UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France

Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe

The Romanesque Abbey church was constructed in the mid-11th century and contains many beautiful 11th- and 12th-century murals which are still in a remarkable state of preservation. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. The cruciform church carries a square tower over its crossing. The transept was built first, then the choir with its ambulatory with five radial chapels in the polygonal apse. In the next bu ...
Founded: c. 1050 | Location: Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France

Besançon Fortress

Besançon"s Vauban citadel has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Louis XIV of France conquered the city for the first time in 1668, but the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle returned it to Spain within a matter of months. While it was in French hands, the famed military engineer Vauban visited the city and drew up plans for its fortification. The Spaniards built the main centre point of the city"s defen ...
Founded: 1668-1711 | Location: Besançon, France

Abbey of Saint-Gilles

The Abbey of Saint-Gilles is included in the UNESCO Heritage List, as part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France. According to the legend, it was founded in the 7th century by saint Giles, over lands which had been given him by the Visigoth King Wamba after he had involuntarily wounded the saint during a hunt. The monastery was initially dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul: however, ...
Founded: 7th century | Location: Saint-Gilles, France

Blaye Citadel

The fortified citadel at Blaye, standing on the opposite bank of the river Gironde to Fort Médoc, forms, along with Fort Paté, the region's 17th-century defence against river attack. Built by Vauban, together this group are named the Fortifications of Vauban and are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site of the citadel saw its first castle in the 7th century. Vauban's fortress though was built ...
Founded: 1689-1692 | Location: Blaye, France

Alyscamps Necropolis

The Alyscamps is a large Roman necropolis, one of the most famous necropolises of the ancient world. Roman cities traditionally forbade burials within the city limits. It was therefore common for the roads immediately outside a city to be lined with tombs and mausoleums; the Appian Way outside Rome provides a good example. The Alyscamps was Arles' main burial ground for nearly 1,500 years. It was the final segment of the ...
Founded: 300-400 AD | Location: Arles, France

Tour Vauban

The Tour Vauban (Vauban Tower), initially known as the tour de Camaret, is an 18m-high polygonal defensive tower built to a plan by Vauban on the Sillon at Camaret-sur-Mer, as part of the fortifications of the goulet de Brest. It has three levels and is flanked by walls, a guardhouse and a gun battery which can hold 11 cannons as well as a cannonball foundry added in the French Revolution period. Drafted in 1683, the tow ...
Founded: 1693-1696 | Location: Camaret-sur-Mer, France

Saint-Lizier Cathedrals

Saint-Lizier Cathedral can refer to either of the two former co-cathedrals of the town of Saint-Lizier, Notre-Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Sède de Saint-Lizier) and St. Lizier"s Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Lizier de Saint-Lizier), dedicated to Saint Lycerius. Saint-Lizier falls into two quite separate parts, each with its own cathedral. The lower part contains the old village arou ...
Founded: 1117 | Location: Saint-Lizier, France

Vauban Tower

In 1692 the naval Battle of La Hougue took place between the English and the French close to the island of Tatihou. The so-called Vauban Tower (Tour Vauban de Tatihou) was built in 1694. In 1756 the surroundings of La Hougue were defended by many batteries and forts, but the lack of regular maintenance ensured that these quickly fell into disrepair. In 1720 Tatihou was used for quarantining plague victims from Marseilles. ...
Founded: 1694 | Location: Tatihou, France

Carcassonne Cathedral

Carcassonne Cathedral was built in the 13th century as a parish church, dedicated to Saint Michael. Following war damage in the 14th century it was rebuilt as a fortified church. In 1803 St. Michael"s was elevated to cathedral status, replacing the earlier cathedral dedicated to Saints Nazarius and Celsus, now the Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse. The cathedral plan is characterised by its relative simplicity. ...
Founded: 14th century | Location: Carcassonne, France

Pont du Diable

The Pont du Diable on the Hérault River is one of many bridges in France with this name (it means Devil"s bridge). Constructed by Benedictine monks in the first half of the 11th century, it provided a link between the abbey at Aniane and the Gellone Abbey at Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Though subsequently widened and raised several metres around 1770, it has retained its original shape. Vehicular traffic i ...
Founded: 11th century | Location: Saint-Jean-de-Fos, France

