Situated in the upper Seille valley and drained by two arms of the river, Marsal has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Its saltwater springs were exploited from the Bronze Age to the end of the 17th century, first of all using the briquetage technique in the Iron Age, leaving vestiges of earthenware cakes up to twelve metres deep. In the Gaulish period, Marsal became a place of trade owing to its strategic location on the route linking Strasbourg to Boulogne-sur-Mer via Metz. Evidence of this can be seen in the Gaulish bronze and silver coinage minted by the local people and a stele that mentions the vicani Marosallenses conserved in Marsal’s Salt Museum, which has been dated at 44 BC. In the 7th century, even gold marsallo vico coinage was minted in the town. Up until the 16th century, the exploitation of salt expanded considerably under the authority of the Bishops of Metz.
In the second half of the 13th century, Marsal belonged to the Bishopric of Metz, which had it fortified. A bone of contention between the Dukes of Lorraine and the Bishops of Metz, Henri II of France conquered the town in 1552. Attached to the Kingdom of France, an Italian bastion system reinforced the fortifications. Coming out on top at the end of the 16th century, Charles III of Lorraine undertook the protection of the town by the addition of a system of defensive bastions.
The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) then laid the region waste. The King of France, Louis XIV, was the final victor over the successor to Charles III in 1663. On Vauban’s advice, the ducal fortifications were renovated by Saint-Lô in 1673 and then by Vauban himself in 1679. Changing his mind, the architect had them taken down in 1685 and then rebuilt his fortifications in 1699. With the death of Duke Stanislas in 1766, Lorraine became French and Marsal lost its strategic value as a frontier town. The stronghold was then used to garrison troops before being finally abandoned in 1804. But the downfall of the Napoleonic Empire and the loss of the Saar changed Marsal’s position. As they were close to the frontier, the fortifications were restored in 1816 and military buildings were erected between 1830 and 1840. In 1853, Marsal passed to the rank of third class fort. It soon capitulated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then, annexed, was partially dismantled.
Resolutely focused on heritage, the remarkable Porte de France now houses the town’s Salt Museum, which recounts the history of salt from the Bronze Age to the present day. Set out to explore this former stronghold with the help of the route guide available from the Vic-sur-Seille tourist information office.
Tour of Marsal’stronghold
The visitor enters through the impressive, west-facing Porte de France. Once named the Porte Notre-Dame, the Porte de France is framed by pilasters and projecting stonework cross walls dating from the end of the 16th century. Formed of two arches, it was pierced by two parallel passages preceded by drawbridges, one for the stronghold, the other for the saltworks, reserved for transporting timber and salt.
After passing through it, the visitor comes upon three of the four Vauban style barracks erected as of 1666, set in twos on either side of the main roadway. Each barracks originally housed 12 stables, 24 bedchambers and a loft for storing foodstuffs.
Continue along the extraordinary path to the salt pans, from which you can observe a waterhole colonised by halophytic flora thanks to the wooden footbridges. The most common species is marsh samphire or “sea bean”.
Cross the road and head for the Roman bastion and the bastion of the old town, added in the 17th century. Take the former moat which was once more than 80 metres in breadth. Go towards the arsenal built in 1848, a building comprising thirteen bays, and then towards the house of the governor of the saltworks, followed by the square probably constructed in around 1625 by Jean La Hiere (a member of an architectural dynasty in the service of the Dukes of Lorraine). Modified in the 18th century, it was largely rebuilt in 1823-1824.
Pass before the Pavillon de Bourgogne, a former barracks that bears the name of the former Porte de Bourgogne located to the east of the stronghold. Notice the houses with their typical cellar doors that bear witness to the importance of the local vineyards until the beginning of the 20th century. The military buildings, abandoned after 1871, were converted into agricultural buildings, most particularly into storage warehouses or farms.
You are now on the Place d’Armes, in the heart of the site, lined with houses occupied by the local gentry, decorated with 18th century façades.
Continue towards the remarkable collegiate church of Saint Leger (12th – 19th century), which housed a chapter of seven canons endowed by Abbess Clémence of Neumünster (Luxembourg) in 1222. The Romanesque architecture of the upper Rhine was thus imported to Marsal and can be seen in the superb capitals and keystones adorned with the heads of angels, foliage motifs and burghers from the Middle Ages. Also take a little time to consider the remains of a 14th century sepulchre, a masterpiece of the Lorraine school, recumbent effigies attributed to the Salm family, and the funerary monument of Fouquet de la Routte, a gentleman from the Dauphiné and governor of Marsal assassinated in 1589. The collegiate church of Saint Leger, currently undergoing restoration, will celebrate the completion of the works with a special festival in 2014.