Monday, August 19, 2013

Chapter 29: Saarlouis, friendly fortress town

In 1680, the Sun King, Louis XIV ordered his fortifications engineer, Sèbastien Le Prestre de Vauban to design and construct a vast fortification on the Saar River to protect the eastern frontier of what was then part of France. The result was Saarlouis, a town that still prominently features the star shaped walls of the great fortress, only today those ramparts contain a museum, fine restaurants and night clubs.

For Lawna and I, Saarlouis is about a an hour's drive, and we ventured there on a drizzly Sunday afternoon to check out its unique layout. This part of Saarland in westernmost Germany was until recently a major steel producing area, and driving into the town one sees row houses which reminded me of pictures I have seen of English towns of the industrial revolution. There is still industry in the area--including a Ford auto plant, the only American car maker that has much prominence in Germany. Soon (the town isn't very big, about 38,000), we crossed the gently flowing Saar River, and the bridge carried us through the old gate, nestled between the massive outer walls of the fortress. The river has a peaceful, tree canopied walkway and a lovely park.
Saarlouis Riverwalk

Fortress park
Model of Vauban's design for the original fortifications

Once inside the walls, the downtown section appears as an orderly grid, much as Vauban designed the fort. Most of the buildings, however, are not original. Because of its nearby industry, Saarlouis was heavily bombed by the Allies during WWII. Even the old Ludwigskirche is capped with a new metal roof. In fact, compared to many other German towns we have visited, Saarlouis is not that pretty. Most of the buildings are functionally modern. My fascination was with the remnants of the old fort, which was an enormous engineering undertaking that involved a complex, multilevel moating of the Saar. If one moat were to be breached, then an inner area could be flooded to create another water obstacle. The walls were not terribly high, but the deep pitch and heavy armaments place within them made them difficult to breach.
Antique vendors
Today, the inner parade ground where French, and later German, troops trained and marched is covered with shops and cafes. That Sunday, antique dealers had set up shops on the street--an open air antique market. The less expensive food is in the town square, and the finer dining is in the wall. We visited an antique shop and were served champaigne while the owner taught us about Art Nouveau furnishings and urged us to visit the art museums of Nancy (pronounced Nohng-say), which was the center of the art nouveau movement. She spoke completely in German, and I'm getting so that I can understand most of it. In the fortress walls, we visited the Saarlouis museum and then ate overpriced Swiss toasted sandwiches with salad at a fortress restaurant. Hey, but how often does one eat in Louis XIV's fortifications?
Our restaurant
Fortunately, the Saarland is at peace today, and hopefully will remain so for the foreseeable future. But, as is true of so many cities in Europe, people live their day to day lives in the shadow of a long and often brutal history. In the quiet shops, it's hard to imagine the suffering that people a generation ago went through in the last major European war, reflected in old museum photographs of a town festooned with Nazi bannners, then lying in rubble, pitted by bombs, and finally images of a slow reconstruction, trying to rebuild shattered lives. There's not much left of the old town, but Vauban's thick fortress walls remain. The fortress stands, but Saarlouis is no longer part of France. The friendly border is just miles away. The ramparts no longer protect Saarlouis from enemies, but instead welcome visitors and provide a place of hospitality with good food and drink and spacious parks for strolling.
Flower boxes in the Saar.

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