Briançon (pop. 11.000) sits on a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 1.300m (4.265ft). It is best known for its extensive Vauban fortifications and as a base for many of the Winter Sport Areas of France's Southern Alps. Briançon is a frontier town on the road to the Col de Montgenèvre (1.850m/6.070ft), an ancient mountain pass, that was made into a reliable road by Napoleon. The Italian border is just 15km to the east and from there Torino can be reached in 90 minutes by car.
Given this strategic location it is no wonder that the place was settled early on. A Celtic-Ligurian kingdom was subdued by the Romans who named the settlement Brigantium. Later the town became part of the Dauphiné, an independent principality from 1040 to 1349 ruled by the Counts of Albon in Grenoble, before they bequethed their land to the French King (who expunged their considerable debts in return). Briançon became an increasingly important border post. After two devastating raids by the Duke of Savoy in 1691 and 1692 during the War of the League of Augsburg, Vauban inspected the eastern borders and convinced the King to improve and greatly expand Briançon's fortifications. During the 18th century a number of additional forts were constructed on neighboring heights to better protect the town, such as the Redoute des Salettes, the Fort des Trois-Têtes and Fort du Randouillet. All of these fortifications are in their original state, except for the old town's Pignerol front, which has been altered to allow for traffic access. Everything is in very good condition and can be visited.
Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban, the later Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), Marshall of France, was the leading military engineer of his time. He designed military fortifications during the reign of Louis XIV, which became a model for the rest of Europe. On July 7, 2008, UNESCO listed 12 of his fortifications in France as World Heritage Sites. Briançon and the Mont Dauphin, 40km to the south are the two Vauban UNESCO heritage sites located in the Provence.
The town consists of two sections: the Vieille Ville (old town) with the Vauban battlements, narrow streets (pedestrian only) and the Ville Basse (lower town), which spreads out beneath the old town. The Ville Basse is expanding to the south along the banks of the Durance and to the northwest into the Guisane Valley, with the Serre Chevalier ski area practically at its doorstep. The old town and the lower town are connected by the steep Avenue de la République. The best entry by car to the old town is from Place du Champ de Mars on the old town's northern side. If you are walking up the hill from the lower town you enter through Porte d'Embrun.
The old town is a worthwhile place to explore, especially during the off season, when there are fewer Italian day trippers. At the top of the old town is the Porte de Pignerol, the main gateway built with dark stone. The steep main street, la Grande Rue, is known to locals as the Grande Gargouille because of the drain that runs down its middle. A gargouille is a small drain that runs down the middle of a street. This used to be quite common in medieval towns. Today only a few remain, like the one in Saint Martin Vésubie near Nice and Freiburg, Germany (which has the most extensive gargouille network still working). You can find a second gargouille in Briançon on Rue Mercerie, which locals call the Petite Gargouille. In the old town are several tiny chapels, old fountains spouting water from underground springs and sundials. The brightly colored buildings give the old town a pretty, almost southern Provençal look. The Eglise Collégiale (Church of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas) was built by Vauban in the early 18th century, a twin-towered, fortified structure. The baroque paintings and gilt chapels inside warrant a closer inspection. From the 18th century citadel, the Fort du Château, which sits above the old town, you have fine views of the snowy peaks of the mighty Écrins ranges.
Construction of Briançon's defensive walls and the Fort du Château started in earnest in 1693. Due to the terrain, Vauban abandoned his usual design and created a layered defense system around the town, with the Fort du Château at its highest point. The latter's defenses were helped by the terrain - the walls and the cliffs were sufficient to prevent an assault. Initially Vauban had no plans for protecting the neighboring heights, which command the town and the fortifications. When he returned in 1700 however, he made plans for a fort on the other side of the river to Briançon, the Fort des Têtes aka Fort des Trois Têtes (named after the Three Head Plateau on which it was constructed). He envisioned a single span bridge over the gorge to link this fort with the town. What is today known as the Pont d'Asfeld (named after Vauban's successor, the Marquis d'Asfeld), was constructed 28 years later. With an arch of 40m (131ft) at a height of 56m (184ft) it is an impressive engineering feat given the terrain and materials available at that time. The Fort des Têtes, bigger than the citadel in Briançon, could house 1.000 men and equipment. Other forts in the surrounding hills are the Fort des Selettes, Fort de Randouillet and numerous others, most of them in excellent condition.