Located about 15 kilometres from the Italian border, Briançon, with its 11,000 inhabitants, is particularly well known thanks to the fortified town of Vauban, declared aUNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its geographical location gives it a strategic position, 1326 metres above sea level: it is the highest town in France, perched on a rocky peak. Surrounded by ramparts designed by the military architect Vauban, it is in turn crowned by high-altitude forts that make Briançon virtually impregnable. This enclosure of fortifications, designed by Vauban during his visits in 1692 and 1700, was built to improve the town’s defence against the incursions of the Duke of Savoy.
The town invites you to stroll through the alleys lined with multicoloured facades, sundials, squares, fountains, frescoes and carved wooden doors that will take you back in time.
From the bottom of the old town, go as far as the Fort des Trois Têtes, across the vertiginous Asfeld bridge overlooking the Durance river.
Briançon is one of the most emblematic municipalities of the Hautes-Alpes. Indeed, it is famous for its historical buildings and mighty ramparts. Its fortifications were created by the engineer and architect Vauban in the 17th century and this village is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After the Treaty of Utrecht, Briançon’s strategic position was strengthened, which triggered the construction of a set of forts on points dominating the town according to plans drawn up by Vauban. Visiting these constructions is one of the main things to do in the town. Some of the forts are accessible by reservation only, with guides from the local tourist office, others require you to undertake six short walks.
The medieval town of Briançon is ideally situated on a steep promontory, surrounded by walls.
At the end of the 17th century, Louis XIV sent Vauban to Briançon, a strategic place to defend access to France through the Alps and to counter the threat of the Duke of Savoy. During his visits, Vauban decided to make the town more secure and erected a second enclosure, higher and punctuated by imposing gates.
To admire the charm of this fortified town, one must walk and lose oneself in the old cobbled streets of the Cité Vauban. On the colourful facades of some houses, you can admire beautiful sundials painted directly on the walls.
As you walk up the main pedestrian street of the Cité Vauban, you will see in the middle of the street the famous Gargoyle of Briançon, a small drainage channel that allows water to run off without getting your feet wet. Water is omnipresent in the town, as evidenced by the numerous fountains and wells you will encounter during your walk.
The squares in the old town of Briançon are particularly beautiful and it is worth lingering in the cafés to enjoy the atmosphere, such as in Place d’Armes, in the heart of the town. Surrounded by brightly coloured houses, the square is adorned by a well whose construction was ordered by Vauban. This well was the only water supply point within the walls. In the event of a siege, it could have been essential for the survival of the inhabitants.
Also not to be missed is the Pope’s House, a former hospice where Pius VI, a prisoner, stayed for two months in 1799. The Temple House is also noteworthy: built in the 16th century, its façade bears witness to the Renaissance style of the time. The building today houses the tourist office.
The tour of the old town ends with the fort, rebuilt in the 19th century on the foundations of the 14th-century medieval castle. It also includes a powder magazine with vaults and buttresses, a barracks, platforms and underground shelters. It is one of the essential elements of a visit to Briançon.
The visit lasts about 1 hour. The view from the ramparts of the castle fortress is particularly impressive over the Serre-Chevalier valley as well as the Montgenèvre valley.
On leaving the Fort du Château, you will pass a small museum, the Mining Museum. Located on the footbridge of the Fort du Château, this museum, opened in 1990 and run by the SGMD (Briançonnais Geological and Mining Society), retraces the history of mining in the region, with insights into the living conditions of miners at the time and their work. The museum is open to the public in July and August.
During the construction of the ramparts, the medieval church of Briançon was destroyed because it was located outside the fortifications. After several years of masses in the church of the Cordeliers, the people of Briançon asked Louis XIV for help to build a new place of worship within the town.
The king agreed to their request. The church project, designed by Isaac Robelin and modified by Vauban, involved the construction of an imposing building, in accordance with the religious policy established by Louis XIV. The church was consecrated in 1726 and assumed collegiate status in 1746.
Conceived in 1692, its construction began in 1709. The Fort des Salettes was built on a promontory overlooking the town of Briançon to prevent the enemy from taking a position there.
After a 25-minute climb up a stony path in the company of a guide, you reach the small fort designed by Vauban to prevent the enemy from taking up position on a flat area overlooking the town.
The originality of this work lies in the fact that entry can only be made from a dungeon that starts from the tower and is therefore hardly accessible to enemy soldiers. The tower could accommodate a hundred soldiers and had to contain everything necessary for their subsistence.
Between 1848 and 1854, this structure was transformed into a real fort, with the addition of a bastioned casemate, six casemates of the Haxo type (French military engineer and general of the Revolution and Empire developing) and a powder magazine with a capacity of 14 tonnes.
Built between 1724 and 1734, it was named after the Dauphin Louis, son of Louis XV. The building served as an outpost and its role was to protect the Fort des Têtes and access to the city from Italy.
Conceived as an advanced sentinel of the eighteenth-century chain of fortifications, Fort Dauphin ensured the crossing of fires with Fort Salettes to prevent access to the city from the Piedmont road.
