Blaye stands on a rock on the right bank of the river Gironde downstream of Bordeau. Its strategic value was appreciated by the Romans, who added their own fortifications to the existing Gallic site.
The first castle was built as early as 625 and the town was attacked many times into the middle ages. The first artillery fortifications were probably constructed during the French Wars of Religion. Blaye was besieged unsuccessfully by the Protestants in 1593.
The fortress was strengthened by the Comte de Pagan from 1652 to 1669, who cleared part of the lower town to make a fortress on the rock. By 1680 Blaye was defended by an incoherent trace of angled works. There were two late medieval horseshoe shaped towers, one of which was protected by a hornwork.
In 1685 Vauban'was sent to Blaye to review the works and draw up plans for transforming it into a strong fortress. The resulting plan consisted of a trace of 4 large arrow-headed bastions' and 3 demi-lunes. There was a deep ditch'and a strong covered way.
Work on the fortifications, which was carried out by Ferry, lasted from 1686 until 1689. In the following years, two other forts were constructed to supplement the fortress of Blaye. The first was Fort Pâté (on an island in the river next to Blaye) and the second was Fort Médoc (on the opposite bank).
These forts were smaller and subordinate to the fortress of Blaye, but together they formed the Verrou de Blaye (Blaye Barrier), which guarded against a naval incursion up the river towards Bordeau. The whole width of the river was covered by their combined fields of fire.
Blaye was the largest and strongest part of the barrier, having formidable landward defences. The dry ditch in front of the walls was carved out of the rock to make it deep enough, making it a significant obstacle to an attacker.
Vauban left some of the earlier fortifications intact to form an upper layer of defence, behind the large bastions. The north horseshoe-shaped tower was left intact and incorporated into the left flank of one of the arrow-headed bastions.
This is a good example of Vauban's skill in adapting earlier (often poorly-designed or outdated) works and incorporating them into a new, stronger design.
The new trace met the river farther north than the old fortifications, so the old demi-lune was left in place to strengthen the second line of defence. This demi-lune commanded the north bastion from the rear, making it very difficult for an attacker to hold this bastion.
The most important role of the fortress of Blaye was to close the river to enemy ships, so there were also fortifications facing the river. The walls on this side were much less regular, not being vulnerable to a land attack.
Their main purpose was to provide a platform for guns facing out over the river. For the most part the walls follow the contours of the rocky shoreline, so that most of the guns faced directly out over the river, but some were positioned so as to be able to fire up or down the river.
The sloping ground on top of the rock meant that there could be several layers of defences facing the river. It seems that the upper line was composed of earthworks, since it had decayed by the mid-18th century, leaving only the stone walls along the top of the cliff.
Vauban said that of all his work he was most satisfied with the fortress of Blaye. This is impressive, since Vauban worked on hundreds of fortifications all over France. Blaye has a natural strength that Vauban exploited well, making good use of the existing fortifications.
Vauban's fortifications were not put to the test until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814 the British invaded France from the south and laid siege to Blaye, which was preventing them from using the Gironde estuary.
The British attacked from the landward side as well as bombarding the fortress from the river, but the siege only lasted 10 days, being brought to an end by Napoleon's abdication and the end of the war. However, the fortress had demonstrated its ability to close the river to enemy vessels.
The fortifications of Blaye are in excellent condition for the most part, although the covered way has been sadly neglected. One of the demi-lunes in the north has been partly demolished to make room for a cricket pitch and some sheds have been built in the ditch.
Apart from these minor blemishes, the fortifications are almost as they were when Vauban built them. Blaye is a good example of a well-preserved fortress with arrow headed bastions, typical of Vauban's early work. An interesting feature is the powder magazine'in the south, which has survived and is in good condition.
There are no rail links nearby, so the easiest way to get there is by car or by bus (line 201, journey lasts about an hour and a half) from Bordeau. There is a ferry across the river to Fort Médoc, which can also be visited. Unfortunately, Fort Pâté is private property so it is not accessible, but it can be seen from the ferry. Blaye makes an excellent fortress to visit, being very well preserved and in a beautiful setting. There is no charge to wander around the ramparts.