Having a Field Day in the Fortress of Blaye

We are now in Blaye on the north side of the largest estuary in Europe, the Gironde. Blaye fortress, is a 17th Century citadel and a UNESCO tribute to the military genius who designed it, the engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.

Blaye. Visit Bordeaux has put up explanatory panels along the Gironde Estuary. It takes us a moment to be oriented as if the map is upside down. It is in a way: We are looking southwest; the river is the expected view.

We are now in Blaye on the north side of the largest estuary in Europe, the Gironde; it’s formed by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. The boat crossed this estuary during our breakfast.

The coach — you really can’t call those magnificent Uniworld vehicles with all their comforts “buses” – takes us along the so-called Route de la Corniche Fleurie (in French a corniche is a road on a ledge) past the stone homes of former sea captains who, having traveled the world, brought back all kinds of exotic plants to their home port. So we see palm and banana trees and pink bay trees and oleanders — all very Southern California but people have lived on and in the cliffs rising above the estuary for thousands of years.

The coach turns into an area signposted Le Grand Puy. “Puy in French is a volcanic hill” says an older passenger. “I was hoping it meant pub,” shouts a younger man. The road rises and the coach stops near a vineyard. “The French were farmers before they were winemakers,” a guide once told us.

Our destination opens up before us. The hill is only about 230 feet high, not all that grand but the area around Bordeaux is very flat, and the windmill surely is grand. Its history is obscure but there were two windmills working here in the 19th Century and this one ceased operations in 1865 and has now been restored as Moulin de Lansac. It may date back to 1598.

Moulin de Lansac. The pole leaving the roof line of mill on the left was a lever to rotate the sails. An art studio is maintained by volunteers in the restored miller’s house on the premises.

Ahead of us now is a guided tour with a lot of free time at Blaye fortress, the 17th Century citadel that is a UNESCO tribute to the military genius who designed it, the engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. Vauban led a most extraordinary life. He was orphaned at the age of 10. He joined the army and served year after year with huge success, declining commissions due to poverty until, before he quite knew it, he was one of the foremost military engineers of all time.

Blaye Fortress is massive. Fortunately we have time to explore it. The artillery of the period could not cover the width of the Gironde Estuary (almost 2 miles) so Vauban had to create other forts to provide cross fire. If the enemy could get up the estuary the prize that lay beyond was the city of Bordeaux.

The first castle on this elevation in Blaye was built in 625. The town was attacked many times in the Middle Ages and strengthened during the French Wars of Religion. “The Protestants attacked it unsuccessfully in 1593,” says the guide. The local count cleared out the lower part of town as killing grounds to improve the castle. Vauban came in 1685 and rebuilt the citadel actually using some of the former and dated defenses. In the last part of the Napoleonic Wars the British attacked from land and sea for 10 days. The fortress held until Napoleon abdicated.

The 17 acres of Blay Fortress housed barracks, ammunition, and quartermaster stores. A civilian population lived within the safety of the walls and today those buildings house artisans and artists.

Artisans working in the fortress include painters and glass blowers, leather and ceramic workers, wood carvers and a blacksmith, Philippe Fourcheraud, who even teaches in summer workshops.

An easy 10 minute-walk takes us back to the River Royale for lunch — and then we will get a look at what is signposted as the Ancient Village of Bourg and then afternoon tea. As some cruise comedians whisper: “People come on as passengers and leave as ballast!”

Our boat takes us the 8 miles to Bourg, a place at the confluence of the two rivers Dordogne and Garonne. Its population was 3,200 in 1793, 2,800 in 1893 and 2,130 in 1993. A passenger walks past the sign as we are reading it and says, “Nothing much changes in small towns even in America. Every time a girl gets pregnant a boy leaves town.” His wife punches him.

Bourg got its name from the Romans: burgus means fortress. Wow, we are photographing fortresses now instead of cathedrals!

It was established in the 4th Century but despite its fortifications it was invaded by the Visigoths who settled in comfortably. Then in the series of invasions that happened all over Europe for 400 years it was invaded by 2 waves of different Franks, Saracens, Magyars, and, of course, Vikings. Then, say many historians, at the end of the 9th Century came a plague: the aristocracy. It filled the gap left by the barbarians! Wow, learning history while on vacation.

Bourg. The ancient wash house where the villagers shared the common facilities to wash clothes.

This is a dream place to walk about in, not because it’s set up for tourists but because it is not. We poke around up and down streets waving to a worker in an open window who teases us with his wooden creation. His sign tells passersby he has a workshop for saddlery and upholstery.

It’s been a busy day. We know where we’re heading now. Home to our boat and the Gascogne Lounge on board to listen to our musician Laszio.

Photography by the authors.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.