In 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees redrew the frontier line between France and Spain. Just inside French territory, dominating the Col de Perthus, was a medieval tower known as the Castrum de Bellaguarda. In 1668, following a raid by the Spanish, Saint-Hillaire went some way to improving its fortifications.

The Spanish captured Bellegarde in 1674 and began work on new fortifications in 1675. These were not very far advanced when the place was recaptured by the French. Vauban designed for Bellegarde a strong pentagonal fort with a detached hornwork extending southwards towards the frontier.

Map of the fortress of Bellegarde. NB: The demi-lune on the right hand side was never built.
Looking south along the upper tier of the defences - the hornwork can just be seen in the left of the picture.

The defences consist of a five bastioned trace, with an upper tier and a lower tier. In front of the more vulnerable sections of wall, there is a ditch. There are three demi-lunes, again only on the more approachable sides of the fortress - on the east there is a sheer precipice.

In the centre of the fortress is a row of barrack buildings following the pentagonal shape of the walls, leaving a large five-sided courtyard in the centre. There is a large chapel at one end of this courtyard. Unusually for a Vauban fortification, the parapets are entirely made of masonry, not stone faced but backed with earth.

Looking towards the circular bastion on the upper tier.
A demi-lune at Bellgarde. The two doorways lead to loopholed galleries, which run along each face of the demi-lune - yet another unusual feature.

This is a common feature of Spanish fortifications - perhaps the strong Spanish culture in the region influenced the design of the fortress. Another unusual feature here is the use of double caponniers to connect the demi-lunes to the main wall.

To guard the heights around the fortress, two small redoubts were constructed. These were called Pannissars redoubt and Le Perthus redoubt. These redoubts were like strong stone blockhouses, with loopholes for muskets, but no accommodation for cannon.

One of the small redoubts around Bellegarde.
The hornwork, seen from the walls of the fortress.

Extending right up to the frontier, the detached hornwork has a redan on its rear wall to protect it against an attack from the north. The hornwork has embrasures only on the western side, the land to the east being too steep to need defensive cannon.

The hornwork is connected to the main fortress by the covered way, which runs down to meet it. This allows safe communication between the fort and the hornwork. The covered way of the fortress is particularly strong, even having cannon embrasures in places (a very rare occurence, as artillery on the counterscarp could be turned on the defences if an enemy captured the covered way).

Visiting Bellegarde

Bellegarde is a very interesting fortress, with spectacular views from its high walls. As Vauban himself remarked, "nothing overlooks this place". Although a little overgrown in places, the ramparts are in excellent condition and fully walkable (for about 5).

The northern wall of the hornwork, defended by a redan. There was originally a drawbridge in front of the gate.
View over the buildings of the hornwork, looking towards the fortress.

The barracks are not all open, but there is a small museum in part of them. The chapel houses another museum and a gallery of modern art (Cuix Art - no, I don't know what that is either!). The hornwork, which was very overgrown, has recently been cleared of vegetation and is in good condition.

Bellegarde is a fantastic fortress, well worth visiting, but be careful of the town, Le Perthus. A tax-free border town, the roads out of it (both on the Spanish side and the French side) can have queues miles long, especially in the summer.

A demi-bastion of the hornwork.

You can take the long route (a long winding track with no signposts), but this is not recommended in wet weather. As there is no train station at Le Perthus, car is really the only option. Just be aware of the situation, and don't arrange to be picked up there at a certain time without allowing for traffic (like I did).

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
9 10 9 2 8 7.6
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