A Man, a Plan, Vauban

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October 24th 2017
Published: October 24th 2017
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Monday was my last day in Alsace and I decided to check out somewhere that hadn’t originally been on my list of places to visit. The town of Neuf-Brisach was the last fortification designed by Louis XIV’s famed architect Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban and is one of the best preserved. The town is just past Colmar, so I thought it would make for an easier day than driving all the way up to the Maginot Line fortress of Fort du Hackenberg, which would be about as far as Verdun was.

The drive to Neuf-Brisach was about 45 minutes, but very pretty and not a lot of traffic, which was nice. On the way, I saw a sign for a Maginot Line memorial museum which I decided to check out on the way back, just to get some Maginot action in.

Neuf-Brisach is a star fort, which was the style Vauban perfected to defend against the improved artillery of the 17th century. The whole town was created by Vauban and is therefore a perfect octagon with a symmetrical grid layout. I had looked it up on google maps to try and find where to park but couldn’t see any,
A Sherman TankA Sherman TankA Sherman Tank

Maginot Memorial
so I was concerned when I entered the town. I needn’t have been. The central square is one big car park and besides that, there was more than enough street parking.

There is a Vauban museum in town, and despite my guidebook and google insisting it would be open, I was expecting it wouldn’t because their website says it closes on the 30th September. Sure enough, the museum was closed. That put a limit on what there was to do in the town, but I figured it gave me more time to walk around the fortifications.

The path around the town, outside the ramparts, is 2.5km long and I meandered the whole way round, taking photos as I went. Within the ditch they have put up a number of art installations. The most obvious ones being the rhinoceros, the elephant and the massive bear. They provided a bit more interest as I walked. I was also pleased that the information signs about the fortifications had English as well as French and German, so there was that too. But mostly, I just enjoyed the relaxing walk.

With the circumnavigation done, I headed into the town to see if I could get up on the ramparts themselves. I could, and did. There was a path of fairly even ground running along the town side of the ramparts, but you couldn’t see anything from there because it was behind a barrier of raised earth. I ended up walking along the raised earth which was uneven and had to tread carefully because the walls are 9 metres high and with the raised earth, that would have meant a fall of at least 10 metres. There was no safety fence, so it would have been off limits in Australia. But in France, it’s up to you to be careful, which is good. I got some great photos up there but by the time I came down, I’d been walking for a couple of hours so I sat down for a snack before getting in the car.

One thing to mention was that Neuf-Brisach is a pretty small town. It was nice to see that small towns in France are like the ones in Australia, where people just say “Bonjour!” to you as they pass you in the street (well, the people in Australia say “g’day”, not “bonjour”, but it means the same). I was obviously a tourist, but just about everyone greeted me as I passed them, even a local teenager! I’m not sure many Australian teenagers would do that to a tourist.

I then headed back the way I had come but took a slight detour to the Maginot Memorial Museum. The Maginot line, of course, was the defensive system erected by the French between WW1 and 2 that the Germans ended up bypassing by invading via Belgium. It was apparently a top-notch defensive system, except for that one fatal flaw.

The museum was inside a fortified casement that saw action but was easily captured by the Germans from behind. Being a Monday, the museum was closed, but I spent some time walking around the memorial grounds which featured a few American WW2 vehicles, including a Sherman tank, for some reason.

It was then back to the hotel for my final night’s stay. The hotel had been pretty good, all in all. The internet was a bit patchy and the staff were pretty limited in their English, but I can’t complain because I’m pretty limited with my French! The restaurant was superb, which was good because it was in a small country town and if I’d had to travel to eat I couldn’t have had any wine. I didn’t try and local wines because Alsace really only produces white wines, but the hotel had a very nice Bordeaux that I finished a couple of bottles of, over a few meals.

Tuesday morning I had to pack up, check out and be on my way reasonably early. It was a decent drive to Beaune in Burgundy, where my next hotel is, but more important was the stop I was planning along the way. I changed the gps to avoid tolls rather than motorways and this proved to be a good choice. Although it turned a 2 hour and 15 minute journey into nearly 3 hours, the detour was through some fantastic French countryside and I’m sure it was more enjoyable than the tolled motorway.

So around 1pm I arrived in the city of Besancon. The most famous site in Besancon is the Vauban designed citadel that guards the entrance to the city centre. The city centre sits on an oxbow of the River Doubs and the citadel sits above the city, guarding the land entrance to the centre. If I’d had time, I would have liked to have visited the citadel which, like Neuf-Brisach, is one of 12 of Vauban’s fortifications listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, I didn’t end up having time because that was not why I was there.

