Travel feature: BourtangeArticle by Paola Westbeek
Dating to the late 16th century and located in Westerwolde in the northern Dutch province of Groningen, Fort Bourtange was built by William of Orange in order to guard the only road between Germany and Groningen during the Eighty Years’ War (1568- 1648). Centuries later, the fort lost its function and became a village. After a period of stagnation, it was ultimately rebuilt to look as it did during its heyday in the mid-18th century. Today, Bourtange, a small town with a population of approximately 450, has become a much-visited tourist attraction, open-air museum and important part of Dutch cultural heritage. Despite its modest size, Bourtange offers beautiful architecture, picturesque streets and plenty of things to see and do.
The history of Bourtange
Star-shaped fortifications such as Fort Bourtange originated in Europe in the 15th century and consisted of triangular bastions with canals and lakes that functioned as moats. When Prince William of Orange ordered the building of the entrenchment in 1580, his main objective was to isolate the city from the Spanish. Groningen had been in Spanish hands since 1577, and the road that connected the city with the German region of Westphalia was being used to bring supplies to Spanish forces. This crucial road was situated along a sand ridge, or ‘tange’, in what was then a swampy, wet area.
Designed as a pentagon by the mayor of Alkmaar, Adrian Anthoniszoon, the fort was finally completed in 1593 under the command of Willem Lodewijk van Nassau. Though the Spanish attempted to besiege the fort shortly after its construction, the attack was unsuccessful. On July 23rd 1594, Groningen joined the Union of Utrecht, a treaty unifying the country’s northern provinces that were once under Spanish control.
In 1665 and 1672, the fort faced two more assaults, both times by the Bishop of Münster, Bernhard von Galen, who had already managed to capture twenty-eight cities and towns in the north of The Netherlands. Thanks to the fort’s sturdy defenses and surrounding marshes, this attack also resulted in failure. In fact, Bourtange is the only Dutch fort that was never captured.
Throughout the centuries, Bourtange was constantly reinforced. The emergence of modern artillery, however, meant that it gradually started to lose its function. In 1851, the fort was officially dismantled and went on to exist as a thriving agricultural town. But by the middle of the 20th century, growth stagnated, people started to move out and shops started to close.
In order to remedy this, the municipality of Vlagtwedde decided to reconstruct the fort according to the way it looked in 1742, when it was at its largest. Over a period of twenty years (1972-1992), ditches were dug up once again, ramparts were formed and buildings were restored to their original glory. All of this was done with the help of historical maps and drawings, but also with contemporary requirements in mind. Two new buildings (a soldiers’ barracks and the former coach house) were added in 2001 and are currently in use as hotels.
Discovering the fortified town
A visit to Bourtange should start at the Information Center, located at the entrance to the fort at Willem Lodewijkstraat. If coming by car, it is best to park here and continue on foot. All of the town’s main attractions are conveniently located within close proximity of each other.
At the center of the fort is a quaint market square surrounded by sixteen linden trees that are more than three hundred years old. All of the town’s cobblestone streets coincide at the square which is home to a few shops, a restaurant and a café, a candlemaker and important buildings such as the Officers’ Houses. Among these houses, (all of them can be visited with a single museum ticket) are the Mayor’s House, Commander’s House, Schoolmaster’s House and Priest’s House. Behind these houses are the soldiers’ barracks. Outside of the Mayor’s House is a deceivingly charming red wooden horse which was built in 1988. Don’t be fooled: it is actually a reconstruction of a torture device once used to punish criminals. Those unfortunate enough to be sentenced to sit on such a horse would often have weights secured to their feet to make the experience all the more excruciating.
Groningen’s first Protestant church was built in Bourtange before 1607. It was torn down in 1869 and replaced by the building that currently stands in its place on Marktplein 2. Original materials were used in the reconstruction, and an authentic creed board (shaped like a triptych) is still on display.
The town’s mill is a replica of the original corn and hulling mill, which was moved to the hamlet of Ter Haar in 1832 after it lost its function. Dating to 1980, it is an exact copy of the original 17th-century windmill.
Also of interest are the three, small wooden buildings known as ‘secreten’. They once stood above the water and functioned as toilets for soldiers, but it also appears that they were popular places to get rid of garbage; during the excavation, many interesting archaeological finds were found under these buildings.
There are four museums in Bourtange where visitors can get a better sense of the town and fort’s history. A combination ticket to all museums (€ 7.50 for adults, € 4.00 for children ages six to eleven, and free of charge for children under five) can be purchased at the Information Center. It is important to make note of the fact that in the winter museums are only open during the weekend. From March until October, all are open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The building that houses Museum de Baracquen was previously used as soldiers’ barracks. It has been reconstructed and authentically furnished to resemble a barrack from 1742. At the museum you can also admire artifacts that were uncovered during Bourtange’s reconstruction.
One of the most handsome buildings, and a museum that provides a look into life during the 17th century, is the Captain’s House (part of the Officers’ Houses). Built in 1661, it has two fully reconstructed rooms and authentic details including an original fireplace and tiled floors.
At Terra Mora, one of the newest attractions in Bourtange that opened last spring, three rooms offer visitors a chance to learn more about warfare and the relationship between the wetlands and the fort. The museum is highly recommended for families with children. One of the rooms even lets you experience the feeling of firing a canon.
The Synagogal Museum, used as an actual synagogue until World War II, was built in 1842 and provides a unique look into the town’s Jewish history. The first records of Jews in Bourtange date to the early 18th century. During the Second World War, almost all of the small Jewish population was deported. A few managed to go into hiding, and after the war, only five returned home. The building has been a museum since 1989.
Every Sunday during the high season (March to October), a canon is fired at 3:00 p.m. by the Excercitie Peloton Bourtange (Drill Platoon Bourtange). The country’s largest history reenactment takes place in Bourtange once every two years in the month of June. During two consecutive days, more than four hundred local volunteers dress up in costume and relive the Battle of Bourtange, which took place in 1640. Special tents are also set up to provide a glimpse of what life in Bourtange was like during the Eighty Years’ War. This impressive historical spectacle takes place on both days between 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., with the reenactment of the battle at 2:00 p.m. as the main highlight. For first time visitors, this lively spectacle is the perfect way to round off a visit to this most distinctive Dutch village.
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