Fort Mont Alban

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

Most of the duchy of Savoy, a key region in the Franco-Spanish conflicts, was occupied by Francis I in 1536 after a French invasion. During this occupation, which lasted until 1559, the dukes of Savoy resided in Nice, the principal city of the unoccupied Comté de Nice.

In 1543 Nice was besieged by a an allied French and Turkish force. Attacked from the sea as well as the land, the town was taken and plundered after a violent siege. The castle was not taken and the besiegers retreated after the sack.

This was because they feared the arrival of a relief army and there was discord between the commanders. The siege demonstrated that Nice and the nearby coastline was vulnerable. Aided by Charles V'and his Italian engineers, the new Duke of Savoy, Emmanuel Philibert, made plans for the defence of Nice and its coastline.

The fort on the hill of Mont Alban formed part of this global defence plan. It was built in about 5 years between 1557 an 1562. It consists of a square, each side about 45m long, with a bastion'on each corner. Each bastion has a small watchtower (sentry post).

The entrance, a drawbridge on the east side of the fort, is located four metres above ground level and can be reached by stairs. The whole fort is terraced, making it one big 15m high block.

From the entrance level you can go down to the storage rooms or up to the soldiers' living quarters. On the terraced roof the artillery platform, the living quarters of the officers and the chapel were located. Ventilation of the lower quarters was provided for by various ventilation shafts coming out on the roof. The fort was surrounded by a covered way'and the south side of the fort, the most approachable side, was defended by a hornwork.

The fort overlooked the main road connecting Nice to the military harbour at Villefranche-sur-Mer and it defended the high ground that dominated the coastal fortifications from the north.

Although the fort played an important role in the overall defence of the Nice coastline, its small size prevented it from exploiting the advantages of its location. After 1559 the relations between France and Savoy remained unstable.

On the one hand the dukes wanted to maintain friendly relations with their powerful neighbour, but on the other hand they were reluctant to lose too much of their power.

In their foreign policy the dukes took the side that suited their own interests best. As a result Nice was besieged several times; in 1600, 1691 and 1705. The last two times the French took the town and remained master of it for several years until they returned it in peace negotiations.

When the town was taken in 1706, Louis XIV'ordered the destruction of the fortifications of Nice and Villefranche along with the supporting fortifications, like Fort Mont Alban.

In order to keep Villefranche harbour safe from enemy landings both the citadel of Villefranche and Fort Mont Alban were spared. After the destruction of its fortifications, Nice’s military role is over. In 1748, Fort Mont Alban was captured by the Piedmontese. It also saw action at the end of the 18th century during the French Revolutionary Wars, being captured by the Austrians in 1800. For the first half of the 19th century the fort was used as a prison.

Visiting Fort Mont Alban

Since forts are always built in strategic location, they often offer the best views of the surrounding countryside. This fort is no exception. From here you have a splendid view of the surrounding country and you can overlook the citadel of Villefranche. A small road, at a junction with the N98 connecting Nice to Villefranche, leads to mont Boron and mont Alban. It is difficult to find, especially in the heavy traffic between the two towns, but the fort is very well worth a visit.

In fact, even though only the outside can be visited, it is still a "must see" fort in my opinion. Apart from the destruction of most of the outworks, the structure of the fort has not been modified over the years, so it is still the original 16th century fort, which is rare. The compact, high, monolithic and almost symmetrical proportions of the fort give it a special aesthetic value. Hopefully in the future the inside of the fort will be open to the public as well.

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

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