Besancon was the original reason for my whole trip to France and I was originally going to stay a few days there because the novel I am trying to write started out as a historical piece set during Caesar’s invasion of Gaul (France). Much of the action was going to happen in the city of Vesontio, a major city of the Sequani tribe of Gauls. Vesontio became Besancon, and was where the city centre is now. I figured if I was going to write about the city, I should actually visit and get a good feel of the local geography. In the time since first planning the trip, my novel has changed to a fantasy setting based on Rome and Gaul, so while there was no real need to get the city exact, I wanted to base it on a real Gallic city and I had spent so much time studying Besancon via google maps that I decided to stick with it.

And I’m glad I visited the city because google maps did not really give me a proper sense of the geography of the citadel, nor the surrounding countryside. The first thing that struck me was that most of the land to the south of the citadel was quite high and I had been picturing it was like the land to the north, with a gentle slope up from the river. Google maps also didn’t give me an appreciation of how high up the citadel itself was. There were also a number of other features that gave me some good ideas for where to place features of the fictional city.

Anyway, I parked my car in a carpark that gave me 3 hours max. I figured that would have to be enough time because I still had a decent drive to Beaune afterwards, so 4:15 would be a good time to leave.

I started off walking along the river, on the eastern side of the citadel and got a good view of the land to the south-east. I was just embarking up the hill to the front of
Fortifications of Neuf-BrisachFortifications of Neuf-BrisachFortifications of Neuf-Brisach

With rhinoceros sculpture
the citadel when a passing cyclist called something out to me. Again, with my limited French, I had no idea what he said so continued heading up the steps. However, he turned around and parked his bike and called to me again. I managed to explain that I don’t understand French, and he didn’t speak English. But he managed to convey (I think) that there was a great viewpoint 2 km to the south where I could take pictures. I thanked him, but was unable to explain to him that I probably wouldn’t get a chance to go there because of my planned investigation. Still, I really appreciated that he went out of his way to let me know. It just goes to show that the image of the rude French is mostly about Paris. My experiences have been they are as friendly as any other nation.

The walk up to the front of the citadel nearly killed me. Not really, but it was quite a hike vertically and my thighs were burning by the time I got to the lookout. There was no point going any further, I think, because the road I was heading up was only used by emergency services to reach the citadel, the public entrance was on the city centre side. After taking in the views, studying the terrain and taking photos, I then proceeded to head down the western side. I had to walk down the road, so when there was a sign indicating a walking path, I took it. This was nearly a mistake because the walking path was not maintained at all, was very loose gravel and a steep slope. I nearly fell multiple times, but thankfully I reached the bottom safely.

Unlike the eastern side where the road had to be carved from the rock, the road on the western side looks like it has always been more accessible, and the fortifications come down the hill to what was presumably a city gate. There was a combined foot and cycle way there now, following the river, so that’s where I walked. I was excited to discover there are two man-made tunnels beneath the rock, joining the two sides of the citadel. One is a road, the other is a canal with the cycleway continuing beside it. This excited me because I am planning to have a secret tunnel in
Fortifications of Neuf-BrisachFortifications of Neuf-BrisachFortifications of Neuf-Brisach

With elephant sculpture
my novel, so this confirmed my idea in a way.

From there, I circumnavigated the city centre, walking all the way round next to the river. It was a pleasant walk and many locals were doing the same thing, but presumably for different reasons to me. I got a lot of great information and reference photos on the long walk, so all in all it was a successful day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the interior of the city centre at all, nor the citadel, but I can always come back if I run out of things to do in Beaune.

I returned to my car with 10 minutes of parking remaining so I decided to start driving to Beaune and have a late lunch/early dinner on the way rather than eating in Besancon. The drive was pleasant enough, but either I’m used to the beautiful French autumn scenery now or it was just nicer in Alsace. I’m not sure, but I wasn’t as impressed.

I reached Beaune, which thankfully is smaller than Besancon but bigger than the village I had been staying in. The hotel here is really nice and my room is beautiful. The only downside is that my internet doesn’t seem to be working properly and keeps dropping out. I may have to upload my blogs while sitting in reception. But that’s no major hassle and it will keep me from spending too much time on Facebook. I’ve got early starts the next two days as I am heading out on wine tours of Burgundy. Thankfully, I will be able to drink without having to worry about driving, which should be good.

Additional photos below
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25th October 2017

More beautiful scenery
So beautiful!

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