We left the huge, sprawling car-park on the central canal in Dôle, following the water to the east to visit the city that, by Royal decree, took over Dôle’s duties as regional capital; Besançon. We parked in a central commercial aire that charged by the hour, so we paid for up to two hours, enough to explore around a little, then proceeded with our city visit walk. There was a slight spitting rain as we walked, and the air was chilly around us, giving the city a slightly ethereal feel, accentuated by the faint ghostly colours of the local stone.
The buildings and pavements were constructed with a light coloured stone, pitted and striped with faint runs of colour, like a pastel grey marble. Some cut stones were run with a prominent blue tint, leading to a decorative checkerboard effect on some facades. The centre was much more grand and elegant than we had initially expected, but then we knew very little about the city on our arrival.
We reached the Place de la Revolution where a large open-air market was in full flow, selling all manner of produce. The noise was a huge contrast over the previously quiet streets leading to the open square. We passed through the Musée du Temps courtyard to a leafy square, soaking up the views and atmosphere. Besançon Cathedral had a 70-dial astronomical clock that indicated sunrise, sunset, eclipses and tides, an apparently unique item that showcases their intricate horologist heritage. We missed the Citadelle on the hill behind for lack of time, or perhaps willing, but we always like to leave something to return for another day. The city was definitely worth more time that we offered it on our visit.
We drove on to a quiet stop near the town of Vesoul, on the shores of a large lake called the Lac de Vesoul-Vaivre, in the area of Vaivre-et-Montoille. First we looked at a larger, busier aire in a shared gravel car-park, but we didn’t quite like the scruffy quality and lack of a water view here. So we continued around to another possible stopping point on the other side of the lake, near the boat house. We parked up here, alone, with our nose facing the water and watched the slow sunset fall over the waving yellow reeds and the still lake.
I went for a run early morning, a fast paced, warming 6-7km loop of the leisure lake, where I passed highland cattle, cranes, egrets, a few dog walkers and, encouragingly, two other joggers. Although we had walked and cycled a lot, I hadn’t run much at all on our trip, and perhaps the break was beneficial as I was feeling strong. A white, moody mist was rising off the water as the day warmed up, and the kilometres disappeared easily, and I was back in Benny drinking tea within half an hour of leaving. The run had nicely shaken off the slight hangover from last night’s wine and had me feeling fully awake and alive for the day ahead. Revived, we headed off east to visit Notre-Dame du Hait.
We parked on the side of the road near the centre of Ronchamp town and made the decision to walk the twenty minutes uphill to the Notre-Dame du Hait site, to feel like we earned the privilege to visit. This was a long-awaited and overdue architectural pilgrimage to a previously well-studied building, albeit last discussed in any detail over twenty years ago back in a distant student past.
We climbed steadily, through tall, spindly trees that were casting long, narrow shadows across the road like twisted fingers. The morning sun was burning off the low mist and transforming everything into an early spring day, warm and clear. The only sound as we climbed was our own breathing and the low chattering of birds overhead.
The original church on the site was damaged by fire in 1913 then rebuilt in 1920 before being severely damaged by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War. The decision to rebuild again was taken, plans drawn up and in the spring of 1954 the design by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, began. Renzo Piano, of Pompidou Centre and Shard fame, later sympathetically added to Notre-Dame du Hait with a new concrete visitor centre and monastic accommodation for the community of Poor Clares from Bescançon, who requested the opportunity to live on the hill close to the chapel.
We first walked around the exterior, taking in the building’s form from all angles. A bus full of loud, Italian students suddenly appeared on site, and soon they covered every corner. Like ants, they climbed the Pyramide de la Paix for their selfies with the chapel. A series of external bells, added by Jean Pouvré, sat solemnly behind the chapel. It was smaller and much darker than expected inside, difficult to see any detail as only a few candles were lit. We sat a while and allowed time for our eyes to adjust to the deep contrast from the bright sun outside, so we could take in the details; deep openings with stained glass, thin concrete stairs, a sloping stone floor and curved floating concrete roof, the play of light and shadows through tiny openings above the alter.
Within the visitor centre we saw a display of some of the original drawings produced by Le Corbusier to facilitate construction of the various details around the chapel. The drawings looked somewhat vague and rather simplistic, in comparison to those we have to produce for contractors to build from today, but were clearly sufficient to create the vision he wished for. “I wanted to create a place of silence, prayer, peace, inner joy” Le Corbusier said on the Chapel’s inauguration day. I think he succeeded.