Neuf-Brisach

Neuf-Brisach is a fortified town intended to guard the border between France and the Holy Roman Empire and, subsequently the German states. It was built after the peace of Ryswick, in 1697, that resulted in the loss to France of the town of Breisach, on the opposite bank of the Rhine. The town"s name means New Breisach. Work began on the fortified town in 1698, to plans drawn by Vauban, a military engineer at the se ...
Founded: 1698 | Location: Neuf-Brisach, France

Agen Cathedral

Agen Cathedral's (Cathédrale Saint-Caprais d'Agen) visible structure dates back to the 12th century. It was built as a collegiate church of canons dedicated to Saint Caprasius, on the foundations of a basilica sacked by the Normans in 853 but thereafter restored. Sacked again in December 1561 during the Wars of Religion, by two years after the countrywide coup d'état that took place in 1789, the cathedral had come to s ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Agen, France

Quartiers Modernes Frugés

Quartiers Modernes Frugès is a housing development located in Pessac. It was designed by noted architect Le Corbusier as both an architect and a town planner. It contained some 70 housing units. The building was built as experimental housing for workers. Le Corbusier took into account prevailing social and economic factors, and was determined to build the plan to provide people with low-cost, predetermined, homoge ...
Founded: 1920-1924 | Location: Pessac, France

Mont-Dauphin Fortress

Mont-Dauphin is one of the many places fortified by Vauban in the second half of the 17th century. Following invasions of Provence by Savoy in 1691 and 1692, Louis XIV dispached Vauban to put the frontier in a better state of defence. In 1692 he came to the Plateau de Mille-Aures, which overlooks both of the invasion routes used by the Savoyards, to fortify it. The ground in question was on a high hill, roughly four-side ...
Founded: 1692 | Location: Mont-Dauphin, France

Cambrai Belfry

Cambrai Belfry was erected in the 11th and again in the 13th century as a symbol of community freedom. However it was destroyed several times when local uprisings were crushed. In 1395, Cambrai obtained final authorisation from the Emperor Venceslas to have a belfry, a function performed by the bell-tower of Saint-Martin church in the middle of the 16th century. Its role later saved it from destruction, when the church wa ...
Founded: 1447 | Location: Cambrai, France

Fort Médoc

Built on marshy land on the Left Bank of the Gironde, opposite Fort Pâté, Fort Médoc was a key part of Vauban"s three-point defence system. Its purpose was to block the passage of ships between Île Pâté and Cussac in the Médoc. Fort Médoc was built in 1689-1690 on low-lying terrain with alluvial soil. The artillery battery was pointed towards Blaye and most of the ...
Founded: 1689-1690 | Location: Cussac-Fort-Médoc, France

Saint-Martin-de-Ré Citadel

The l"île de Ré, opposite La Rochelle, was subjected on several occasions to attack from British soldiers. Conscious of the need to protect access to La Rochelle and Rochefort, in 1681 Vauban started strengthening the island"s defences by building a citadel and fortified castle at Saint-Martin-de-Ré, on the North coast. Built on the site of a fortress where construction work had started in 1 ...
Founded: 1681 | Location: Saint-Martin-de-Ré, France

Fort Mont Louis

Located in the eastern Pyrenees at an altitude of 1600 metres, the stronghold of Mont-Louis was built from scratch by Vauban on granite terrain and is perfectly adapted to the geography of the site. Work started in 1679 and was completed in two years. The fortified ensemble was added as a complement to Villefranche-de-Conflent in securing the route from the Pyrenees. This ensemble consists of two square structures, in ti ...
Founded: 1679 | Location: Mont-Louis, France

Fort Paté

Fort Paté is a small oval battery on an island in the middle of the river Gironde, just big enough to hold the soldiers who defend it. It was built between 1685 and 1693 as part of the verrou de Blaye, a system of three forts built to seal the river against enemy ships. The fort was situated so as to support the river batteries at Blaye on the right bank and Fort Médoc on the left bank. The island used to b ...
Founded: 1693 | Location: Blaye, France

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a baroque French château built between 1658-1661 for Nicolas Fouquet. It was made for Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV, the château was an influential work of architecture in mid-17th century Europe. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of the 'Louis XIV style' combining architecture, interior design and landscape design. The garden's pronounced visual axis is an example of this style.

To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages. The displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. It was said to have employed eighteen thousand workers and cost as much as 16 million livres. The château and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. At the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event organized by François Vatel, and an impressive firework show.

After Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The king seized, confiscated or purchased 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-Vicomte, the palace and gardens of Versailles.

