High in the Hautes-Alpes, France, the heavily fortified town of Briançon sits perched on a rocky outcrop at the crossroads of five valleys and the confluence of the Durance and Guisane rivers. Settled by the Celts and known as Brigantium by the Romans, Briançon has been a coveted piece of real estate for centuries. That the French were able to hold on to the town during wave after wave of invasion and conflict is due entirely to the genius of the 17th-century French military tactician and engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.
Sitting in a majestic natural setting of soaring peaks that seem to touch the sky and valleys that fall away to the depths below, Briançon’s fortifications are the centerpiece of the Vieille Ville (the Old Town) while below the Ville Basse (Lower Town) houses the commercial sector of the city. Start your explorations at the top of the Vieille Ville, at the Porte de Pignerol, the main gateway into the tight circle of layered fortifications that once protected the town.
Consider Vauban’s genius. The mountain cliffs and walls were already enough to prevent an assault on the Durance side of town. All that was necessary was to put in some bastions, dry ditches, and covered passageways to protect the soldiers from fire. The Embrun side of town was much more of a challenge. Vauban built thick walls and perpendicular traverses to protect the defenders. Notwithstanding these fortifications, Briançon was still vulnerable to attack from the mountain peaks above. To address this concern, Vauban built the Fort des Salettes. Although he had plans to build more forts, the actual work was left to others during the reign of Louis XV, when an additional 20 high fortifications were erected.
While Vauban’s Citadel is certainly the centerpiece of this picturesque town, there is much more to see. Stroll down the steep main street, La Grande Rue, known to the locals as the Grande Gargouille. A ‘gargouille’ is a small ditch that runs down the middle of the street. In medieval times every street had one. Now there are only 2-3 places in the world where you can see a Gargouille. Briançon has two — the second one is on Rue Mercerie, known to the locals as the Petite Gargouille.
Colorful houses and facades line the sides of the steep, narrow streets, the most striking on Place des Armes. Fountains seem to fill every corner as do sundials, each inscribed with a motto in French, Latin or the local dialect. With 300 days of sunshine a year, the sundials are a quaint way of finding out the time. Vauban didn’t just build military fortifications, he also designed The Notre Dame Saint Nicolas Collegiate Church with its two striking bell towers that dominate the city skyline and its coral pink façade. In true military fashion, the church may have been a house of worship but it was constructed like a fortified mini castle.
Briançon is much more than an ancient fortified town. Its true beauty is its surroundings, the mountains, and valleys, which can be enjoyed by skiers, hikers, rock climbers, cyclists (several Tours de France races have started or ended here), kayakers and whitewater rafters, especially in the nearby Parc National des Ecrins. Once an impregnable fortress, the town today is a peaceful, serene place to be enjoyed and savored in the shadow of Vauban’s fortifications.
IF YOU GO
Reaching Briançon can be a bit of a challenge but well worth the effort. There are several trains a day from Marseilles via Gap and a night train from Paris. If you are driving, take the D1091 from Grenoble (about 2.5 hours). You can also drive from Milan on the SS24 over the Montgenevre pass. The Briançon Tourist office (Maison des Templiers 1, place du Temple. Tel 33-492-210850) can help with hotels, restaurants, rental of sports equipment and guides.