The name of Vauban might not readily roll of the tongues of most Irish people, but if you’ve travelled in France at all, you will be familiar with his work. Conor Power went on a voyage of discovery of this remarkable historic figure
We began the day with a search for cigarettes. Having just arrived in France and found that my debit card was mysteriously blocked, a very generous host stopped at a village on the way and bought me a packet of fags. I’m not much of a smoker but I do maintain the filthy habit when I’m travelling. Maybe it makes me feel more like a man or more like a Frenchman – I’m not sure…
In any case, we were soon back on the road to follow the trail of one of the most interesting figures in French social and military history – Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (aka Seigneur de Vauban and Marquis de Vauban).For anyone who has visited France – no matter what the occasion – they are very likely to have come across the works of this great man. You know all those magnificent star-shaped fortresses and citadelles you come across all over the country? Vauban was the man who designed them. My first time to marvel at the work of Vauban was in the town of Blaye. The municipal campsite here is set in the Vauban-designed citadel of this town, overlooking the Gironde estuary north of Bordeaux, where I had a memorable stay over 20 years ago.
Since then, his name has popped up all over France and it seemed that no fortress was built in France without his involvement. Between 1667 and 1707, he was responsible for building and/or upgrading some 300 fortresses around the country. His star-shaped designs, while not entirely original (they were based on Italian ideas and fortresses), became his trademark. He was a renowned military strategist who became an expert in fortification design for both defending and attacking.His methods of attack were designed to take besieged towns in the minimum amount of time and – most importantly for him – with the minimum amount of blood loss. Vauban came from a very modest background and had a strong empathy with the common soldier. For most military officers at that time, the common soldier was a usable commodity; cannon fodder if you like. The measure of success of a military operation was normally counted in losses of men. Not for Vauban, however, who was always determined to use “more gunpowder and less blood”.
His stunning success brought him to the attention of the King of France – Louis XIV, also known as the Sun-King (le Roi-Soleil). They hit it off famously and enjoyed a strong professional relationship that became one of friendship over time. Louis XIV gave Vauban the job of fortifying the country against attack from the country’s various enemies. Vauban set about the project with zeal. His recommendations included surrendering some sections of territory to their neighbours which were too difficult to defend and his methods of attack involved the use of zig-zag patterns that allowed troops to advance in trenches that gave them protection. He was also the first to make strategic use of ricochet cannon-fire to get past defences.
Our first port of call on the journey was at the Château de Bazoches. This is located in the Morvan area of Burgundy – a lush wooded time-trap of a region to the west of Dijon. This beautiful castle was Vauban’s home for virtually all of his professional life and the place where he conceived most of his designs.Today, it’s owned by Arnaud and Hélène Sigalas. Arnaud is a direct descendant of Vauban. The great man was buried in the hamlet of Bazoches, which sits just below the castle, but his heart was taken from here to the Les Invalides in Paris. They were transferred from rural Burgundy to this resting place of national heroes on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808. The long journey was not without incident and the precious heart was lost along the way and found again, according to the story.
Ten years ago, twelve of Vauban’s forts or citadelles were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Strangely enough, the Château itself was overlooked in this classification – a point that clearly (and very understandably) rankles with its current owner. Within the walls of impressive residence, you can see Vauban’s plans and ideas, several portraits, the room where he slept and his office where he drew up his trademark designs. You can also see an original copy of the Dixme (pronounced “deem”) Royale. This was an essay published against the express wishes of King Louis XIV which outlined a revolutionary fiscal policy that would mean rich people paying taxes just the same as the poor.
The castle is located in the Morvan Regional National Park – one of the most “lost” parts of France, where rivers wind their way through woodland and pretty villages devoid of mass tourism.
