Helpoort means ‘Hells Gate’ and may just have been that to a few invaders over the centuries. Despite the remaining signs of the interior ‘Murder Hole’, it was named because this small tower complex was used to house prisoners. Today it is the oldest surviving city gate in the Netherlands. The ravishes of wars and time have destroyed that vast majority of them. Henry I, Duke of Brabant, commissioned its construction and that of the original city walls in April 1229. If you look up from the outside of the gat you can still see where a vertical gate could be dropped down and would-be invaders trapped in between 2 gates. Above this (now gone) was a ‘Murder Hole’ which would then allowed defenders to drop burning oil or shoot down with arrows upon hapless enemies trapped in between the 2 gates.
In the late 15th century the Nieuwstad (New City) of Maastricht was built south of the gate. This new area was surrounded by new walls and Helpoort was no longer an entrance to the city. Over the centuries it served as an armoury, a gunpowder storehouse and a private residence.
The gate survived a series of attackers on the city because it no longer held a front line position. Maastricht was sacked in 1579 the city was sacked by the Spanish army, captured in 1632 the Prince of Orange and taken by the French in Siege of Maastricht (1673). It was during this siege that French military engineer (Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban) perfect they manner to demolish fortified city walls. He had troops dig underneath them and use explosives to drop the fortifications with ease. In fact this has been the manner to take down fortified positions until the arrival of airplane bombers in the 20th century. Needless to say, that is why there are almost no remnants of the outer walls left, yet Helpoort survived. Just for good measure the French recaptured the city in 1748 and 1794.
There is a small (free) museum inside that is actually staffed with folks who can answer any questions you like about the gate, the other fortifications and the history of Maastricht. There are 3 floors of displays to look at. They are open every afternoon 12:30 PM to 4:30 PM from Easter Sunday to autumn half-term. A voluntary contribution is kindly requested.
What Kilroy was to the twentieth century, Vauban was to the seventeenth. Wherever you went in Western Europe, Vauban had already been there and had designed, built, strengthened – or conquered – the fortifications.
Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), is considered by military buffs to be “one of the greatest military engineers of all time.” (Since I am not a military buff, I’ll simply take their word for it.) During his lifetime, Vauban was responsible for the fortification of over 160 places in France and neighboring countries. But they say his major contribution was that he developed new methods of attack which revolutionized siege warfare.
As I have already mentioned in one of my Freiburg im Breisgau reviews, one of Vauban’s many projects was to fortify the Schloßberg, overlooking Freiburg, after French troops occupied that German city in 1677.
Today an entire district of Freiburg is named after Vauban, but not just any old district. On the site of a former French military base, the city of Freiburg has developed the Sustainable Model District Vauban, a new district for more than 5000 inhabitants and 600 jobs, using renewable energy resources and planned for the needs of people, not cars.
In Paris there is a monument to Vauban in the Invalides, in one of the side niches adjoining Napoléon’s tomb.
The French King Louis XIV sent Vauban to Maastricht in 1673 with 45,000 troops for the purpose of overcoming the existing fortifications and occupying the city. Vauban accomplished this within three weeks, using new tactics of his own devising.
For the next five years Maastricht was occupied by the French, and in this time Vauban further strengthened the fortifications.
• Daniel Halévy, Vauban, Editions de Fallois, Paris, 2007 (first published in 1923)
• Alain Monod, Vauban ou la mauvaise conscience du roi, Riveneuve éditions, Paris, 2008
See also: Vauban’s Citadel in Lille, with links to some of my other tips/reviews on Vauban.
Just outside the city centre, you find the old city defense lines, which surrounded Maastricht underground and partly above ground. In the Hoge Fronten (nowadays a national park) and the city park near the police station, you can still access this old world of lines, which had access to the 4 nuclear shelters of the city Maastricht (one remained intact and can be visited).
Between 1773-1777 Colonel-Ingenieur Carel Diederick Du Moulin made the plans for the Hoge Fronten, a 15 hectare defence area. There are dry moats and bastions with bomshelters and explosive storage rooms. It was called the Linie van Du Moulin, today we call what rests de Hoge Fronten. The walls of the bastions shelter rare plant and animal life and are labelled protected naturemonument since 1992. This area is the only place in the Netherlands where you can find the wall-lizard. This is due to the warm microclimate the fortications have. We have also seen foxes here, but the flowers are also great.