The Marshal Villars became the new owner without first seeing the chateau. In 1764, the Marshal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants would maintain the property for over a century. It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the château was the scene of a murder in 1847, when duke Charles de Choiseul-Praslin, killed his wife in her bedroom, but this did not happen at Vaux-le-Vicomte but at the Paris residence of the Duke.

In 1875, after thirty years of neglect, the estate was sold to Alfred Sommier in a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, assisted by the landscape architect Elie Lainé. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to preserve the château, which remains privately owned by Patrice and Cristina de Vogüé, the Count and Countess de Vogüé. It is now administered by their three sons Alexandre, Jean-Charles and Ascanio de Vogüé. Recognized by the state as a monument historique, it is open to the public regularly.

Architecture

The chateau is situated near the northern end of a 1.5-km long north-south axis with the entrance front facing north. Its elevations are perfectly symmetrical to either side of this axis. Somewhat surprisingly the interior plan is also nearly completely symmetrical with few differences between the eastern and western halves. The two rooms in the center, the entrance vestibule to the north and the oval salon to the south, were originally an open-air loggia, dividing the chateau into two distinct sections. The interior decoration of these two rooms was therefore more typical of an outdoor setting. Three sets of three arches, those on the entrance front, three more between the vestibule and the salon, and the three leading from the salon to the garden are all aligned and permitted the arriving visitor to see through to the central axis of the garden even before entering the chateau. The exterior arches could be closed with iron gates, and only later were they filled in with glass doors and the interior arches with mirrored doors. Since the loggia divided the building into two halves, there are two symmetrical staircases on either side of it, rather than a single staircase. The rooms in the eastern half of the house were intended for the use of the king, those in the western were for Fouquet. The provision of a suite of rooms for the king was normal practice in aristocratic houses of the time, since the king travelled frequently.

Another surprising feature of the plan is the thickness of the main body of the building (corps de logis), which consists of two rows of rooms running east and west. Traditionally the middle of the corps de logis of French chateaux consisted of a single row of rooms. Double-thick corps de logis had already been used in hôtels particuliers in Paris, including Le Vau's Hôtel Tambonneau, but Vaux was the first chateau to incorporate this change. Even more unusual, the main rooms are all on the ground floor rather than the first floor (the traditional piano nobile). This accounts for the lack of a grand staircase or a gallery, standard elements of most contemporary chateaux. Also noteworthy are corridors in the basement and on the first floor which run the length of house providing privacy to the rooms they access. Up to the middle of the 17th century, corridors were essentially unknown. Another feature of the plan, the four pavilions, one at each corner of the building, is more conventional.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was originally planned to be constructed in brick and stone, but after the mid-century, as the middle classes began to imitate this style, aristocratic circles began using stone exclusively. Rather late in the design process, Fouquet and Le Vau switched to stone, a decision that may have been influenced by the use of stone at François Mansart's Château de Maisons. The service buildings flanking the large avant-cour to the north of the house remained in brick and stone, and other structures preceding them were in rubble-stone and plaster, a social ranking of building materials that would be common in France for a considerable length of time thereafter.

The main chateau is constructed entirely on a moated platform, reached via two bridges, both aligned with the central axis and placed on the north and south sides. The moat is a picturesque holdover from medieval fortified residences, and is again a feature that Le Vau may have borrowed from Maisons. The moat at Vaux may also have been inspired by the previous chateau on the site, which Le Vau's work replaced.

Gardens

The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, as the woodlands are mature, than it was in the seventeenth century when the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.

Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, stretching nearly a mile and a half (3 km), with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.

Le Nôtre created a magnificent scene to be viewed from the house, using the laws of perspective. Le Notre used the natural terrain to his advantage. He placed the canal at the lowest part of the complex, thus hiding it from the main perspectival point of view. Past the canal, the garden ascends a large open lawn and ends with the Hercules column added in the 19th century. Shrubberies provided a picture frame to the garden that also served as a stage for royal fêtes.

From the top of the grand staircase, this gives the impression that the entire garden is revealed in one single glance. Initially, the view consists of symmetrical rows of shrubbery, avenues, fountains, statues, flowers and other pieces developed to imitate nature – these elements exemplify the Baroque desire to mold nature to fit its wishes, thus using nature to imitate nature. The centerpiece is a large reflecting pool flanked by grottos holding statues in their many niches. The grand sloping lawn is not visible until one begins to explore the garden, when the viewer is made aware of the optical elements involved and discovers that the garden is much larger than it looks.