Prats de Mollo

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

Fort Lagarde is the citadel overlooking the small town of Prats de Mollo. The town is located only a few kilometres from the Spanish border in the Vallespir, a region formed by the valley of the river Tech. Along this river runs one of the routes between France and Spain.

Fort Lagarde together with Fort les Bains, situated about 20 kilometres to the north-east in Amélie les Bains, could control this access road and thus traffic to and from the Vallespir and Spain. The town of Prats de Mollo was first mentioned in the 9th century.

During the 13th and 14th centuries the town prospered because of the special privileges it recieved from the kings of Aragon and Majorca. At that time Prats de Mollo was a fortified town. When the Vallespir became part of France according to the Treaty of the Pyreneesin 1659, Prats de Mollo became a French border town.

At first not much attention was paid to the towns of the Vallespir and Roussillon in general. Louis XIV'was more concerned with the frontiers of the north and still hoped to be able to trade Roussillon for Flanders, and so there was no use in fortifying a region that might be returned to Spain. In the 1660s the Spanish could easily access the region and pillage it or fuel revolutionary feelings among the population. In 1667 a revolt broke out against the salt tax (the Gabelle), the revolt was supported by the Spanish.

In 1670 the revolt was suppressed and Prats de Mollo, one of the centres of the revolt, was punished by the demolition of its city walls. During the Dutch Wars'Roussillon was used in a more offensive way by the French and attacks were made into Catalonia.

From this period onwards more attention was paid to the forts of the region, so that as well as defending the region they could also play a supportive role in the raids on Catalonia. The idea of trading Roussillon for Flanders was no longer considered.

In 1679 Vauban'visits Prats de Mollo for the first time and makes a plan for a fortress around the old watchtower, the Tour de la Garde, hence the name of the current fortress. The work was carried out between 1680 and 1686 but never to the extent envisaged by Vauban due to lack of funds.

In 1692 plans to enlarge the fort were made and some work was carried out but it stopped in 1693, again due to lack of funds. The current fort mostly dates from the late 17th century and has not been changed much in the following centuries. The fort has some interesting features. First of all the terraced layers of fire power; the conterguard, where you enter the fort, then the bastion'Sainte Marguerite with its curtain walls, and then the old tower with its bastioned trace (from the 1670s).

The old watchtower offers a good view of this terraced build-up. Along the eastern side of the Bastion Sainte Marguerite runs the staircase forming the second entrance. The wall along the staircase has loopholes'for muskets to secure the first entrance.

Secondly the west side of the fort faces a small plain. Here, the walls could be approached easily. This side of the fort is defended by a casemated'traverse with loopholes for muskets. A small work was built around the traverse to protect it.

Another interesting feature is the water supply, an important consideration in the hot southern summer. Water storage was as important as walls and guns were to the fort's ability to hold out against an attacker.

Throughout the fort there are provisions for storing rain water. These include a cistern in the old watchtower, water tanks (with sand to filter the water) in the Bastion Sainte Marguerite and a large water tank next to the entrance to the guard room.

In 1688 a redoubt'was built between the fort and the town, about 100 metres below the fort. This square tower is in a very good condition.

The foot of its wall is protected by a semi-circular machicoulis. The tower is connected to the fort by an underground passage that was built in the 18th century. In the 19th century a tunnel between the town and the tower was made, as with nearby Fort Liberia.

The entrance to the tunnel in the city was protected by a redoubt (as with the tunnel linking Fort Liberia with the town of Villefranche-de-Conflent), but not much is left of it today.

Every region has its own building materials and architectural style, giving the French 17th century forts from a specific area specific aesthetic features. In the Pyrenees this specific aesthetic feature is the brick detailing of the parapets, watchtowers and embrasures.

This detailing can be found in all the forts of the area, Mont Louis being the only exception. In the 18th century the threat of a Spanish invasion receded, so the fort was manned by a detachment of invalid soldiers. When Spain and France were at war again in 1793 the fort was manned by regular troops. It was taken by the Spanish in 1793 and returned to France in 1794 after the battle of Le Boulou.

Visiting Prats de Mollo

In the 19th century the fort lost its military purpose and in 1976 it was bought by the local government. The fort can be visited throughout the year and is very well worth a visit. Opening hours are available at the local tourist office.

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

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