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Belfort, the city guarded by a Lion

Belfort, the city guarded by a Lion

Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2009-01-12

Created to honour the heroic resistence of the city’s inhabitants, he turns his back on the enemy, a gesture of disdain rather than of contempt. Imperturbable, the Lion of Belfort protects the now peaceful city so that all may enjoy the pleasant and dynamic, albeit little-known, streets of its Old Town...

Belfort has the reputation of a dour and austere garrison town which anyone who doesn’t fancy boredom would be well-advised to hurry through. Bizarre stories about the city abound – seeing as it is the administrative centre of a territory rather than of a département, rumour has it that no one pays taxes, an idea which makes the denizens of Belfort guffaw, as they pay as many taxes as any other French citizen.
Yes, it is a territory – the Territoire de Belfort is the smallest of all French départements, and the last to join the list. This is why its ‘number’ is a latecomer’s 90, while France’s other départments, its neighbours the Doubs (25), the Haute-Saône (70) and the Haut-Rhin (68) included, are numbered alphabetically.
Belfort fought like a Lion
It does have a surprising history. In 1870, Paris was already surrounded and Napoleon III had already admitted defeat, but Belfort continued to resist the enemy. Canon fire could be heard for five leagues in any direction, commanded by the heroic lieutenant-colonel Denfert-Rochereau.
He fought courageously for a hundred and three days. Bartholdi, who created ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, a.k.a. the Statue of Liberty, imagined that only a lion - that symbol of firmness, resistance and bravery - could appropriately pay tribute to him. Thus at the foot of the citadel he edified a monumental lion sculpture in red Vosges sandstone; a bronze replica reigns over the Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris’s 14th arrondissement.
A peace treaty was signed on 10 May 1871 in Frankfort. France was to lose Alsace, which included Belfort at the time, but it refused to let the territory go. Le Territoire became part of the Franche-Comté four days later. It is said that its boundaries were calculated according to the range of the canons which supported the siege... and that the victors swapped the Territoire de Belfort for the Moselle…
In the town there flows a river...
The Savoureuse River runs through the city. Now and again it goes a bit wild and wreaks havoc along the banks. But this river which comes down from the Ballon and flows into the Allan wears its name well: savoureuse is French for savoury, and Belfort is home to so many tasty, tempting treats!
Le Territoire is fond of good food. Trout, naturally, especially on the side of the Vosges; blueberries, which are used in pies; an aperitif called le Brimbul; an almond-raspberry cake named le Belflore; and the stuffed lamb dish called ‘épaule du Ballon’, shoulder of the Ballon. There are also delicacies called ‘facettes’: small, gilded chocolates decorated with monuments and other landmarks of the département.
Le Territoire straddles two gastronomic traditions, those of Alsace and the Franche-Comté. Alsatian baëckeoffe lamb stew and Munster cheese are as common as the Franche-Comté’s vin jaune and comté cheese; and then there’s the neighbour, Montbéliard, and its runny cancoillotte cheese.
The old town and its facades are chock-a-block with bars, restaurants and purveyors of fine foods– it’s a great place to meet and catch up. Sad to say, Antoine Pérello’s Épicerie du Lion closed last April. This establishment, until recently France’s oldest grocer’s shop at 173 years old, was packed with treasures and is sorely missed; fortunately it’s been replaced by a restaurant which has preserved the original style. A meal at the Pot-au-feu, a likeable women’s restaurant, may help you get over your disappointment at the demise of the Épicerie. Try ending the evening by meeting friends at the Annexe, the Angelo or the Bistrot des Moines, where you may drink a toast to the glorious Lion who watches over the city night after night without batting an eye…
The blue ridges of the Vosges
The Ballon des Vosges (1,247 m), located at the southern tip of the eponymous Parc Naturel Régional, touches no fewer than four départements: the Haut-Rhin, the Vosges, the Haute-Saône and Le Territoire.
From the centre of Belfort, the trails of the Ligne Bleue des Vosges are reached in one hour; in those heights, the cuisine is more rural with a distinct alpine character. One finds shepherds’ meals, the mainstay of the cowherds who would take their cattle to the upper prairies of the Vosges du Sud to prepare Munster and other dairy delicacies. Their repasts included meat torte, smoked blade of pork, potatoes, white Alsace wine, Munster and blueberry pie, topped with a small glass of kirsch, ‘for the digestion’…
In winter, a bus – and this is good news – links the city to the Ballon. The well-named Bus des Neiges (Bus of the Snows) makes it possible to strap on your skis as soon as you’ve had your morning coffee, and come back down to town at the end of the day for cocktails. In summer, when the snow has melted, the Ballon becomes a rambler’s paradise where fabulous feasts take place around freshly fished, pan-fried trout…
A very cultivated town
One example of the town’s cultural wealth is the Donation Maurice Jardot, which pays tribute to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the most prominent art dealer of the 20C. It presents a hundred prestigious pieces by such great modern masters as Picasso, Léger, Braque, Matisse and Chagall.  
The Musée d’Art & d’Histoire of the City of Belfort, housed in the fortress that dominates the city, displays collections in the galleries that used to resound with the footsteps of soldiers on their rounds. In 2013 it will move to new premises being built in Vauban’s Tower 41…
Practical Information
Maison du tourisme de Belfort et de son Territoire
2 bis, Rue Clemenceau
90000 Belfort
Not to be missed
The flea market, or Marché aux Puces (the biggest of its kind in eastern France), is held the first Sunday of each month from March to December; the Eurockéennes (rock festival) on the first week-end of July (www.eurockeennes.fr).
SMIBA (Ballon d’Alsace tourist information)
2 bis, Rue Clemenceau
90000 Belfort
Tel: 03 84 28 12 01
Musée d’Histoire (History Museum)
Château de Belfort
90000 Belfort
Tel: 03 84 54 25 51
Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum)
Tour 41
Rue Georges Pompidou
90000 Belfort
Tel: 03 84 22 16 73 / 03 84 54 25 51
La Donation Maurice Jardot
8, Rue de Mulhouse
90000 Belfort
Tel: 03 84 90 40 70

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