A few weeks ago I had been out beer and battlefielding in and around Stenay and Orval. The road takes you around the town of Montmédy and in the rain that morning, the fortress loomed over the road as I wound my way northwards.
If it was impressive in the rain I reckoned it would be well worth the visit on a dry day. Dragging my friend Florian along as a willing volunteer we had already pottered about the Meuse a bit and the sun was making great efforts to give us a glorious afternoon.
The site of Montmédy guards one of the major routes between France and its neighbours. Situated on a hill over 150 metres higher than the surrounding countryside its strategic importance is more than evident as you approach from below.
In 1221 Arnould III the Count of Chiny (Across the border in modern day Belgium) constructed the château of Mady and this became the centre of the County stretching up to Virton and Neufchâteau.
Over the next few years Mons madiacus (Montmédy) increased in size and fortifications to become a castle or château fort in French.
French history is incredibly intricate and by marriage and conquest the County passed into the hands of the Dukes of Luxembourg (Who had fought against the English at Crécy in 1346).
From there it went into the hands of the Dukes of Burgundy (Who fought with the English against Jeanne d'Arc).
At the demise of Duke Charles the Bold against the French King Louis XI at Nancy in 1477 the Burgundian territories should have passed back to France but by a very quick marriage of the late Duke's daughter to Maximilien the future Holy Roman Emperor, Montmédy found itself within the empire. (This marriage also explains why Arras and all of Flanders and Artois also went to the Empire).
When Maximilien died in 1519 his inheritor was his grandson who had already inherited the Spanish empire in 1516 and in so doing become the first Spanish monarch to inherit both Castille and Aragon. Charles Quint, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (and father of Phillip II who sent the Armada against England).
Realising that Montmédy protected the southern approaches to his Spanish Netherlands, Charles Quint began encircling the town with defensive walls and towers in 1544. These would be added to right through into the 17th Century and have given the fortifications the greater part of their current appearance.
In 1639 the Louis XIII (Of the three musketeers and Richelieu) began a campaign to reconquer the lost Burgundian territories taking Hesdin that year and Arras the following. The campaign would be continued by Louis XIV who had Vauban invest Montmédy in 1657 - Vauban's first siege.
The 19 year old king and Cardinal Mazarin followed the siege with great interest as the 736 defenders held out for two months against at least 10,000 French troops, who lost at least 4,000 of their number.
Following the Treaty of the Pyrénées in 1659 the French conquests were basically confirmed - in return they stopped aiding Portugal against Spain.
In 1791 during his flight from Paris, Louis XVI had Montmédy as his preliminary destination. He and Marie-Antoinette were to be sheltered by the monks of Orval. Recognised at a coaching station (By his likeness on the coins) he was arrested at Varennes.
Some work was carried out after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War but the reality was that around the turn of the century almost all of the northern forts were declassified one after the other.
Montmédy was right in the firing line within the opening weeks of the war. On the 26th August 1914 Longwy (30km to the east) fell to the Germans after a stout defence by the garrison for five days. In the end the Germans had brought up 305mm guns which had little difficulty in smashing up the old walls.
On hearing of the fall of Longwy the garrison commander decided that opposition in the face of the German heavy artillery was pointless and ordered the destruction of his eight canon and equipment.
On the 29th the garrison of 2500 men attempted to make its escape. Sadly they were by then well behind the German lines and their attempt to fight their way through led to their destruction.
To get into the citadelle you climb up the hill, make rattling noises as you cross the wooden planked outer bridge and then drive over the inner bridge and through the tunnel.
I was really surprised on reaching the main square - people live here ! Some of the houses have been put on the market and have been refurbished and occupied. Sounds like a fantastic idea but I would want to see it in January before I upped sticks.
We paid our four Euros ticket and visited the two museums before heading out onto the battlements.
The sun had come out and the very first view was impressive. Towering over everything in view we slowly made our way around the well marked route. The ticket office had provided a short guide and plan which explained everything we were looking at and how the bastions, demi-lunes, and other bits all worked together to make the structure so strong. Of course we had remembered all this from the models in the museum.
Even with our guide I think that we missed part of the tunnels, but sure, it was sunny and you have to make the most of that in September.
The promenade divides half way round and we chose to go the long way which meant going down through the tunnels (Florian found the light switch on the wall) through the casemates (gun ports) and out into the moat.
From here we were able to look up at these huge walls and could see that in places there are great chunks of rock mingled in with the brick.
Climbing back up again we re-crossed the wooden drawbridge and returned to the heart of the fortress and St Martin's church which is the dominating structure on the grounds. Apparently the original church was in such a dilapidated condition in 1748, with pigs and other farm animals roaming about the interior, that in 1753 a decision was made to rebuild the church in its present form.
The building has seen better days but was interesting none the less. I did notice that the organ pipes are missing - taken by the Germans in 1917.
End of the day and time for a beer. You don't get this close to the Abbey without driving the few extra kilometres across the border into Orval. I find it hard not to like an abbey that brews and sells its own beer.
We had a glass and settled down for the four hour journey home. It's like Guinness, you can buy it in the shops, but it always seems to taste better next door to the brewery.