Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04200) Population: 7,360 Altitude: 482 m
Sisteron is a pre-Roman town built at a narrow rocky gap (clue) where the Durance and Buech rivers join. The gap at the north edge of the town rises in a cliff to the Rocher de la Baume on the east side of the river, and to the rocky peak topped by the imposing 13th-to-17th-century citadel on the west side, protecting the town. From the north, the road enters the town through a tunnel beneath the citadel, and the town is still protected by parts of the 14th-century walls. The gap and the citadel are most impressive when arriving from the south, viewed across the town. Market day Wed.
Sisteron has a very large old-town area, with narrow streets, ancient houses and historical sights, along with a great selection of small shops and boutiques. There are a wide variety of cafés and restaurants scattered throughout the town. There's also the Vauban Citadel to explore, with its magnificent defenses and great view.
Sisteron's Little Train. LaPetit Train de la Citadelle is the typical small tourist train (rubber-wheeled, not tracked) that tours the old town and goes past the citadel. In a town that's stretched out, with a lot of steps and a lot of steeply inclined streets, it's a handy way to see the sights. It starts and ends near the tourist office; you buy your ticket directly from the train driver (7€, 2015).
Guided Old-Town Walk.
We usually explore towns and villages on our own the first time, discovering things without any real planning. In Sisteron, however, the "tourist" route through the old town turned out to be a good way to see a lot of the different parts of the town without too many side trips. The "route" is clearly sign-posted, so you don't really need the map supplied by the tourist office (although it is a nice map).
Sisteron is a very popular town. It's located on a north-south axis between Grenoble or Gap and the Mediterranean, and there's autoroute access between Sisteron and Aix-en-Provence. The town has a lot of events during the summer, and can get very crowded. Even in the off-season, Sisteron remains active at night, unlike many Provencal towns that are active during the day and sleepy through the nighttime; our photo here is on a September night.
The 11th-century origins of the chateau are long gone, but the donjon is from the 12th century, and the current battlements, built in the 16th century during the Wars of Religion, are ancient enough, and very impressive.
A second area of narrow streets and medieval houses packed together are between the center and the river. Three streets parallel the river, on three very different levels. A combination of steep streets and many stairs, some using vaulted passages to tunnel through the tall, old buildings.
The buildings in this riverside area of old Sisteron are very high, the streets are narrow and sometimes dark. The feeling here is "a bit worn", but in the sense of being ancient rather than run-down. There are narrow steps and vaulted passages with tremendously high arches. It gave us more of a feeling of being connected with the medieval past than the more renovated parts of town nearer the center.
It was down in the part of old Sisteron near the river that we had conversations with two different people. One lived in Sisteron and wanted to explain the local history of the ancient shops we were admiring and photographing. The second man was on vacation from Montpellier, but had lived much of his life in Sisteron. He described to us how he had worked in a job just across the bridge, in a cavern deep underground in the rock, on a project concerning an underground canal of water from the lake Serre-Ponçon. He also tried to help us by describing all the places we should visit on the rest of our vacation in the Haute-Alpes.
A third area of old Sisteron is between the center and the base of the citadel. Some of these narrow streets have interesting old houses and doorways. And one of them, Rue Droite, is a long pedestrian shopping street with many very interesting shops.
The Romanesque-Provencal Notre-Dame-des-Pommiers cathedral was built in the 12th century (1160-1220), part of an Episcopal group including the Saint-Thyrse church, a baptisery and a cloister reserved for the Canons. The name comes from the Latin pomoerium, for the area inside the walls containing a necropole. The architecture is Lombardian Alpine. It's the oldest and one of the most beautiful of the group of cathedrals of Digne, Embrun, Bayons and Senez.
The Sisteron Citadel (Citadelle de Sisteron) was built in 12th to 16th centuries, on a site earlier fortified by the Romans and the pre-Romans before them. The final, massive fortifications were designed by Vauban. The Citadel is open for visiting (see below), and grounds include a small historical museum.