Guardian. To be honest with you, I hesitated to reveal the real location because I don’t want to spoil it. What makes Besancon so great is that the tourists haven’t found it yet: it is the real France and it is beautiful. But, then I got real and realized that it is unlikely that a lot of people were going to be reading this blog to find a new vacation destination, so I figure I’m safe revealing this little secret to those of you who have followed my story thus far.
Anyhow, his hometown isn’t far from Switzerland and it had benefited and prospered thanks to its strategic natural setting: rolling subalpine mountains, a river. If we go back to the beginning eras of European history and imagine the threat of raids and invasions, it is easy to imagine how desirable it would have been to live on a piece of land almost entirely surrounded by things that help you protect yourself. So picture us strolling in a redrooftiled old roman city adorned with cathedral towers and the spires of 15th and 16th century turrets and city gates nestled amidst lush green hills and circled by an ample river that reflected the blue sky. Yup. It was straight out of a movie. And now back to the story…
Francis knew all about the history of the fortifications. A little more than I was interested in to be honest…
Early on, the Romans had seized and developed the city. The Roman emperor, Julius Cesar, had loved the site. He instantly saw that the river flowed almost all the way around the old city center like a moat. Where the city wasn’t protected by the river, there was a hill from which to watch over it, now called Mont Saint Etienne. The Romans built an acropolis there, or an “upper city” that could be easily protected thanks to the sheer sides that flanked three sides of the hill. Per typical Roman city planning there was a grand road (remember the Grande Rue where we bumped into Francis?) that ran straight down the center of the city from the foot of Mt St Etienne to the river at the farthest point from the acropolis. There the Romans built a bridge, now called the “flying bridge” or Pont Battant in French, which was their primary site of defense for the city.
(Trust me, I didn’t remember all these details, I had to look them up again a few years ago when I started guiding guests for my tour company. )
We strolled clockwise around the city center with the river to our left, the wall to our right. He could have told me about anything, I would have been engrossed.
As time went on, the fortifications became more elaborate, until walls encircled the city just inside the riverbank, punctuated by watchtower-garrisons. Double walls were built in front of the former acropolis. And walls were built outside the city center to help protect the poor merchant neighborhood that had developed on the otherside of the flying bridge named “Battant” toward which we were headed.
It was like walls around walls and fortifications on every emerald hilltop. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was really a need for all that protection. I mean, were there really that many people trying to raid and take over this unassuming little city near the Swiss border? But then Francis told me the most unbelievable thing. I mean this is one of those cases of truth being stranger than fiction. You’ll never believe it…
The crazy thing happened in the 16th century: this city, well actually the whole region, became SPANISH! The Charles V who was the ruler of both the Holy Roman Empire AND the Spanish Empire simply gave the region to his son who was King of Spain, if you can imagine. I don’t know how good your geography is so forgive me for stating the obvious: Switzerland is nowhere near Spain (well not by European standards –it takes a WHOLE day to drive there by CAR). It’s kind of a long story how several French-Spanish transfers of the region took place back and forth and it involves everything from royal marriages to military force, so I’ll just leave you with a little mystery there so we can focus on what being Spanish contributed to the city planning and fortifications. Because I know you want to know more about that… since it eventually leads up to how the city made it on UNESCO’s exclusive List of World Heritage Sites.
Back in those days cannons were the latest technology which meant that the city needed to build some towers and bastions in which they could station their own cannons to protect the walls and the city. Of course the walls hadn’t been designed to endure artillery fire, so they had to be improved. Mind you, I personally, have never been all that into military strategy (I’m more into flowers, art, a good bottle of wine and a nice meal… but I digress). So, basically, I had no idea what a bastion was (among other things). It isn’t like we have a lot of bastions in the Appalachian foothills where I grew up. Fortunately for my pride, Francis assumed everyone knew what these things were and thus attributed my ignorance to my mere linguistic limitations. Surely it was not my ignorance that caused me to ask “What is a…” over and over again. (A bastion, by the way is pentagonal structure that projects out from a main wall so that cannons can be stationed to shoot the length of the main wall façade. –You never know when that information could come in handy!)
Anyhow, before the city became Spanish, the French had a military architect named Vauban, who is now considered a nothing less than a GENIUS, drew up plans to further fortify the city and build a citadel (which is a really big fortress with bastions –I told you that word would come in handy.). The Spanish actually built Vauban’s citadel while they occupied the city! Then (like a hundred years later) France captured the region and the city (for the second time and final time) in 1674. Which is why today there is no longer a little dab of Spain between France and Switzerland. And why I went to Besancon to perfect my French rather than to learn Spanish.
The long and short of it was that the formidable bastioned walls Francis and I were strolling along had been designed as part of Vauban’s military genius. And to think, I’d spent so many lunch times just sitting by the walls eating cheese sandwiches and taking them for granted. You can really miss out on the history of stuff and just take it for simple architecture when you don’t have someone to tell you about it. (It wasn’t a World Heritage Site back in those days: it was added to the UNESCO registry in 2008 which was ten years after I met Francis).
At this point in the story Francis and I were just about to walk under the Battant Bridge. And Francis asked if I’d like to visit the fort in the medieval part of town. Which was a resounding “yes” –I had a sudden new found zeal for military architecture.
Now, I’m going to admit that I have left out some important details here, like the forts on top of the seven hills overlooking the city… but it was a long walk and Francis impressed me so much with the wealth of his historic knowledge that I just simply can’t include it all here. I mean I’ve left out kings and marriages and probably even Charles Quint.
