I first saw this magnificent fortress from the train and I was delighted when the train stopped at a nearby station, which meant I could easily visit the castle on public transport. The reason I saw the fort is because it’s situated in the ideal spot between the Corbieres mountains and the Leucate lagoon. The fort was constructed between 1497 and 1503 to a design by the Spanish architect Francisco Ramiro Lopez, who had just completed the reconstruction of the Alhambra in Granada.

Ramiro introduced some innovations such as “sinking” the whole fortress into the ground to protect it as far as possible from artillery fire. The only part of the wall visible was used to fire artillery pieces back at the attackers. The masonry was massively enlarged to withstand attack by heaven cannons and the moat was increased in width. All the corner towers were turned into artillery placements allowing the guns to be manoeuvered into different firing positions. The wall walks were widened to allow for the movement of guns and forward defences were advanced to keep artillery further away.

The stone used in the construction were from the nearby Corbieres mountains, the reddish-ochre limestone was taken from the site itself, and the “white stone” was from the Ampurdan area in Catalonia. The limestone was used to feed the many lime kilns. All the bricks and tiles were manufactured locally.

The fort was completed in 1503 and straightaway the defences were put to the test by a French army who were invading Roussillon. Around 1,000 foot soldiers and 350 elite cavalry defended Salses against 15,000 foot soldiers and 1,000 lancers. The attackers reduced the northern ramparts to rubble with heavy gunfire, but the defenders obtained revenge when they blew up the remains of the bastion with a mine, killing 400 of the attackers.

Salses held out until the end of October. The French were having problems with lightning raids by Spanish jinetes (horsemen with a sword, javelin, and shield – based on the Moorish cavalry) as well as the maintenance of their supply lines and an attack from a counter-offensive led by Ferdinand II. These three factors proved too much and the French withdrew northwards. Salses had passed its first examinaton. Ramiro Lopez had been present during the siege and the fortress was renovated and the defences made stronger. Salses was besieged three more times before finally succumbing to the French in 1642 and it has stayed French ever since.

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker