Last October when Carole and I were in Villefranche-de-Conflent I came across the name Vauban, due to a fort in the village that he had designed and built. I’d heard the name before and knew a little about the man, but it was during this visit to Villefranche-de-Conflent that I really started digging into his life and history. A military engineer who served under Louis XIV, Vauban is considered to be not only the greatest engineer of his time but one of the most important in Western military history. He designed and built dozens of forts and fortifications throughout France during his career and it turns out that one of them is just an hour or so away from Vence. The village of Entrevaux is a medieval village located in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. It sits on a bend in the Var river along a narrow road that runs from Annot to Puget-Théniers. High above the village sits “La Citadelle,” a small fortress built by Vauban near the end of the 17th century. Entrevaux isn’t listed as one of the official Most Beautiful Villages of France, but in my humble opinion it should be. Let me tell you why.
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A Little History
Unlike the “perched villages” of southern France, Entrevaux sits at the bottom of a small valley, right on the edge of a piece of land where the Var river makes a sharp turn. Today it lies very close to a much older village, Glandèves, which was completely destroyed sometime in the 10th century. During the next 100 years the former inhabitants of Glandèves migrated to the much more defensible site that Entrevaux now occupies with the village being known initially as Interrivos. In 1536, after a bloody invasion and uprising, the village became a “royal town” of France, its inhabitants exempt from taxation.
The history of this little village is tied very closely to its location, a sort of “entrance” into Provence. Over the centuries it has served as a defensive position against a multitude of invaders and attacking forces. To that end the village has been fortified in a variety of ways that make it quite interesting and unique. The wonderful bridge over the Var, guarded by two towers, that one must still cross to enter the village, was constructed in 1658. Vauban became involved in 1690, drawing up plans to fortify the village even more. Not all of his plans were completed but he was responsible for strengthening the citadel and building the walkway to it from the village. The two main gates of the village were also strengthened and fortified under his supervision.
When you arrive at Entrevaux you are immediately struck by the entrance to the village. It’s an almost “fairy tale” example of a medieval village with a large bridge that crosses the river and allows you access to the town. There’s a small “fort” on the side of the bridge where you enter, complete with “machicolations” that allowed the villagers to drop stones, boiling oil and other objects on anyone trying to invade. Two large, round towers (built in 1690) guard the entrance on the other side of the bridge. A small drawbridge, which was raised every night until the mid-1800s, sits between the two towers, completing the barriers that protected the village. It also features a large “portcullis,” a heavy, vertically-closing gate consisting of a latticed wood and metal grille.
Inside the village you’ll find a variety of interesting sites and curiosities, many of them dating back to medieval times. Entrevaux is laid out in the shape of a teardrop: big and round at one end, narrow and pointed at the other. The maze of narrow streets and tall houses aren’t nearly as convoluted as you’ll find in many of the villages built high up on rocky outcrops and hilltops. Here they follow a fairly straight pattern from one end of the village to the other. There’s a guardroom and prison just inside the main gate and a village house for the commander or “governor” who was in charge of the citadel. Throughout the village are other various houses and palaces, many of which feature beautiful entranceways, doors, lintels and rows of tile under the roof. A classic provencal clock tower hovers above the village with a wrought iron bell-tower. As with most medieval villages a communal bread oven was used by the villagers and it still stands today. There’s even a motorcycle museum, Le Musée de la Moto, where you’ll find over 75 examples of motorbikes, all in perfect running order. The oldest bike dates back to 1901! The work of just one passionate collector, Michel Lucani, the museum is open and free to all.
The cathedral was built between 1610 and 1627 in a gothic Provencal style with a Baroque interior and is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. The contrast between the luxurious Baroque interior and the austere exterior reflects the fact that the church is integrated into the village fortifications. Beautiful 17th century walnut panelling, a large 17th century painting of the “Assumption of the Virgin” by François Mimault, an 18th century silver-platted copper bust of Saint Jean-Baptiste (the patron saint of Entrevaux) and an 18th century organ by Jean Eustache are just a few of the many interesting items to be found inside the church.
At the eastern end of the village you’ll find another entrance, the Porte d’Italie ( the Italy door). It’s an amazing barricade designed to keep invaders at bay with a guardhouse, a watchtower, two drawbridges, a triangular rampart and a small courtyard furnished with cannons.
