How I came to spend one and a half days by myself in the small city of Belfort, France is a story in itself, but perhaps one best told if we have coffee one day. Belfort is in the eastern part of the country and about a two-hour ride from Paris if you take the TGV (high-speed train) or four hours if you take Intercités (a slower train that makes more stops along the way).
At the small train station, I picked up a booklet of lodging listings from an employee. I asked another one, a young woman, how to get to the city center and whether I should get a single bus ticket or a daily pass. There isn’t much to do in Belfort, she said, Once you arrive at the center you can reach everything on foot.
The board the bus, you simply texted a code to a phone number when the bus arrived and showed the subsequent text you received to the driver. The cost of the ticket would be automatically added to your next phone bill. I was surprised that a small city would have such an advanced system, but now that I think about it, a simple transportation network must make it all the more easy to enact any changes. I would later also be wowed by the fact that merchants often just scanned the chip on my debit card to deduct the amount, without need for me to enter my PIN. To date I have only seen this in Paris once.
It was hot, and I rolled my duffel bag behind me. After walking for a little while and looking at a few restaurant menus, I chose a hotel restaurant terrasse off the main plaza that was flanked by a cathedral and city hall. Usually, avoiding such a main area seemed wise, but this place was perfect. It offered an array of huge salads for the right price. My three-duck salad with figs hit the spot.
I flipped through the lodging options—it was the first time I had ever shown up in a city without a place to stay—and chose a hotel close to the train station. A former colleague of mine told me that when he travels, upon arriving he asks his taxi driver where he recommends staying. That is certainly not my modus operandi; lodging is the minimum item I book when traveling.
I told the hotel receptionist, a young woman, that it was my first time in Belfort. There isn’t much to do here, she said. This seemed to be a theme. I was amused, as shouldn’t at least a hotel employee sell the city? She was, after all, in the tourism industry.
I could sell the city. Not as your first stop in France and perhaps only for a day or two, but it had its charm and the residents were nice.
As you may surmise from the “fort” in its name, Belfort is surrounded by a large, impressive wall.
It is also known for its lion carved into stone. Its sculptor is none other than Frédéric Bartholdi, whom we have to thank for the Statue of Liberty.
I wandered up steps alongside a hill and came upon a vantage point of the city where there was also a huge truck parked. I asked the man inside it what was going on, and he said that that night the fireworks would be shot from there. It was July 13th, the day before Fête de la Bastille, a major holiday in France.
Flag waving is not a part of French culture, so I enjoyed seeing the rare displays all over town for what anglophones call Bastille Day. They flitted in the breeze, and you could not mistake where you were.
In the early evening, I stopped at a café terrasse for a spot of tea to soothe my sore throat.
I made my way back to the main square for the Bastille Day Eve festivities. A deejay had already set up, and two men, one with a feather in his hat and the other donning a baseball cap, were dancing un-self-consciously. For the most part, no one else in the plaza was dancing, but we enjoyed their enthusiasm. At one point, a boy joined their dancing while his parents looked on. You know that he’s going to have fun in life.
The square was full but not overcrowded for the fireworks. I would later hear from friends that the fireworks in Paris were spectacular, but the Belfort firework experience was relaxed and a spectacle nonetheless. There was no mad rush to the metro after. There is no metro to rush to.
I walked back to the hotel. The poor night shift receptionist was running around because the room card system was down, so each time guests entered, he had to accompany them to their room to open the door for them. You can imagine that this led to guests arriving to an empty hotel lobby and waiting until the receptionist came down so he could go up again. I was sympathetic to him. He was the only employee working that night and had to also prepare the tables for breakfast. During the elevator ride up, he asked me where I was from. His French was Italian-accented. Oh, I know New Jersey, he replied, I have family there. Doesn’t everyone. No wonder it’s the densest state in the United States.
The next day, I unwittingly came upon a parade for Bastille Day. A variety of fire trucks and police cars slowly rolled by as people clapped. The mayor of Belfort shook hands with members of the military.
The festivities culminated in the city square, as all the town events seemed to.
I sat on a bench contentedly and watched couples, mostly middle-aged and older, dance to the music and switch partners. They obviously all danced together regularly.
A man in his sixties sat down next to me and said, “Quelle ambiance.” I looked at him. The tips of his gray moustache reached down to his chin. He wore sunglasses and a white baseball cap, and a small cellphone hung on a string around his neck.
Yes, it’s great, I agreed. We chatted. He was a native Belfortian who had lived there all his life.
I told him that it was my first time to visit and that I liked the city. You are a grande voyageuse, he said.
He asked me if he could take my picture as a souvenir. I pondered for a moment. A very strange request, yes. But what the heck, I was leaving on a train to Paris in an hour, and this whole trip was pretty random, so why not. I then took a selfie of us for my own souvenir and a laugh later.