Vauban’s Citadel above Besançon

More than a hundred meters above the old town of Besançon, Vauban’s Citadel covers eleven hectares on the top of Mont Saint-Etienne.

Besançon was controlled by the Spanish until 1674, when it was besieged and conquered by a French army of about 70,000 men under Vauban’s direction. Under one of the Peace Treaties of Nijmegen in 1678, Besançon and the surrounding region of Franche-Comté became a part of France. In return, French forces withdrew from the occupied city of Maastricht, now the southernmost city of the Netherlands, which had also been besieged and fortified by Vauban.

Vauban’s Citadel above the Doubs River at Besançon

Unlike Vauban’s Citadel in Lille, which is still used by the French Army, the one in Besançon was acquired by the city in 1958 and has been developed since then as a tourist site. The towers, ramparts and buildings have been carefully restored in Vauban’s original style. Three museums are now located in the original buildings of the Citadel.

Rue du Chambrier

To go up to the Citadel, I docked my VéloCité bike at bicycle station # 14, Jacobins, and walked up the nearby street called Rue du Chambrier.

This narrow street goes up some stairs and then through a tunnel underneath the Hôtel du Chambrier, a medieval house which was re-built in the 18th century by a man named François Gaspard de Grammont, who was the bishop of Aréthuse and the Suffragan (a sort of assistant or deputy) to the Archbishop of Besançon.

The view from about halfway up to the Citadel

If you don’t feel like walking, you could take the number 17 bus that runs from La Rodia to the Citadel and back, but only between April and October. There is a free parking lot at La Rodia, so motorized tourists are encouraged to park there and walk up or take the bus rather than driving up to the Citadel, where parking is limited and also quite expensive.

There is also a little tourist train starting from the Rivotte parking lot and going up to the Citadel by way of the city hall. This is not the sort of train that runs on tracks, but a string of small wagons pulled through the streets by a tractor disguised as a locomotive. I did not ride this train or even take a picture of it, but one of the members of the now-defunct website VirtualTourist rode it in 2007 at the insistence of her children. In her tip called “The Numpty Train” she wrote that she found the ride “humiliating” because “Besancon has a large student population and where ever we went in the Numpty Train we were smirked at!!! And the driver was miserable!” But her children loved it.

Vauban statue by Pierre Duc

After passing through the lower entrance to the Citadel grounds, you are greeted by a bronze statue of “Vauban on his construction site”. The statue was made by Pierre Duc, a prolific painter and sculptor from the Franche-Comté region who was born in 1945.

On his website, the sculptor has some photos documenting the creation and installation of the statue, a process he describes as “an adventure of 12 months, 3000 hours of work, 1 ton of bronze.”

The statue is three meters tall (much taller than life size) and was inaugurated on March 30, 2007, the 300th anniversary of the death of Vauban.

The rocks Vauban is standing on are from the local quarry of Chailluz. This quarry is the source of the mottled light blue, grey and white stones that give most of the older buildings in Besançon their distinctive appearance. At Vauban’s feet are some of the tools he used in his work. On the ground around the statue there is a stylized map of France, showing some of the major sites that were fortified by Vauban.

In the Citadel above Besançon

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Citadel was a place where future military officers were trained. Up to 600 of these Cadets du Roi lived in these buildings during their training.

These were the sons of aristocratic families (typically the oldest sons) who were hoping for a glorious military career. (The younger sons often had to make do with a not-so-glorious career in the church.)

Walk the walls of the Citadel

A great thing to do in the Citadel is to go up and walk along the two rampart walks on the tops of the walls.

The towers at the beginning of the rampart walks are called the King’s and Queen’s Towers. The King at the time was Louis XIV and the Queen Consort was Maria Theresa of Spain, but she died in 1683 and for the next 42 years there was no Queen Consort, because when Louis XIV re-married it was for love, not for dynastic reasons. His new wife, Madame de Maintenon (aka Françoise d’Aubigné) was unfortunately not of ‘Royal Blood’, so they were married secretly by the Archbishop of Paris and their marriage was a morganatic one, meaning that she did not become the Queen Consort and their children, if they had had any, would not have been in line for succession to the throne.

The Doubs River from the citadel

Location, aerial view and photos of the citadel on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.

See more posts on Besançon, France.
See more posts on Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban.

3 thoughts on “Vauban’s Citadel above Besançon”

  1. Interesting, as usual, Don. Here’s a related story :

    After repelling the American invasion of Canada (War of 1812), the British re-examined their defensive strategy.
    Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond and Governor-in-Chief of British North America, drew up plans for defensive works at strategic locations.
    Lieutenant-Colonel Elias Walker Durnford of the British Army was entrusted with building a fortress in Old Québec.

    Ironic that so soon after defeating the French at Québec in 1759, the British built the Citadelle of Québec based on designs by French engineer Sébastien Le Prestre Vauban (star shape.) 🙂

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