Still within this part of the world, we stayed the night at one of the most unassuming of culinary treasures of the region and of all France – the Auberge de l’Atre, where its owner shared some of his remarkable wine collection with us over an unforgettable meal.The next morning, we were off to Vauban’s home town of Saint-Léger-Vauban. It’s a mark of the man’s importance that his town was renamed in his honour and the picturesque stone house where he was born, overlooked by a statue of him on the main square, is now the Vauban Museum. Here, you can see a subtitled film on the life of Vauban, as well as everything else you would ever need to know about the man, his life and his career. We even learned of an Irish connection: Vauban did a considerable amount of travelling during the course of his military and architectural career and had a small but significant number of romantic liaisons on tour. Towards the end of his life, he instructed his secretary to put aside some of his considerable fortune to look after any possible progeny that might have resulted from his sexual adventures. He named five women who were to receive money on his behalf and one of them was an Irishwoman by the unlikely name of Districh. For her, in fact, Vauban requested to increase his allowance for this “poor Irish woman who, being of woman of quality and far from her native country and who was more-or-less abandoned by her husband, is more deserving of compassion than the others.”
After those shocking revelations, we crossed the border from Burgundy into Franche-Comté, stopping at first to have lunch and a look at the border town of Auxonne. This is where Napoleon attended military college and the fortifications and arsenal built by Vauban are well worth a look. Then it was on to the town of Besançon in Franche-Comté. This beautiful city of just under 120,000 souls enjoys a dramatic elevated position in the crook of a horseshoe bend in the River Doubs. After the city was captured in 1674 with very little loss of life, Besançon became French for the first time and Vauban set about increasing the town’s fortifications to wonderful effect. Today the Citadel is home to a host of museums and exhibitions and a zoo that make it a really fine tourist attraction in its own right. Besançon was for a long time also home to clock-making in France, with an industry that rivalled that of neighbouring Switzerland. It’s still an important centre for technology and niche watch-making. The Museum of Time tells you all about this aspect of the city, where you can even see what was the most complicated watch in the world for about 70 years.Our last stop was at Belfort – another beautiful citadel in another beautiful city. Here, the influence of Germanic architecture is obvious and from the top of the Citadel, you can see into Switzerland and Germany. This was also the site of a great battle in the Franco-Prussian War in the winter of 1870/71 and the famous Lion of Belfort statue by Bartholdi was built as a symbol of peace to commemorate these tragic events. We also discovered another fun way of exploring the history of Belfort and its connection with Vauban in La Clé du Bastion. This is a “panic-room” type of game where you have to co-operate as a team to find your way out of a room using clues.
So the next time you come across a town in France with a superb star-shaped fort, make sure to take a tour. You’ll be following in the footsteps of a great man.
Where to Stay
- Besançon: Hotel Le Sauvage, 6 Rue du Chapitre, 25000 Besançon, France. +33 3.81.82.00.21, www.hotel-lesauvage.com; A former convent that delivers on peaceful overnight, the welcome is warm and the dining room and balcony are beautiful.
- Belfort: Hotel du Tonneau d’Or, 1 Rue du General Reiset, 90000 Belfort, +33 18.104.22.168.56, www.tonneaudor.fr; what it lacks in human attention, it more than makes up for in opulence. Its corner location close to the city centre makes you feel like a grand 19th-century chap visiting his town house for the weekend.
- Morvan: Auberge de L’Atre, Les Lavaults, 89630 Quarré-les-Tombes, France, +33 22.214.171.124.79; The unassuming and warm welcome than from Francis & Odile SALAMOLARD seems to belie the fact that this is a landmark restaurant where you won’t get better value for money with an overnight and dinner. Rooms are simple, comfortable and very big.
Where to Eat
- Morvan: Auberge de L’Atre, Les Lavaults, 89630 Quarré-les-Tombes, France, +33 126.96.36.199.79; Just click here.
- Auxonne: Le Corbeau, 1 Rue de Berbis, 21130 Auxonne, France, +33 3.80.40.06.15, www.hotel-auxonne.com; Excellent value and quality here in the setting of the main square in the shadow of the cathedral and next door to the lively market
- Besançon: L’Ô à la Bouche, 9 Rue du Lycée, 25000 Besançon, France, +33 3.81.82.09.08, lo-restaurant.fr; Exceedingly friendly service where the food is a saucy blend of the local and the exotic.
- Belfort: Le Pot au Feu, 27bis Gran’Rue, 90000 Belfort, France, +33 188.8.131.52.84, lepotaufeu.fr; Cosy and busy spot in a historical old building where the emphasis is on the best of traditional local cuisine.