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January 2021 – Bourtange, Netherlands
The moment i saw a documentary about less known villages and their secrets, i knew we have to reach Bourtange.
Probably by now you all know how much i love the Dutch villages! 😊 Even more, this star-shaped fortress lies close to the border between the Netherlands and Germany, and it’s just 2 hours drive away from our home. So the upcoming city break to the more famous Groningen had to definitely include Bourtange.
Here’s its secret history that we learned along the way. We found the visit surprising and quite fun.
How Bourtange was built
The history of this little village goes way back, from the times of the Eighty Years War (1566-1648) against the Spanish. The northern provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe were fierce in their resistance to Spanish rule.
Turns out that 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 wanted to disrupt those supply lines by building a series of forts along the border, on the bits of sandy land that were passable among the marshes.
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. All of the marshlands around it eventually dried up because local farmers had changed the water channels to drain land for farming.
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. It became a local farming village.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the local municipality decided to rebuild the fort to its old appearance in an effort to revive the local economy.
And here is the Bourtange you see today.
What to see in Bourtange
However, this is not just an open-air museum. Although its income is based on tourism, it is also a living village, with about 430 inhabitants.
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 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!
On the walls, you’ll come upon the traditional windmill and the secreten, small wooden buildings hanging over the moat that the soldiers used as toilets.
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.
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 central plaza (the Marktplein), cobbled and tree-shaded, is delightful on a sunny day.
So, if you’re going up north, do not miss this stop. You’ll have a glimpse into the past, while walking on city walls with a gorgeous view below your feet.