I’d whizzed past the fortified town of Neuf-Brisach (New Breisach) in the car on numerous occasions many moons ago, on the way to Colmar, but I’d never managed to actually stop and take a look at it. This changed on Tuesday when it became the destination for a cycle tour.
The name, Neuf-Brisach, might seem misleading to some as the town in fact dates back to the years around 1700, but it distinguishes the location from the ancient city of Breisach over on the other – German – side of the Rhine. Neuf-Brisach is, today, in Alsace (France), but it owes its existence partly to Austria.
In the 17th century all of this area, also including Breisach and Freiburg to the east of the Rhine, was under French rule, but according to the terms of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the now German areas were to be surrendered to Austria, which was under Habsburg rule back then. The French king, Louis XIV, felt the need for a new fortification close to the Rhine border and commissioned his military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, to build Neuf-Brisach. The plan shown above dates from this period.
Vauban upgraded and built a great many fortifications and military harbours during his lifetime, including Freiburg, Besançon, Maastricht and Dunkirk. A cluster of these were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008. He favoured the star fort design, not because it looked baroque and pretty, but for the military strength it offered. Unlike most older round or rectangular types of fortress, the walls of the star fort did not present easy perpendicular targets for attackers. From older designs it was hard to open cannon fire on potential infiltrators who had come close to the fortress walls, whereas the star fort offered defensive firing options from a range of different and overlapping angles, again not just perpendicular to a main wall. In other words, there were no dead zones. The diamond-shaped points allowed no hiding places for attackers, while an elaborate system of walls and ditches lured them into so-called “killing grounds”.
It’s odd thinking about all this today when you walk around the outside of Neuf-Brisach. There was a herd of sheep fenced in and sheltering from the sun next to one section of the walls, some sort of playground-cum-modern-art thingy on another side, and the only noise came when one approached one of the four city gates, which provide the only road access to the town.
Inside the walls, the chessboard layout of the original street plan has largely been preserved, and the central square, once a parade ground, is now a spacious market place in the centre of this now sleepy, quaint little town. The square’s vastness and the plain gritty surface do serve as a strong reminder of its original purpose, though.
Neuf-Brisach may not be the most monumentally impressive or best known of Vauban’s works, but it’s a wonderful destination for a day out and it’s given me a great excuse to delve a bit further into the history of this area.
Epilogue: One interesting thing I found out while researching this entry was that Michaelangelo engineered the building of a star fortification for Florence in the sixteenth century. Who knew?