For three centuries the history of France has been shaped by fortresses you probably never heard of, but which you are likely to encounter if traveling through the country.
Born in the year 1633 in north-central France, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban not only developed methods of siege warfare, he took part in 130 military actions and was also responsible—during his 54-year career—for building 160 fortresses throughout France for King Louis XIV. He became a military captain, the king’s engineer, a marshal and often traveled over 2,000 miles [3,500 kilometers] a year either as a soldier or planner of forts or as infrastructure advisor to the king (in 1861 he traveled 4,600 miles [7,500 kilometers] in 250 days). During the 77 year duration of the king’s life, France was at war for 60 years; hence Vauban’s military skills were considered of great value. In addition to planning military architecture, he was also responsible for civil works: he created a tunnel and organized a drainage system for the Canal-du-Midi that runs between the Mediterranean Sea and city of Toulouse.
During years of living in France I have unexpectedly happened on over a half dozen Vauban fortresses. Many of these massive enclaves still include thriving villages, bustling towns and even an active military barracks. Several are classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the chilly Pyrenees peaks in southern France (Mont-Louis) to northwestern coastal Brittany (Saint-Malo), and from France’s highest city in the Alps (Briançon) to vineyard flatlands in southwestern Bordeaux (Blaye), many of these beautiful fortresses are still structurally sound and have transformed to magnets for cultural and sporting events.
Vauban designed these outposts to be both militarily strategic as well as economically functional; many include barracks, armories and gunpowder magazines as well as buildings for local commercial merchants. He integrated architecture into existing landscapes, including cliffs, peaks and shorelines, and often chose not to raze existing structures, but to incorporate them into his new works.
Both practical and visionary, Vauban shifted the military mindset of the day from defense to offense, and calculated not only the dimensions of all elements of a fortress, but the length of time it would take an enemy to advance through each layer of defense. As author Martha Pollak wrote in her book regarding military architecture and cartography, ‘Vauban reduced the defense and attack of fortresses to double-entry bookkeeping, where the two columns balance each other out precisely.’
A few Vauban sites are described below.
Villefranche-de-Conflent in the south of France is located in a valley that leads to the Pyrenees peaks, and also to the realm of a historical enemy—Spain. Vauban built a long rampart across the valley to deter Spanish attackers. Concerned that enemy troops might occupy a flat segment on Belloch mountain above this rampart, he then built another impressive stone outpost there named Fort Libéria (Villefranche castle), a vertical distance of 591 feet [180 meters] above the Têt River. This upper fort could house 100 troops. To connect the lower ramparts to this upper fort, in 1850 Vauban put 250 laborers to work to spend three years carving out a sloped tunnel through mountain rock to link the fortifications. This tunnel includes a 734 foot stone staircase that visitors can still ascend.
From Villefranche-de-Conflent you can either drive for 40 minutes or take the renowned train jaune (yellow train) for almost two hours to move higher into the Pyrenees peaks to the town of Mont-Louis. Located at an altitude of a mile [1,600 meters] above sea level, this Vauban walled locale includes restaurants and stores also includes an active military barracks. Built between 1679 and 1681, this highland town originally included armament depots as well as a chapel and stores for craftsmen. The walled fortification was tailored to meld in with existing topography.
The highest city in France (and second highest in Europe—after Davos in Switzerland) is Briançon, located at an elevation of 4,350 feet [1,326 meters] above sea level in the Alps. This town is a gateway to the Serre Chevalier ski slopes. Historically, its location at the meeting of five valleys made it strategically significant for defending against invaders. After the location suffered an attack by the Duke of Savoy, Vauban was sent there. He arrived in the year 1692 to plan defenses. He returned a second time and created a memorandum regarding a new outpost in the year 1700, before the War of Spanish Succession broke out a year later. From 1713 to 1734 his plans were followed and a wall almost two miles (three kilometers) long was built and dotted with forts. Again, Vauban molded his defense structures into existing topography.
In the northwestern Brittany region of France, the famous Route de Rhum sailing race kicks off every four years from the city of Saint-Malo for solo sailors to speed from Europe to Guadeloupe. The city is also centered within a fort designed by Vauban. Built to defend attacks from corsair pirates, the city is one of four local Vauban designed forts in this region. The inner city looks magnificent with tall stone buildings and bustling streets filled with stores, restaurants and cafés, as well as beautiful Atlantic coastline vistas from the ramparts.
Located within the Bordeaux ‘right bank’ wine region east of the Gironde estuary, the Vauban constructed citadel of Blaye also includes its own small inner vineyard. The interior of the citadel has stores, restaurants and a hotel. Every year the site hosts events such as an international horse jumping festival, a wine tasting weekend and displays of vintage military vehicles. The sprawling fortification—94 acres [38 hectares] in area—perches over a limestone cliff adjacent to the muddy waters of the largest estuary in Europe—the Gironde. It was constructed together with two other forts—one on the opposite side of the estuary (Fort Médoc) and one on an island mid water (Fort Paté)—so that soldiers could defend the downstream city of Bordeaux from waterborne invaders. Canons located at all three sites could pummel invading ships across the two mile [three kilometer] wide estuary.
The city of Langres in central eastern France is an hour north of the Burgundy wine region, and a three hour drive southeast of Paris. Historically home to Romans and Celts, it also became in 1850 the location of a Vauban citadel that could support an army of 18,000 troops. Today the city has some 8,000 inhabitants, and includes cathedrals, an art history museum and a square with a statue dedicated to Denis Diderot—author and creator of a 28 volume encyclopedia published in 1751. Langres is an attractive and little known city for overseas visitors. The over two mile [three kilometer] long ramparts include 12 towers and nine gates and provides attractive vistas of rolling agricultural landscapes.
Vauban was in touch with the rural population as well as with the ravages of war. He believed in the judicious use of artillery, and his siege techniques emphasized sparing as many human lives as possible.
Today 12 sets of Vauban structures in France are collectively designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. On a map these form a ring around the periphery of the country, none being more than 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, from the next in a straight line distance.
Though celebrated during most of his life, Vauban’s work eventually gained him disfavor. In 1707, the year of his death, he anonymously published a work titled Le Dîme Royale, in which he advocated fiscal reform, a flat tax and the abolishment of tax exemptions for the rich. By substantiating his argument with figures, he pioneered the use of economic statistics. The French government, disagreeing with his notions, suppressed the book by taking it out of publication and destroying the existing copies. Before his death, Vauban was even disturbed by a visit from the royal secret police because of this publication.
After he died, Vauban’s influence touched the United States. In 1781 at Yorktown, French engineers recommended that George Washington adopt Vauban’s siege techniques. The troops did so. They dug parallel trenches that gave siege guns proximity to the British, resulting in Lord Cornwallis surrendering the post. Vauban’s influence on civil and military architecture in the U.S. is also recognized as having inspired the creation of the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1824.
Vauban’s legacy endures. It is visible all over France at carefully renovated and preserved sites that are open to the public.