Salses

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

Travelling from Orange to Barcelona using the A9 motorway, you pass the Fort de Salses about 25km north of Perpignan. The fort has guarded the equivalent of this motorway, the Via Domitia (the old roman road between France and Spain) for about 500 years. For centuries this road was the only route for heavy transport (e.g. fully equipped armies) going between France and Spain.

Near Salses, the road crossed a narrow stretch of land that lay between the Corbieres (the eastern part of the Pyrenees) and the marshes of the Leucate lagoon, which used to reach much further inland than they do nowadays.

It was at this strategic location, the scene of many battles throughout the ages, that the Salses fort, replacing a medieval castle, was built. It is said that the Romans already had a stronghold here, built after the invasion of Hannibal (who passed from Spain to Italy along this plain) but the earliest records of a castle date from the 11th century.

In the 15th century warfare changed drastically because of the advances in artillery. For example with the introduction of the iron cannonball the French were able to take the whole region of Normandy back from the English in about a year while a few decades earlier it could take up to a year to capture one city.

When in 1496 the French laid siege to Salses, the fate of the medieval castle was similar to that of the places in Normandy - it was shot to ruins and the French took control of the region in a matter of weeks. When Salses was returned to the Spanish in 1497 it was clear that the passage to Spain had to be defended by a fortress able to resist cannon fire.

The “Catholic Monarchs”, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, ordered Francisco Ramiro Lopez, a well known master in the art of warfare in those days, to build a modern fort, able to withstand a siege up to 40 days (the maximum time needed for reinforcements to come from Spain to relieve the siege). Work started in 1497 but the fort was besieged for the first time in 1503, after which construction continued well into the 16th century.

The result is a fort that lies somewhere between the medieval castles and modern bastioned fortification. The fort has a rectangular ground plan with a round tower on each corner. The side of the fort facing the enemy, the east, holds the drill ground with the living quarters for the common soldiers around it.

The vital parts of the fort are on the west side; here the water supply enters the fort and the powder magazine'is located. This is also the part where the officers lived. It is separated from the eastern part of the building by a ditch, defended by a curtain wall.

In the middle of the western wall is situated the keep. This building dominates the rest of the fort and overlooks everything. It is the final safe place of the fort. In this dominating part the governor resided. Notice how this arrangement in three positions reflects the social hierarchy of the time. The fort has three outworks; the demi-lunes'of the south gate, of the eastern front and of the north west tower.

The fort has a complete internal defensive system as well. Inside all of the walls a true maze of galleries and inner courtyards was made. Once inside the fort the enemy would get lost and could always be shot at from parallel galleries, flanking walls, corners inside the galleries etc. The keep could only be reached through a number of inner courtyards, which were flanked from all sides. All through the fort there were ventilation shafts for the fumes from the guns.

In order to make the Fort de Salses resistant to cannonballs, the walls where made extremely thick, up to 10m in some places. The parapets of the walls were rounded in order to deflect the shot. This feature can also be seen at the castle of Collioure where Lopez was also employed to improve the fortifications. All around the fort counter mines and listening galleries were made.

The outworks could be reached by covered passages that are still visible in the ditch. The fort was sunk in a deep and wide ditch to protect a large part of the walls from cannon fire together with the glacis (the covered way'around the fort was razed by Vauban).

The towers were arranged in the following way: In the base of the tower there was a water well with a shaft above it, running all the way up to the top of the tower.

The purpose of this was threefold. Firstly, the shaft could be used to transport water to the different levels of the tower to cool the cannon. Secondly, it was a means of communication and thirdly it was a ventilation shaft. The water also absorbed the poisonous fumes of the gunpowder.

The system for supplying the fort's water is very ingenious. When Lopez was working on the fortifications of the Alhambra in Granada he became aquainted with the Moorish systems of supplying a palace with water and he applied a similar system to the Fort de Salses.

From a spring in the mountains water was transported to the fort through a system of lead pipes. The water entered the fort next to the keep where it was collected in a reservoir. Through another system of pipes and underground canals it was distributed to the rest of the fort, making use of the difference in pressure to pump water to higher rooms. The water for the governor could even be heated by the chimney of his apartments. Used water was filtered and dumped in the ditch.

From the reservoir it was also possible to cut off the water supply to the various parts of the fort in case they fell into the hands of the enemy.

From the first siege, in 1503, onwards the fort has been the scene of many battles. In 1639 the fort was taken by the French, the Spaniards recaptured it in 1640 and in 1642 it was taken by the French again.

The fort lost its military purpose in 1659 when the Treaty of the Pyrenees'was signed and the border was moved southward. Vauban considered demolishing it in the 17th century, but luckily its sheer mass has prevented this. During the 19th century the fort served as a powder magazine and it was declared a monument in 1886.

Visiting Salses

Fort de Salses can be visited all year round. To prevent visitors from getting lost inside the fort most parts can only be visited with a guided tour. I would recommend taking it because it gives a lot of interesting information and you get to see a lot of rooms that are otherwise closed. To get a better idea of the strategic situation consider that the railway roughly follows the path of the Via Domitia, the trees on the east side of the fort used to be the edge of the marsh and the old castle was situated on the low hill on the north side of the fort.

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

Back to the "Fortresses" page