If you are visiting Franche-Comté or Alsace, the Belfort with its history and its massive fortifications, makes an ideal day trip. The town takes pride in having given France more generals (20 in total within a century) than any other French town.
Belfort is located at the border of the Rhine and the Rhône basins, in a strategic pass which the army named “Trouée de Belfort” (Belfort Gap). For geographers, the area is called Burgundy Gate (Porte de Bourgogne) or Alsace Gate (Porte d’Alsace), depending on whether one looks to the West or to the East. The Belfort Gap stretches over 30 km between the Vosges and the Jura, and the exact location of the pass is found 14 km East of Belfort, at Valdieu-Lutran, in the Sundgau.
This strategic position is evident from the architectural features displayed in the town: a Germanic-style old centre and a definite French influence with its “faubourgs” or immediate districts.
The site of Belfort’s old town is quite impressive when viewed from the West. The city extends from beneath a cliff, from which a monumental stone lion has been carved out of the rock, surmounted by a castle. The Savoureuse, rather a ravishing name for a river, marks the limits between the old town and the “nouveaux faubourgs” – the new districts built between 1871 and 1914, during the rapid demographic growth of Belfort.
Belfort : an Austrian outpost
During the Middle-Ages, Belfort was an Austrian town possessed by the Habsburgs, as was the neighbouring region of Sundgau. In a way, Belfort could have been called an outpost bastion of Austria as it marked the most western post of the Vorderösterreich (Anterior Austria) during three centuries, between 1360 and 1648.
In the 12th century, Thierry II, Count of Montbéliard, had a castle built at the top of a steep hill above the Savoureuse River. He named this castle “Belfort”.
The territory of its rival, Frederic I, Count of Ferrette, extended to the hill, facing the Belfort Castle. Frederic in turn decided to erect his own castle which he named “Montfort”, on the current site of the “Tower of Miotte”. This ancient tower is held very dear to the people of Belfort who considered themselves as “Miottains” – children of the Miotte and who used to pick up a stone from around the tower to take as a talisman for when they were travelling far away from the city. The Miotte has been destroyed many times, in 1870-71 and 1940, but has always been rebuilt.
From this point onwards the two related families shared a long common history of both happy events and conflicts, until the Treaty of Grandvillars.
The Treaty of Grandvillars (1226) mentioned the name of the Belfort for the first time, presumably referring to its castle which may have been strong and impressive. Today, the well and the “Tour des Bourgeois” are the only medieval elements untouched by the successive restorations of the castle.
By legal secesssion, Belfort and its surroundings became an entirely Austrian territory around 1360 and remained so until 1648.
Belfort quickly became a Habsburg bastion at the western limits of their growing empire.
By becoming entirely Austrian, the people of Belfort (les Belfortains) were not safe from the attentions of Austria’s powerful enemies: the influential duchy of Burgundy, the fierce Swiss Confederates and the distant kingdom of France.
The frequent passage of enemy armies, due to the strategic position of Belfort between the North and Mediterranean Seas, and between the two rivals, Paris and Vienna, did it more harm than good.
In 1365, the Holy Roman Empire – whose emperors were from the Habsburg dynasty – decided to base 400 soldiers in Belfort.
Later, in the 16th century, Belfort found itself surrounded by powerful Protestant cities: Mulhouse and Basel to the East, and Montbéliard to the South. The Habsburgs took a very firm stance against all attempts to introduce the Reformation in Belfort and in the Sundgau.
Subsequently, the dynasty was the spearhead of the Counter Reformation, encouraging the introduction of anti-reformist works (particularly monasteries and Jewish schools) in the region.
However, after the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, Protestantism continued to make progress in Europe. The Protestant princes of Bohemia refused to recognise the authority of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), Ferdinand II (who himself was a Habsburg).
War erupted in 1618 due to the extreme tension between Catholics and Protestants, and the emperor and Protestant princes.
Belfort becomes French
The political situation was further complicated by the intervention by France, which had long been hostile to the ambitions of the House of Austria in Europe. During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Belfort was coveted by each side and was thus considered a sort of strategic “Gibraltar of the East“.
In 1632, Belfort was besieged by the Swedish and surrendered in January 1633. The town was taken and retaken by the different warmongers and suffered devastation for the next 3 years. On the 28th June 1636, the town was definitively taken by the French. Fighting in the name of the King of France, Louis de Champagne, Count of Suze, seized the fortified town in the middle of the night in an incredible act of boldness. The Count of Suze’s motto was made famous for its brief but tenacious message: “Never surrender!” (Ne capitulez jamais).
The King of France’s victories forced the Habsburgs to surrender Upper Alsace to him.
The Habsburgs withdrew from the other side of the Rhine and made Freiburg-im-Breisgau the new capital of the rest of their possessions in Anterior Austria.
On the 24th October, 1648 the Habsburgs signed the Treaty of Westphalia, which stipulated the transfer of Belfort and the Sundgau to France.
From the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) to 1789
From 1648 Belfort was ruled by the King of France, Louis XIV. In 1679, the military engineer Vauban visited the town and designed plans for new fortifications to be built. His work can still be seen while driving around Belfort, and particularly from the viewing platform of the castle.
The Gate of Breisach (Porte de Brisach), built in 1687, is particularly impressive and worth a visit.
The fortifications designed by Vauban included two gates, the Breisach Gate and the France Gate (destroyed in 1892). Each gate was protected by a demi-lune (or ravelin), a triangular fortification in front of the innerworks of the Belfort fortress. The Breisach Gate’s ravelin is linked to the bastion by a bridge spanning the trenches. More than just a military construction, the Breisach Gate of Belfort was designed in a way to bring glory to the King of France, Louis XIV. Several ornamental embellishments still testify to this endeavour: fleurs-de-lis surmounted by the royal crown, and engraved in the pediment, the sun (emblem of King Louis XIV, the Sun King) and his Latin motto “nec pluribus impar” (none can be compared to him). Notice the date – 1687 – engraved in roman numerals just under the pediment.
To appreciate the appeal of Vauban, a ride along the Avenue du Capitaine de la Laurencie, reveals the impressive set of ramparts built by Vauban, as the street was traced in between the walls.
In the old town, the Cathedral Saint-Christophe was built in pink sandstone from the Vosges between 1727 and 1750 in a classical style by Henri Schuller from the designs of Jacques Mareschal. The wrought-iron railings inside the church which encircle the choir stalls are covered in gold-leaves. They were influenced by those of Place Stanislas in Nancy. The magnificent organ, listed as a historic monument, dates back to 1752 and is from Joseph Valtrin. Initially an abbatial church, the building only became a cathedral in 1979, when the bishopric of Belfort-Montbéliard was created.
Until the end of the 19th century, the old town of Belfort was completely surrounded by the fortifications designed by Vauban. The old town is relatively small but it has been entirely restored, making an enjoyable stroll, particularly in summer. From the cliff of the castle to the banks of the Savoureuse River, the old town alternates between picturesque streets, small lanes and squares. The steep roofs of the old town are best viewed from the terrace of the castle, and at a simple glance, share similarities with houses of neighbouring towns of Delle, Altkirch, Ferrette or even Porrentruy (Switzerland).
Belfort from the French Revolution to 1870
During the French Revolution (1789), the Province of Alsace, to which Belfort belonged, was administratively restructured. From December 1789 to February 1790, the Constituante completely reorganised the French administration. The former provinces (Lorraine, Normandy, Alsace, Burgundy, etc.) gave way to départements, which were themselves divided into several districts (or arrondissements). The province of Alsace was thus divided into two départements: the Bas-Rhin to the north and the Haut-Rhin to the south, with their respective administrative centres of Strasbourg and Colmar. Belfort, Mulhouse and Altkirch became the three sub-prefectures of the Haut-Rhin.
Under the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, General Haxo commissioned the modernisation of the fortification system of Belfort, transforming the place as a truly entrenched camp, defended by the castle itself, and by two new bastions: the Miotte and the Justice. All these military forts were connected together and linked to the castle. Haxo also modernised the fortifications of the castle itself by digging two ditches and building two new lines of walls. At the entrance to the castle is a small cour d’honneur bordered by the Haxo casemates which have since been transformed into exhibition halls and cafés. In one of them, a well dating back to the medieval castle, is 67 metres deep.
The great design by Haxo can be seen at its best from the panoramic terrace on top of the castle. From there, the view extends from the Jura Mountains to the hills of Salbert and the Hautes-Vosges (Ballon de Servance, Ballon d’Alsace, Baerenkopf and Rossberg).
Since July 2007, a section of the citadel has been opened to the public along the moats and the big underpass of the citadel. The trail includes a spectacular sound and light show in the great underground grotto which has been totally redesigned for it. This original journey is named “La Citadelle de la Liberté” (Citadel of Liberty).
The citadel houses the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Arts and History) which displays paintings of Dürer and Doré, alongside other local artefacts and exhibits on the town’s former military heroes.
The siege of Belfort (1870-71)
1871 was a year that would go down in Belfort’s history, as it symbolises the defeat of the French army by the Prussians and – most importantly – Belfort’s memorable resistance which lasted 103 days.
In November 1870, the Prussian army started to besiege Belfort by occupying all its surrounding villages, armed with 40,000 soldiers. For 73 consecutive days, 3,500 French soldiers and over 14,000 inexperienced local fighters endured Prussian bombing in the midst of winter. The Prussian enemy set up 200 big guns which fired more than 5,000 shells per day.
On the 13th February 1871, 21 days after the signature of the armistice between the French and the Prussians in Versailles, the commander of the French army, Colonel Denfert-Rochereau, was given orders by the French Government to capitulate. In doing this, French Head of State Adolphe Thiers was hoping to keep Bismarck from annexing Belfort. The Prussian statesman had wanted to bring the whole of Alsace – including Belfort – into the new German Empire.
The Belfort resistance echoed all around France and exemplified French courage and honour. Unlike Paris, Belfort was never taken in military action by the Prussian army and its surrender was ordered by the French government while the Reich Empire was proclaimed in the Palace of Versailles.
The siege was symbolised by a monumental statue by Auguste Bartholdi, carved out of the rock below the castle and known as the Lion of Belfort.
Belfort is separated from Alsace
If Belfort was historically part of Alsace, the vast majority of the local population will tell you that it is nonsense to call their beloved city “Alsatian”. Since 1871, Belfort has been separated from the département of Haut-Rhin and only a few would know of the pre-Franco-Prussian war territorial division. Furthermore, Belfort has always been a French speaking town, even during the long era when the city was Austrian. This did not particularly bother the Habsburgs, as it was strategically placed in the Burgundy Gate.
The French were obliged to surrender the territories with German culture and language (north-east Lorraine and Alsace) to the victors but somehow managed to keep Belfort and its immediate surroundings. The preliminaries of the French-Prussian Treaty (Treaty of Frankfurt) which was signed on 26 February, 1871, set the new border to the west of the Haut-Rhin département, however Article 1 stipulated that:
“On the other hand, the town of Belfort and its fortifications will remain French with a radius which will be determined later…”
Thiers and Bismarck had difficulty negotiating the drawing up of the Frankfurt Treaty. Letting the heroic city of Belfort become Prussian hurt the French patriotism of many Republicans. The Prussian state officers were pleased with France’s proposal to exchange twelve iron-rich Lorraine villages for Belfort and 105 communes of the Haut-Rhin. As soon as it was announced, the idea was accepted by the Prussians and confirmed by the French National Assembly.
Metz and the département of Moselle were thus given to the Prussians, in exchange for Belfort and its Alsatian-part district. The detached part of the Haut-Rhin which remained French was not immediately called “Territoire de Belfort” (Belfort Territory), but rather “French District of the Haut-Rhin”. It was only in 1922 that the Belfort Territory – “the temporary entity waiting for the return of the Haut-Rhin to France” – became an official département as such.
Despite the Haut-Rhin being returned to republican France in 1918, the French authorities were not keen to have the territory returned to the département as constituted in 1789. From that point onwards, Belfort and its territory were no longer considered part of Alsace.
Belfort during the Belle Époque
Until the Franco-Prussian war, the demographic growth of the town increased only slightly, despite the arrival of railways in 1858.
However, after the war, Belfort went through a dramatic rise in its population during the years 1870-1914, from 8,030 to over 40,000 inhabitants. In the same way as Nancy in Lorraine, Belfort welcomed a flow of Alsatians who opted to keep their French nationalities, thus compelling them to immigrate outside Alsace. Many industrialists from nearby Mulhouse or Colmar choose to live in Belfort, contributing to its growth and influence in the region. The wealthy newcomers were bringing capital which was used to create new companies. A famous example is that of the SACM (Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques) which was based in Mulhouse before moving to Belfort in the 1870s. Today, the SACM is known as “Alstom”, famous for its TGV trains, the fastest in the world.
The city grew outside the limits of Vauban’s fortifications, spreading across the other side of the Savoureuse River. Unlike its neighbour Mulhouse, the buildings erected during the Belle Époque are reminiscent of what was built in Paris, such as Haussmann architecture, thus contrasting with the more Germanic style of the old town.
How to get to Belfort
Belfort is easily accessible by car from Alsace’s main cities Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse, as well as from the Franche-Comté’s towns of Montbéliard and Besançon.
If you travel from Australia, NZ or America you could either take a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, Zurich or Frankfurt Airports and rent a car from there.
The TGV Rhin-Rhône from Paris-Gare de Lyon takes 2.15 hours to the new Belfort-Montbéliard-TGV railway station.