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Bourtange: Small Town in a Fortress, written by my friend and fellow travel blogger Rachel from Rachel’s Ruminations, is the first small town expose in the series Small Town Explorer. The villages and towns we visit in our travels are often the hidden gems of a country or region. Readers are introduced to small towns and cities around the globe; featuring their uniqueness, their history, what to see and do, and where to stay and where to dine.
Imagine a cobblestone plaza. Trees around its edge throw dappled shadows. Nine streets radiate from the plaza, but you see no cars, only an occasional bicycle. Small houses – some red-brick, some white-painted brick – face the plaza, simply designed with little embellishment. The wind rustles the trees from time to time, and you hear children shouting, footsteps on the cobbles, low conversation.
You sit on a chair on the edge of the plaza, a café table in front of you, sipping a drink. A beer? A coffee? A soft drink? Your choice. You take it all in, relaxed.
This plaza is called Marktplein, and it sits at the exact center of the small village of Bourtange, population just under 500.
But Bourtange is more than just a village. It’s a fortress, and it’s a museum.
Bourtange the fortress
Bourtange was first built in the 1500s by Prince Willem of Orange during the “Eighty Years’ War.” He meant it to help the Dutch rebellion against their Spanish rulers. Supplies for the Spanish were brought in from Germany, so Willem’s plan was to build a string of fortresses on the border to cut off that supply.
The border here was marshy, so supply routes were limited to only a few dry paths, making it possible to block them. However, the fortress wasn’t much use once the marshes were gradually drained by local farmers in order to cultivate more land.
Later, in 1739-1742, Bourtange was rebuilt and made more defensible with the addition of moats. By 1851, though, the fortress again lost its usefulness due to changes in weaponry. Abandoned for the next hundred years, it was restored in the 1970s to its 1742 condition.
So Bourtange is a restored fortress, and it’s in pristine condition. But what’s impressive about Bourtange isn’t just that it’s a fortress. It’s the shape of that fortress: a perfect five-pointed star.
Bourtange the living museum
While Bourtange attracts its share of tourists, the only time it is crowded is when special events take place. The once-a-year battle re-enactment and medieval fair called Vesting Spectaculum, for instance, takes place in mid-August. Samhain is celebrated at the end of October, and the Autumn (September) and Christmas markets are popular too.
Surprisingly, for such a small place, there’s plenty to do, even when no special events are scheduled. In among the private houses are six different museums:
- Terra Mora focuses on marshes in relation to the fortress.
- Museum De Baracquen shows visitors what life in a soldier’s barracks was like in the year 1742. This museum also includes various everyday items that were found in the process of reconstructing the fortress.
- Het Nieuwe Kruithuis served originally as a storage place for gunpowder. Today it is an art exposition space.
- Kapiteinswoning is an officer’s quarters dating from 1661, furnished to show visitors what life was like at Bourtange for officers.
- In De Dagen van Roem, you can see a film about Bourtange’s history, with all its ups and downs.
- The Synagogue dates from 1842. It’s been renovated and now serves as a museum and, occasionally, services are also held here.
All of these museums are worth a visit; none will take very long. My favorite is the lovely tiny synagogue, which used to serve the 55 Jews who made Bourtange their home until 1938 when they were deported to Poland.
Many of the other buildings within the fortress are also either original or reconstructions to the 1742 state. You’ll find the lodgings of various officers, a horse-powered mill, and a windmill. Some of them house shops or other businesses, while others are private homes. Please be mindful that the residents probably don’t want strangers wandering into their gardens or peering in their windows!
Staying in Bourtange
You can even stay in the village overnight. The Bourtange Fortress Association, which operates the museums, has twelve rooms, eight of which have a bedstee – a traditional cabinet bed – and they’re not even expensive at €79 euros per room per night, including breakfast and admission to all the museums. I also found one double room on Airbnb for about the same price.
Two restaurants operate inside the fortress. The one where you enjoyed your drink on the Marktplein, Eetcafé ‘t Oal Kroegie, serves simple small meals in a pleasant, cozy atmosphere. It is a great place to try traditional Dutch pannekoeken, a large, thin pancake, either savory – with toppings like cheese and/or bacon – or sweet, with syrup. The other, Restaurant ‘s Lands Huys, is bigger and slightly more upscale, but equally atmospheric.
Walking in Bourtange
The highlight of a visit, though, is walking. Walk the village streets, of course, looking over the fences at the overflowing gardens some of the residents have created. And, especially, walk the fortifications.
You may be picturing stone walls, but that’s not what these fortifications are. Instead, they are made of dirt and covered in grass. This was apparently a particularly good sort of defence once armies started using cannons. Thick dirt walls like these could absorb more and bigger impacts before crumbling like stone walls would.
At the end of each street, you can find a stairway up to the fortification walls. At the top is a path, allowing you to walk around the entire star-shaped construction. Each turn gives you new views of the village: its church, homes, the old barracks, and so on. At the same time, from here you can see outside the fortress to the moat and the concentric circular fortifications.
Notice, as you walk the walls, the secreten, used as “toilets” by the soldiers stationed at Bourtange in the 18th century. You’ll also be able, on your walk, to examine the small windmill from close up.
Outside the village are plenty more opportunities for walking or bicycling, and you can even rent a canoe to paddle around the fortress on the outside.
On the other hand, you could also just sit on that terasse (sidewalk café) in the center of the village and relax. That is if you’re lucky and it doesn’t rain (always a possibility in the Netherlands). If it does rain, don’t worry. Enjoy your drink inside and wait for the rain to pass; it doesn’t usually last long.
Have you had the opportunity to visit Bourtange? Let us know in the comments.[box type=”bio”] On her blog, Rachel’s Ruminations, Rachel Heller writes about independent travel, sometimes solo, sometimes not, with an emphasis on historical and cultural sights/sites. She is a former American who has lived in the Netherlands for the last 20 years. [/box]