Besançon, France’s “secret city”

So as I mentioned in my previous entry, the Mr. and I recently took a vacation to France and Spain.  I was a little nervous about the trip considering neither of us speaks particularly good Spanish or French, but this didn’t seem to bother the Mr. Some of my basic high school Spanish did come back to me, but I never learned any French so apart from “please” and “thank you,” I had pretty much no idea how to say anything. (We finally did learn the phrase for “the bill, please.” The Mr. initially had no idea so asked one waitress “péage?” which I am pretty sure means “toll.” She must have had a laugh over that.) I always felt slightly guilty that we asked pretty much everyone we had to speak to if they spoke English, but I consoled myself with the  fact that English is, for better or worse, the default universal language that most people know. Sometimes we’d be asked, “English or German?” And I’d quickly say “German!” just so I didn’t feel like the loser English-speaker who doesn’t know another language. Not that I’d get very far with German if the Mr. wasn’t there….

Besançon, France

Anywhoo, the first stop of our vacation was a city I just sort of stumbled onto, and had actually never heard of before. I was searching for a city somewhere in France where the Mr. and I could spend our first evening, that wouldn’t take any longer than 5 hours or so to reach. We wanted to keep the driving to a minimum on that first day partly because I knew we’d get a late start out the door (we always do), and partly just to keep from driving too much in a straight shot.  Having had my wallet stolen back in December, my Indiana driver’s license was unfortunately in that wallet and therefore has not been replaced. Even if I did still have it, I’m past the point where I’m legally allowed to drive here in Germany without passing a written driving test and getting a new license, but without any license at all it’s certainly not worth the risk to drive.  So we knew from the get-go the Mr. would be doing all the driving for the trip, and I was keen to try and make sure we didn’t do too much in any single day as I’m sure statistically that raises the risk for an accident. And one really doesn’t want to have an accident, especially on the autobahn. Anyway, I was googling places and came across Besançon, France. The distance was just right, and after reading this article from the Guardian, I was pretty much convinced.

Well, I’m happy to report that you can believe the hype: Besançon is really lovely. We arrived in the late evening and checked into an Ibis Hotel located a short 10-minute walk from the city center. I chose the Ibis because it was very central and also offered parking. (The underground parking was another adventure all to itself; I’m still always amazed when the Mr. successfully navigates unscathed through the extremely tight parking garages of Europe.) After we checked into our room, (which was very clean but sparse and featured a sort of “pod” bathroom…literally, it’s like a separate small room you step up into) we headed into town to try and find something to eat.

By the time we had walked along the river from the hotel to the city center and had snapped photos, it was already getting a little late, close to 9pm. We wandered along the narrow, winding streets, drinking in the lovely old architecture of the historic center and people-watching while they dined with sidewalk-seating at an impressive variety of restaurants. We checked out many menus at many restaurants, with me longing to feel a little hungrier so I could justify a huge steaming bowl of moules marinière, steamed mussels. The problem was that neither of us were particularly starved and therefore didn’t feel we could justify a big, expensive meal. Finally we spotted it, a Lebanese restuarant whose menu boasted some of my favorite foods; hummus, falafel, chicken skewers…and the photos accompanying each dish looked so appealing.  After a quick discussion outside, the Mr. and I agreed that what might make the most sense was to order maybe four appetizers instead of entrees so we could have a bit of several things that sounded good. It was the perfect plan.

We stepped inside and were greeted by an older woman who said something in French we didn’t understand, and then proceeded to figure out pretty quickly that English was better. She spoke English really well. She seemed very busy as many tables were full, but was friendly. We took a seat. There were two menus on the table that featured bright, colorful photos of various appetizers you could get, like hummus and falafel. She also came by and handed us more extensive menus, but we could readily see everything that appealed to us on the laminated colorful appetizer menu. We wanted to order a glass of house wine for me, and a bottle of beer for the Mr. She informed us she didn’t have the beer he wanted, but that they had a lovely Lebanese wine which we could share a small carafe of if we’d like instead. I didn’t care either way, and the Mr. agreed to sharing the wine. He knew it was pricey (14 euros for the carafe), but it was the beginning of vacation and we wouldn’t be spending that much on the meal with the four appetizers, so it seemed okay to splurge a little on the wine.

She came back with the drinks, and the Mr. explained to her that we’d like to order four appetizers instead of entrees as we aren’t that hungry. She then told us about a shared platter we could have for 22 euros each (44 euros total), and all the delicious things we would get on it. The Mr. explained again that we really weren’t that hungry, and would just like order the four appetizers. She took down our order and disappeared to tend other tables. Within 10 minutes, our falafel (small deep-fried patties made of highly-spiced ground chick-peas) and tabbouleh (diced parsley salad with burghul, tomato and mint) arrived. Both were delicious. I was in food heaven. After we had cleared those plates, our chicken skewers (with hummus…hmm..bonus…hadn’t expected that!) and the Mr.’s kofta (fingers, stars or a flat cake of minced meat and spices that can be baked or charcoal-grilled on skewers) arrived. Those, too, were absolutely scrumptious. We started to eat, and at some point, one of us remarked that “these plates are bigger, aren’t they?” and “hmm, yes…and this is an awful lot of food, isn’t it?” Actually, it was a TON of food on each plate…more like an entree-sized portion. The more we ate, the more we began to realize that there was no way these portions could be just appetizers. And sure enough, when the bill came, she had charged us for two appetizers and two entrees. With the pricey wine, it ended up being a very expensive meal, indeed. What happened was clearly a clash of cultures as her English was fluent and we don’t think there’s any real possibility she just misunderstood. But now we’re lefting wondering which culture we clashed with: French culture, where perhaps the idea of ordering four appetizers instead of entrees in a restaurant is tantamount to blasphemy, or Lebanese culture, where perhaps the restaurant owner “knows best” what’s good for you, even if you didn’t order it? If anyone has any insights to either French or Lebanese restaurant culture, I’d love to hear those thoughts!


About bittenbythebug

I love travel and have always been fascinated by other cultures. Back in 2004, I began my life as an expat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Fast forward 5 1/2 amazing years later to 2010 and the new chapter in my expat adventure: Würzburg, Germany.
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4 Responses to Besançon, France’s “secret city”

  1. Bonnie says:

    Sorry about the expensive meal, but your description was successful in making me crave falafel!

  2. Marko says:

    I see you like traveling. Since you are not that far away, you should also visit Slovenia one day. You shouldn’t have any problems with the language – most people here speak pretty good English. If you don’t know much about this ‘Slovenia country’, check out the official Slovenian Tourist Board webpage ( 🙂

    If you don’t like my idea at all, you can at least join me on my travel adventures through my blog and maybe discover some other interesting vacation destination.

    Have fun traveling and keep blogging!

  3. fenella says:

    Can’t help you luv. My only insight is that pot of tea for one in Bamburg which we were not allowed to share.

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