Forteresse de Salses, history and extras

We spent a pleasant day exploring on our micro-adventure to the Forteresse de Salses, so much history and beautiful military architecture to enjoy and learn about!

The Kingdom of Aragon in 1496, Forteresse de Salses is on the northernmost point.
The Kingdom of Aragon in 1496, Forteresse de Salses is on the northernmost point.

History

In 1496, the French army sacked and razed the village and castle of Salses which marked the northern boundary of the Spanish territory of Aragon, an area known as Roussillon. To block access between Roussillon and France more effectively King Ferdinand II (who married Queen Isabella in 1469) decided to rebuild Salses and make it a strong defensive barrier and a base for attacks. The construction happened in a relatively short amount of time between 1497 and 1504 (just 5 years after Columbus went in search of India and found North America). In 1503, the Spanish withstood their first siege although the fortress was not yet completed.

Isabella died in 1504, Ferdinand died in 1516.

In 1544, a peace treaty was signed bringing a century of tranquility to the area. The fortress gradually lost the military superiority its original, innovative design had given it.

During the 30 Years War (1618-1648), Salses was besieged three times in three years before finally being taken by the French in 1642. The Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 ratified Roussillon’s status as French property. The area where we live today is still called the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

The treaty moved border between France and Spain to the highest point of the Eastern Pyrenees and the fortress lost all military strategic importance. The only reason it survives is because of the cost of demolition, it was just too expensive to tear it down. It was partially restored by Vauban (you may remember we mentioned him in an earlier post about Port-Vendre) and became an observation post, then a State prison. Throughout the 19th century it was used as a gunpowder store before being classified as a historic monument in 1886.

The Exterior Layout

The Forteresse de Salses is a good example of the transition between medieval castle (with a keep and towers at the corners of long curtain walls) and the modern geometric fortress sunk into the ground and surrounded by a large moat. Many of the innovative features were necessary to keep up with changing developments in artillery, specifically the use of metal cannonballs.

The outer walls are 6 to 10 meters (20 to 32 feet) thick and are buried to half their height in a huge moat than could be flooded. Above the ground, buildings rise between three and seven stories, served by a maze of passageways.

The interior buildings are preceded by forward defense posts, three cylindrical flanking towers with a pointed bastion (making them resemble medieval helmets). The bastioned front, made by building a point in the outward facing circular tower wall, allowed for greater visibility of the surrounding area giving the guards a greater advantage to see enemies coming. These were connected to the main complex by caponnières — vaulted galleries linking the forward defenses and main buildings by way of underground tunnels.

My diagram showing the parts of the exterior defenses.
My diagram showing the parts of the exterior defenses.

Here is what they look like from ground level.

The Interior 

Entrance to the interior of the fort is gained by crossing the moat, passing through the defensive structure, walking through the barbacane, going through the south bastion, crossing the moat again and heading to the entrance gate, which has two guard turrets. Passing through this gate leads to a short labyrinth of interior gates, each of the two additional gates is 5 to 6 inches thick. Passing through the second interior gate and crossing one final drawbridge finally gains access to the large, paved courtyard with a well in the center.

The courtyard is bordered on three sides by an arcaded portico. The fourth side by an inner moat and a rampart that was never completed. The southwest tower was built over an existing artesian well which supplied much of the water for the fort.

The three arcaded wings of the courtyard contained basement stable facilities for the 100 horses who lived within the fort. Ramps at regular intervals allowed the large animals to come and go from their basement homes. The interior walls of the stable still have feed bins and an occasional tie-down ring mounted in the wall which can still be seen. There were also chutes between some of the feed bins which would have allowed fresh water to be dumped into a receptacle within the stables for the horses. The chutes provided the only light in the stables other than the gated ramps.

Above the stables inside the three wings were the remains of the barracks. Three stories of lodging would have filled up with the 1500 soldiers who lived in the fort. However, all that is still visible are the empty spaces in the walls where wood beams would have been to hold up the floorboards.

Inside the northeast tower is a spacious chapel. A two-story single nave construction with a choir loft to the rear and an ambo built along the edge next to the stairs. There is a large facade behind the altar. Behind the altar facade is a large storage space and a staircase which leads down to food storage and an another interior well. There are three small chapels built into the basement. These days the chapels hold a small display of artifacts depicting food storage and tools of the medieval fort.

At about the halfway point of the north wing and just before the small bridge to the gated inner keep area there was a grainery and the forge. Neither of which are accessible to tourists. Sometimes you just have to use your imagination!

The inner keep area between the unfinished rampart encompasses the entire west wing, part of the north wing, south wing and both the northwest and southwest towers. The southwest tower was specifically placed over an artesian well which provided running water for the entire fort, including the kitchen, the boulangerie (bakery) and what looked to be a bathing room with two stone tubs as well as the inner moat and both the central courtyard well and the chapel well. The area in front of the Chamber des Vannes (bathing room) had cool air blowing out, so cold that it was like standing in front of an air conditioner! And I always think of these old forts as hot in the summer and cold and drafty in the winter . . . hmm, maybe not so much!

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 bastion to the northwest tower, so I assume there may have been an escape route planned from there as well.

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, this may have been the weakest point of the inner keep as the west wing changed there to just the curtain wall — well weak is subjective, the walls are some 30 feet thick. To the right of the keep is a huge boulangerie (bakery) easily large enough to house 20 workers. There are hundreds of hand-sized terra cotta balls piled everywhere, on the floor, the large stone table, and inside the ovens.

