It’s not that Heusden is an uninviting place, it’s just that the massive fortifications of its star-shaped defences are so well preserved that you feel like you’re entering a military zone. One false step and you might be repelled by the town’s defenders. The defences of this charming little town are hugely impressive, and have seen so much history that it’s hard to stop your imagination running wild with thoughts of conquering armies and valiant townsfolk fighting to protect their homes and lives. Seen for the first time it is an incredible sight.
It’s a truly beautiful place, and it’s popularity probably justifies the huge reconstruction and restoration work that was carried out in the 1960s to return it to its former 17th century glory. The full fortifications and around 400 buildings were restored, in what really was a monumental undertaking that lasted over a decade. If anything, Heusden is a little too well-preserved. Its one hundred and thirty-four national monuments, pristine streets and manicured earth defences ringed by two moats and backed by the River Meuse, make it feel a like you’re walking in an open-air museum.
Located on the strategically important Meuse, at the boundary of three historic Dutch counties, there has been a fortification of some sort here from before the 9th century, which was when some Vikings made the journey up the river to burn the town down. The town played an important role in the War of Dutch Independence, not as a Dutch stronghold but as a supporter of the Spanish Empire that ruled over the Netherlands. The town’s leaders eventually saw which way the wind was blowing and switched sides to support the Prince of Orange.
In 1680, tragedy struck Heusden. Lightening hit the castle and ignited sixty thousand pounds of gunpowder, destroying it and many other buildings. The castle was never rebuilt, but some foundations are still visible. There was additional tragedy during the German occupation in the Second World War. The bridge over the River Meuse made Heusden strategically important after the Allied invasion of Europe. Following the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, Canadian and British armies launched Operation Pheasant in October. Heusden lay directly in their path.
In November, Scottish troops approached the town and the German troops prepared to retreat. Fatefully, 170 of Heusden’s citizens sought shelter from artillery fire in the cellars of the town hall, where the German army had a command centre and hospital. As the German’s prepared to pull out, they mined the town hall’s 40 metre high tower, placing the charges deliberately so that it would fall on the town hall. Some 134 people were killed, of whom 74 were children. Many people consider this event to be a war crime.
I’d arrived in Heusden on a sunny Sunday and the town, which attracts several hundred thousand tourists every year, was buzzing with life. The main square was filled with people eating outside several restaurants, and the town’s harbour was busy with boats coming and going. I parked my bike in the town centre and went for a leisurely wander. There’s a pleasant walk along the old defences that takes you past several windmills that still sit on the walls of the town, and give you fabulous views over the town and the surrounding countryside.
It doesn’t take long to explore the walls, streets and small alleyways of Heusden, and after an hour or so I plonked myself in the main square – the former Fish Market – and had lunch. This is quite an extraordinary town, made all the more so by the banning of advertising, which gives you a different impression of a place. Lunch over, it was back on the bike and a big loop that would take me to the site of another Second World War tragedy, the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught.