Briançon

The Savoyards made two raids into French territory in 1691 and 1692. As a result, Vauban was dispatched to inspect the frontier defences, which had been ill-equiped to deal with the attack from Savoy. He returned to the area in 1700 to check on the progress that had been made since his first visit.

Map of Vauban's defences of Briançon.

When Vauban visited Briançon, work on the defences had already started under a local engineer, Monsieur d'Angrogne. His work was a crude adaption of the medieval walls, but the flanks of the bastioned trace he attempted to create were very short, being severely restricted by the terrain. Always ready to be flexible, Vauban abandoned conventional principles and his own usual design, and created a layered defence with a Spanish-style false bray for the Embrun front. The defences of the Embrun front are unusual for Vauban in that they employ a tenaille trace in places.

The Pignerol front used a more conventional bastioned trace with demi-lunes and a covered way. High above the town was the citadel, which formed part of the defences.

The citadel was practically unapproachable most of the way round, so its defences did not need to follow a bastioned trace - walls and the cliffs would be sufficient to prevent an assault.

An aerial view of the defences of Briançon. Left: Citadel, bottom: Pignerol front, right: Embrun front.
The Embrun front. Left: main wall, centre: false bray, right: counterguard/covered way.

The layered Embrun front consisted of an upper wall (the main wall, which followed a bastioned trace as closely as possible given the ground), beneath which lies the false bray, provided liberally with traverses. Below the flase bray is a dry ditch

In front of the ditch there is another line of defence, either a covered way or a counterguard (it is hard to use conventional fortification terms here because the defences are unconventional - the best approximation is a cross between a covered way and a counterguard), which is raised above the glacis and reveted in stone.

Work on the defences was begun in 1692. Surprisingly Vauban had not drawn up any measures for protecting the neighbouring heights, which command the town and the fortifications. When he returned in 1700 however, he did make plans for a fort on the other side of the river to Briançon called the Fort des Têtes.

The Pignerol front, with the Fort des Salettes in the background.
The Pont d'Asfeld.

He planned to link this fort to the town by a bridge spanning the gorge in a single arch. This bridge was not built for 28 years, but eventually it was completed. The bridge, called the Pont d'Asfeld was an impressive engineering feat considering the difficultly of the terrain and lack of materials.

Over the course of the 18th century, various other fortifications were constructed at Briançon to protect the nearby heights. These include the Fort des Salettes (originally built in 1700, but much enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries), Fort des Têtes (a massive fort that is bigger than the town itself, first thought of by Vauban but built after his death), the Fort du Dauphin, the Fort Randouillet and the Fort d'Anjou.

Visiting Briançon

Vauban's fortifications are pretty much intact, though the entrance in the Pignerol front has been altered to allow access to heavy traffic. The walls are in very good condition and fully visitable. There is a small entrance fee for the citadel, which has excellent views, and a wealth of underground tunnels to explore.

Left: the Pont d'Asfeld, right: the citadel.
The Embrun front.

I have focused on the fortifications of the town here, but there are many other forts at Briançon that are well worth a visit, such as the Fort des Têtes and the Fort des Salettes. There is probably so much to see that it would take more than a day to visit it all! Briançon is certainly one of the best places in the alps to visit as far as artillery fortification is concerned. Enough said.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
10 9 10 7 7 8.6
Back to the "Fortresses" page