Fort Saint Vincent

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

The valley of the Ubaye river stretches from Barcelonette, in Savoyard territory, into France where the Ubaye meets the river Durance. That this valley was a weak point in the Alpine frontier was proved in 1690 when a Savoyard army invaded France, pillaging and burning St Vincent and laying siege to Seyne-les-Alpes. Seyne escaped a similar fate due to an approaching relief army. When the Savoyards invaded France again in 1692 Vauban'was sent to the region to make plans for the improvement of the defences. One of the places he chose to fortify was St Vincent.

On the hill overlooking the small village Vauban planned a large square 4 storey watchtower, similar to the tower bastions'of Entrevaux and Besançon, surrounded by a regular bastioned'wall. Its role in the defence was to watch over the Ubaye valley towards Barcelonette to prevent an invasion similar to the one of 1690 or worse.

During the construction work, lasting from 1693 until about 1697, led by the engineer Richerand, some alterations were made to the original plans. The bastioned trace was stretched in order to follow the shape of the rock better, resulting in an irregular trace and the tower was shorter than planned. A few hundred meters further downhill towards the valley an additional smaller tower was built. The purpose of this tower was to get a better view of the road towards Seyne because the hillside obscured the view from fort itself.

The fort has five sides. The gate was located on the southeast side, which is the side that is visible when walking up to the fort from the village. In front of it was a ditch, dug out of the rock, with a drawbridge. It was protected by two demi-bastions'with casemates. On the north side another, smaller gate was made to communicate with the watchtower further downhill. The living quarters of the soldiers were located in the large tower and the commander had a separate residence. The small watchtower consisted of a round stone base with a wooden hoarding and wooden roof - a rare very 'medieval' feature in fortification of this era. The fort was not well made, the half bastions were too narrow for the canon and could not protect each other. For example, the half bastion to the north, where a new gate was made in the 19th century, could not flank the curtain wall to the south. But the position of the fort, almost unreachable for an enemy, made up for these flaws.

Vauban was not impressed with the way his initial plans were carried out and on his second inspection of the Alps, in 1700, he made new plans for the place. Apart from alterations to the fort he also made plans for barracks in the village and a town wall with bastioned towers. Apart from some small parts none of these plans are carried out, a similar story to that of many of the elaborate plans Vauban made for the Alpine forts.

In 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht'the Ubaye valley becomes French. So the first line of defence, of which St Vincent was a part, moved to the east leaving St Vincent without an important role. During the 19th century when the second line of defence in the Alpes was updated, some alterations were made to the fort: the large tower was reduced to a single storey and the gate was moved to the north side of the fort. Barracks were built in the village. The fort lost its military purpose in 1880 and was replaced by new forts and batteries higher in the mountains. The barracks in the village still served as a residence for the soldiers of the new fort.

Visiting Fort Saint Vincent

Today the fort is private property and not open for visitors. You can visit the outside of the fort and there is an excellent view of the lake and the surrounding countryside from the top of the hill. I think the watchtower can be reached by a footpath. Both the fort and the watchtower are being restored by the friends of the fort. The wooden roof and hoarding of the watchtower were reconstructed by a school in Embrun. I do not know if they will open to visitors in the future. Today the old barracks are a holiday centre for groups of children.

Looking up to it from the village you can get a great overall view of the fort. Although I would not recommend driving to St Vincent especially for the fort, it is well worth a visit combined with one of the other nearby fortresses (a visit to Seyne-les-Alpes for example, which is only a 24km drive). Alternatively, do as we did, stopping at St Vincent on the way from Colmars-les-Alpes to Briançon.

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

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