The terra cotta balls were used to bake bread on. They were heated in a fireplace then placed onto the floor of the oven, when they started to cool they were removed and hot ones were added. There were six of the ovens, small fireplace/bbq size one of which still have black soot inside and on the ceiling above it. My guess is that’s where the terra cotta balls were heated. Three of the ovens were along the north side of the room above a huge stone table large enough to make hundreds of small bread loaves. Uneaten bread was left to harden and became bowls for the next meal, like how some restaurants use a sourdough bread bowls for clam chowder.

Built at the ground level of the interior rampart was the kitchen — with running water and a stone sink an enormous fireplace. The wall facing the courtyard had a long horizontal opening about 8 inches tall. This was to be used in case enemies breached the courtyard — soldiers could still shoot at them through the opening in the kitchen.

Next to the kitchen was the barn for horses and dairy cows. An opening between the two allowed air to flow but I can’t imagine in helped make things smell better. Though if they used the area to butcher the cows then at least the kitchen staff would have immediate access to begin cooking dinner.

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 southwest tower comprised the corner piece and was specifically built to be used to lift heavy things into the inner keep, the artesian well in the basement supplied water for the entire fort. The well served another purpose as well as the water helped to remove the smoke from firing the cannons. The rooms above the well were designed to allow airflow through a spiral shaft into the running water, apparently acting as a draw for the cannon smoke. (Not really sure how effective this was!)

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. There were stairs leading down into an underground room, but it was closed to tourists.

We do know that there were two caponnieres from the northwest bastion to the northwest tower, perhaps the stairway lead to these underground passages.

The Interior Layout 

Interior layout.
Interior layout.

Micro-Adventure: Forteresse de Salses

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!?!

By Juan Cordero (Own work, ClarkSui, 2013-02-12) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Columbus in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, by Juan Cordero | via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Our transportation for the day.
Our transportation for the day.

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.”

The Wednesday Market in Salses-les-Chateau.
The Wednesday Market in Salses-le-Chateau.

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!

Mairie and Modern Art Museum in Salses-les-Chateau.
Mairie and Modern Art Museum in Salses-le-Chateau.

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.

Tracy at the red pump fountain.
Tracy at the red pump fountain.

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.

The church in Salses-les-Chateau.
The church in Salses-le-Chateau.
Construction on the church showing the arched chapels within.
Construction on the church showing the arched chapels within.
Alan at the green pump fountain.
Alan at the green pump fountain.

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.

The tourist office was directly behind the white van.
The tourist office was directly behind the white van.

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.

Building on the main street of Salses-les-Chateau that reminded us of a firehouse.
Building on the main street of Salses-le-Chateau that reminded us of a firehouse.
An old mosaic welcome mat.
An old mosaic welcome mat.
Sculpted metal gargoyle above a garage on the main street of Salses-les-Chateau.
Sculpted metal gargoyle above a garage on the main street of Salses-le-Chateau.

As we approached the area where we saw the directional sign from the bus, I spotted this:

Signage for the pedestrian route to the Forteresse de Salses.
Signage for the pedestrian route to the Forteresse de Salses.

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!

The wine coop in Salses-les-Chateau.
The wine coop in Salses-le-Chateau.

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!

Pedestrian underpass for train tracks.
Pedestrian underpass for train tracks.

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!

Model showing the sunken fort.
Model showing the sunken fort.

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!

1 South East Angle Tower 4 NE tower 2 east bastion
Alan in front of the moat with southeast tower(directly behind him), the northeast tower (middle), and the east bastion (right).

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.

South half-moon towers (10), the former drawbridge (11) has been replaced with a more tourist friendly bridge. Between the two towers is the crest of Aragon. Heavily damaged not much of it remains.
Main entrance after leaving the south bastion, the former drawbridge has been replaced with a more tourist friendly bridge. Between the two towers is the crest of the Kingdom of Aragon, though heavily damaged.

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.

Tracy walking over to see the well in the center of the courtyard.
Tracy walking over to see the well in the center of the courtyard.

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.

Alan standing behind the model of the Forteresse de Salses in the museum.
Alan standing behind the model of the Forteresse de Salses in the museum.

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.

Alan standing in front of the alter and huge facade in the chapel.
Alan standing in front of the alter and huge facade in the chapel.

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.

The east side of the courtyard.
The east side of the courtyard.
The west side of the courtyard.
The west side of the courtyard.

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!

The stone bathtub in the Chamber des Vannes.
The stone bathtub in the Chamber des Vannes.

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.

Bread was baked by heating the terra cotta balls and laying the bread dough on top.
Bread was baked by heating the terra cotta balls and laying the bread dough on top.

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.

Alan standing beside the huge fireplace in the kitchen.
Alan standing beside the huge fireplace in the kitchen.

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 barred, stained glass window of the governor's residence in the southwest corner of the inner keep.
The barred, stained glass window of the governor’s residence in the southwest corner of the inner keep.

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.

The remnants of decorative detail in the northwest corridor of the inner keep.
The remnants of decorative detail in the northwest corridor of 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.

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Tracy standing by gate to inner keep at the Forteresse de Salses.

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 restroom in the gift shop.
The restroom in the gift shop.

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.