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Briançon (Municipality, Hautes-Alpes, France)

Last modified: 2005-06-18 by ivan sache
Keywords: hautes-alpes | briancon | castle (white) |
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[Flag of Briançon]by Arnaud Leroy

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Presentation of Briançon

The municipality of Briançon (12,000 inhabitants), located in the upper valley of the river Durance, is the sous-préfecture of the department of Hautes-Alpes. The center of the city is located at an elevation of 1,326 m a.s.l., which makes of Briançon the highest city in Europe. Briançon is located only 15 km from the border with Italy, 120 km from Grenoble and Turin.

The site of Briançon is the confluency of the five valleys of Durance, Clarée, Guisane, Cerveyrette and les Ayes. It was settled by the Celto-Ligurian tribe of Brigiani, which gave their name to the Roman city of Brigantio. The Celtic root *brig means elevated place.

In the Middle-Ages, Briançon was nominally part of the state of Dauphiné. Briançon progressively conquered its independence and signed in 1343 the "Great Transaction" with the Dauphin. This chart of rights was preserved until the French Revolution, even after the "Transportation" of Dauphiné to the kingdom of France in 1349. The city became the seat of the bailiwick of Briançonnais and the capital city of the federation of Escartons, which grouped 52 local communities. After the establishment of the popes in Avignon, commerce developed in Briançon and international fairs were set up.

In the XVth century, Briançon became a main step-over on the way to Italy. The incessant presence of troops involved in the Italian wars disrupted commerce and the economy of the city. Briançon was burned down in 1624 and 1692. The second reconstruction of the city was ordered by Louis XIV and directed by Vauban, then Commissaire Général des Fortifications. In 1713, the treaty of Utrecht set up the border at the pass of Montgenèvre, only 15 km of Briançon, thus increasing the strategic function of the city.

As a consequence of Vauban's work, Briançon is a unique example of mountain fortified city. The heart of the city is divided into the lower city (borough Sainte-Catherine) and the upper, fortified city, built by Vauban on the site of the first medieval city. The upper city of Briançon is built on a rocky peak, surrounded by a wall and dominated by the Fort of the Castle. The access to the city is allowed only by the three gates of Pignerol, Dauphiné and Embrun. The houses were built as compact clusters of narrow, high buildings grouped along narrow streets, in order to optimize the use of a very limited space. The city is crossed by two open pipes called the Big and the Small Gargouille. The Gargouilles date back from the Middle Ages, when they were used in case of fire. The upper city of Briançon is therefore nicknamed Gargouille and its inhabitants Gargouillards. Briançon is the only city in France with Saint-Martin-de-Vésubie, in the Southern Alps, where such gargouilles have been preserved.

Vauban not only fortified the city of Briançon, he also built several forts on the surrounding mountains in order to protect the city and watch the strategic road to Italy.
The Redoubt of Salettes was imagined by Vauban in 1692 and built from 1709 to 1712 on the slope of the Croix de Toulouse. It was made of a square tower surrounded by a ditch and a gallery for backfire. Its aim was watching the road to Italy and prevent the enemy to settle on a dominant position above the city. In 1840, the redoubt was transformed to a true artillery fort with an outer ditch, blockhouses and bastions. The fort of Salettes is the best preserved fort in Briançon thanks to the association Club du Vieux Manoir.
The bridge of Asfeld was planned by Vauban in 1700 as a two-arch bridge over the gorges of Durance, in order to link the fortified city to the Fort des Têtes. The bridge was built in 1730-31 as a 55 m, one-arch bridge. The building work was achieved within four months (April-August 1730).
The Fort Dauphin, built on the edge of the forest, watched the Fort des Têtes. With the Fort of Salettes, it completely locked the road to Italy. The fort has multiple floors and a bastioned front, and was built around a big wall (width 2.20 m, height 9.30 m).
The Fort des Têtes is the most important in Vauban's defense system and protects the city. It was imagined by Vauban in 1700 and its building started in 1721 under the direction of engineers Tardif and Nègre. The top of the mountain des Têtes had to be leveled by extracting all the rocks. The area of the fort is larger than the area of the fortified city. It was served by 1,250 men and 70 cannons, and could have been used as a fallback position in case of seizure of the city. It is linked to the city by the bridge of Asfeld and to the fort of Randouillet by the communication Y. It was never achieved and several of its parts changed of use with time: the chapel was transformed into barracks in the XIXth century.
The Fort of Randouillet was built as a defense of the Fort des Têtes from an attack coming from the mountain of Infernet. It is made of a "donjon" surmonting a "military city" with barracks, ammunition sheds, etc..

In 1815, Briançon was besieged for three months by the Austro-Sardinian army, to no avail.
Until the Second World War, Briançon was a typical Alpine garrison town, with 4,000 soldiers but also an industrial city, with factories, collieries and dairies.
During the Second World War, the fort of Chaberton was totally destroyed by the French artillery. The Germans withdrew from the city on 23 August 1944, came back on 29 August and were definitively expelled on 6 September.

Briançon is often called the sunshine capital of Europe, with an average of 300 days of sunshine per year and an extremely low rate of relative humidity. Winter sport developed with the resort of Serre-Chevalier (250 km of ski runs) as well as summer sports such as mountain climbing, hiking, via ferrating, canyoning etc..

Briançon also proclaimed itself the world capital of bike. It has featured more than 50 times in the itinerary of Tour de France, being located between the famous passes of Galibier (2,645 m) in the north and Izoard (2,361 m) in the south. The Briançon stage ends with the terrible ascension to the upper city on cobblestoned roads. The list of the winners of the Briançon stage is impressive, including inter alia Gino Bartali (1938, 1948 and 1949), Louison Bobet (1950, 1953 and 1954), Fausto Coppi (1951), Charly Gaul (1955), Gastone Nencini (1957), Federico Bahamontes (1958 and 1964), Felice Gimondi (1967) and Eddy Merckx (1972). The last winner in Briançon was Santiago Botero in 2000 (but there was no stage in Briançon either between 1972 and 1989 or 1989 and 2000), the year where Briançon featured in the itinerary of the three big Alpine races, Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré.

Briançon is the birth city of the mathematician Oronce Fine (1494-1555), appointed at the chair of mathematics at College Royal of Paris in 1531. Fine worked on astronomical instruments and designed maps of France and the world using a map projection he had invented. He also worked on arithmetics and geometry and estimated the value of π as [22 exp (2/9)]/7, 47/15, and 3 exp (11/78).

Main sources: Municipal website & Tourist office of Briançon website

Ivan Sache, 1 April 2004

Municipal flag of Briançon

The municipal flag of Briançon was photographed in situ in spring 2004 by Dominique Cureau. The flag is divided by a yellow descending diagonal stripe. The upper triangle of the flag is blue, the lower one is white. The municipal coat of arms is placed in the middle of the flag.

The greater arms of Briançon are (municipal website):

D'azur à une porte de ville crenelée d'argent sommée de trois tourelles du même, le tout maçonné et ajouré de sable et ouvert du champ.

The official graphical design was made by Robert and Mireille Louis. However, there are several variation of this design, including the one used on the flag. On Louis' design, the outer walls of the gate are not curved and the towers are thinner and higher.

According to Brian Timms, the arms of Briançon were ascribed to the Armorial Général, but formally adopted by the municipality in 1969 only.

The English blazon is:

Azure a fortified gateway with three towers argent pierced and masoned sable the gateway of the field,
which is little different from a castle triple towered.

Ivan Sache, 1 April 2004