Fort Socoa

The harbour of St Jean de Luz was of strategic importance to the French, since it was the only safe haven for large vessels between Bordeaux and the Spanish border. The bay of St Jean de Luz terminates, on its western side, in the small village of Socoa. The entrance to the bay is guarded by Fort Socoa, which is situated on a promontory in extreme north-west of the bay.

Plans to build a fortification at Socoa were first put forward during the reign of Henri IV in 1595, but work on a stone tower only started in 1627. However the fort was still incomplete nearly 10 years later in 1636 when the Spanish took Socoa and occupied it for a short period. The fort takes the form of a large central tower, which is almost medieval in architecture. The tower had four stories, with a cellar, three floors with loopholes for muskets and an open roof where artillery was mounted. A spiral staircase was built into the east side of the tower, facing the sea. The tower is surrounded by a loopholed inner wall, which is roughly square in shape.

In the 1670s Vauban visited Fort Socoa and drew up plans for a sea wall, connecting the fort (which had hitherto been practically an island only accessible at low tide) and the mainland. Vauban also added barrack buildings and had a cone-shaped wooden roof put on the top of the tower to protect the guns and gunners from the elements. The inner area at the foot of the tower contains most of the barrack buildings, all in the local style, as was common in Vauban's work.

On the south side of the fort, outside the loopholed wall, is the lower battery which faces south into the harbour. This lower section of the fort has a loopholed wall across its western end, where the fort's gate is, but the rest of the lower level is surrounded by the sea and has no wall around it. Two stone moles extend into the bay from either end of the lower battery, forming the port of Socoa. The larger mole had embrasures for guns facing east, covering the entrance to the bay.

On the east side of the fort Vauban drew up plans for a tongue-shaped upper battery that would give space for yet more guns, which could cover both the open sea to the north and the harbour to the south.

The works planned by Vauban were carried out over the following years by Francois Ferry, director of fortifications for the Atlantic region, and were largely completed by 1698. The fort did not see any significant action, although it played a minor role in the closing phase of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1813 when the Allied armies under the Duke of Wellington invaded France from the south, the French forces made a stand on the river Nivelle, with Fort Socoa anchoring their right flank. The Allies made a feint against the coastal sector, before making their main attack further inland the following day. As part of this diversion a flotilla of 4 Royal Navy vessels approached Fort Socoa and received some damage from the fort's batteries.

Visiting Fort Socoa

Socoa is within walking distance of St Jean de Luz, where there is a railway station. It is fairly easy to find the way - cross over the river Nivelle from St Jean de Luz into Ciboure, then follow the coast to Socoa. The fort is at the tip of the promontory and can be seen from St Jean de Luz and Ciboure.

The fort was home to a sailing club when I visited (2005) and it was not possible to gain access to the tower itself or the inner fort. However the fort has since been purchased by the local authorities, who may open it to the public as a visitor attraction.

Fort Socoa has survived in good condition with the exception of Vaubanís upper battery, which was replaced with a concrete battery by the Nazis during the Second World War. The wooden roof of the tower was removed in 1830, but otherwise it retains its original appearance. Although only a small fort, Socoa makes for an interesting place to explore and is set in a fantastic location on the Basque coast.

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