Friday, 1 January 2016

Perthus and Le Fort de Bellegarde

The 17th century Fort de Bellegarde is an imposing sight
Ruined barracks below Bellegarde 
sitting as it does high up on a hill overlooking the French/Spanish border. Originally designed by Vauban, one of thirty-seven fortresses whose building he directed, Bellegarde has changed hands between the French and the Spanish several times since its creation, and was also a German prison during the Second World War. Unfortunately the massive complex is only open to visitors during the summer months so we weren't able to view its historical and archaeological exhibitions this visit, however we did get to explore a ruined small barracks area downhill from the main structure and saw several other unusual buildings during our hike from Perthus.

Getting to Perthus is a slow business at the moment due to
Le Reposoir de Madame 
the police presence at the border crossing causing long tailbacks. We took the local road this time, remembering our delays on the motorway to Figueres last time we headed towards Spain. It didn't make much difference! The car parks are well signposted (and free) in Perthus though.

Up the hill from Perthus centre, an easily overlooked small stone building by the roadside is Le Reposoir de Madame. Dating from 1752, this hut is apparently where the wives of the Marquis de Castellane and Governor Bellegarde would pause to rest during their journeys to the castle. To be honest, I am not sure that an affluent fashionable woman of the time could have comfortably fitted herself and her frock into this hut so maybe the story is apocryphal?

Further on, a series of three even tinier huts with
La Font dels Miquelets 
accompanying grottoes are military fountains. Springs, rather than fountains in the English sense, each has a gentle trickle of water that could have refreshed an army although it would certainly have taken all day. The third we saw, la Font dels Miquelets, is named for the mercenaries who fought in many wars in the area. Warfare here has been a common theme for centuries. Another important site was the ruins of le Trophee de Pompee. This Roman General had some form of monument constructed to celebrate his army's victory over that of General Sertotius, the leader of the Iberian peninsula. I have no idea what the moment was though as it is now reduced to just its foundations with low walls of a very ruined medieval priory over the top.

We saw the first of a half dozen or so border markers above the priory ruins. These tall obelisks are numbered and we began walking the border at 567, leaving it to return into France at 572. It did feel quite weird to suddenly turn a corner and be gazing out over Spain. Somehow walking along and picnicking on the border line seemed more significant acts than just driving across it.

We were very taken by our sighting of this watchtower,
Bellegarde watchtower 
presumably constructed around the same time as the fort. The overhanging upstairs sections did look rather precarious now and the doorway is actually halfway up the tower's side so sentries - and attackers - would need to come prepared with their own ladders. We didn't know this so failed to get much of a look inside!

As well as the burned out buildings, whose complex is pictured below, we did get to walk around the outside levels of Bellegarde fort. It is quite a maze of moats and plateaux which must have been intended to confuse attacking forces, channelling the soldiers into dead ends and traps. I was reminded of the defensive structure of the Iron Age Maiden Castle which we saw in in Dorset. I wonder if Vauban had been inspired by a similarly ancient French site?

Ruined barracks below Bellegarde 

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