When construction of the fort began in 1497, this part of France belonged to Spain. The border was where the departments of Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales meet today. The Forteresse de Salses was five kilometres inside Spanish territory and its purpose was to stop any incursion from the French side of the border.
Its architect, Ramiro Lopez, was head of the royal artillery and he used his experience of smashing down defences to design something that would resist enemy salvoes from bronze cannon much better than a medieval castle. With its round towers and curvaceous moats, the Forteresse de Salses was a precursor of the type of angular fortress which evolved during the course of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Forteresse de Salses was designed to house 1,500 soldiers and it also had stables for 300 cavalry horses. To feed this large garrison, there was a cowshed, a dairy and a bakery which you can still see (unfortunately you won't see any horses, cows, bakers or milkmaids today).
During the remainder of my drive home, I remembered another couple of autoroute rest areas which offer easy access to historical patrimoine. Between Cahors and Montauban, Aire de Bois de Dourre has an outstanding octagonal pigeon tower which you can admire while you are filling up with petrol. Between Carcassonne and Toulouse, Aire de Port Lauragais sits on the Canal du Midi and there is a free interpretation centre explaining the history of the canal and the importance of the woad industry in the Lauragais.
If the length of time I spent in each of these places is any measure of their historical interest, the Forteresse de Salses wins the title of ‘Most Interesting Autoroute Rest Area in France’.