The rocky hills of eastern France were loaded with huge fortresses, but one was so successful that it now sports a huge sandstone sculpture of a lion to celebrate victory. This was Belfort, a city that survived not one, but three major sieges in the 19th Century. Its reward was a sculpture made by Bartholdi (who also built the Statue of Liberty in New York) that since 1871 has served as the city's symbol.
Belfort was a regional capital (the Franche-Comté)on a canal connecting the Doubs and Rhein rivers just west of Basel, Switzerland. This explained its importance, and why over a full century the city was fortified and re-fortified, with ever-expanding defenses being added under the watchful eye of the great military strategist Vauban. Many of these defenses still survived, and were well-marked with walking routes for tourists.
The first photograph shows the Citadelle Belfort with the famous red lion in front, located as the base of the white rocky cliff directly under the French flag). This side faced Belfort's old city (Vielle Ville) and the canal. Because my camera did not do reds perfectly well, the lion didn't stand out as much in this photo than it did in real life. But that was ok -- I wouldn't want to give away Belfort's prime scene, eh? I visited the lion for 90 Euro cents (in 2003, it might have since gone up in price).
The Chateau building was a museum, which I skipped due to time. Instead, I climbed to the roof (free access) and got great views of the city and its fortifications. To get to the top from where I was standing, I accessed the path to the left of the big bastion in the photo, and below the lion I went left to get straight to the chateau. But, I could have gone right and wandered the maze of moats, shown in the second photograph, to get there (I took the maze down when I left).
The moats were very well marked, explaining in full how they were added on to through the 19th Century. These were wide enough to drive tanks through, and probably ten yards deep, making them unscalable. Walking through them, I was left very impressed by the amount of labor that went into building these moats -- and I wondered who would be crazy enough to try attacking it? (The answer? The Prussians, who tried for 3-1/2 months and failed!)
The old city below retained its original pentagon shape and many of its defenses from those days of siege. The north side, about two blocks behind the Place de la Republique (third photo, described below), was very well preserved, with three towers still standing, an old medieval gate, and large sections of the ivy-covered city wall. The downtown was very well marked, so finding those towers --descriptively labeled Tour ("tower") 27, Tour 41, and Tour 46 -- was easy.
The old city had several points of interest. The Place d'Armes and the Place Grand Fontaine were two adjacent market squares, the former of which has now been converted to a parking lot. Shown in the photo was a World War II French Resistance Memorial in front of the Palace of Justice (left) and the Salle des Fêtes (festival hall, right). The Place Grand Fontaine houses the magnificent Hotel de Ville (town hall) and the red-brick Cathedral of Saint Christopher, build in the 18th Century of the same type of red sandstone as the Lion. The interior of the Cathedral was very beautiful, heavily gilded with gold and filled with war memorials. Meanwhile, Belfort remained tied to its military roots. The northern part of the city was dominated by an active French military garrison that was easily visible from the Chateau roof.
Belfort's center of activity was in the new city, the pedestrian districts across the canal. I found that unusual because most European cities retained their cultural heart in the old city. I presumed that was because this visit was in a February, during the low season for tourists, while the locals preferred to hang out in the new city. Should I return in the summer, I'm sure I would find busloads of people crawling all over the fort and populating outdoor cafés in the Place Grande Fountaine. The fourth photograph showed one end of this district, the Place Corbis that sits on the west bank of Belfort's canal.
By and large, the western side of the city was not remarkable from a visitor's perspective, but I did enjoy the shopping. Despite the freezing temperatures, by mid-afternoon the cafés were packed and the stores were doing very well. The western half also had a number of parks and squares which probably hosted plenty of people in the summer. There was one point of interest I thought worthy of photographing and that is shown in the fifth photo. Called the "Painted Wall," it was a massive mural by Ernest Pignon Ernest on the side of an apartment building. It depicts a number of important and famous Europeans.
I really enjoyed Belfort, especially the Citadelle. I would certainly have enjoyed it more if it weren't so cold the day I went! I'd suggest going on a summer day when you can stroll leisurely up to the Chateau, take in the sights, then do some souvenir shopping and dining in the old city below. That's a pretty good day right there!
Trip taken 15 February 2003 -- Page Last Updated 04 October 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin