Every year around mid September France holds its annual Journées du Patrimoine; a weekend of open doors at historical buildings, monuments, parks and places of cultural interest. Places that aren’t usually open to the public are visitable and places that normally are often have extended hours, free entry or some other extra. This year I decided to visit the Fort Carré in Antibes. It’s somewhere that everyone in the area knows; it looks magnificent when viewed across the harbour, but I’d never come across anyone who’d actually been there. A quick flick through the reviews on TripAdvisor didn’t overly impress, with most people saying it was OK but nothing more. It’s open all year round and is very reasonably priced but the impetus of a free visit as part of the Journées du Patrimoine convinced me to see for myself if it really was as boring as the reviewers said.
Fort Carré, which means square fort, is actually star-shaped, something that isn’t obvious from a distance. It is set on the headland that divides the St Roch inlet (Antibes harbour) from the sweeping Baie des Anges. It was built under the orders of Henri II in the mid 16th century, to defend France from the County of Nice, then part of the Duchy of Savoy, not France.
A century later the prolific military architect Vauban redeveloped it and furthered strengthened the town of Antibes. Located where it is, it has panoramic views over the Mediterranean, the southern Alps and what is today Nice, Monaco and Italy. Unfortunately I visited on a hazy overcast day but I know the view well and know that on a clear day you really can see as far as Italy.
In 1860 Nice became part of France rendering obsolete the need to have defences between the two and by the end of the 19th century the fort was declassified as a military base.
Throughout the 20th century it was mainly used as a sports college, where soldiers used its walls to learn to climb and abseil, though it also served as a holding place for foreigners during the occupation in the Second World War.
Between 1979 and 1985 the fort was slowly renovated by volunteers, largely adolescents during their school holidays, and it finally opened to the public as a Historic Monument in 1998.
So, that’s its history in a nutshell, but is it interesting to visit? The fort nowadays is pretty much empty. The barracks and canteen were closed for the open day as the crowds were too big. We only got to walk around the walls and inner courtyard which were attractive and unusual owing to the star shape but lacking in the “wow” factor; there’s absolutely no adornment, no cannons or other military paraphernalia.
There are two fun facts about the fort which trivia fans might enjoy: during the French Revolution Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned here for a few days, and it was used as the setting for the villain’s fortress in the James Bond film “Never say Never Again”.
But for me the best thing about it was the views. Peeping through windows framing the blue sea, over the towns of Villeneuve-Loubet and Cagnes sur Mer across to the mountains, also a hazy blue, made the visit worthwhile. Looking the other way over the harbour you can marvel at the enormity of the superyachts on “billionaires quay” and fully appreciate the size of Europe’s biggest yachting marina.
The fort is surrounded by 4 hectares of garrigue – Mediterranean scrubland – which is attractive to stroll through and the pathway up to the main entrance is flanked by impressive prickly pear bushes.
As a cultural place to visit, there are certainly more satisfying places in the area and I don’t think it would be worth going out of your way for this. But if you have an interest in military history or want to get a different perspective on the harbour, or just want to spend an hour or so away from the crowds of old town Antibes, then I’d say that the regular entrance fee of 3€ is worth it.
For information on opening hours check here (many websites have incomplete or confusing hours but the fort is basically open all year except obvious public holidays like Christmas, though it is worth noting that it’s closed in bad weather as so much of the visit is on the ramparts exposed to the elements, with low walls, it’s not considered safe.) There is free parking just opposite and it’s also an easy walk from the train station.
Do you like visiting fortresses like this? Does the heritage open day happen where you are? Do tell.
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