These city walls
Joanna Leggett goes househunting in some of France’s best preserved fortified towns
From Avignon to St-malo, a celebration of France’s fortified towns
Watching the ancient walled city of Guérande gradually appear from the lingering mist of sunrise is enough to take your breath away. One of those rare French cities that has retained its citadel in all its glory, it seems to float above the Pays Blanc, the famous salt marshes of the Loire-atlantique department. For a few moments, it’s easy to forget the 21st century and transport yourself backwards through the centuries – or even through millennia.
Enter the town gates of Guérande, Carcassonne, Avignon or one of France’s other walled cities and you step into a different world. Cobbled winding streets lead onto market squares and old stone buildings crowd around you. Where once knights rode on horseback and pedlars shouted their wares, today your footsteps echo in streets full of shops, art galleries and studios, cafés and bustling restaurants.
Many of France’s fortified towns have ancient roots, but it was during the Middle Ages that they really came into their own. In days of old when knights were bold (according to some song about Lancelot), the best way to keep your people safe from marauding hordes was to build tall walls and watchtowers. France was a land well fought over, by ambitious Vikings and storming Normans, the excitable English and rivals much closer to home. Always in a commanding position, these cities were sometimes sited on trade routes or to defend a port in a land with fragile frontiers and constantly changing borders.
Perhaps the most famous citadel in France is the south-western city of Carcassonne. With its 52 towers and double ring of fortified walls, it cuts a striking figure, especially when viewed from a distance in summer, surrounded by an adoring army of sunflowers.
While most of the construction visible today is medieval, it was the Romans who first started to turn the original Gaulish settlement into a fortress in the third century AD. More work was carried out when the Visigoths occupied the town in the fifth and sixth centuries and again in the 13th century when the town was annexed into the kingdom of France and became an important stronghold on the frontier with the kingdom of Aragon (Spain).
After Napoleonic times the cité, having long since lost its strategic importance, was earmarked for demolition. However, after a public outcry, extensive restoration was undertaken to create the landmark (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) we know today. Indeed, it’s claimed, Walt Disney even based his theme park on this amazing place.
St-malo on the north coast of Brittany is impressively wellconnected, with ferries plying back and forth from the English mainland. This town traces its antecedents back to the time of the Gauls and later became notorious as the home of corsairs, French privateers and even pirates who forced English ships passing up the Channel to pay tribute. Its walled grey granite old town is perched on an island, once only accessible by a long causeway but now linked to the mainland.
While it gives the impression of great age, St-malo was almost completely destroyed by American bombardments and British naval gunfire towards the end of World War II as the Allies mistakenly believed it was a major German stronghold. What you see today is the result of an incredible reconstruction project completed in 1971 returning the town to its former glory.
With its atmospheric narrow streets, and bustling bars and restaurants, the Breton port really is a foodie delight and its beach Plage du Sillon is one of the best loved in the region.
Moving southwards and westwards to the Atlantic coast, we return to the citadel of Guérande, not far from St-nazaire on the mouth of the River Loire.
Once the domain of the counts of Nantes, this town grew rich from its gourmet salt fleur de sel and strategic position close to the river before becoming embroiled in the War of the Breton Succession in the 14th century.
The long and bloody conflict between the French-backed Counts of Blois and the English-backed Montforts of Brittany was for control over the Duchy of Brittany.
In 1343, after Guérande was captured by Blois’ troops and 8,000 of its inhabitants massacred, Jean de Montfort ordered the fortification of the town. Construction continued for some 150 years and, indeed, the stronghold was so well-built that its four gates remain the only entrances to the vieille ville and very little has been re-engineered in the centuries since.
Not just famous for its half-bridge, Avignon was the capital of western Christianity in the 14th century as seven consecutive French Popes controversially snubbed Rome and chose to reign from this beautiful Provençal town. Its ramparts were built in the 12th century on top of the town’s Roman remains but were then destroyed by the king of France only to be rebuilt in the 14th century on the orders of Pope Innocent VI.
Stretching more than 4km around the city and interspersed with 35 defensive towers, they are one of the reasons why Avignon’s historic centre now has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Today the Palais des Papes remains a popular landmark but the centre of the city is the Place de l’horloge, site of the forum of Avenio as the Romans called the town. All of the old town is contained within the walls and you still enter through the original city gates.
Just over an hour’s drive south from Avignon, on the edge of the Camargue, is the ancient walled city of Aigues-mortes. It was built by Louis IX in the 13th century and designed to be a launching-off point for his mission to conquer and plunder the Holy Land – these were the times when all self-respecting kings had to prove their mettle by heading up crusades.
His ‘new’ town grew to become one of the most strategic ports on the Mediterranean and is considered the purest remaining example of 13th-century military architecture. Sitting on the flat salt marshes of the Camargue, this solitary fortified city is a production centre for pink fleur de sel and a glorious sight, especially when viewed over the red salt marshes as the sun goes down on a summer’s day.
Not just famous for its half-bridge, Avignon was the capital of western Christianity in the 14th century
The Unesco-listed town of Carsassonne
One of the medieval gates of Guérande
The walled city of St-malo
Avignon in Provence