Friday, 6 September 2013

Visit to Fort Napoleon, Belgium

Finally got the holiday photos imported, sorted and edited so it's time to review our museum excursions in Belgium. We only had a few days in Ostend so we only managed a couple of museum visits as there was plenty of drinking and eating to do as well!

The weather was absolutely superb and if anything it was a little too hot when we went to the Atlantic Wall museum (it's a long walk round so should have taken some water). But both Fort Napoleon and the Atlantic Wall attractions are easy to get to from the centre of Ostend and there is very good public transport to help you if you aren't driving.

First visit was to Fort Napoleon...
This Fortress is situated in the dunes east of Ostend's harbour and was built between 1810 and early 1814 by Napoleon as part of his plans for an invasion of England. Originally there were to be three identical forts but eventually only two were completed: the current Fort Napoleon and 'Fort Royal'.

After the Battle of Waterloo 'Fort Royal' was finished by the British and renamed Fort Wellington. It was located west of the city but unfortunately was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the horse racing track.

Getting to the fort from the town is easy and fun as you can take advantage of the free (yes free) ferry across the harbour to the east bank, then there is a pleasant walk through the old docks to the museum itself (it's well signed).

View from Fort Napoleon back towards Ostend town. This gives you a
fair idea about how far you have to walk to get to the fortress.
Now, having got there, if you were expecting a 'museum' with lots of installations, artefacts and recreations this attraction may not be for you (I suggest you visit the Atlantic Wall museum at the other side of Ostend instead). What Fort Napoleon is is a lovingly and sympathetically renovated bastion-fort, with the emphasis on the careful preservation of the structure while adding some additional contemporary bits of architecture to help make this monument more accessible to the public.

Outside the fort - it lays nestled in the sand dunes and was designed not
to be visible from the beach, while the defenders could see the beach from
the roof. There were 8 million bricks used in it's construction, that's
practically a whole housing estate these days!
You have the shell of the building and that's about it. For those interested in history - particularly the history of fortifications - it is very interesting but it makes very little concession to those that like their history with a pinch of the theatrical (recreations, props, guns and what-not). There is a very useful audio tour (English available), but the illustrated panels which appear occasionally are in Dutch (Flemish).

Do not think I am being negative. The whole point of Fort Napoleon is the preservation of the building and my wife and I enjoyed our visit immensely (there's a quite spectacular view of the coast from the roof). It's a wonderful example of fortifications of this period (as well as having relevance to the First World War and Second World War).

The space between the outer and inner walls were designed as a 'killing
ground' for any assaulting infantry. You can see the gun loops in the walls.
View at the centre courtyard of the fort looking up to the roof.

There are no period furnishings, uniformed mannequins or weaponry in situ. Just the building, but this in itself is a unmissable historical edifice (I love forts and castles).

One of the more fascinating decoration in the building is the famous "Der Barbar" mural on the fireplace of the old 'officers' mess'. This was created during the WW1 phase of the fort's use when a large coastal gun battery was placed just behind the building (sadly this was later demolished).

Ostend was then in the hands of the Germans, as the long European trench line ended on it's western side at the coast. The 'Hun' officers used this room as a bit of a social club and it is said that this is where they 'entertained' local Belgian girls of questionable morals!

The mural is a piece of satire which makes fun of contemporary French propaganda about how the 'civilised' allies were engaged in a war against the 'barbarian' Germans. It depicts an armoured  Teutonic knight astride the corpses of allied soldiers, his sword piercing the head of a Scottish Highlander! (I take it as a compliment that the Germans specifically singled out Scots for the worst of their vitriol!)

The archeologists had to recover this wonderful mural from under
layers of accumulated graffiti. It is faded but you still get a sense of
it's original gory jingoism.
All in all the historians and archeologists who renovated the fort - after it lay in ruin and decay since WW2 when it again was used by the Germans - have done a superb job in saving a hugely important Napoleonic fortification. The Belgians were very pragmatic in their restoration - much to their credit - and while ensuring the greater part of the structure was preserved for posterity they bravely added modern features to make the visit more pleasurable (like the veranda cafe) and also retained some vestiges of the graffiti which was daubed on the walls during the period of the forts neglect.

One of the amazing views from the roof of the fort. During WW2 the Germans
once again occupied Ostend and the fort was made part of the Atlantic Wall
defences. A meter of concrete was added to the roof for protection and AA guns
installed to defend against Allied bombing raids. 
One of the - perhaps controversial - pieces of work that the
Belgian restorers undertook was the 'cutaway' done on one
of the inter-wall parapets. This was done so visitors could
see the thickness of the fort's walls. It's hard to imagine this
sort of pragmatic 'preservation' being allowed in the UK!

Finally I should mention the excellent cafe which has been built into the side of the fort. Again, this might have British archeologists and academics shaking their heads, aghast at what they might see as 'vandalism', but I think it's an excellent idea to make historical sites attractive and accessible to ordinary people. It makes these site 'living' locations and not just piles of stones only of interest to a elite few.

The cafe has been erected on a beautiful decked veranda into the seaward facing side of the fort and while the Trip Advisor reviewers bemoans it's *comparatively* expensive menu you must realise that this is not meant to be one of those nasty school-dinner type cafeterias that are so common in British historical attractions.

Left: One of the intact inter-wall enclosed parapets.

This is a cafe in the French style and the food is what you might expect in a 3 Star restaurant in Britain. The clue is in the fact it has waiter service and in it's extensive and wonderful menu. If you want chips or a ham sandwich eat before you go - but the wife and I enjoyed our relaxed lunch and I didn't think it expensive!

I highly recommend visiting Fort Napoleon as it balances out your historical knowledge which is likely used to the idea of Britain being the nation that usually expects invasion!

Somewhere over there is England! It's spooky to imagine that German
soldiers looked out over this and across the channel British soldiers looked
back at them!
Next: My visit to the Atlantic Wall museum.

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