Dominating the course of the Durance, the Citadel of Sisteron seduces by its aerial architecture. From antiquity to the Renaissance, it has long been a privileged stronghold for controlling river and road traffic. The monument seduces with its old stones, its walls, its rooms and courtyards, its towers and watchtowers, while offering a breathtaking view of the valley and the peaks of the Alps.
A strategic location
The rock overhanging the gorge of the Durance has always been a strategic place. Already in antiquity, the vocontii, a Gallic tribe, built an oppidum there. It was destroyed by the invasion of Augustus’ conquering armies of 27 BC. In their turn, the Romans built a castrum, of which only the remains of a mausoleum and a city remain today.
This strategic location has long been an important crossing point between the Alps and the Mediterranean. From this stronghold, one can enjoy a view over 150 kilometers, keep an eye on the surroundings and see the enemy coming.
From the Middle Ages to the Vauban fortifications
During the Early Middle Ages, a castle, made of an assembly of precarious towers and palisades, was built at the top of the rocky spur.
After the death of Charlemagne in January 814, the town was passed from hand to hand: first under the protection of the local viscounts and then under the Counts of Forcalquier. After that, it was then ceded to the Counts of Provence before being attached to the Kingdom of France during the reign of Louis XI.
Sisteron is a strategic lock on the road opening the passage between the Dauphiné and Provence since 1209. The upper wall walk and the keep of the citadel are said to be built at that time, just like the devil’s gatehouse. This figurehead balancing above the Durance, built to serve as a shelter for the sentinels is the subject of a legend. It could not have been built without the help of the devil (hence its name) in exchange for the soul of the mason. In the 13th century, the chapel Notre-Dame du Château was built in Gothic style on a terrace supported by imposing arcades. The difference in color between the golden sandstone and grey limestone used, highlights this architectural masterpiece.
In 1520, religious wars broke out in France and the citadel became a major issue. Protestants took refuge there and the Catholics twice besieged it. King Henry IV decided to consolidate the fortifications of Sisteron. In 1590, the military engineer Jehan Erard, commissioned by the king, built successive enclosures on the north and south sides and constructed bastions connected to the city walls. He thus created a saw-tooth defense system.
In 1639, the future king of Poland, Prince John Casimir Vasa, who had fomented a plot with the help of Spain against France, was locked up in the dungeon of the keep in the citadel by Cardinal Richelieu.
In 1692, Vauban took over the work of Jehan Erard at the request of Louis XIV, after the invasion of the valley led by the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amédée II. During the works, the architect realized that the peaks of the hills bordering Sisteron made the citadel vulnerable to plunging shootings. He therefore decided to build a gunpowder magazine sheltered from potential fire and a well. It would then take 150 years for these other suggestions to be followed, the curtain walls were finally raised, the gates were reinforced, and an underground staircase was dug to link the citadel to the town.
From 1894, with the development of long-range weapons, the citadel could no longer serve as an effective fortification and was displaced militarily. However, during the First World War, it was used as a detention center for German prisoners. The citadel and the chapel of Sisteron were classified as Historical Monuments in 1925.
In 1942, the Germans took over the castle and transformed it into a detention center to lock up political prisoners. They were released thanks to the group of resistance fighters from the Bayons maquis. In 1944, the allies came to destroy the bridges built in the valley. During these bombings, the citadel was hit massively.
In 1956, an important restoration plan carried out by an association enabled the chapel to stand once again proudly on the heights of Sisteron. It became a living cultural site, hosting a museum and numerous events.
The fortress which today overlooks the village of Sisteron is in fact a group of buildings built at different times, sometimes restored, or modernized.
A visit rich in emotion
A visit to the Citadel of Sisteron and the discovery of its 800 years of architecture and history leaves no one indifferent. From the rocky spur on which it stands, visitors can enjoy one of the most beautiful panoramas of Haute-Provence.
Every year, the Nuits de la Citadelle festival is organized in Sisteron. In the open-air theater of the citadel, actors, dancers, and musicians perform one show after another. These internationally renowned artists bring this ancient fortified city back to life.
Prepare your visit
The Citadel of Sisteron can be visited from March to November, the opening and closing dates are updated every year. Schedules vary according to the seasons and are available on the official website.
The movie Citadelle ! navire des Hommes… (Citadel! Ship of Men…) allows you to discover some of the secrets of the place in 25 minutes.
A trail punctuated with riddles has been set up so that children can discover the Citadel of Sisteron and its history in a playful way.
Address: Montée de la Citadelle, 04200 Sisteron
Selection of monuments in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence :