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Bourtange: a Living Fortress

I recently wrote about Fraeylemaborg as one of the local off-the-beaten-path sights I like to show overseas visitors. The other sight that’s high on my list is the fortress village of Bourtange.

Bourtange as seen via Google Maps. The wide, dark grey parts are the moats around the earthen walls.

Bourtange as seen via Google Maps. The wide, dark grey parts are the moats around the earthen walls.

History of Bourtange

Did you know that much of what is now the Netherlands was once ruled by Spain?

The “Eighty Years’ War” (1566-1648) was a revolt against the Spanish, and the northern provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe were particular fierce in their resistance to Spanish rule.

The Spanish rulers in Groningen had supply lines through the marshland to the east, across the modern-day border with Germany.

In 1580, Prince Willem of Orange, who was leading the revolt against Spain, decided to try to disrupt those supply lines by building a series of forts along the border, on the few bits of sandy land that were passable among the marshes. While this effort did not succeed, and the Spanish did not recognize the Republic of the Seven United Provinces until 1648, the struggle remains a fascinating piece of Dutch history.

Bourtange

One of those forts was the star-shaped fortress, Bourtange. It was extended in the following decades, mostly through re-channeling water, but gradually, since it was not needed once the war was over, it fell into disrepair. By 1681 all of the marshlands around it had dried up because local farmers had changed the water channels to drain land for farming.

a reminder of the original purpose of Bourtange: a cannon

a reminder of the original purpose of Bourtange

Eventually, from 1739-42, the fortress was made defensible again through a combination of digging moats and building earthen walls. The buildings inside the fort were also finished.

In the following century, with changes in transportation and weaponry, Bourtange fell into disuse again as a fort, and was dismantled in 1850. It became a local farming village.

water channels and outer earthworks as seen from the inner walls of Bourtange

water channels and outer earthworks as seen from the inner walls of Bourtange

In the latter half of the 20th century, the local municipality decided to rebuild the fort to its 1742 appearance in an effort to revive the local economy. Even the “wet horizon,” a marshy area originally intended for the defense of the fort, has been reconstructed for recreational use.

Bourtange today

This is not just an open-air museum, however. Though its income is based on tourism, it is also a living village, with about 50 full-time residents.

That combination—a living village combined with all the charms of an open-air museum—makes for a lovely day out.

This view looks out of the entrance gate to Bourtange. The earthen embankments on either side are the walls of the fortress.

This view looks out of the entrance gate to Bourtange. The earthen embankments on either side are the walls of the fortress.

Arriving just outside the fort, you can park and then walk about ten minutes down a cobbled road to the entrance gate to the fortress. Admission to the village is free, but you can buy tickets to the four museums at the visitor’s center next to the parking lot.

Make sure to climb up onto the walls and walk around the perimeter of the village. From up there, you can view the buildings inside the walls from above, but you can also see the extent of the fortifications when you look away from the village. It’s not just a star-shaped wall: it’s a series of concentric walls and moats.

looking down toward the village from one of the points of the star of Bourtange fortress

looking down toward the village from one of the points of the star of Bourtange fortress

On the walls, you’ll also come upon the traditional windmill and the secreten, small wooden buildings hanging over the moat that the soldiers used as toilets.

It’s definitely worth buying the museum ticket (€8.50), since the museums are all worth a visit, depending on your interests. My favorites are the synagogue and the captain’s house.

a view of the windmill on the wall of Bourtange

a view of the windmill on the wall of Bourtange

The synagogue was used until World War II by the tiny Jewish community of Bourtange, at which point they were deported along with most of Holland’s Jews. Only five of the Bourtange Jews survived the war. The synagogue is a well-preserved reminder:  the traditional furnishings remain, as well as a small museum in the back room about the Bourtange Jews. It is still used occasionally for services.

The captain’s house, built in 1661, has been restored to how it would have looked at the time: a charming glimpse into 17th century Dutch life.

The Baracquen museum in the former soldiers’ barracks mostly displays archeological finds from the area, and the Terra Mora museum focuses on the surrounding wetlands.

a cafe-restaurant in the central plaza of Bourtange

a cafe-restaurant in the central plaza of Bourtange

The real enjoyment of Bourtange, though, is just in walking around: on top of the walls, but also through the charming little streets. The central plaza (the Marktplein), cobbled and tree-shaded, is delightful on a sunny day. Sit and have a drink or order a traditional pancake in the outdoor café.

What I haven’t done yet, but would like to do some day, is stay overnight. A number of the houses have been turned into bed and breakfast accommodations, and I’m sure a stroll around the walls at sunset and a wander through the village lanes in the early morning hours would make the night’s stay more than worth it.

Bourtange also organizes special events from time to time, from battle reenactments to crafts markets. Check their website for dates, and see if you can time your visit to coincide.

I highly recommend it!

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