Aigues Mortes

The finest walled cities in France

Cities still protected by their historic ramparts 

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Walls of Aigues Mortes
The medieval walls of Aigues Mortes, near Montpellier
    To visit a fine walled city in France, there is no need to go as far as Carcassonne, way down south in the Languedoc. While Carcassonne is the most emblematic of walled cities in France, it is by no means the only such location, and in actual fact there are walled towns and cities in many parts of France, from the Pas de Calais to the Pyrenees, and from Alsace to Brittany.
    On account of its location in the heart of western Europe, France is a country which, historically, had changing borders and fragile frontiers, right up until the 20th century.  In the 17th century, Vauban, Louis XIV's great military architect, fortified many towns and cities round France's border and frontier regions. He frequently consolidated existing medieval walls city walls or ramparts; and his successors continued the work. Until the 19th century, France was still consolidating the walls and ramparts of strategic cities in its eastern marches.
   Before the age of Vauban, many French towns had medieval fortifications; a few of these, including such examples as Carcassonne, Avignon or Guérande, survive more or less intact - though renovated - to this day. In addition to the selection of the best walled towns and cities listed below, France also has many towns that still have vestiges of their former ramparts and/or city gates, and also a large number of small "bastide towns", mostly in the southwest. Some of these remain largely fortified, others less so. Walled bastides were built in the Middle Ages to provide a safe haven for people to live in what was, in those days, dangerous territory. For more information on these, see France's Bastide towns.

The best preserved and most impressive walled cities and towns in France.

a) Fully walled or substantially walled cities
The ramparts of Carcassonne
Carcassonne and its ramparts 

  • Carcassonne  (Languedoc) :  The most famous walled city in France, old Carcassonne - a UNESCO world heritage site - is fully enclosed in its ramparts. Though the site is authentic, it was heavily restored in the nineteenth century, and embellished with a certain amount of fantasy  by the great French neo-gothic architect Viollet-Le-Duc. The old walled city is genuine, the ramparts are medieval; but most of the battlements as well as the steep slate roofs on the towers are due to Le Duc's imagination of how the old city ought to have looked in medieval times, rather than how it was.  
  • Langres (Lorraine) : Off the normal tourist track, a hill town and county capital almost entirely encircled by defensive walls, towers and and city gates. The fortifications of Langres were periodically renovated and developed until the 19th century. 
  • Laon (Picardy) : dramatically sited hill town, dominated by its great 12th century cathedral. The city walls and three city gates remain largely intact, though in parts the walls have been reduced in height. A delightful small town with an attractive and active historic city centre.
  • Saint Malo   (Brittany) :  The old port city of Saint Malo stands on what was once an island at the mouth of the river Rance. The old town was protected by walls from medieval times onwards, but it was Vauban, the great military engineer, who redesigned them in the 17th century, and gave them the form they have today.
  • Avignon (Provence) : UNESCO world heritage site - among the best and most complete set of city walls in France, the 14th century walls of Avignon, 4.3 km long, were protected and restored in the nineteenth century. All the old town of Avignon, including the Palace of the Popes, is within the ramparts. Avignon still has four city gates.
  • Besançon   (Franche-Comté). Most of the old town of Besançon is surrounded by defensive walls, culminating in the massive Citadel. While parts of these, notably the Rivotte gate, are medieval, most of the fortifications date from the 17th to 19th centuries, and are in part the work of Vauban. Centre for the Vauban UNESCO world heritage site.
b) The best fully walled or almost fully walled smaller towns in France 
  • Montreuil sur Mer (Nord-Pas de Calais) - this small town, on a hilltop south of Boulogne sur Mer, is fully encircled by 3 km of ramparts dating from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. Visitors can walk round the ramparts.
  • Le Quesnoy (Nord-Pas de Calais) - Fully fortified small town with some 3.5 kilometres of ramparts and remains of a moat. The town, fortified since medieval days, had its ramparts redesigned by Vauban in the 17th century
  • Neuf Brisach (Alsace) Neuf Brisach, in the Rhine valley, has the finest example of 17th century military city walls in France. They are the work of the great military architect Vauban
  • Bergheim (AlsaceBergheim is a small town in the Alsace vineyards, which has preserved its full town walls dating from the early fourteenth century.
  • Concarneau - Ville Close (Finisterre - Brittany) : the old town of Concarneau stands on a small island just offshore, protected by walls.
  • Dinan (Brittany) - The old town is almost completely surrounded by ramparts.
  • Guérande (Loire Atlantique - Pays de la Loire) . A very attractive small town on the north of the Loire estuary, completely encircled by medieval ramparts including ten towers and four city gates. Among the most complete ramparts in France.
  • Brouage (Poitou-Charentes) . The 16th-17th century ramparts of Brouage rise up from the Atlantic coastal marshes in southwest France. Now three kilometres from the sea, Brouage was a naval port in the past. Today it is a small village. Visitors can walk freely round the ramparts.
  • La Couvertoirade
    Minuscule walled city - La Couvertoirade, on the Larzac plateau 
    La Couvertoirade (Aveyron - Midi-Pyrenees) - An old bastion of the Knights Templar, located at 700 metres in the wilds of the Causse du Larzac, an arid plateau between Millau and Montpellier. Today a small village encircled by medieval walls with towers and a gate. Off the beaten track, but can be quite full in the tourist season and on holiday weekends.
  • Aigues Mortes (Gard - Languedoc) .  (Photo top of page) A medieval bastide city, Aigues Mortes, once a Mediterranean port, is a today a very impressive walled town at the edge of the Camargue 
  • Villefranche de Conflent (Eastern Pyrenees, Languedoc)  Small unspoilt town, in a steep sided valley, fully surrounded by fortifications dating from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.  City gates. Departure point for the Little yellow train.
c) Other French medieval cities with substantial and impressive sections of the old city walls still intact.
Go further : Best walled towns and cities in Spain

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Say "Walled town in France", and most people will at once think of the fine but much-renovated city of Carcassonne; but while Carcassonne is rightly seen as one of the finest examples of a medieval walled city anywhere in the world, it is not the only walled city  in France. The former port of Aigues-Mortes, photo top of page, near Montpellier, is one of several other walled cities in France.

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Laon ramparts and cathedral
Laon, with its ramparts and cathedral

Brouage walled city France
Rivotte gate, Besançon

Brouage walled city France
View from the ramparts of Brouage, Charente Maritime

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