Villefranche-sur-Mer

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

Savoy became an important country during the 16th century, when the king of France and the Spanish Emperor were fighting for hegemony of northern Italy, mainly over the duchy of Milan. The small state of Savoy, located between France and Milan, formed the access route for the French into Italy.

Its small coastline, stretching from the mouth of the river Var to Monaco, formed an important secure harbour for Spanish ships on a sea dominated by Turkish pirates, allies of the French. By maintaining a neutral stance towards both France and Spain the dukes managed to stay independent.

This changed when the French occupied most of the duchy in 1536. Forced back to Nice, one of the unoccupied areas, Savoy chose the Imperial side. Emmanuel Philibert, heir to the throne, left Nice in 1545 to fight in Flanders as a commander in the army of Charles V.

By taking several cities and achieving an important victory at Saint Quentin in 1557, he won fortune and fame. By the time he became duke of Savoy, in 1553, and retrieved his lands in the treaty of Cateau Cambresis, in 1559, he had the finances and connections to build defence works along the coastline. The vulnerability of the Savoy coast had been demonstrated during the Franco-Turkish attack on Nice in 1543.

During the first half of the 1550s, Charles V had already sent Italian engineers to the Savoyard coast in order to make plans for the defence of the coastline. Villefranche’s naturally sheltered harbour, which had been used for centuries, was the key position in these plans.

Financial difficulties made the works progress slowly and without structure. This changed in 1557 with the newly-won wealth of Emmanuel Philibert. He sent his own engineers to the coast to make plans for the overall defence system that had been envisaged by Charles V and his engineers.

Villefranche would be at the centre of those plans. Its harbour would become Savoy's naval harbour, where the duke wanted to build his own fleet.

Its defence was assured by Fort St Elme and supported by the new Tour St Hospice on Cap Ferrat, the new Fort Alban and the existing towers along the coast, such as the one on Mont Boron. Work on Fort St Elme started in the early 1550s under Charles V and was finished around 1561.

Fort St Elme is the citadel'of Villefranche-sur-Mer, overlooking the harbour. Its basic form is a trapezium with a bastion'at each angle.

The fort consists of an upper part, where the entrance and all of the main buildings are, and a lower part, protecting the harbour, that can be reached by a slope through one of the bastions. As a result of this difference in height, one of the bastions facing the harbour is much lower than the other three.

This lower bastion is overlooked by a watchtower connected to the upper part of the fortress. On the landward side the bastions have casemates.

The ditch'around the citadel is about 15m deep and most of it was carved out of the rock. An interesting feature is the aqueduct spanning the ditch in order to take fresh water inside. In the past another smaller fort was located in the harbour as a supporting defence work. Relations between France and Savoy remained tense after 1559. After Nice was taken by the French in 1705 all the fortifications were demolished apart from Mont Alban and Villefranche.

It is said that Vauban spared both Mont Alban and Villefranche because he was impressed by the fact that they were so well built and considered it a crime to tear them down.

Vauban knew both forts were taken easily during the previous two sieges and Fort Alban was too small to function properly, so he was not impressed by their quality. Being the practical man he was, Vauban probably thought it the easiest and cheapest way to keep the defence of the harbour intact.

Villefranche was the harbour where the dukes kept their small fleet. Some of their ships even participated in the sea battle of Lepanto in 1571. During the 18th century the harbour was transformed into a true naval base, complete with rope making factory, arsenal and shipyard. Some remains of this period are still visible today.

Visiting Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche citadel is interesting because of the fact that it is an old fort that has kept its original form, like Fort Alban. But unlike Villefranche, Fort Alban lies on a quiet spot with splendid views and enough space to walk around and appreciate its shape.

Unfortunately the fort of Villefranche is closed in by the rest of the rather crowded town, which makes it hard to overlook the complete work. The interior is still in use by the municipality and most of it was not open for visits when we were there. Our visit there was rather frustrating and I would recommend you to go to Mont Alban and appreciate the view of Villefranche from there.

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

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