Have you ever noticed that sometimes distances on a map can be very deceiving? This happened to Alan and I on Wednesday when we headed out for Salses-le-Chateau north of Perpignan to visit the Forteresse de Salses, a fort built by the King of Aragon, Ferdinand II.
Yea, that guy. You know the one who married Isabella, became the King of Spain, and then hired Columbus to find a faster route for the spice trade in India but and he found North America instead. Cool, huh!?!
We looked at the city on Google maps as we often do to get an idea of the city layout to best strategize which bus stop to jump off at to find the tourist office. In Google maps, I swear it seemed like it was a fair distance outside of the city and after all our time with forts and fortified cities we learned that they are always at the top of hill. There was also a set of train tracks showing between the fort and the city but I did not seeing an overpass, not so good.
So planning for a slightly more strenuous day than Monday, we got up early packed a lunch, loaded up our day packs, fed the dog and headed out for our adventure fully expecting a long day of climbing.
We completely lucked into the perfect timing. The 404 bus from Argeles-sur-Mer to Perpignan arrived at 7:25 and the bus for Salses-le-Chateau left at 7:40, so no coffee in Perpignan but no waiting around either. Almost a win-win. Thank goodness I had coffee before we left!
The 135 bus got us to Salses-le-Chateau by 8:30 and we had seen the directional signs for the fort on the way into town. Not wanting to walk along a major highway we were hoping to find a pedestrian option at the tourist office.
It was market day in Salses-le-Chateau, so we stopped for coffee at a little street cafe (yeah!). Alan walked around the corner and picked up a couple of chocolate croissants. When we finished Alan asked the owner of the cafe for directions to the fort. The guy pointed up the street and said, “not far.”
Still hoping to find the tourist office we wandered through the square across from the bakery where Alan picked up breakfast. The square was where the market was being held and we skirted the outer edges looking for a sign pointing to the tourist office. We found the Mairie and a museum, but both were closed. The readerboard outside the Mairie entrance had a listing for a recent divorce. Small town information!
We wandered over to the market, after browsing all 12 vendors at the market (small town), we stopped to take pictures of a cool fountain behind the wine coop vendor. It was red and had a huge lever to pump the water.
Still not seeing the tourist office we walked up a little side alley and found the church. it was closed and it appeared there was some property restoration going on. Part of the front wall was knocked out showing the back side of the arched chapels inside. Oh, and another of those cool fountains, a green one.
Walking back toward the market we decided that if we didn’t see the tourist office we would just start hiking out to the fort. I know I was procrastinating a bit because it was hot and only about 9:30 am.
Another trip through the market and as we approached the red fountain again Alan pointed out the “i” logo used for some of the tourist offices. We knew we were close, but just couldn’t see it. Walking along the backside of the wine coop vendor to reach a walkway to the main street, I turned around to say something to Alan and noticed the “tourist office” sign in the window. We had walked past it twice while looking for it and never realized it was just behind the wine coop vendor.
Some days are challenging even fully caffeinated.
It was closed, so at least we didn’t feel too foolish. Verbally we decided to just hope for the best, and both silently hoping we wouldn’t have to dash between trains to cross the tracks, we headed up the street.
Along the way we saw a couple of interesting buildings. One reminded us both of an old firehouse. One had a unique mosaic welcome mat in the concrete in front of the door. Another had metal gargoyles above the garage.
As we approached the area where we saw the directional sign from the bus, I spotted this:
Yep, a dedicated pedestrian path. Some days I’m just grateful that there isn’t anyone around who can tell how foolish I feel.
We walked up the street about 100 meters and saw the wine coop building, pretty little setting. Parking lot was empty because everyone was over at the market!
Less than 5 feet past the back corner of the wine coop building was an under pass for the train tracks. Honestly those train tracks looked much further away in Google maps. Good for us!
On the other side of the train tracks we took a right and realized that we were about 10 yards from the parking lot of the fort. Good thing I packed that lunch in case we spent half the day climbing a hill! That was an exhausting walk all 300 feet of it!
Some days there is just no way to make yourself look smart. Today was that day.
I know I studied at that map. I know that I’m cartographically challenged, but good Lord I just couldn’t help feeling like a complete idiot. Not only was the Forteresse de Salses not far at all from the center of town, the silly thing wasn’t even on a hill . . . it was sunk into the ground!