There are several lovely squares inside the village and you’ll find a variety of restaurants and shops. It’s a wonderful place to spend a morning or afternoon just wandering around. I think you’ll find that Entrevaux has a very authentic feel to it, it really is a small French village where people live and work. Sure, there are some tourists and visitors, but it doesn’t have that “touristy” feeling that you will find in so many other similar villages closer to the French Riviera.
The tall rocky escarpment that sits high above Entrevaux was used for military purposes long before Vauban became involved. Ancient medieval fortifications existed on the spot from as far back as the Roman era. It was easy to defend and easy to fortify, making it a perfect location for populations living with constant insecurity and fear. From the 15th century to the 19th century it was especially important to France as it represented a “gateway” of sorts into Provence. After centuries of occupations, sieges, battles, victories, defeats and all the grief and heartache that comes with war it eventually acquired a reputation of being almost impregnable.
War between France and the rest of Europe during the 17th century made it clear that the old fortifications which dated from the 14th century were inadequate and Louis XIV instructed Vauban to update and reinforce the existing structures. It was used as late as the first World War as a prison for German officers. Classified as a historic monument in 1921 it now welcomes tourists and visitors from all over the world. Each year various festivals and activities take place on the grounds, including a well known medieval festival in August.
There is a small fee to visit the citadel (3€) and you can buy a token at the Office de Tourisme or at the entrance itself. To reach the citadel you’ll need to climb almost one kilometer on a steep, paved path that is divided into nine separate “ramps,” mostly cut from the stone of the cliff, that zig-zag back and forth from the village to the structure at the top. Small walls with doors and gates are erected periodically along the way to make it even harder for an invading force to make it up the hill. It’s a total ascent of about 156 meters and should take the average person about 20 to 25 minutes to walk.
Once you arrive at the entrance you’ll find a variety of interesting rooms, dungeons, tunnels and chambers to explore. There’s a gun powder room (which has now been turned into a small museum), two small “forts” (Fort Langrune and Fort Pandol), cells built during the first World War to house German prisoners, the Commander’s house, a bakery, various barracks for the troops, a small chapel and cellars for food and water. Separate drawbridges protect both the front and the back of the fortress (one of which dates back to 1693) and a “meurtrière” allowed defenders to drop items on invading troops. There are several small courtyards and even a beautiful little square that allowed the inhabitants to not feel so “imprisoned” in the fort.
What I found most interesting were the underground portions of the citadel. There is a ladder which takes you deep underground to a passageway under the buildings. Here you can traverse to the opposite side and then climb back up. The ladders are very steep and narrow and these sections are not especially well lit. It’s not for the feint of heart! But, it’s a lot of fun and I really enjoyed going down into these “secret” chambers and passageways.
The views from the top of the citadel are nothing short of spectacular. You have a wonderful perspective of the village below and can clearly see the “teardrop” shape of the buildings nestled in the crook of the Var river bend. You can see far down the valley in both directions and on a clear day the scenery is just stunning.
When you have finished your visit you can either return back to the village on the main path (the same way you came up), or if you’d rather you can take a small trail that leads through beautiful groves of pine and olive trees down to the river. It’s well marked trail, you will find it just outside the rear entrance to the citadel, but it is quite steep in places and probably isn’t the best choice for everyone.
Entrevaux is one of my very favorite villages in this part of France. If you’re planning a trip anywhere near this area I would encourage you to include the village. There’s also a lot of other things to do and see in the area as well. The villages of Annot, Puget-Rostang and Le Fugeret are all worth a visit, there’s a steam train that runs from Puget-Rostang to Annot and the Gorges du Cians (with its amazing red shale) are very close as well. There’s lot of great hiking in the area that is easily accessible from Entrevaux.
Entrevaux is located on the D4202 right at the very southeast corner of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. From anywhere along the Côte d’Azur make your way to the western end of Nice and take the M6202 north towards Digne. The road follows the Var River up into the mountains. It will eventually turn into the D6202 and then the D4202, still following the river. It’s a beautiful drive with lots of winding roads, rock cliffs and tall trees. There is a small parking lot right across from the entrance to the village, but if it is full there is plenty of more parking at the train station just down the road. The Office de Tourisme (located just inside the main gate) is open from 10AM to 12PM and 2PM to 5PM on Monday through Friday during January, February, March, November and December. In April, May, September and October Saturday is added and the time is extended to 6PM. In June, July and August they open at 9AM. You can find lots of information about the village, including some maps and booklets which you can download on the website listed below.