Star forts, five-sided forts designed to give guards a panoramic view of any potential attackers, originated in Italy in the 15th century. Providing the optimal structure for protection from threats, star forts were used in Italian warfare for years and eventually diffused to the Groningen region of the Netherlands, where the Bourtange star fort was constructed in 1593.
The star fort was a premier defense system throughout the Netherlands and the perfect force for Fort Bourtange. The fort remains perfectly preserved, with historic churches, cobblestone streets, wooden windmills, marvelous bridges, and old military barracks strewn across the 11-acre pentagon.
Originally constructed by William the Silent to aid the Dutch in the Eighty Years’ War, Bourtange was strategically surrounded by a marshy moat and complete with sturdy fortifications for defense against the Spaniards. Years later, when the German army of the Prince-Bishopric of Münster attacked in 1672, the army was crippled by the impassable swamp that surrounded the fort.
Fort Bourtange was a military success for years, until agricultural practices dried up the fort’s protective swamp. In response, Bourtange converted itself into a non-military residential town by 1851, where life flourished for nearly 100 years. By the 1950s and ’60s, however, Bourtange saw a second wave of troubles as job growth began to stagnate, forcing the local government to declare Bourtange an open-air historical area by 1960.
Among the fort’s three historical rooms and museums is a 19th-century synagogue that was the place of worship for Bourtange’s Jews before Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the region. Historical reenactments are common; every June, the Battle of Bourtange is recreated at the fort, the largest reenactment in the Netherlands. Torture devices can also be found throughout Bourtange, including the Wooden Horse, in which a prisoner would sit atop the back of a manmade horse and have weights tied to their feet.
Today, Bourtange is one of the Netherland’s most fascinating and unique historical areas, a moat-surrounded village where you can literally walk atop a star.