We arrived early to the Forteresse de Salses and had about 35 minutes before they opened for tourists. We took our time walking around this magnificent structure to photograph it from every angle. As forts go it is rather large and for many tourists it would seem enormous. But, having lived in the shadow of La Cite de Carcassonne it did seem a wee bit smaller!
After they opened the doors we purchased our tickets and were rather surprised to be handed an informational pamphlet in English. This doesn’t happen often and we are so grateful when it does. Our French is still rather poor, we can puzzle out most things but having the information in English is just a special bonus.
The south and north wings had an audio-visual art installation on lightning in the basement levels where the horses were stabled back in the heyday of the fort. There are ramps leading down to an hard packed earthen floor and the lighting was kept low for the art installation.
The central courtyard had another piece of art but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be. Looked like a half-circle bench, but too tall to sit on. No clue what it was supposed to represent. Nearby was the original well for the fort.
We took a look through the accessible areas of the south, east and north wings. They included stables in the basements of all three wings — two of which had the art installation; — barracks in the south and north wings — at one time there were three floors of barracks in each wing but time had reduced them to just one with a really high roof; — there was a museum in the southeast tower filled with models, a wood boat, information panels, about 7 window displays showing artifacts recovered at the site; and a children’s classroom that was full of kids.
The northeast tower housed the chapel with a huge altar facade behind which was a staircase leading down to three small chapels and a well.
All three wings had arcaded porticos which offered plenty of shade and a few places to sit down. Above the south wing via a set of stairs was access to the ramparts for all three wings, but it isn’t accessible to tourists. From the landing at the top of the stairs there is a fantastic view of the courtyard, the inner moat and the interior rampart that was never completed.
When we finished touring the first three wings we grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables outside of the south wing and ate lunch. A couple of wraps with ham, mimoulette cheese, and lettuce on corn tortillas, chips, and green grapes the size of small plums.
Saving the best for last, we headed to the inner keep area between the unfinished rampart and the entire west wing that also included part of the north wing, south wing and both the northwest and southwest towers. The southwest tower was specifically placed to provide access to the artesian well which provided water for the entire fort, including the kitchen, the boulangerie (bakery) and what looked to be a bathing room with two stone tubs. The area in front of the Chamber des Vannes was so cool and ventilated that it was like standing in front of an air conditioner!
In the center of the west wing was the keep, a seven story building that housed the dungeon, food stores, kitchen staff, and artillery with access to the roof for guard duty. To the left of the keep was the shop, to the right a huge boulangerie (bakery) with hundreds of hand-sized terra cotta balls used to bake bread on. There were six fireplaces, three of which were along the north side of the room above a huge stone table.
Built into the ground level of the interior rampart was the kitchen — with running water and a stone sink and the largest fireplace I’ve ever seen, you could roast an entire cow inside and still have room. Next to that was the barn for horses and dairy cows.
The western side of the south wing that was part of the inner keep had a small residence for the governor and his family. These were the only windows with glass. Diamond shaped stained glass windows covered the first two floors of the residence.
The western side of the north wing that was part of the inner keep was one large room with a small room at the west wall with a small door and a small pass-through window, originally I thought it might be a jail cell but we read in the history pamphlet that the dungeon was in the keep. So we are still clueless as to what was kept in there. The only thing of interest other than the weird tiny room was the remnants of a decorative piece in the center of the wall facing the inner keep.
Entrance into the inner keep was made through another huge gate in the wall of the unfinished rampart. I read later that this was the last line of defense if the fort were ever taken. All of the food and cooking areas are included inside as well as that hidden well in the southwest tower. So if the fort was taken by enemies the soldiers and others could barricade themselves in the inner keep where they might be able to hold off invaders. There was also an underground tunnel from the northwest tower to the northwest bastion, so I assume there may have been an escape route planned from there as well.
Once we finished touring around, we headed back to the gift shop where I picked up a bottle of lavender syrup. The restrooms were in the basement and were added into an existing area so it did seem a bit weird to see huge rocks behind you while washing your hands!
The Forteresse de Salses is definitely worth the time to visit. For a more detailed account of the building see our post Forteresse de Salses, history and extras.