UNESCO POINTS OF THE VAUBAN COMPASS
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’.
SOUTH-WEST: BARRICADE OF BLAYE
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.
SOUTH-EAST: MONT DAUPHIN
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.