The theme of time continues on my journey through France when I visit the cities of Beauvais and Besancon. For it is in their ancient cathedrals that I discover two amazing accomplishments of engineering. The astronomical clocks of Lucien Auguste Verite.
Beauvais was heavily bombed during WWII but even before that the gothic Cathedral St Pierre had its problems. The tall choir was completed in 1272 but only 12 years later it collapsed. The funds were raised to rebuild it three centuries later but it collapsed again and the authorities eventually gave up. Today it seems to be held up by divine intervention and some huge wooden trusses which stretch from wall to wall. Inside I find the delightful and colourful astronomic clock which was built between 1865 and 1868. It stands 12m high and has 52 dials which display the time in 18 world cities, the sunrise and sunset, the position of the planets and tidal movements. Each hour, 68 automatons spring to life, telling the story of the Last Judgement.
Besancon, like Beauvais, was a Roman stronghold and became even more fortified by Vauban in the 17th Century. The impregnable citadel looks down over the old town, which is almost entirely surrounded by the river Daub. On a morning boat trip, I discover that it is also possible to pass beneath the citadel, on a canal through a tunnel.
At the foot of the citadel is Cathedral St Jean where I can visit an even older astronomical clock by Veritie. Commissioned in 1857 by Archbishop Mathieu, it took six months to design and a further two and a half years to complete. There are 30,000 mechanical parts but not all of them are working when I visit and the automatons refuse to act out their parts. Only Jesus on the cross falls backwards and is replaced by his tomb as, according to our guide, 3pm is the time when he was taken down from the cross. He will pop up again at noon, the time of his resurrection.
The Museum of Time in Besancon is not as instructive as the one in St Nicolas d’Aliermont but it is housed in the 16th century Granvelle Palace. Not much to look at from the outside, it has a large portico courtyard with blue and ochre Chailluz limestone.
Between visiting Beauvais and Besancon I spent the night of the 27th September on Mont Auxois. The site of the battle of Alesia between the Romans and the Gauls, it would prove to be the perfect vantage point to view the lunar eclipse. Luckily the skies were clear and I was able to watch the moon traverse the southern sky, closely followed by the constellation of Orion. At 3.30am the eclipse had started and darkness began to creep across the surface of the moon. By 4.30am the moon had become blood red as it fell completely in the shadow of the earth. There was complete silence and even the wind had ceased.
The next morning I paid my respects to Vercingétorix, the Gaul who bravely resisted the Roman Empire in 52BC and who was imprisoned by Julius Caesar for 5 years before being paraded at Caesar’s Triumph and then executed for the pleasure of the people.