To do a one-hour circle cruise around Besançon on the Doubs River, you have your choice of two boats, which are called (of course) the Victor Hugo and the Vauban.
I took the Vauban, which is the smaller of the two. First I watched it from the shore as it left its dock, started upstream and went through a set of locks at the mill of St. Paul. An hour and a half later I got on board and went along on their late afternoon cruise.
The reason this is a circle cruise is that there is a tunnel underneath the citadel connecting two parts of the same river. So the boat goes upstream and then turns right and goes through the tunnel, with a set of locks which lowers its level. After the tunnel it turns right again into the Doubs River and continues on upstream to its starting point.
It has to go upstream because if it went downstream the whole cruise would only last half an hour at the most.
In medieval times, the Abbey of Saint Paul had a mill on this site, using water power to grind the grain and make flour. Around 1689, Vauban enclosed the mill in a bastion.
In the 19th century the mill was demolished to make room for the locks that were installed as part of the Rhône-Rhine canal, a canal which incorporates a section of the Doubs River. In 2009 this set of locks was renovated and new wooden gates were installed.
Here the river boat Le Vauban (a tight fit) is going through the locks. Its level being raised so it can continue upstream.
The opening and closing of the locks is done by hand, by turning the crank.
Here the Vauban, having been raised by a meter or two, is leaving the locks to continue on upstream.
After watching the boat Le Vauban from the shore, I bought a ticket and took the next cruise, which was their last cruise of the day, leaving at 16:45 (= 4:45 pm). The cost of the ticket (as of 2014) was twelve Euros.
Here we are looking up at the citadel from the boat, through the girders of the railway bridge.
After cruising upstream for a while along the Doubs River, our boat Le Vauban made a right turn and entered the tunnel under the Citadel.
This tunnel consists of a canal for boats and a paved path for pedestrians and cyclists. There is a separate tunnel for motor vehicles about 170 meters to the north.
The canal tunnel was first proposed as early as 1803, but wasn’t actually built until 1878 to 1882. It was intended from the start to be part of the waterway connecting the Rhône and Rhine rivers, and it was used for shipping for many years. Now it is too small for any serious shipping, but it is still used by small boats. Our cruise boat Le Vauban is the largest kind of boat that can fit into the locks.
Both ends of the tunnel connect with the Doubs River, so the tunnel is essentially a shortcut to avoid having to take the long loop in the river around the center of Besançon.
In 1987 the tunnel was dredged and renovated because water had started leaking in from the roof and blocks of calcium had fallen into the water. Some of the repair work is shown in this video from a French television news broadcast.
Here we are looking back from the top deck of the boat Le Vauban, after we have just entered the tunnel.
The next day I went back to the tunnel again and rode through it on a VéloCité bicycle.
After coming out of the tunnel our cruise boat Le Vauban turned right and continued upstream. Thanks to the locks in the tunnel we were now downstream from where we had started. From this part of the river we had some good views of the Citadel in the afternoon sun before circling around the city center.
Part of Vauban’s plan for the fortifications of Besançon was to build a wall along the river around the city center, with several two-story towers at the corners. These towers still exist, as does most of the wall, and they can be seen from the river boat as it circles the city.
The towers were built so that defenders of the city could fire on attackers from both levels. The Chamars tower is said to be the one that still most closely resembles Vauban’s original design.
The Marais tower, a bit further upstream, was built between 1687 and 1691.
The Cordeliers tower, which looks somewhat taller than the others, was probably completed in 1691.
The Bregille tower is the only one that is made entirely out of stone. It is larger than most of the others and had a well in the middle, so it had its own water supply. It is located next door to the new Cité des Arts.
Location, aerial view and photos of the Bregille tower on monumentum.fr.
When I was in Besançon there were two boats making the one-hour river cruise through the tunnel and around the city. This is the other one, the Victor Hugo, which looks somewhat longer than the Vauban. At least it can carry more passengers. But it couldn’t be wider because then it wouldn’t be able to go through the locks.
The Victor Hugo offers the circle cruise four times a day during July and August, and two or three times a day during April, May, June, September and October. From November to March there are no scheduled cruises, but it is possible for groups to book one.
Here’s the name of the boat with a picture of Victor Hugo with a white beard. The name of the company is Vedettes de Besançon.
Both cruise boats, the Victor Hugo and the Vauban, have their docks on this wooded island at the Pont de la République (Bridge of the Republic).
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.