If you're looking for a little tranquility after the hectic pace of the Randstad ,Bourtange will do nicely.For a history buff , or those who enjoy movies set in this period ,I haven't been anywhere better ... they keep paths mowed atop the walls ,and one can walk circuits of the moats , cross over and walk larger laps ,with plenty of photo-ops for those so inclined...they seem to be expanding the walls ,and we came across some old pottery shards where there was some disturbed earth ...the moats extend outward in star shaped rings ,and it may be a good idea to carry the provided map of where the bridges are or it can be a long walk around ...there are plenty of water birds and colorful flowers to make this enjoyable ...Canoes can be rented to paddle around in the moats , we didn't do this but it looked like fun...
Around 10:00 am the tourists start to arrive ,it may be a busload of School children , or visitors from Nearby Germany ...it was at this point we decided to travel the
20 Kms or so to Papenburg ...This city is home to a massive shipbuilding industry ,turning out everything from giant cruise ships to luxury yachts...the Centrum has a decidely Dutch feel to it with a canal bisecting the main shopping street , and classic sailing boats moored . Theres a windmill in town as well ....Papenburg is mostly modern looking , but the centrum was a pleasent stroll and I was able to find a good German Currywurst for lunch at one of the many cafes lining the canal ...If you'd like to get a look at a Deutscher city without tourists this would be a good choice...
The "Vesting Bourtange" is a hidden gem in the North Dutch landscape. Hardly any mass tourist will ever see or find it, which is only at their loss. A "Vesting" is a village that has been turned into a fortress. This happened a lot in medieval times, when the map of Europe was constantly shifting and wars (civil as well as among states) was a usual thing. The same was in the 16th century, when Bourtange was appointed to become a fortified place, protecting the North-Eastern border of the Habsburgian Lowlands. William of Orange (Willem van Oranje, father of the fatherland) started the works that lasted ceveral centuries and eventually had this amazing result that ... never functioned. No army ever besieged Bourtange, no doubt also the reason why everything has been kept so beautiful and intact. In many ways it can be named the best preserved fortified village in it's kind within Europe, maybe even the world. More history can be found in the General-tips on this page.
Note!!!": buy a "paspartout" first
When one wants to visit the interiors of the synagoge, the captain's house and two other main attractions within the fortress, one should go first to visitor centre "De Poort" inside Bourtange fortress to obtain a so called "paspartout" ticket. This grants entrance to these four monumental buildings and completes your trip.
Fortified villages in the late medieval times all got more or less the same spectacular shapes. Italian architectes, working together with Flemish and French colleagues, found out that a strategy of earth walls (from where artillery controlled the flat surroundings) in combination with canals, had a huge defensive effect on a attacking force. The starshape had the positive effect of bringing the enemy in range, while keeping the centre out of range from the enemy. Canals, earth walls and especially the dead ends and island "ravelines" made it for the attackers difficult to know where to start an offensive. When you walk through these outer parts of the fortress, imagine how a soldier then must have looked at these defensive walls and waters. And don't forget that in these times, aireal views were not available !
To secure the canals on one hand, but keep a good connection for the present troops and arriving of supplies, draw bridges connected the paths over the canals. When opened, the passage would be blocked and the wet feet of attacjking forces ensured. On either side of the fortress Bourtange one has to go over three draw bridges to reach the inner earth walls with the two gates in them. The draw bridges are now-a-days painted red and contrast beautifully with their green surroundings and the blue waters on a clear day.
After the bridges and a short walk through the defensive "ravelines" one reached the gate. Bourtange has two gates and visitors mostly enter through the "Friesse Poort" (Frysian Gate). One can see that the doors are strong and the entrance fortified with deep thick stone layers within the earth wall that surrounds the centre of the village. Whether this is the front- or the backdoor is not so important, though the Frysian Gate is pointed in the direction of nearby (later built) Bourtange civilian settlement.