The area is managed by the foundation CNME Maastricht & Mergelland.
And is owned by the municipality of Maastricht.
You can walk on top of the fortifications but also on a lower level between the walls. This lower level is partly closed to protect the lizards from roughly may to november.
It is an oases of quietness in the busy city Maastricht and certainly worth to go there for a 30 minutes to an hour walk.
This is one of Maastricht's original city gates, built in 1229, and is the oldest surving city gate in the Netherlands. Strangely enough the reason why it has stood for so long is that by the 14th century its use as a gate became redundant as the city expanded and a second set of walls were built. The Helpoort was then used for storage and as such was never in the frontline during the various battles and city seiges over the centuries.
The gate has recently been fully restored and its towers now host a museum exhibition about the city's fortifications.
Protecting the city from attacks across the Maas River the town was also fortified along the river edge. Cannons protected the town and attackers were taken out before they could do any harm after crossing the river. Today many buildings use the town wall as outer wall, even though those buildings were only built in recent years.
Right next to the Helpoort is the Jeker Tower that stood part of the fortifications of the old town Maastricht. From here attackers were seen and the town informed. Amazing to see that this tower dates back almost 800 years!
The Helpoort forms parts of the earliest city walls and were built with the authorization of Henry I, duke of Brabant in 1229. It is the only city gate that is still left standing and also the oldest of its kind in the Netherlands. The gate was used to defend the city for more then two centuries. Later the Nieuwstad was also walled serving as a second wall of protection.
Reconstructed tower called "Pater Vinktoren"
The Pater Vinktoren tower, where the heads of five inhabitants of Maastricht who had helped the hated Spanish were displayed, has been reconstructed, and a small section of defences around the tower remain
Also at the eastbank of the river Maas is the Waterpoort, dating back to the 13th century. In 1714 the Waterpoort was enlarged to make it easier to load and unload the ships.
It is supposed that the first wooden medieval bridge crossing the river Maas was at this point before it moved more to the north at the point of the St Servaas bridge.
Also at the eastbank of the Maas are remnants of fortifications from the 14th century. Just south of the new built Hoge Brug stands the Maaspunttoren as a landmark just at the riverside. Once the Maasspunttoren was the southern tower at the corner of the first medieval walls.
Around the Maaspunttoren are newly built walls in red brick in the form of former fortfications as part of the renewal of the public space in this area. It is a lovely place to sit down for a while and have a look at the river and the green area of the park at the westbank.
The Onze Lieve Vrouwe Wal along the river Maas is part of the first fortifications of Maastricht. This city wall was built in 1229 at the same time as the Helpoort at its southern end.
Walking from the Sint Servaas bridge along the riverbank to the Helpoort or the park you have a good view at this citywall. In front of the wall is a row of old canons.
The Helpoort or Hell´s gate is the oldest surviving towngate in the Netherlands. The Helpoort was part of the oldest fortifications of Maastricht, built in 1229.
In the 15th century a newer fortification was built more south of the towngate. At that time the towngate lost his former function.
You can visit the Helpoort to climb the tower and have a look at a small historical exhibition.
The visiting hours are daily from 13:30 to 16:30 for a free gift.
Helpoort - old fortification gate in Maastricht.
The Helpoort forms parts of the earliest city walls and were built on the authorization of Henry I, duke of Brabant in April 1229. It is the only city gate which is left standing in Maastricht and is also the oldest of its kind in the Netherlands.
What about meeting the ghost of D’Artagnan in Maastricht? D’Artagnan, one of the legendary musketeers, was mortally wounded on the 25th of June 1673 outside the city walls and the locals believe that his ghost wanders in the casemates. Between 1575 and 1825, mining activities created a labyrinth of galleries at Maastricht’s western side. The galleries extended for 10 kilometres and were used, among other things, for military purposes. To visit Kazematten you must join a guided tour. The tour lasts about 1 hour and is led by an official VVV Tourist Office guide. Information and reservations in VVV Maastricht, tel. 0031-43-32178 78, email firstname.lastname@example.org