What is more important to me here, is that you get a sense of how amazing this city looks. I mean, you’ve got this big stone citadel sitting like atop this green hill overlooking this walled city with all these red roof-tiled buildings and it’s all tied together by a river which is now crossed by several stone bridges. There are cathedrals with spires and some of the buildings and cathedrals have mosaic tiled roofs in mustards and blacks and greens and reds that stand out strikingly against the blue sky on a day like that one.
One thing I love about the city is that the area down by the Battant bridge is bustling with businesses. As you walk toward the citadel on the far end of the city, the commerce dies down and there are more cathedrals and grandiose residences. On that day, Francis revealed to me a tunnel through the wall that I’d never noticed before that led up from the river bank into the market square. It was like he was opening up a whole new side to the city in which I’d lived for half a year! Suddenly I was gaining entrance to all the little local secrets.
In those days, the market square was a parking lot with a little 19th century covered glass building that housed regular everyday vendors. There was also a broken fountain. It was not the big beautiful plaza with grey and white granite pavers that it is today. Nowadays, the fountain has been restored and is like the gem in the crown. They all show off the Art Museum, which was one of the first of its kind in France. It contains archeological items from the Roman times in addition to a collection of paintings and sculptures. They have fun temporary exhibits… I recently went to see some works of art by an architect that fascinates me: the Great “Le Corbusier”. Anyhow, then, like today, the plaza is transformed into a bustling marketplace twice a week when venders bring their delicious vegetables, fruits, cheeses, breads and colorful flowers. These days the regular venders have been moved to an indoor market housed in a new glass building behind the museum.
Francis and I went back to the bridge and crossed over the river toward a large cathedral. I could just barely make out the mosaic rooftop. We turned and strolled along a modest cobblestoned commerce street. I was on auto-pilot because Lea’s boyfriend lived near the fountain at the other end of the street, so Francis had to gently loop his arm around my waist to reroute me. As you can imagine, I didn’t know he was suddenly going to duck through a passage way that I’d never noticed before. So the unexpected warmth of his hand sliding gently around my waist and then the firm but gentle pull of his arm as he hooked me, made my body hum. I exhaled a long warm breath. I turned slightly and looked deep in his dark blue eyes. He caught my gaze. He looked right back deep into my eyes. It felt like time went on around us… but had stopped for us. I could sense people passing around us and was vaguely aware of the blue, beige, grey blurs in my peripheral vision but nothing really existed except him. I felt some invisible pull like a magnet drawing and binding us together but neither of us moved
A man hustling down the street with a basket of vegetables in one hand, a newspaper in the other and baguette tucked under his arm brushed past. I felt a sharp pain in the back of my knee that made my leg buckle. He’d bumped me with a pointy item in his grocery bag.
The moment vanished.
Things picked up exactly as if that momentary exchange had never happened. Did it? It had probably lasted five seconds. It had felt like five years.
I wondered. It was so… ephemeral. Had he felt it too? The question created a bright humming sensation in my lower abdomen and that “whoops-like” floating –stomach, roller-coaster sensation I get when the car I’m in has just gone over a knoll too fast. The sensation grew and then surged over my body with a thrill. I could feel my heart beating harder, faster. And, I quietly drew in a shaky breath before I regained control of myself.
Francis steered me. There was no cross street here, we were going to duck through an opening into a courtyard. But first he stopped.
It was as though my life had been a film that had been temporarily put on “pause” while everything else in the world carried on. The hit to the knee had started my life up again right where it had left off. I decided there was no way Francis had experienced what I just had.
Back to reality.
He wanted to point out the comical gargoyles stretching their grotesque faces out over the street like giraffes craning for distant leaves. They were waterspouts. I had never noticed them. The city looked totally different through Francis’s eyes.
Once in the courtyard, we were surrounded by a crisscross of rickety looking balconies and stairs zigging here and zagging there.
He pointed out the simple motif in the old yellowing plaster, wood and tile on the balconies. It didn’t look like the architecture in any other part of the city.
He quickly explained why: this building was a reminder of the Spanish period. Of course.
We crossed the courtyard passing the terrace of a restaurant that was nestled secretly in this little haven. I peeked in the window at the chandelier, charming antique furniture, stately stone fireplace. He looked at the menu posted outside the entrance and looked a bit aghast by the prices.
We headed on up a public pathway that consisted of a series of stairs through a narrow space between two buildings and then opening up into a hillside neighborhood garden where some toddlers were playing under the watchful gaze of grandmothers. The air was filled with shrill squeals and bird-like chatter.
And there was the fort. Fort St. Griffon.
The fort is still an active structure shared by the local government, the local university and various public institutions along with the local military. Not that it is that big. I have no idea how they all fit in there.
We walked right through the gate with a few cursory words to the concierge–which I never would have dared to do if I’d been wandering here and happened upon the fort myself.
Francis didn’t linger to look at any of the buildings inside; he was headed pointedly for someplace on the other end of the complex that wasn’t visible. You just had to know it was there.
Once there, we climbed a short flight of crumbling stone steps.
At the top was a sort of platform with a low wall.
I followed Francis toward the wall and as I approached the edge the red rooftops and little “bishop’s hat” chimneys rose into view. The citadel sat majestically atop its hill in the far distance: the other side of the city center. The blue sky, the red rooftops the green hills… He knew it was magic, he’d seen it before. When I turned to tell him how breathtaking it was, he wasn’t looking at the view, he was looking at me.
He’d seen my amazement. He’d seen I loved his city. He looked pleased. His eyes were crinkled up in the corners and twinkling. Suddenly I realized maybe he was interested in me.
What about my friend that had fallen for him, too?