France - - Vauban’s Forts -

2018 sees the tenth an­niver­sary of the in­scrip­tion of the For­ti­fi­ca­tions of Vauban onto the Unesco World Her­itage list. The 12 are spread far and wide across France. Here are five well worth vis­it­ing:


The Ar­ras strong­hold is among the first of Vauban’s 160 citadels and built within the sweep of the Crin­chon river. The pen­tag­o­nal ci­tadel com­bines two ar­chi­tec­tural styles: the French Baroque of the 17th cen­tury, which is re­alised in dec­o­ra­tive brick­work and stone used in lo­cal Ar­tois houses; it also con­tains the 1673 chapel of St Louis as a pos­si­ble ded­i­ca­tion to the Sun King him­self. Al­though its nick­name is ‘La Belle Inu­tile’ (the use­less beauty) as it was too far from the bor­der and failed to de­fend the city against the Span­ish, it is nonethe­less in­cluded on the Unesco World Her­itage list as a fine ex­am­ple of a ci­tadel on a river plain.


The Ci­tadel of Neuf-brisach in the re­gion of Al­sace is a syn­the­sis of Vauban’s cen­tral ideas. Un­like the for­ti­fi­ca­tions at Be­sançon, it was built from scratch fol­low­ing the end of the Nine Years’ War and the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, which re­turned the town of Breisach to the Holy Ro­man Em­pire. In re­sponse, Louis XIV or­dered the con­struc­tion of Neuf-brisach (New Breisach) and it was com­pleted in 1707. Sit­u­ated near the Ger­man bor­der on the left bank of the Rhine, it looks from above like some fan­tas­tic mil­i­tary medal with its outer ring of earth­work de­fences in the shape of a star, an in­ner ring of bas­tion tow­ers, its cur­tain fortress walls of sand­stone that form a per­fect octagon, and its 48 checker­board ilôts or squares sur­round­ing the cen­tral Place d’armes of the pa­rade ground.


On the fur­thest tip of the Cro­zon Penin­sula in Brit­tany stands the Golden Tower look­ing out to the At­lantic and built to pro­tect the port of Brest. The watch­tower was not even com­plete when in 1694 the Bri­tish and Dutch fleets at­tacked and were re­pulsed by Mar­shal Vauban as supreme com­man­der of the land and sea forces in Brit­tany. Well hid­den by the jagged coast­line with walls coated with ground bricks to which it owes its warm hue, the tower is polyg­o­nal in shape, with four lev­els to store food and gun­pow­der as well as a guard house and fits neatly into a semi-cir­cu­lar bat­tery that could hold 11 can­nons, sur­rounded by a deep ditch. Fol­low­ing its suc­cess, the king hon­oured the tower with a medal and the ti­tle ‘Guardian of the Ar­mor­ica Coast­line’.


The triple for­ti­fi­ca­tions at Blaye (1685-1692) stand on dis­tinc­tively dif­fer­ent sites near and on the Gironde River in Nou­velle Aquitaine and com­prise two forts (Fort Mé­doc on the left bank and Fort Pâté on an is­land in the mid­dle of the Gironde) and a ci­tadel on the right bank and city walls. Their pur­pose was to de­fend the city of Bordeaux 50 km up­stream. Fort Mé­doc is a square struc­ture on marshy land built by 1,200 sol­diers, many of whom were hos­pi­talised due to ill­ness aris­ing from the damp con­di­tions in which they worked. Fort Pâté is a vis­ually pleas­ing oval can­non tower and a re­mark­able tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ment as it en­abled cross-fire over both banks of the river. The ci­tadel of four bas­tions, three demi-lunes and two gate­ways is Vauban’s fine re-work­ing of a Me­dieval for­ti­fi­ca­tion.


The ar­che­typal moun­tain strong­hold, the fort of Mont Dauphin, named af­ter the king’s el­dest son, was erected on the Mil­lau­res Plateau (the plateau of one thou­sand winds) in the wooded moun­tain­ous re­gion of the Hautes-alpes dé­parte­ment of south-east­ern France. Built from the abun­dant sup­ply of lo­cal wood and stone, the fort was to pro­tect the bor­der from in­va­sions from Italy, but in the event, its con­struc­tion was long and costly and when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713 the bor­der moved fur­ther east to­wards Italy mak­ing the gar­ri­son and the vil­lage re­dun­dant. Nev­er­the­less, the strong­hold ex­hibits many of Vauban’s guid­ing prin­ci­ples and be­liefs, in­clud­ing an un­fin­ished church, dis­tinc­tive gate­ways with tri­an­gu­lar ped­i­ments above stone rec­tan­gu­lar walls with oval open­ings and bar­racks adapted to the un­even ter­rain.

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