Briançon, Town of art and history

From ancient remains to 20th century architecture, the Villes d’art et d’histoire (towns of art and history) showcase the diversity of France’s cultural heritage. Today, a network of 163 towns and areas, of art and history expertly presents sites throughout France.

The Ville d’art et d’histoire initiatives in Briançon are coordinated by the Heritage Service which has developed a programme of guided tours for individuals, groups and younger visitors led by Ministère de la Culture accredited guide-lecturers. It organises events for Briançon locals and school groups throughout the year. While during the school holidays, the service expands its remit to offer just the right kind of tour for all its visitors.

Briançon, member of the Réseau des sites majeurs de Vauban which brings together the 12 Vauban sites that have been inscribed onto the World Heritage List.

The association coordinates the work of conserving, managing and developing these sites with their outstanding architectural, urban and landscape heritage. It also serves to initiate and develop research and cultural exchanges on the international stage. Seven sites in Briançon were privileged enough to receive recognition for their authenticity – their state of conservation, representative role and the development programmes in place to manage them.

    Le pont d’Asfeld
    Le fort des Trois Têtes (guided tours)
    Le fort Dauphin
    Le fort du Randouillet
    La communication Y
    The city walls and developments made inside them (guided tours)
    Le fort des Salettes (guided tours)

History of the town…

Occupying a key position for Alpine commerce, the town has seen economic, political and strategic development on both a national and international scale.

Crossroads of commerce and ideas
The birth of the town can be dated to the first quarter of the 13th century and references to the ‘bourg’. The Dauphin sought to stimulate trade in the town by granting his subjects certain political and economic concessions. These privileges gave Briançon commerce an international dimension, while the establishment of the Papacy in Avignon at the beginning of the 14th century saw increased commercial traffic via the Durance valley. Merchants came from across France, the Comtat Venaissin (the region around Avignon), Italy, Flanders, Germany and Spain, and the Great Briançon Fair was held in September and could last up to 15 days

A strong religious presence
The rise of the Waldensians in the Middle Ages prompted the Catholic Church to wage a campaign of evangelism and repression. This led to the construction of numerous religious buildings. A Franciscan monastery was built at the end of the 14th century. Monks played an active role in the town, building the Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs in the 16th century.The town’s medieval church with its elegant tapering spire was razed to the ground in the 18th century to make way for the ramparts and a collegiate church was built within the town walls. A new monastery for the Récollets (Franciscan) monks, army chaplains, was built in the 18th century and Ursuline nuns took charge of the education of girls.

Military life
Located at the foot of the Col du Montgenèvre, Briançon has been a defended settlement since the Gallo-Roman period. The kings of France stayed here several times during the wars with Italy and the arrival of troops in the town often left its inhabitants financially ruined. Its military presence swelled with the construction of defensive walls in the 18th century and there could be as many as 6000 men garrisoned here in times of conflict. The creation of a ‘snow regiment’ at the end of the 19th century had a great effect on Briançon life and in 1994 the 159th Régiment d’Infanterie Alpine was replaced by the Centre National d’Aguerrissement en Montagne.

The Industrial Revolution
The establishment of a factory in the lower town gave a huge boost to the economy of the Briançon region. The Schappe factory processed waste silk and brought the Industrial Revolution to Briançon. It precipitated a period of great social and economic change and urbanisation to the town. With this came the birth of the Quartier SainteCatherine as a new middle class centre of industry and commerce. The factory provided employment for between 800 and 900 workers for almost a century. The aftermath of the First World War and the arrival of manmade synthetic silk meant the factory was forced to close its doors for the last time in 1933.

The birth of tourism and the development of mountain cures
The new activity known as tourism spread through the Briançon region in the second half of the 19th century. Thanks to the growing popularity of winter and summer sports and the staging of the world’s first international ski competition in Montgenèvre in 1907, the reputation of the greater Briançon area was attracting increasing numbers of visitors. As well as tourism, mountain cures were another source of income and Briançon’s dry, healthy climate and sunshine meant that in July 1914 it established itself as a ‘health resort’. Yet it was not until the 1930s and the construction of the sanatoriums that a true health-promotion policy was put in place.