The Fortifications Vauban From witch figurines to Special Forces training

The Fortifications Vauban From witch figurines to Special Forces training

From witch figurines to Special Forces training

At Villefranche the fortifications are a picture postcard setting. At Mont-Louis they are almost hidden, but the soldiers we see here are real.

Nestled at the bottom of a valley, Villefranche-de-Conflent, with its red-tiled roofs and its fortifications, has a medieval charm. Witch figurines twirl in the little stalls. The colours of blood and gold float in a hot southerly wind. In the shadow of the ramparts a dozen retirees, sitting together amiably, act as the local tourist office. A baby in her arms, a young Parisian woman comes forward to the elderly group, “Excuse me - could you tell me where to get tickets to visit Fort Liberia?". “One hundred meters away on the high street. How you get there? You have a choice: a rural earth track and 20 minutes on foot, a challenging little climb of about 1,000 steps. Or the free shuttle bus parked on the square," says an old-timer with a gravelly voice.

High up there, the Citadel, on a rocky spur, appears to protect the village. The Canigou is nearby. The yellow train slowly began its ascent to another site built by Vauban: Mont-Louis.

In this small mountain village, the fort appears to be hidden in the greenery. "It's weird, you only notice the Citadel when you are right on top of it," comments a visitor from the North. And that’s not all that’s surprising.  Three centuries after its construction, the fort is still occupied by military personnel (The National Commando Training Centre). In combat dress, a Special Forces Unit makes its way down to the group of visitors. The Citadel no longer holds any strategic interest and even less so any defensive interest. It is educational; soldiers train there. Vauban, whose heart was more into protecting the lives of his soldiers, would have liked this.

A military man but also a humanitarian

Vauban, Builder of Fort Libéria and Mont-Louis

Lying very close to The Canigou are the citadels of Villefranche-de-Conflent and Mont-Louis. One is impregnable is and the other has never even been attacked. They were built by Vauban, the brilliant military architect of the Sun King.

Louis XIV had conquered new territories and next Vauban would make France safe from threats and provide the Kingdom with an ‘iron belt’ in the form of a network of fortified cities around the country. In the northeast, he strongly encouraged Louis XIV to use his ‘sphere of influence’ to strengthen the strongholds he deemed essential. Thus, from Artois in the Franche-Comté, the border would be protected by two lines of fortified towns, an effective deterrent to potential invaders such as the Spanish lowlands. Regarding the coastline, he simply built advanced forts armed with canons: the sea, rocks and cliffs were considered to be adequately protective.

The Spanish enemy

He didn’t treat the mountainous area adjacent to Spain with the same complacency. After the Treaty of the Pyrenees which gave France the regions of Roussillon and Cerdagne, positions were consolidated to avoid Spanish incursions. Vauban made them more secure. In 1679 he built Mont-Louis, a citadel built in two years by 3,700 soldiers using local materials.

Square-shaped, Mont-Louis is flanked by four bastions and three half-moon batteries preceded by a wide dry moat. Past the outer walls with their drawbridge and past the monumental doors that prevent access to the inside, lies a vast courtyard. It is surrounded by the buildings that are needed for army life: the barracks, the arsenal, the infirmary, the church, the well, the Governor’s house. The fort would never be taken.

In order to protect Le Conflent, a problem area close to Spain, in 1680 the construction of Fort Liberia, above Villefranche, was started. The town and the Fort are still connected today by an underground tunnel with 734 steps. With the sentry point built in a dominant position, the fort is located in a very defensive steep position. Its imposing premises are bordered on the inside by a path that permits the surveillance of the entire area.

Hiding the citadels

The technique is the same everywhere. Always use the topography of the land when positioning the construction. Following this concept, the great military man happily backs the fort onto the edge of a ravine so that he can devote his defence mechanisms to other places. From first approach, the attackers arrive on an open, sloping embankment in front of the thick walls; cannon balls are fired, the enemy is wide open. Then comes a large gap followed by projecting bastions and the line of half-moon batteries. The attackers constantly face new obstacles while the defenders have an unobstructed view of the operations field and no blind spots. It’s not even possible for the enemy to fire off more than one shot at a time. With its carefully considered arrangement, the Citadel is hidden below the fortifications and becomes invulnerable.

Fort Liberia would never be attacked, Mont Louis is impregnable: two examples of military engineering by a gifted, courageous, inquisitive and pragmatic man.

Getting noticed by Mazarin

Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis De Vauban, came to the attention of Mazarin very young due to his outstanding military feats. He left Condé's army for that of Louis XIV. His brilliant career began at only 20 years of age; his talent stands out and with it success follows. He quickly obtained the title of military engineer in charge of fortifications. Later, he would be appointed Commissioner-General and then Marshal of France, the highest military distinction possible.

The man was a brilliant strategist. He developed an invincible technique which accelerated the taking of a city during its siege: identify vulnerable areas, eliminate any chance for reinforcements to intervene and prepare the ground away from the fortifications by digging parallel trenches to get to it. Vauban’s methods were proven, particularly in Maastricht where the siege was extremely short.

At the same time, Vauban developed a more effective defence architecture, much better able to defend against canon assaults. After the capture of Lille, he builds his first Citadel. Like the others, it is unassailable.

This is just the beginning. Vauban travels the country, designs strongholds, restores and improves those he considers fragile. Vauban is not just a man of war, he is also a humanist. The architecture of his forts leads to a significant reduction in the number of combat deaths.

Other Vauban fortifications located in the Roussillon: Fort de Bellegarde in Perthus, Fort Mirador in Collioure, Fort St Elmo between Collioure and Port-Vendres, Fort des Bains in Amélie-les-Bains, Fort La Garde in Prats de Molló, the Forteresse de Salse.

Like ten other major sites of Vauban, Fort Libéria and Mont-Louis are classified as UNESCO world heritage sites.


Pierre Méné, Fort Libéria The strongest link in the Citadel

His passion for old stone buildings led him to restore Fort Libéria. A Vauban Citadel sitting above Villefranche-de-Conflent. At the age of 72, he continues his life's work so he can pass it on to younger generations.

This castle played a huge part in your childhood.

I am a child of the village. Apart from my time in the army, I have always lived in Villefranche-de-Conflent. My parents bought the tavern, which they restored. My passion for old stone buildings started when I was very young. I live in a former tannery that I have fully renovated. I like old stones because they evoke the past and they know how to talk to those who want to understand them.

The castle is also part of my childhood memories. My friends and I used the underground tunnels to get to the castle.

Who owns the castle today?

It was purchased in 1957 by Mr. Marcel Puy who leased it on a long term lease to myself along with three other businessmen. The others gave up their parts of the lease and today I find myself alone at the helm. They thought that it would make money, but this wasn’t the case.

You have been the driving force behind this restoration

I mortgaged my possessions, but it wasn’t enough. I have invested 25 years of my life – it is truly my life’s work. There had to be a way of communicating this to future generations. After three years of restoration, we were able to open to the public in 1985 and won first prize in the national heritage restoration competition. This was followed by our entry in the list of historical monuments. The fort was classed as a historic monument and hey presto, we were recognized by UNESCO.

How will Fort Liberia evolve?

We have several restoration projects planned: roof repairs, the reconstruction of an authentic soldiers’ dormitory and the restoration of the loopholes. And renovation of the intermediate battery halfway through the village where twelve soldiers used to keep watch.

And for you, what’s the most beautiful thing about this fort?

To see the fort at night. When the loopholes are lit up, it looks like a giant aircraft runway.

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