The land was dry and harsh with low, sharp-edged mountains on either side as I drove to Sisteron, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, along the Rivière Durance (Durance River), following part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s southern route to reconquer France, after his escape from the Island of Elba.
I entered through a sandstone archway into the medieval fortress town of Sisteron, with its long history of violence, warfare, and defence. There has been a town here for millennia, the Romans called it Segustero. It was one of many stops on the Domitian Road, the Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul. Running through today’s southern France, it connected Hispania (Spain) and Italia. Invaders came including the Lombards, Saxons and Saracens. In 974, Guillaume, the Earl of Avignon, crushed the Saracens and founded the Earldom of Provence. Freed from outside domination in 1209, Sisteron literally became the Gateway to Provence.
During the next several centuries, the town barely survived the Black Plague of 1348 which decimated more than two-thirds of its citizens and, later, endured the brutal religious wars of the mid-16th century until Henri IV restored peace and reinforced the Citadel. Its history continued with the imprisonment of Prince Jean-Casimir Vasa of Poland in 1639, who later ascended to the throne of Poland in 1648.
During the next two centuries, the town grew and increased in importance in the south of France, even momentarily witnessing the passage of Napoleon and his troops on their way to reconquer France after Elba. In the mid-nineteenth century, phylloxera killed the vineyards. The railroad arrived in 1868, opening the tow to a wider world.
In World War I, the Citadel became a prison camp for German soldiers. On August 15, 1944, the town and the Citadel were bombed during the Anglo-British invasion of southern France. With peace, the often brutal military influence on Sisteron ended as the town and Citadel were restored. Today, both offer the more civilized worlds of tourism, history and the culture of Provence.
With a population of less than 8000, the town is still known as the Gateway to Provence. According to one of my travel brochures, it is 185 km (115 miles) from Nice, 135 km (84 miles) from Marseille, and 130 km (81 miles) from Avignon. The Rivière Durance runs alongside the left side of town. On the opposite bank is the Rocher de la Baume (literally the Rock of the Balm), a massive, rough, high, stone-faced wall serving as a favorite site for rock climbers. It is also the place where some locals and visitors claim to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus.
The Citadel, formerly a fortified castle, is the most famous and striking feature of the town. Perched atop a rocky cliff, it is now a center for a variety of arts festivals, including musicals, dance reviews and theatre. Each summer, the stage on the north ramparts of the grounds hosts prominent entertainers from throughout France.
Beyond the medieval stone entry portal is a more modern town. Along the Rue Saunière, the principal street in Sisteron, are a variety of tourist shops selling art, pottery, lavender honey, selections of regional clothing, and assorted memorabilia. There are also cafés and restaurants, many with outside seating, leading to the central place.
The circular town square is dominated by a clock tower dating from the 14th. Century. In summer the sky is an intense blue, one of those clear days in Provence, with the light that van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso sought and captured in certain moments on canvas.
Massive stone steps lead you into the cool of the Citadel. While the expansive rooms are devoid of any furniture, their thick, solid walls serve as stark reminders of the power of the place and hinted at the past when life was often brutal and meagre. I continued upward, to the top of the ramparts where I had a panoramic view of the town and the Rivière Durance valley flowing below and around me. Light tan stucco houses with red tiles roofs and splashes of boldly colored flowers in clay pots on wrought iron window ledges spread below. A swimming pool stood out in the distance, a seeming anachronism in that medieval setting. It’s easy to understand and appreciate the strategic position of the Citadel.
Back outside in the sunshine I descended a dusty footpath past an outdoor théâtre with bleacher seats for perhaps a hundred and a stage with overhanging lights for a jazz concert that night. Across the river, rock climbers teetered on the Rocher de la Baume, where the vision of the Virgin Mary had supposedly been witnessed.
Continuing my walk around the town, I passed picturesque statues and buildings, Église Saint Dominique and the partially restored convent of the Dominicans built by Beatrix of Savoy in the thirteenth century. Notre-Dame-des-Pommiers (Our Lady of the Apple Trees) a dark is a solid Romanesque-Provençal 12th century church.
Sisteron is a great place to relax. Historic, friendly, great restaurants and pretty boutiques on cobble stoned streets surrounded by nature – and though it’s a little off the beaten track, it’s well worth a detour.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA