One of the best-preserved fortifications in the country stands at tiny Bourtange near the German border. With its flooded moats, solid defences and quaint houses protected from all sides, it is a sight to behold, taking you back to a time when rogue armies wandered the land and villagers built walls to keep them at bay.
Built in the late 1500s, Bourtange Fortress represents the pinnacle of the fortifications of the era. It could withstand months of siege by an invading army, and famously checked the Bishop of Münster's advance on Groningen in the 17th century.
In 1964 the regional government restored the battlements and the town itself to its 1742 appearance, when the fortifications around the citadel had reached their maximum size. It took three decades, during which time roads were moved and buildings demolished or reconstructed. The results are impressive. The star-shaped rings of walls and canals have been completely rebuilt and the village returned to a glossier version of its 18th-century self.
From the parking area and information centre, you pass through two gates and across three drawbridges over the moats before you reach the old town proper. From the town's central square, the Marktplein, cobblestone streets lead off in all directions; the pentagram-shaped inner fortification can be crossed in a matter of minutes by foot. The tourist office sells a handy English-language booklet, and docents in period outfits can guide you around.
Inside the walls (which you may walk upon) at the core of the fortification, brick houses make good use of what little space the five bastions afford. Marktplein is a good spot to start exploring, with its cafes, small craft shops and tree-shaded benches.
Of the old buildings, a handful have been turned into exhibits that are part of the museum admission. Terra Mora houses the main exhibit, with a section on the area's natural history and the chance to engage in simulated cannon volleys.The Captain's House (1661) covers the life and times of the militia stationed at Bourtange in the 17th and 18th centuries, while former soldiers' residence De Baracquen (1742) displays artefacts and curios uncovered during the fort's reconstruction. The New Gunpowder House can also be visited. The town's synagogue (1842) explains the life and times of its Jewish population, and includes a plaque listing the 42 locals taken away to their deaths by the Nazis.