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Explore France’s fortified city that repels invaders but not tourists

The Hautes-Alpes outpost of Briançon, which overlooks five valleys, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site 

The twin-towered church of Notre Dame and Saint Nicolas dominates Briançon’s skyline – and logo Pic: BlueMaxMedia / Office du Patrimoine / Office du Tourisme Briançon / OT Serre Chevalier Vallée Briançon

Inhabitants of Briançon in south-east France are proud of the fact that their city has never been captured by enemies.

Situated at an altitude of 1,326 metres, at the meeting point of five valleys and close to the border with Italy, it also boasts of being the highest town in France.

Attacking this Hautes-Alpes outpost was never going to be easy. Troops would first have to negotiate the mountainous terrain, as well as battling through snow and wind.

On reaching their destination, they would have been met by some formidable fortifications, which were consolidated in the 18th century by the celebrated military architect Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.

The upper town, or Vauban citadel (Cité Vauban), is Briançon’s jewel – an 11th-century settlement encircled by multiple fortifications to protect its population from invaders. It earned Unesco World Heritage Site recognition in 2008.

Building the ‘iron belt’

Because of Briançon’s strategic location, it has been settled and fortified since Gallo-Roman times. However, beefing up defences became a priority after it was threatened by the Duke of Savoy in 1692.

Enter Vauban, who personally advised Louis XIV on fortification efforts, or an ‘iron belt’, all along France’s borders to better protect the territory.

Dominique Le Brun, journalist and author of a book about Vauban, said: “Briançon was France’s most strategic site since it overlooked five valleys that led to Montgenèvre, near the Savoy border, the Provence and Rhône regions, and Grenoble.

“Securing Briançon was like putting a lock on France’s entire south east.”

Vauban started with construction of several forts around the town, designed as outposts. These included Trois Têtes and Rambouillet.

On reaching thus far, enemies would be funnelled towards Pont d’Asfeld, the only accessible road and built from 1729 to 1734 across a picturesque gorge of the Durance.

The town itself is surrounded by thick walls, above which stands the imposing Fort des Salettes, built between 1709 and 1712 and dominating Briançon at some 1,538 metres high.

‘Soul’ of Briançon

These mammoth architectural efforts give Briançon “a soul”, said Corinne Clivio, Cité Vauban tour guide since 1993.

“There is always something new to discover or rediscover, often thanks to renovation work.”

Once through the Porte de Pignerol gateway, you are in the old town proper.

In front are the two downhill streets of Grande Rue and Rue du Temple.

Grande Rue is one of the town’s most famous sights and is lined with attractive old buildings. It is often referred to as La Grande Gargouille (‘The Great Gargoyle’). 

The word means both gargoyle and gurgling, and also refers to a small drain flowing with water in the centre of the road, originally used to fight fires.

Church of Notre Dame and Saint Nicolas

Both Grande Rue and Rue du Temple take you to Place d’Armes, the Cité’s heart.

Hard to miss near here is the 18th-century collegiate church of Notre Dame and Saint Nicolas, built to Vauban’s plans and boasting two stone bell towers topped with domes and an impressive sundial.

Vauban’s idea was to build the church in the heart of the city and its fortifications so that the Duke of Savoy, a devout Christian, would think twice about attacking a religious building.

Briançon’s tourist office is also located near here, in a Renaissance building dating from 1575 and one of the town’s oldest, having survived multiple fires.

Visitors will find it hard to resist buying one of the ubiquitous marmot cuddly toys – the region’s animal mascot – as they are displayed in many shop windows and on market stalls.

Feast your eyes, too, on Cité Vauban’s stunning views of the mountains. Locals all have their favourite places to do so, whether it be Porte Méane, Place Médecin Général Blanchard, Porte de la Durance or Fort du Château in the shadow of Antoine Bourdelle’s bronze La France sculpture.

Upper and lower town

Over the years, Briançon has extended outside of its fortified perimeter towards the base of the hill. However, around 500 locals still remain in the old town, despite its inaccessibility by car and the lack of light inside apartments.

“The relationship we have with Cité Vauban is complex,” said Ms Clivio.

“Most gravitate towards lower Briançon, but it has not lost its history.” 

She points out that Briançon has not suffered the same fate as many other French fortified towns, where military buildings were destroyed to make way for modern infrastructure and housing. 

An army presence continued at Fort des Trois Têtes until 2009, just months after it was awarded Unesco status.

Railway service

These days, Briançon is not nearly as inaccessible as it once was, thanks largely to the advent of railways.

From the 1930s to 1970s, almost the whole territory was covered by night train services and Paris-Briançon remains one of the most famous routes. It has even inspired a new book from popular French writer Philippe Besson, called simply Paris-Briançon.

It is one of only two remaining night train services, having resisted efforts from successive governments to shut it down.

This is thanks largely to savvy Briançon mayors emphasising how important the service is for nearby ski resorts.

New logo

In recent years, Briançon’s fortifications have been harnessed for more than tourism, serving as a billboard for protest banners. They have increasingly been used as such by Tous migrants, an apolitical movement, to denounce the town’s lack of migrant shelters.

The town’s defences have also been re-imagined for Briançon’s recently overhauled logo.

In 2016, a decision was made to replace the generic picture-postcard one featuring mountains, sky and sun for something that better reflected the town.

Nicolas Petit, whose former company Studio Havana was chosen to redesign the logo, told The Connexion he went back to Vauban’s original plans. 

The logo’s shape is therefore very geometric, with vertical lines representing the link between the upper and lower town, the roadway, the town as a crossroads of five valleys, and the city’s famous sundial.

Mr Petit moved to Briançon around 10 years ago, attracted by the high number of cultural events the town offers. 

“Cité Vauban is an oxymoron,” he said.

“Briançon is a fortified town, but it feels as if these fortifications were designed to defend its intrinsic quality of openness.”

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