These city walls

Joanna Leggett goes house­hunt­ing in some of France’s best pre­served for­ti­fied towns

French Property News - - News -

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.

Car­cas­sonne

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.

Guérande

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.

Avi­gnon

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.

Aigues-mortes

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

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