On our first hike in the Jura Mountains went through the Rhône Valley by Fort l’Écluse (or Fort de l’Écluse), near Leaz, France in the Pays de Gex. The site has a view of the strategic route between the Jura Mountains and the Alps and has had fortifications since Roman times.
The Romans built defenses around 58 BC to protect them from the Helvetii (the nearby Swiss tribe). In the Middle Ages, the stronghold protected the Jura and was a center for goods (which the cyicist in me interprets to mean used to collect tolls or taxes). Expanded, in the 17th century, the French used the fort to prevent French Protestants from fleeing France to Protestant Geneva after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which permitted secularism and tolerance).
There are actually two forts on the site, the lower (inférieure in French) and upper (supérieure in French). The Duke of Savoy and the Marquis de Vauban (during the reign of Louis XIV) built the lower fort. When the Austrians destroyed the fort in 1815, the Savoy rebuilt it bigger and stronger.
We got lucky, they were having a historical reenactment when we visited. It got us admission and we saw solders living as they did in the 19th century. Some of them were cooking. I asked what they were making. The “soldiers” jokingly said “nothing good.” They explained that soldier’s food wasn’t good and they were being historically accurate. We spied a couple of bottles of wine tucked away behind some plants (also historically accurate?), so I think they had a good time anyway.
Built into the stone, the fort was surprisingly cool (which was good for them in their wool uniforms). The reenactors were really nice and totally into it. When I asked to take a picture with them they gladly agreed and, to my astonishment, passed me the musket. It weighed 5 kilos (10.2 pounds)!
The upper fort (200 metres/660 feet above the lower one), was built in the 1830’s-40’s to protect the lower fort provide additional space and better views from which to control the valley. It has a subterranean stairway with 1165 steps through the rock that connecting it to the lower fort.
Unfortunately, the upper fort is closed because it is unsafe for visitors. They are doing restoration work on the lower fort. We hope that when they finish, they start on the upper fort because it is an amazing site and filled with history.
We took a steep trail uphill for a half an hour to reach the upper fort. I shouldn’t have bothered to ask the extremely portly gentleman we encountered in the lower parking lot for directions. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t done much walking, let alone hiking, over the past 30 years. The gentleman said the upper fort was closed, there was no reason to go up there and looked at me like I was crazy when I told him we were hiking. We are glad we went anyway. We were still able to see the ramparts. Even better, they had exceptional views of the Rhône, Saleve and the Alps, including Mont Blanc.
Fort l’Ecluse wasn’t just a customs station and border control in the 20th century. It served as a military training center during World War I. In the 1930’s, the fort was incorporated into French border fortifications (as part of the enormously inefficient Mangiot Line) that were intended to prevent a German invasion from Switzerland. We all know how that worked out.
I was astounded to learn that it actually saw action during WWII. It is so close to Geneva, I can only imagine the anxiety that Genevans must have felt. The Defensive Sector of the Rhône, a French military organization controlled the French border with Switzerland around Geneva, controlled the fort. In June 1940, German forces (the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and the 13th Motorized Infantry Division) advanced from the north along the Rhône valley. From June 22nd to 25th, the French force held the back the German forces advancing toward Albertville. When France surrendered on June 25, the fort didn’t. It held tight until directly ordered to let the Germans advance and surrender by General Charles Huntziger of the Vichy Regime.
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