Erasmus diaries: life in besancon

“As stereotypes are there to be disproved it gives me great pleasure to reveal that the people of Bes, “les Bisontins” as they’re known, are an extremely sound and welcoming bunch.”

A trip to France often signifies a romantic weekend in Paris – where you most likely end up spending most of your time queuing to get into the Louvre “I can’t come to Paris without seeing the Mona Lisa!” and getting squashed on the metro- or a lavish summer holiday in the south, home to the most up-market hotels on the continent. However, the Erasmus destination allocated to me, a penniless student, at random was Besancon.

A city rarely recognisable to the Irish (and even some French people for that matter) that has become my temporary home.

Besancon is a picturesque little city (slightly bigger than Galway by my estimations) in the west of France just next to the Swiss border. I can’t boast knowledge of architecture but all the buildings are very old and extremely high built with beautiful blue-grey stone.

Even a “Quick Burger” fast-food place is just a façade of an authentic French building. The pubs that line our Irish streets are replaced with café/bars that have tables and chairs sprawling out onto the open squares of the city. Everything is in walking distance around the town and this year they introduced a tram-way to Besancon that is rattling past my apartment at this very moment.

The restaurants serve delicious Franche-Comté region meals (basically everything covered in melted cheese). We of course, are on a budget so during our college week we go the university restaurant “le Resto” as it’s known on the streets.

The cafeteria-style resto uses a seemingly uncomplicated points system that in the beginning completely overwhelmed me and my fellow Irishmen. Now that we’ve been here a semester we have our resto lunch down to a fine art: you pay €3.20 for 10 points, your meal is 6 points and your starter and deserts are two points each. How could you complain for that value and as we say in Ireland, it does the job!

As stereotypes are there to be disproved it gives me great pleasure to reveal that the people of Bes, “les Bisontins” as they’re known, are an extremely sound and welcoming bunch.

I’ve had nothing like the stressful pressure-filled experience I had trying to buy paracetamol from an irate (yet so tall and chic) Parisian pharmacist in the train station on my stop-over. The University of Franche-Comté here in Bes welcomes a large number of international students every year and the rest of the population seem genuinely happy to have us here as well.

Our main night-time hangout in Besancon is a rock bar on a side street called Gibus where they play everything from Arcade Fire to Nirvana and John Lennon’s mantra emblazon the glasses and the free boxes of matches “ French rock is as good a English wine”.

I should mention we believe it to be the cheapest establishment of alcoholic beverages in Bes. You are very likely to run into a number of other internationals and French amis any Thursday, Friday or Saturday night (maybe even Wednesday). That for me is the best thing about Besancon. For example, just the other day, fresh from my flight, I bumped into 3 people I knew on my 5 minute walk from the bus stop to my apartment. Therein lies the charm of Bes; it has all the benefits of a small town (without the claustrophobia and boredom) as well as the atmosphere and diversity of a French metropolis.