Little modified over time, it became obsolete after the 1870 war.
Also built between 1724 and 1734, this fort is located on a narrower promontory than the others. Intended to protect the city from any invasion from the surrounding mountain peaks, it is built on three platforms and dominates the Fort des Trois Têtes.
It can be visited by means of a guided walk in the footsteps of the military engineers to then arrive at Randouillet Fort. The 35-minute ascent in the company of a guide will give you time to admire the panorama. The visit allows you to discover the main buildings such as barracks and powder magazines.
This work is undoubtedly the most impressive of all Vauban constructions in the region. Built at the same time as Fort Dauphin, it occupies an area of 600 metres by almost 350 metres.
Some 1,200 men could stay there thanks to the huge infrastructure that allowed them to live on site: barracks, bakery, chapel, stables, arsenal and powder magazines that could house a hundred artillery pieces and 20,000 cannons on two levels. For powder storage, a Vauban-type powder magazine (83 tonnes of black powder), a cave powder magazine (38 tonnes) and a semi-cave (60 tonnes) were built successively.
The barracks protecting the Durance front on the Briançon side could hold up to 390 men. There was a bakery, stables for 24 horses and dungeons. The hangar above the building was used for storing wood. As the plateau had no springs, the fort was equipped with two cisterns to supply the troops with water.
The fort has three entrances: the Durance gate, which allows entry to the fort from Briançon via the Asfeld bridge; the emergency front gate to the south, easily accessible in winter and sheltered from enemy fire, which allows the fort to be supplied with food and water and the wounded to be evacuated in the event of conflict. And finally, the royal gate, located in the most heavily defended part of the fort. It is protected by an important device: a front composed of two bastions and a half-moon (doubled by a lunette and counter-guards), moats and a covered passage opening in the centre of the curtain wall.
Built between 1724 and 1734, this atypical work in the history of fortifications allows, as its name indicates, the connection between two forts: Fort des Tre Teste and Fort Randouillet. Its name ‘Y’ comes from the military atlas that classified works by letters of the alphabet.
It is a covered passageway almost 200 metres long, built in masonry with a barrel vault. By crossing it, soldiers could move to the valley floor under cover of enemy fire. Its position above the village of Fontchristiane, right at the entrance to the area of the fortifications, also gave it the role of a defensive gate, a veritable barbican. In the event of an attempt to approach the forts, enemy soldiers found themselves blocked both upstream and downstream of the structure by a series of ditches and covered paths framed by half-bastions.
The tunnel was used to store artillery pieces. The access road to the fortifications once ran through this work in the centre: drawbridges, a narrow vestibule and two guardhouses opened on either side of the gate and reinforced its defence.
This original building conceals a treasure: a 4.68 m deep water cistern with a capacity of 55 m3. It was supplied by springs caught in the valley and the water came through pipes dug into the larch. This drinking water was drawn by soldiers and transported to the forts in barrels loaded on mules.
Built almost 55 metres above the level of the Durance, the Asfeld arch bridge is an architectural feat for the time. Set between two steep mountain sections, it was inaugurated in 1731 and was intended to link the town to the Fort des Trois Têtes.
This daring work consists of a single semicircular arch with a span of over 38 metres, a good 55 metres above the bed of the Durance. In the centre of the bridge is an iron cross surmounting a stone pyramid.
Today, it is possible to try bungee jumping from the top of the bridge, an activity that will delight thrill-seekers.
Created in 1815, the Parc de la Schappe is the largest green space in the city. A true oasis of peace, it is the ideal place for a picnic. You will be fascinated by its hundred-year-old trees, its aqueduct and its water mirror. The latter is embellished by an island, accessible by a small iron bridge, on which stands a remarkable Japanese pagoda.
An old silk waste combing factory is still visible in the park. From 1842 to 1933 it employed about 1,200 workers, but was devastated by fire in 2014. A project to convert it into housing and shops is now underway to preserve the original appearance of the facades.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
One of the best times to enjoy the town of Briançon is, of course, summer. The region enjoys a pleasant climate with more than 300 days of sunshine a year. The summer period will allow you to enjoy the town, its terraces and the region’s many activities.
Winter, of course, will focus on winter sports. Note, however, that the two main resorts in the region, Serre-Chevalier and Montgenevre, each offer a balneotherapy centre.
You will find plenty of accommodation options, from luxury hotels with spas to lodgings and B&Bs, both in the heart of the city and in its charming surroundings, surrounded by nature.
By car, the two main roads through Briançon are the D1091 towards Grenoble, which can be reached in 2 hours, and the N94 south towards Gap. Briançon is 3 hours from Lyon and Marseille, 4 hours and 30 minutes from Nice.
Briançon is connected by train to Marseille in 5 hours, to Gap in 1 hour and even to Paris with one of the last night trains.
What's the weather at Briançon? Below are the temperatures and the weather forecast at Briançon for the next few days.
At the foot of the Col de l'Izoard and the Col du Montgenevre, Briançon is very close to Turin and nestled between the Alps.