Hautes-Alpes (05100) Population: 12,301 Altitude: 1024 m
Briançon is a Haute Alpes town famous for being fortified by Vauban in the 17th century, very picturesque and interesting, and with a history beginning with the Romans, when it was called Brigantium. Briançon, the highest town in Europe. (The highest commune in Europe is St Véran.)
The town has two parts: the lower town is at the junction of the Durance and Guisane rivers, where the N84 highway passes through from Embrun/Guillestre towards Grenoble.
The Cité Vauban is the walled area at the top, fortified by Vauban and including the Fort du Chateau fortress at the peak.
In our photo, you're looking across the roofs of the Cité Vauban (upper town), and out across the lower town that stretches out along the Durance valley.
There are many sights to see in the town, with fountains, squares, sundials, gargouille streets, etc. A first place to visit it the Place du Temple, through the old-town entry and turn right. This square is in front of the large Collegial church, and the location of the Tourist Office.
The main street leading from the fortified entry at the top, down through the center of the Cité Vauban is Grande Rue, cobblestoned, lined with shops, cafés, and restaurants. Almost to the bottom of Grande Rue is the colorful Place aux Armes, with picturesque buildings and a pair of amazing old sundials.
A gargouille is a small canal channeling a stream that runs down the center of the street. The only two towns in France with gargouilles are St Martin-Vésubie in the Alpes-Maritimes and Briançon.
Briançon has two gargouilles running down through the fortified upper town. One runs down the central Rue Grande, also called Grande Gargouille. The second runs down Rue Mercerie, also called Petite Gargouille.
Not a gargouille is a similar looking thing that channels rain water down the center of many Provençal villages.
Fort du Chateau
The fortress of Briançon, called the Fort du Chateau, sits at the top of the hill directly above the old town (Cité Vauban). You can explore much of the hilltop citadel for free, but the top part, including underground passages, cost 6 euros (2015).
This view of Fort du Chateau [photo, left] is looking up from outside the entrance into the fortified town of Briançon. You can access the top by walking up roadways just inside the town entrance portal, or go up the grassy slope from the outside, at the left.
Other Forts of Briançon
Sitting at a junction of four stratgegic valleys (Durance, Guisane, Cerveyrette and Clarée) and only 15 km from the Col de Montgenère on the Italian frontier, Briançon is one of the most fortified areas of France. In 1690, Savoy joined a coalition against Louis XIV, bringing a threat of invasion. In 1713, the Utrecht treaty ceded eastern Dauphiné to the Piemont, making Briançon a frontier town.
Today the remains of the forts can still be seen in the mountains to the east withing 5 km of Vauban fortress, including the forts of Anjou, Randouillet, Trois Têtes, Dauphin, Infernet, Gondran, Croix de Bretagne, Selettes and some with no name (on our map).
Briançon was a medieval fortress before Vauban arrived in 1692 to prepare it for the days of canon warfare. He also ordered the building of Fort des Selettes on a hill to the north, a location from which Briançon could be bombarded. That fort was built in 1709 by Marshal Berwick (who has another small fort named after him north of Jausiers). Berwick also opened a road to the east in 1709-1710, protecting it with the Fort des Trois Têtes and Fort de Randouillet.
Briançon Lower Town
The lower town is an active commercial center, with shops, cafés and restaurants, some along Rue Centrale leading to the Rond Point du Quyeras (where you may see kayakers going down the Durance through the town). The town market is here, in front of the ancient (but still active) fire station, at the bottom end of the Parc de la Schappe.
There are just a few sundials in Briançon, but those few are amazing. On the front of the Collegial Notre Dame at Place du Temple, there's an 18th-century sundial on the left tower, and a sundial-styled clock on the right tower.
At the Place aux Armes, near the bottom of the Grande Rue, there are two exquisite old sundials, on either end of the buildings along the north side of the square.
History of Briançon
Gallo-Roman: This was the Roman town of Brigantium, mentioned in the 8th century.
Medieval: Briançon was the capital of the Principality of Briançon, that
• GPS: 44.896915, 6.634159
IGN (1/25,000) #3536 OT "Briançon, Serre-Chevalier, Montgenèvre"
Didier Richard (1/50,000) #10 "Queyras Pays du Viso"
Didier Richard (1/50,000) #6 "Ecrins Haut-Dauphiné"
Swimming pool - Olympic size
Patinage - Ice skating.
There are many hotels in and around the center of Briançon. If you're driving, we highly recommend you try one of the many hotels out in the Clarée Valley, about 10-20 minutes north of Briançon, in the villages and hamlets of La Vachette, Le Rosier, Val-des-Prés, Plampinet and Névache.
Les Castors (not a hotel)
We thought this "hotel" a few minutes drive from the center, just past the hospital, would be nice and quiet on the night of France's semi-final game in the football world's cup. It was quite, but it was only partially converted from its origin of a large private out-patient clinic. It looked and smelled like a hospital. Even "big nurse" who checked us out the next morning, and who insisted they were a hotel, was wearing a green striped medical smock.
L'Airelles, Le Rosier
This small, family hotel in Le Rosier, 10 minutes drive (8 km) from Briançon in the Vallée de la Clarée, is excellent. Fairly rustic, but the room was big and the service friendly. The only problem with the view was the full moon was too bright when it rose over the mountains outside our window. And the only problem with noise was leaving the window open for the cold mountain air meant the rooster was a bit loud in the morning.