Château Queyras

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

Queyras is a small region close to the Italian border of France. The heart of the region is formed by the valley of the river Guil. This river flows from the mountains on the Italian border down through the valley into the river Durance at the foot of the plateau of Mont Dauphin. The valley can be divided into two parts. The eastern, broader and economically productive part of the valley stretching towards Italy (Savoy in the 17th century) and the narrow, harsh part of the valley towards France in the west.

The fort is located on a small hilltop, approximately at the dividing point of the valley. The origins of the fort are unclear but it has been established that the hilltop was already fortified in the 13th century and probably already before then. Access to the valley used to be very difficult, the best roads were the ones over the mountains but they were covered in snow most of the year. The roads through the valley were narrow and difficult to pass, which made the area very secluded. Although the fort is located on a hilltop dominating the valley, it is dominated by the surrounding hills. When artillery was introduced in warfare this became a problem. The siege of the protestant commander Lesdiguieres in 1587, during the wars of religion, made this painfully clear. After just a few salvos from batteries mounted on the surrounding hills the defenders were forced to surrender. Although this was a serious weakness of the fortress it must be said that, given the difficult access to the valley, bringing artillery to attack it was not easy.

Another weakness of the fortress is its position in the valley. When the fort was built its purpose was to defend the valley against an enemy coming from the Provence, to the south west. In the 17th century this side was no longer a threat because the valley was now threatened from the east, from Savoy. This left the rich, eastern side of the valley unprotected. As a consequence in 1690 a Savoyard army invaded the eastern part of the valley, pillaging and burning several towns without being stopped. Despite these flaws the fortress was maintained, due to its more important strategic qualities. The Catholic central government needed a stronghold in a region with many adherents of the Protestant faith. The many battles fought in the valley during the wars of religion and after de revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 are evidence of this role.

Secondly the fort defends the access road toward the hinterlands, Mont Dauphin and Briançon. Last but not least the fort could function as a outpost to warn the troops in Briançon and Mont Dauphin in case of an enemy invasion, giving these places time to prepare a defence.

In 1692 a Savoyard raid was launched over the Col de Vars and a second Savoyard force, mainly consisting of rebel protestants originating from France, invaded the Guil valley and besieged the Château Queyras. The invading force captured the town, located on a plateau on the north side of the fortress, and used the houses as a shelter. From there they harassed the defenders with musket fire and began to dig trenches to approach the fortifications. At night the defenders set fire to the town and drove away the besiegers.

As a consequence of this invasion Vauban'was sent to the region for an inspection, where he made plans for improving the defences. On his second tour of the Alps in 1700, Vauban visited the fort again and altered his previous plans. By 1740 most of these plans had been carried out. The fort was extended on the northeast and northwest sides. This gave the old castle several extra layers of defence protecting it on the weak approachable north side and at the same time enlarging it to hold more troops. In order to give the north side more protection several of the houses close to the fort (which had survived the fire of 1692) were demolished, as well as the local church, which was rebuilt further downhill. The entrance to the fort was protected by a new demi-lune, the inner gate being made in the flank of one of the new demi-bastion. A large traverse was made across the fort on the east side.

The fort was improved several times in the 17th and 19th centuries. One the major problems was the water supply. Even if the fort could withstand a siege it would probably have to surrender due to water shortage. So at the end of the 17th century a canal was made from the mountains on the north side. The canal was not ideal, the water was frozen most of the time and it would have been easy for an enemy to destroy. The major 19th century extensions were the casemates'on the north and south side of the fortress together with a staircase connecting the fort to a terrace down the hill on the south side of the fort. Along this staircase several other casemates were made.

Despite the weakness of the fort its military function was maintained and the it was extended and remodelled extensively over the years. It lost its military role in the Second World War, but it was kept by the army and used as a vacation resort. It was finally sold in 1967.

Visiting Château Queyras

Fort Queyras is very well worth a visit. It is interesting to see so many different types of fortifications crammed into such a small place. Interesting aspects of the fort are the fact that it has been maintained all these centuries despite its clear weakness and it has seen a lot of action. The location of this fort is definitely one of the most picturesque in the Alps. It is open to the public throughout the year.

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

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