The town of Limbourg stands on high ground above a loop in the river Vesdre, a naturally strong position similar to the fortresses of Besançon and Bouillon. In medieval times the town was the capital of the trilingual (French, Dutch and German) Duchy of Limburg. The Dukes of Limburg built a castle next to the town on high ground that could only be approached along a narrow neck of land to the south.
Thanks to the natural strength of its position, the castle resisted a month-long siege by the Germans in 1101. In 1288 the last Duke of Limburg died and the Duchy passed into the hands of the Dukes of Brabant and eventually became part of the Spanish Netherlands.
In 1504 the castle was severely damaged in a fire and was rebuilt with some early artillery defences, but still essentially to a medieval design. Limbourg found itself on the front lines during the Eighty Years War'and was besieged several times.
Initially held by the Spanish, the town was captured by the Prince of Orange in 1577, only to be retaken by the Spanish in 1578. Following the siege of Maastricht in 1632, the Dutch captured Limbourg again, but it fell to a Spanish counterattack in 1635.
At some point in the late 16th or early 17th century the medieval walls around the town of Limbourg were augmented by the construction of bastions'to protect against artillery. Most of the new works were on the south side, where the town was not protected by steep cliffs and the river.
The long south-facing wall was flanked by a bastion at either end and a medieval-style semicircular barbican in the middle at the Porte d'Ardenne (Ardennes gate). In front of this gate was a large demi-lune. A fourth bastion flanked part of the walls on the west side of the town that was also vulnerable to attack. A deep ditch'was dug in front of the defences, which had to be carved out of the rock in places. In the east the church, which was built on the brink of the cliff, was encapsulated in a bastion.
The castle was not given any radical modifications but was modified to mount artillery on the walls. Notably, a battery of guns faced south towards the town, protecting the most likely approach.
The bastions were probably earthworks initially, but were later revetted in stone to prevent them from eroding. During the various sieges, Limbourg was often bombarded from the hills to the east or west as well as being attacked from the south.
At some point in the mid-17th century, the engineer Jean Boulengier'came to Limbourg to work on the fortifications. At this time a number of outworks were added to the southern defences and a covered way'was added.
In 1673 the French captured the Dutch-held fortress of Maastricht. As the war dragged on they made raids into the surrounding countryside to obtain supplies, but the garrison of Limbourg were active in countering the French forays into their area.
In 1675 the French decided to attack the fortress to remove this thorn in their side. A force led by Prince Condé'invested the fortress and the siege, which was conducted by Vauban, lasted only 11 days before the Spanish surrendered.
During the siege the castle was levelled by the bombardments, and much of the town was in ruins. Parts of the fortifications had to be rebuilt once the French had captured the fortress. The castle was not rebuilt, but batteries were installed where it had stood.
During the reconstruction, the defences in the south were layered, to make the most of the high ground at this point and to reinforce this section of the fortifications. A front of two demi-bastions was added at the north end of the town, cutting it off from what had been the castle and guarding against an attack from this direction.
When the French handed Limbourg back to the Spanish in 1678 by the Treaty of Nijmegen, they slighted the fortifications before they left. This turned out to be a bad idea, since they later reoccupied the fortress in 1701 had to defend it against the Allies in 1703.
Having taken Huy, Marlborough'sent Prince Hesse-Cassel to Limbourg with 25 battalions. The French garrison surrendered after a three-week siege, by which time there was a large breach in the walls to the north of the church.
After the War of the Spanish Succession'Limbourg became part of the Austrian Netherlands and declined, losing out to its larger neighbours Maastricht and Liège. In 1781 the fortifications were declassified and the remains of the castle were demolished.
The fortifications of Limbourg were left to decay after they were declassified, although the walls on the eastern side were patched up, since they form retaining walls holding up this side of the town, including the church. In the south and west the stone was removed for building purposes.
The castle was the site of a succession of mansions, which have removed any trace of the original stronghold. Today, the site is private property so it cannot be visited.
From the entrance to the castle, a path leads along the western ramparts, which are still an impressive height despite the lack of stone to support them. From the end of this path, taking the road out of the town follows the route of the old Porte d'Ardenne.
This road crosses the remains of the demi-lune, which has no stone, but its earthen form can still be seen clearly. From here, a footpath leads to the remains of the other end of the southern front.
Here, a demi-lune and a bastion have survived, complete with some of their stone work. Unfortunately the remains are very overgrown, but it is still possible to access them and appreciate what they might have been like before the trees were allowed to grow up.
The eastern ramparts, which are well preserved, can be seen best by walking up the road from the lower town and then taking the footpath that leads along the foot of the walls and then climbs up to the church.
The fortifications of Limbourg are overgrown and somewhat confusing, but the town is well worth a visit for its picturesque narrow streets. It is a shame that the fortifications have been forgotten and have become overgrown, but it seems that the vegetation is slowly being cleared.
Limbourg can be reached by train (the station of Dolhain is at the bottom of the hill) or by car (it is a short journey from Maastricht, Liège and Aachen).