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Briançon (Municipality, Hautes-Alpes, France)

Last modified: 2015-04-04 by ivan sache
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[Flag of Briançon]

Flag of Briançon - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 1 April 2004

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Presentation of Briançon

The municipality of Briançon (12,301 inhabitants in 2012; 2,807 ha; municipal website, touring website), is located in the upper valley of river Durance, 15 km from the border with Italy, 120 km from Grenoble and Turin. The downtown of the is located at an elevation of 1,326 m, which makes of Briançon the highest town in Europe.

Briançon is located at the confluence of the five valleys of Durance, Clarée, Guisane, Cerveyrette and les Ayes. The area was settled by the Celto-Ligurian tribe of Brigiani, which gave their name to the Roman town of Brigantio. The Celtic root *brig means "an elevated place".
In the Middle Ages, Briançon was nominally part of the state of Dauphiné. The town, however, progressively conquered its independence and signed in 1343 the "Great Transaction" with the Dauphin. This charter of rights was preserved until the French Revolution, even after the "Transportation" of Dauphiné to the Kingdom of France in 1349. The town became the seat of the Bailiwick of Briançonnais and the capital of the federation of Escartons, which grouped 52 local communities. After the establishment of the popes in Avignon, commerce developed in Briançon and international fairs were set up.
In the 15th century, Briançon became a main step-over on the way to Italy. The incessant presence of troops involved in the Italian wars disrupted commerce and the economy of the town. Briançon was burned down in 1624 and 1692. The second reconstruction of the town was ordered by Louis XIV and directed by Vauban, then Commissaire Général des Fortifications. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht set up the border at the pass of Montgenèvre, only 15 km of Briançon, thus increasing the strategic significance of the town.

Briançon is a unique example of mountain fortified town. The heart of the town is divided into the lower city (borough Sainte-Catherine) and the upper, fortified city, built by Vauban on the site of the first medieval town. The upper city of Briançon is built on a rocky peak, surrounded by a wall and dominated by the Fort of the Castle. The access to the city is allowed only by the three gates of Pignerol, Dauphiné and Embrun. The houses were built as compact clusters of narrow, high buildings grouped along narrow streets, in order to optimize the use of a very limited space. The city is crossed by two open pipes called the Big and the Small Gargouille. The Gargouilles date back from the Middle Ages, when they were used in case of fire. The upper city of Briançon is therefore nicknamed "Gargouille" and its inhabitants "Gargouillards". Briançon is the only town in France with Saint-Martin-de-Vésubie, in the Southern Alps, where such gargouilles have been preserved.
Vauban built several forts on the surrounding mountains in order to protect the city and watch the strategic road to Italy. The Redoubt of Salettes, imagined by Vauban in 1692, was built from 1709 to 1712 on the slope of the Croix de Toulouse. It was made of a square tower surrounded by a ditch and a gallery for backfire. Its aim was to watch the road to Italy and to prevent the enemy to settle on a ominant position above the city. In 1840, the redoubt was transformed into a true artillery fort with an outer ditch, blockhouses and bastions.
The bridge of Asfeld was planned by Vauban in 1700 as a two-arched bridge over the gorge of Durance, in order to link the fortified city to the Fort des Têtes. The bridge was built in four months (April-August 1730) as a 55 m, single-arched bridge.
The Fort Dauphin, built on the edge of the forest, watched the Fort des Têtes. Together with the Fort of Salettes, it completely locked the road to Italy. The fort, equipped with multiple floors and a bastioned front, was built around a big wall (width 2.20 m, height 9.30 m).
The Fort des Têtes is the most important element of Vauban's defense system, protecting the city. It was imagined in 1700 and its building started in 1721 under the direction of engineers Tardif and Nègre. The top of the mountain des Têtes had to be leveled by extracting all the rocks. The area of the fort is larger than the area of the fortified city. Served by 1,250 men and 70 cannons, the fort could have been used as a fallback position in case of seizure of the city. It is linked to the city by the bridge of Asfeld and to the fort of Randouillet by communication Y. The fort was never achieved and several of its parts changed of use with time: the chapel was transformed into barracks in the 19th century.
The Fort of Randouillet was built as a defense of the Fort des Têtes from an attack coming from the mountain of Infernet. It is made of a "donjon" surmonting a "military city" with barracks, ammunition sheds, etc.

Briançon was besieged in 1815 for three months by the Austro-Sardinian army, to no avail.
Until the Second World War, Briançon was a typical Alpine garrison town, with 4,000 soldiers but also an industrial town, with factories, collieries and dairies.
During the Second World War, the fort of Chaberton was totally destroyed by the French artillery. The Germans withdrew from the city on 23 August 1944, came back on 29 August and were definitively expelled on 6 September.

Briançon is often called the sunshine capital of Europe, with an average number of 300 days of sunshine per year and an extremely low rate of relative humidity. Winter sports developed with the resort of Serre-Chevalier (250 km of ski runs) as well as summer sports such as mountain climbing, hiking, via ferrating, canyoning etc.
Briançon also proclaimed itself the world capital of cyclism. It has featured more than 50 times in the itinerary of Tour de France, being conveniently located between the famous passes of Galibier (2,645 m) in the north and Izoard (2,361 m) in the south. The Briançon stage usually ends with the terrible ascension to the upper city on cobblestoned roads. The list of the winners of the Briançon stage is impressive, including Gino Bartali (1938, 1948 and 1949), Louison Bobet (1950, 1953 and 1954), Fausto Coppi (1951), Charly Gaul (1955), Gastone Nencini (1957), Federico Bahamontes (1958 and 1964), Felice Gimondi (1967) and Eddy Merckx (1972). In 2000, Briançon featured in the itinerary of the three big Alpine races, Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré.

Ivan Sache, 1 April 2004

Flag of Briançon

The Fla of Briançon is divided blue-white by a yellow descending diagonal stripe.The municipal coat of arms is placed in the middle of the flag.

The greater arms of Briançon are "Azure a fortified gateway with three towers argent pierced and masoned sable the gateway of the field".
The arms o were ascribed to the Armorial Général, but formally adopted by the municipality in 1969 only. The official graphical design was made by Robert and Mireille Louis. However, there are several variation of this design, including the one used on the flag. On Louis' design, the outer walls of the gate are not curved and the towers are thinner and higher.

Dominique Cureau & Ivan Sache, 1 April 2004