Who would have thought that what appears to be the middle of nowhere on the Dutch country side is a fortified village of Bourtange, which has historical importance and stands the test of time. Yes, you read it right. I am pertaining to Bourtange, a village in Groningen province in the North of the Netherlands. As I previously discussed in my blog Discovering Groningen, Groningen is a region characterized by huge farmlands with wide flat land spaces. Similar to other towns and villages in Groningen, the view of Bourtange is typical of Groningen, stretches of flat farmland and wide spaces. But once you enter the fort, you will find out that there exists a tiny village that manage to portray the culture and architecture from the 17th centuries. Understanding the history of the place by simply visiting Bourtange could be a challenge to non-Dutch speaking people, since majority of the museums inside this small village have no English translation (only available in Dutch and Germans). Nevertheless, let me share in this blog my impressions of Bourtange and why its worthwhile to visit this place.
History of Bourtange, Netherlands
Bourtange played an important role in the history of 80 years war between Spain and the Netherlands (1568-1648). The fortress of Bourtange was initially planned to be built during the time of William of Orange. Its purpose was to stop German reinforcements and to control the road between Germany and the city of Groningen, which during that time was under the power of Spaniards. William of Orange wanted to build the fortress but he lacked the money for diggers. After his assassination, his cousin William Louis finished the job, which was just in time to stop Spanish reinforcements in Groningen. After Groningen decided to join the fight against the Spanish, the defense turned towards the East.
Wetland is a natural defense but a disaster for good harvest. After the Netherlands and Spain signed the end of 80 years war in the Treaty of Munster, Bourtange lost its importance and popularity. The next attempt to conquer this village was when Prince-Bishop of Munster, the German ally of France in the Franco-Dutch war, laid siege to Bourtange. The siege failed. When the military of Germany (called ‘Prussia’ during that time) became a threat to the Netherlands, Bourtange got reinforced again as a fortress. The origin of the name of Bourtange stands for the word “boer” meaning farmer, and “tange” the name of a sand bridge leading to the marshes or swamps. These natural sand bridges are the only way to pass through the vast swamp, the “Bourtanger Moor”, the largest wetland of north-western Europe at that time.
What makes Bourtange special?
1. The village is a living museum.
Bourtange has been restored to it original grandeur, resembling the look and culture of 1743 when the fort was at its height. If you enter the village, you will notice that this village has less people (in fact only 430 in 2012!) as compared to most other cities and villages in the Netherlands. The houses and architectures are well preserved. A visit of half a day to a whole day is enough to see the village, although it is nice to stay longer during some festivals such as the yearly battle of Bourtange in May or the magical celebration of Samhein in Oktober. For the full experience it could be nice to stay the night in one of the many houses offering bed and breakfast inside the village so you can fully experience how it is to live in the old times.
2. Bourtange has a unique design.
Since it is too secluded, you will not expect to see a village and fortress of such historical and strategic importance to be located where it is. At first, I thought Bourtange was purely farmland. However, the uniqueness of Bourtange becomes clear from an aerial view. The village and fort are shaped like a pentagram. The origin to this unique design is very practical, the distance between each of these five points of the fortification is the same as the distance that guns in that time could fire, allowing each wall of the forth to be defended from multiple angles without providing any shelter to attackers.
3. Visiting Bourtange is a good way to practice your Dutch or German!
Most museums that we have visited inside the village are only available in Dutch and in German languages! It could be quite a challenge for a visitor who does not speak the language, thus it will be hard to completely understand its cultures and history. Despite the limitation in language, it is possible to talk to people in English.
4. Bourtange has many cutish shops.
The preserved architectures and houses of Bourtange became home to a few small businesses or shops such as restaurants, clothing shops, handmade works or arts, and souvenirs. Foods are available for tourist’s prices. Toilets can be used in each museum for 0.20 euro cent, which is relatively cheaper as compared to 0.50 or 0.70 euro cent paid in public places.
5. They have a place for children entertainment.
Children can really enjoy visiting Bourtange. The Moor museum offers good entertainment for children of different ages. Children can look at some of the plants and animal species in the region, have a virtual experience flying on a geese, and simulate how it would be to fight a war from within the fortress using air cannons and guns that shoot soft foam balls. Admittedly, this game is also rather fun to be played by adults 😉 Outside the museum, be warn though that climbing the edges of the fortress could be dangerous to young kids due to steep and slippery slopes of the fortress.