THE CASTLE OF SANT FERRAN IN FIGUERES
Location: Pujada del Castell, s/n 17600 Figueres
Chronology: 18th century
Typology: Bastioned fortification
Project: Juan Martín Zermeño
State: Good state of preservation
Management situation: Touristic visits and cultural events
Contact options: Web - www.lesfortalesescatalanes.info Phone - 972 506 094
One of the consequences of the Thirty Year’s War was the change in the western borders between the Spanish and French monarchy. The new border, as a result of signing the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), moved back South below the Spanish border and it gave to the French king the Catalan counties located in the North part of the Pyrenees including its defensive works. This situation made the Empordà an easy area to invade during the series of conflicts between the neighbouring monarchies until the beginning of the 18th century.
Finally and nearly 100 years later, this situation was solved when a project was designed to build up a fortress that could not only be a dissuasive element, but that could also accommodate a manoeuvre’s division, infantry, cavalry and artillery, enough to stop or seriously impede the country’s invasion. This was the main purpose of building the Real Plaza de Guerra de Sant Ferran (Royal Fortress of Sant Ferran) in Figueres, that following the habit in that time, was given the name of the king who reigned, Ferran VI of Bourbon.
The correct decisions and the caution of this remarkable king together with the good abilities and honesty of the king’s trusted people favoured a clever international policy that, as a result, produced an unusually peaceful and prosperous period. Never before the Royal Estate had the situation of being able to afford, without getting itself into debt, the design of a project that in the end was the biggest fortress executed by Spanish military engineering.
THE FORTRESS OF SANT FERRAN IN FIGUERES
Works started on the 4th September 1753 following the project of Catalonia’s director engineer Juan Martín Zermeño. In order to erect its big ramparts and build its incredible exterior defensive system, there were nearly 4000 people working every day for 13 years. After king Ferran VI died, in 1759, works lost their speed. The interior buildings were finished nearly 40 years later and some of them were never finished. It wasn’t until 1792 that a garrison was assigned to Sant Ferran.
The Castillo de San Fernando, in Spanish, or the Castell de Sant Ferran, in Catalan, occupies a surface of 320’000m2. If we count the surface of the surrounding incline otherwise known as a glacis, it increases to 550’000m2. It has an external perimeter of 3125 metres around the parapet of the covered way and an internal perimeter at the rampart’s cordon of 2100 meters. These huge dimensions make Sant Ferran the largest monument in Catalonia and the biggest bastioned fortress in Europe.
Between the covered way, provided with traverses and wide parades, and the rampart itself, the ditch extends over an approximate surface of 10 hectares and holds the defensive outworks. All the outworks are in a perfect and complete state of preservation: a large main hornwork with two more that are smaller and symmetrical; two counterguards; seven ravelins of different sizes and five countermine galleries. The terrepleins of the different works have 89 casemates, in addition to eight underground tanks with a total capacity of 1.2 million litres.
The main grounds is formed by five bastions of different sizes and one orillon bastion of a smaller size, all of them connected by their corresponding curtains in which can be found 93 casemates for accommodation and services. Level with the ditch, in the eastern part of the fortress, the stables can be found. They consist of an impressive, excellently-made double nave and were able to keep nearly 500 horses at any given time. The interior space of the grounds is divided into nine buildings used in the greater part to accommodate commanders and officers with their families. The rest of the buildings include the arsenal, the bakery, the hospital and the church amongst others.
Finally, underneath the 12’000m2 of the parade there are the main reserve tanks of drinking water in the fortress. This wonder of the hydraulic engineering is eight meters deep under the surface. It is a filling circuit connected to an exterior aqueduct. There are four large storage tanks with a final capacity of 9 million litres with an emptying system proofed in case of sabotage.
The bastions and the Eastern front platform hold three big powder magazines. 230 canons could be placed in the portholes and there were positions for mortars and howitzers. The garrison needed 4000 soldiers to defend the fortress and operate around the area. All the soldiers were comfortably accommodated and they had the ability to store enough supplies to survive a whole year of siege.
The fortress of Sant Ferran might have never been finished if the War of the Pyrenees (1793 – 1795) hadn’t taken place, resulting in some of the buildings being finished and a garrison established there. The unfortunate role of Sant Ferran in the War of the Pyrenees, after its surrender in 1794, meant the French army gave it the name Belle Inutile (Useless Beauty), the origin of the not deserved “black legend” that has lasted until today.
During the Peninsular War (1808 - 1814), Sant Ferran, as well as other Catalan fortresses, was occupied by the Napoleonic army. In April 1811, Sant Ferran was taken back by the Junta Superior del Principat, the Catalan’s government during that time, with a brave and sudden attack worthy of the best adventure film. In order to get the fortress back, the imperial army organised the only formal siege in the history of the fortress which was extended by four months.
In 1823, during the First Civil War, Sant Ferran was occupied again by the French army of the Holly Alliance, this time in name of Ferran VII. During the rest of the civil conflicts of the 19th century the fortress still suffered two more blockades. Afterwards Sant Ferran lived through the different social and political events of the county from the point of view of a small provincial garrison. In an anecdotal way, we must highlight that the most famous recruit that the fortress of Sant Ferran had was the surrealistic painter Salvador Dalí in 1925 whilst completing his military service.
When the Spanish Civil War was about to finish in Catalonia, Sant Ferran was the headquarters of the republican government. On the 1st of February 1939 the last meeting in Spain of the Corts Republicanes took place in the fortress, which was at the time the Spanish Chamber of the Deputies. Once the conflict was finished, Sant Ferran was used as a large billeting until the 1960s and afterwards was used as a military prison, where the last prisoners were those responsible for the coup d’état of the 23rd of February 1981. After many long discussions about Sant Ferran’s reuse, it was decided it would open to the public in July 1996.
Nowadays, Sant Ferran in Figueres is declared Bien de Interés Nacional (Nacional Cultural Property) and it is the only fortress in Catalonia that belongs to the state. In 2005, most of the management of its spaces was transferred to the recently created Consorci del Castell de Sant Ferran (Consortium of the Castle of Sant Ferran), an institution of civil rights formed by the Ministry of Defence, the Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalonia’s government) and the city council of Figueres.