In military sense one would expect something quite different then the neat little gardens and cosy houses with colourful decorations. The people that now-a-days live in Bourtange are taking very good care of their very special living places. This is of course a unique housing and the touristic importance makes it clear to the people to add to the scenery by making everything neat and cosy. Though isolated in the North-Eastern flanks of the Netherlands, I can imagine much worse places to live (-:
What would a fortress be without weapons? Bourtange had in several places weapon depots, but the main place to have storage was in the storage house left from the "Friesse Poort" (Frysian Gate). Here a series of large doors still show where in those days the muscets, bullets etc. were placed, waiting to be used in either excersises or "the real thing" (a battle). This last however never really came to be, as when the fortress was fully built, no enemy was stupid enough to attack here (also, because of the relative UNimportance of these surroundings in later times.
In present days the staorage rooms have gotten another useful task. They form garages for the few people within the fortress Bourtange that have a car. This way the cars (that would spoil the scenery) are out of sight and the people still have the opportunity to drive somewhere whenever they want.
On safe distance from the weapons depot, stuffed away in a safe corner, stands the gunpowder house ("Polver-magazijn" or "Kruitopslag"). Here the highly explosive gunpowder was stored and in wartimes this could be more then 20.000 pounds (in Dutch a pound is 500 grams, half a kilogram). One could imagine that this place had to be kept far away from fire, which was obviosuly also the reaosn why closeby the well was placed for water supply. Still I wonder what would happen when 10 tons of gunpowder would ignite ... well, I am afraid that one should worry anymore about that well ... nor about this whole section of the fortress.
To secure the (wide) surroundings of the fortress, canons were placed on each point of the fivestar that the fortress is made of. Whole batteries were put in the innerring to give complete salvo's of artillery fire on besieging troops. The surroundings of Bourtange could be inundated (flooded with water) so that the enemy could hardly use themselves canons as a means to attack. The heavy weapons would sink in the mud or be instable while using them. The canons that are placed now-a-days in bourtange are partly the ones that were placed here in medieval times. Other are purchased and brought here to give a complete image of the old days.
Returned into the cosy streets of the village one of the first remarkable buildings is the white house on the left. When getting closer you notice the David's star and curiously cast a look inside. Here a pedistal with two scroles draw the main attention and one will come to the conclusion that this is a synagoge. This also could have been read on the sign on the wall next to the door, a system that is widely spread throughout the Netherlands when it concerns monumental buildings or historical landmarks. This synagoge came here in the year 1842, when relatively growing numbers of the population (soldiers, but of course often the more influential officers) were Jewish. Above the door the stone that says: "We gaan naar het Huis des Heeren in gespannen verwachting" (= We go to the House of the Lord in excited expectation).
The fivestar shaped Bourtange has also in it's street pattern a adjoining of streets. Ten streets all end up on the "Markt" (= Market), the central square of the whole village, where - of course - the most important people had their houses, as well as some central buildings were placed (soldiers mess hall, administrative office and others). The square (actually a circle) is surrounded by trees that cast shadows over the Markt and keep it cool on warm summerdays. Now-a-days here are some shops as well as the terrace of the restaurant.
On the map of Bourtange number 19 is appointed to be the Captain's house (Kapiteins Woning). The captain, a high ranking officer and second in command of the fortress, lived quite luxereous for military standards. The house is now-a-days restored to original example and houses a small museum. The interior excists of two completely decorated rooms in the style of the construction date of this house: 1661. To visit the house one needs the paspartout that can be bought at "De Poort" information centre.
Most common type of building within the fortification walls of Bourtange is the barrack. A barrack is a large house in which the soldiers had their quarters. Long halls and large rooms were typical within these buildings and the personal places of a soldier were simply a bed and a closet. Several hundred soldiers were present in peace times, but during mobilisation the amount could easily rise over a few thousand men. The barracks now-a-days are almost all turned into small houses for the people that live inside "Vesting Bourtange". One is even turned into a hostel (see hotel tips).
The construction of this special fortress village was meeting quite irregular solutions to problems. Space was a luxery within the walls and should be used wisely. A fivestar shape leads to many triangular shapes, so houses of rectangle form would lead tpo waste of space or narrowing streets (which would be disasterous when canons had to be transported through them. The architects of Bourtange found a perfect, though strange looking, solution by making the houses shape up to the village pattern. Some barracks have hooks that end in a 45 degrees angle, sticking out exactly into the shape of the roads. A good example is at barracks number 33, straight behind the officer of the guard.