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A Military Giant – Fort de Salses

In the village of Salsees-le-Château in France, there lies a beautiful military giant known as Fort de Salses that is truly a sight to behold. It is a place where vicious battles once took place and terror reigned on many. However, these days, it features far more tranquillity than it once did, so much so that you wouldn’t even know that it was once a place of extreme horror.

a stone bridge leading to fort de salses - higher more defensive walls are seen in the background
Entrance to Fort de Salses. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The history of Fort de Salses

Where cannons once wreaked havoc, now only wildlife disrupts the silence. It is now also seen as an official historical monument, recognized by the French Ministry of Culture. Fort de Salses is also a very prominent tourist location, sometimes welcoming more than 100,000 visitors per year which is simply astronomical.

The early history

This stunning fortress was built between the years of 1497 and 1504 as ordered by Ferdinand II of Aragon, also known as ‘the Catholic’. It was designed thoroughly by the fascinating engineer known as Francisco Ramiro Lopez who was the king’s commander and artillery master. He designed it to block France from Roussillon. He spent a large amount of time making sure that everything was absolutely perfect.

A portrait of Ferdinand II of Argon wearing a black hat and a dark orange robe
Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He successfully managed to record the transition between medieval and modern military architecture which left behind a stringently geometric and part-buried construction instead of the traditional medieval castle with cylindrical towers that we usually see. It was originally built to replace a previous château from which the town takes its name (Salses-le-Château).

The earliest records from this château date back to around 1007 when it was just sitting atop a neighbouring rocky outcrop, however, it was destroyed during a siege in 1496. In 1503, the fortress survived a fire despite being unfinished at the time. Fort de Salses was the unfortunate victim of numerous attacks from both French and Spanish enemies. It was blockaded and switched command around four times (that we know of) until it finally became the property of France after the Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed in 1659.

This then sealed its destiny and it became the permanent property of France. Because of the distance from the border, it quickly lost its strategic importance and was threatened with demolition many times due to it becoming far too expensive to maintain. Luckily, it survived and was repaired and transformed from 1691 onwards, under the supervision of Vauban.

A masterpiece of military architecture

The ever so amazing Fort de Salses is known worldwide as a masterpiece of military architecture as well as the ideal military giant. It was perfectly designed to protect against the recently developed cannonball that was destroying other castles throughout France at the time. It is a prime example of the very specific transition between the medieval château with its keep, cylindrical towers, long curtain walls, and the modern fortress that follows the path of rigorously geometric layout as well as the part-buried structure.

The walls of Fort de Salses is around 10 metres thick and the fortress itself is divided over seven levels served by a large maze of corridors as well as multiple interior defensive chicanes. By virtue of the defensive plan, the fortress is essentially divided into three entirely different sections. They go from east to west in this order:

  1. The communal section has been specifically arranged around somewhat of a quadrangle courtyard. It is also bordered on three sides by an arched portico that leads to a chapel, the barracks, and the stables.
  2. The recess is separate from the central courtyard by a standard interior moat as well as a redan wall housing the vast support premises: powder and wine stores, water facilities, kitchens, ovens, prisons and a guard room.
  3. The large keep stands around 20 metres in height. It acted as a command post when the castle was in use and it was also the governors dwelling. On top of this, it was the last place of refuge, isolated from the recess by a series of eloquent and small courtyards that provide additional light and defensive capabilities.

The entire system throughout Fort de Salses was strengthened greatly by a vast dry moat and buffer zone and to the east, south, and north-west, by three separate pointed towers that acted as additional, advance defensive posts.

A court yard of a castle with strong stone walls on either side
Fort de Salses had excellent defensive capabilities. Source: Flickr

The present day

In the present day, Fort de Salses is considered somewhat of an ideal picture of the transition between a medieval castle and a modern fortress. It provides a great insight into all that has been and all that could have come. It is simply fascinating and to everyone who visits, it provides an insane lesson in history.

With concerts, workshops, historical re-enactments, and events taking place within the walls and exterior of the castle, there really is something for everyone here.

We recommend reading about Château de Chambord if you interested in other French castles.

Fort de Salses Timeline

  • 1007- The first record of Fort de Salses emerge
  • 1496- Fort de Salses is destroyed during a vicious siege
  • 1497- The castle begins construction upon the order of Ferdinand II of Aragon, also known as ‘the Catholic’
  • 1503- The fortress survives a fire despite being unfinished at the time
  • 1504- Fort de Salses is complete
  • 1659- Fort de Salses finally became the property of France after the Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed
  • 1691- After many threats of demolition, it survived, was repaired, and began a unique transformation

Interesting facts about Fort de Salses

  • The château was of vital strategic importance to both the French and Spanish in the XV century
  • It was the original northern frontier post of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon
  • It was under attack by the Arabs and French for many centuries
  • At one point, it acted as a state prison
  • It only survived because of how expensive it would have been to demolish
  • The massive walls are 10 metres thick
  • The huge central courtyard, which is still there to this day, is capable of sheltering 1200 men and 300 horses

Books on Fort de Salses

  • Le chateâu Fort de Salses 2019: Apercus de la puissance d’un fort (Calvendo Places) Calendar by Thomas Bartruff (2018)

Who owns Fort de Salses?

These days, Fort de Salses is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture. It is also operated by the Centre de monuments nationaux. Plenty of upkeep is done routinely to make sure that the castle is kept to a beautiful standard for visitors.

Tourism

These days, you can visit this fine example of military architecture and familiarise yourself with its surroundings as well as the castle itself. By purchasing a ticket, you can enjoy a day out admiring this incredible fortress. You can explore it at your own leisure and spend as long as you want there. Out of season, there is plenty of free parking or you can easily access it by bus.

The main attractions nearby are on or quite close to the Mediterranean coast. This includes the resort at Leucate. You will also discover several buildings of interest such as Perpignan which is only a few kilometres south. On top of that, two other historic monuments to visit are Chateau Peyrepertuse and Chateau Queribus. Last, but certainly not least, it is also recommended that you visit Abbey of Saint Martin of Canigou on the slopes of Mount Canigou.

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