Tucked away near the Italian border and overshadowed by more popular regions of the Alps or Provence, Briançon is difficult to get to but is certainly worth the effort. Whether you are into sundials, dangerous outdoor sports or meals containing ridiculous quantities of cheese, you can find all to your heart's content here.
Briançon can be found in South East France, a handful of kilometres from the Italian border. In the heart of the Alps, it is the highest town in the EU at 1200m altitude. Fittingly, it is twinned with Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The town is divided into two parts - the Old Town, on top of the hill and fortified, and the New Town, in the valley and not fortified, now that visitors come brandishing credit cards rather than pikes. Most of the interesting things to look at are in the Old Town, most of the shopping or sporting activities are in or around the New Town.
The 11,500 residents of the town enjoy 300 days of sunshine a year, on average. Not surprisingly, their numbers are swollen by tourists in both the summer season and the ski season. However, the town has largely avoided the fate of other Alpine centres such as Chamonix, in that the development of souvenir shops selling whistling stuffed furry marmots1 and old style wooden walking poles has been kept to a minimum.
The best way to get to Briançon is by train. The night train from Paris is particularly good as you arrive in Briançon early in the morning, feeling rested and ready for a day's activity. Alternatively, the nearest airports are near Grenoble, about 90 minutes' drive away, or a similar distance away in Northern Italy.
The cedilla on the 'c' in Briançon means that you should pronounce the town as 'bree-an-sonn', rather than bree-an-kon. Pronouncing it with a hard c will result in a few smirks, as con is a swearword meaning 'idiot' in French.
Taking your Car into the Old Town
The streets are narrow, steep, twisty and sometimes pedestrianised, in the winter they are also very slippery. There is nowhere to park within the walls and the town is full of people (like this Researcher) gawking at the sundials and other interesting things and generally not looking out for vehicles. You can park in the New Town at the bottom of the hill or behind the Old Town to the left as you look up the hill.
A Thousand Years of Fighting and Trading
Briançon sits at a strategic location, and its military and commercial importance means that it has had a long and eventful history. The site is known to have been occupied as early as Gallo-Roman times, but the golden age of Briançon dates to the medieval period.
In 1343, the charter signed by Humbert II, the Dauphin2 of the Viennois, granted economic and municipal privileges to the local communities. This marked a time of considerable prosperity for the town, with fairs attracting punters from all over the region. People were moving in, but space on top of the hill was limited. The solution was to build high and make the streets narrow, and the effect of this can be seen clearly today in the shape and density of the old town. This had the unfortunate side effect of providing the perfect environment for the spread of the plague. By the middle of the 15th Century the town had lost a third of its population.
The next major event to leave its mark on the town was the arrival of Vauban, the master builder of Louis XIV. In 1692 he ordered the reinforcement of the town walls, but also saw that the only way to stop Briançon from being bombarded from higher up in the mountains that surround the town was to occupy those heights. As the range of artillery improved, forts were built higher and higher up the slopes. The last reinforcement of the defences of the town was in the 1930s, when Briançon became part of the Maginot line3.
One of the best ways of appreciating the extent of the fortifications is to take the ski-lift from lower Briançon up to the first station. You can see the entire historic walled town spread out below you, and a number of the fortifications on the hills surrounding the town.
Built to link Briançon with the fortifications on the other side of the River Durance, the Pont D'Asfeld is a very impressive bridge and an excellent viewpoint.
Things to See in the Old Town
The main street in historic Briançon used to be known as the Grande Gargouille4 due to the open drain running down the middle of it. This is still there but it now runs with clear mountain water, rather than the filth that it must originally have carried.
As you wander round the Old Town you can see a number of sundials. As is the tradition, these have a motto on them, either in French, Latin or the local patois. Appropriately enough for Briançon, one has on it an ode to the Sun:
Without your light and heat we would have neither hours or flowers.
Other things to look out for and admire include the brightly painted houses, very reminiscent of northern Italy; some of the ornate fountains dotted around; the churches and other religious buildings. Half way up the main street on the left hand side is a shop selling attractive bits of rock. This isn't that interesting in itself, but going in and upstairs allows you to get a look at the interior of the building, with the massive wooden structure and roughly-hewn steps.
Briançon forms part of the Serre Chevalier ski resort. This is a large area with four main bases along the valley that leads to the Col du Lautaret. Chantemerle is a modern resort with cheap accommodation and aprés-ski. Monetier-les-Bains is based in a traditional village and is also the highest base (1500m). Briançon has by far the most options if the weather is bad, but you may have a longer walk to the ski-lift.
In general, the resort attracts families and those interested in other activities as well as skiing, rather than those looking for an enormous skiable surface and off piste, or a wild aprés-ski scene. The resort seems to attract an equal amount of Italians, Brits and French. Feel free to swear in any of those languages when you get cut up on the piste.
When there is a sustained cold spell, the Fournel valley south of Briançon has some spectacular frozen waterfalls. Armed with the appropriate tools and a mountain guide - unless you're really good - these can be climbed.
There is also the option of cross-country skiing. This is in the bottom of the valley, so if snow is restricted, your best option for this is likely to be Monetier-les-Bains.
Active things to Do in the Summer
Some of the finest rock climbing in France can be found in the valleys around Briançon. The area is particularly good for intermediate climbers (French grades 5 to 7a) but there are also some cliffs suitable for beginners and some very hard routes for members of the big biceps community.
Most of the cliffs are well bolted, on high-quality rock. Highlights include:
Scary slab climbing at Ailefroide - tiptoe up the rock relying on friction and hope you don't start to slide. Ailefroide also has good bouldering near the campsite at the top of the valley.
Fearsome red cliffs at Fressiniéres. This has to be some of the sharpest rock in the world - little spiky bits give excellent friction - just watch your knees!
Amenable routes at the Oratoire and the Rocher Baron. Plenty of bolts here and holds as well. The routes aren't very long so there is little danger of getting out of your depth.
There are a range of walking and mountaineering options in the vicinity. The Romanche valley is a beautiful walk, with plenty of real marmots whistling at you. There are spectacular views from the Ailefroide valley over the high peaks of the region.
If you fancy something a bit more ambitious, the Ecrins mountain range is about 45 minutes drive away. There are a number of relatively accessible summits, including the Dôme des Ecrins at just over 4000m. The Barre des Ecrins is the highest peak in the region at 4102m, but involves some fairly necky climbing5 on shattered rock to reach the summit.
A lot of people also come to the region for the white water kayaking. There is a state-of-the-art whitewater training facility at Argentière la Bessée, just a few kilometres south of Briançon.
You can't swim in the rivers because they all form part of hydrological works, but there is a swimming lake about 12 kilometres south of Briançon.
The area around Briançon is also the scene for one of the most famous stages of the Tour de France. The Col Du Lautaret is just outside the town on the road to Grenoble, and the savage ascension of the Alpe d'Huez is just a little further down the road.
Comes Recommended Then?
Well, yes. If you can live without a beach, and don't mind using your legs, Briançon has a lot to offer. If you would like to see some photos and another point of view, try this site.