Sisteron

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

The Durance river flows from the Dauphiné into the Provence through a gap in a mountain ridge. This gap, just wide enough for the river and a road, is completely dominated by the surrounding mountains. This makes it an ideal strategic position. It is thus not surprising that the city of Sisteron, built against the south side of the ridge, has had a long military history.

When the Dauphiné and Provence were attached to the kingdom of France Sisteron lost its role as a border town. During the French wars of religion Sisteron became a priced strategic possession once more when the protestant Dauphiné found itself opposite the catholic Provence. It was in this period, the late 16th century, that the citadel'was given its bastioned'trace and more or less its current form. Protestant commander Sarrazin took the initiative for the fortifications in 1589. Although some sources claim that Errard de Bar-le-Duc'designed the fortress, there is no real evidence for this.

The fort can be divided into three parts; the medieval part (a walkway over the mountain ridge, a chapel and the keep), the four bastioned terraces (facing the town, built on the south side of the ridge) and the northern bastioned trace (overlooking the gentler slopes on the north side of the ridge, built against the hill about 10 meters under the medieval walkway). The west side was difficult to protect because it was dominated (within the range of cannon) by the rest of the ridge and the surrounding hills. The west side of the fortress is not high enough to give adequate cover.

Being located relatively far away from the borders of the kingdom Sisteron had lost most of its strategic significance by the time Vauban'visited the town in 1692. Neverthless he made plans for the town's fortifications, although practically nothing was carried out, something he already anticipated in the memoranda accompanying his designs. The only construction of any importance that can be attributed to Vauban is the powder magazine. Although this is not spectacular it is still of interest because it has some rare features; there are two storeys, one underground and one above, both storeys have their own bomb-proof vaults and the underground floor can be reached by a separate staircase. Most other two storey powder magazines have one staircase, a wooden floor and only the roof is vaulted.

In the 19th century some major reconstruction work was carried out on the citadel, particularly on the north side of the fort. At the end of the 19th century the citadel lost its military purpose and was turned into a monument.

The fort has some great technical features dating from the various periods of fortification. Built in an almost impossible location, the Guérite du Diable (the Devil's watchtower), dating from the 14th and 17th centuries, overlooks the Durance. Legend has it that the mason who built it sold his soul to the devil for help, hence the name. The foundations of the medieval chapel and its terrace with their 12m high supporting arches are also impressive. They are somewhat reminiscent to the foundations of the Mont St Michel. Another interesting feature is the bomb-proof shelters cut out of the rock on the north side of the ridge, dating from the 19th century. Last but not least there is the 19th century staircase cut out of the rock, 365 steps, linking the fort with one of the gates and the river.

Visiting Sisteron

From the view up to the citadel when you enter the town, to the view of the cliffs on the other side of the river looking down from the walkway on the mountain ridge, everything about the location of the citadel of Sisteron is spectacular. The different layers of the fortifications vary in age from the 13th until the 19th century, making it a somewhat confusing fort. However, the birds-eye view you get from the highest point of the fort make it easier to understand the structure of the site.

It is a shame that not much information is available about the history of the fort during the Wars of Religion. Together with Briançon and Entrevaux, Sisteron is definitely one of the most spectacular forts of the Alps, a must see. The citadel is open every day from April to November. Sisteron is accesible by rail and it is a short drive from Colmars-les-Alpes, a nearby fortified place.

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

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