In Eastern France there are several war related “roads” to follow, the “road of the fortified towns,” “The road of the battlefields” linking battlefields of the two world wars, and “The road of the military cemeteries.” Wars happened here with alarming regularity. The road I found most fascinating was the “The Road of the Fortified Churches” celebrating about 65 churches (God’s castles someone called them) built in the Thierache region for the protection of the civilian population. These towns sat on the border between Champagne and Picardy near Flanders. They could not afford to wall themselves. Many did not have castles to retreat to. So they built their church sanctuaries as actual sanctuaries, with round towers, loopholes to shoot from, chutes from which to dump boiling water on attackers and a “keep,” usually a bell tower and steeple on steroids. Hundreds of people could shelter in these churches.
Although some were built earlier many of these churches were built during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th century. They were most useful in protecting towns from bands of outlaws, bandits and army deserters who plundered the towns in the aftermath of battles. They also sheltered parishioners during the 30 Year War, when more were built, and many other conflicts. They had a useful defensive life measured in centuries. The churches grew with the centuries and the need.
They look foreboding, almost like tanks. They sit on ridge tops in view of each other so they could signal each other across valleys and farm fields. We had a map but it was more fun to stand at one church, scan the countryside and spot others and head off trying to find them, getting lost in the countryside. While these churches are Catholic a certain Lutheran hymn seems like an appropriate anthem for these churches: “A Mighty Fortress.”
These pictures are from 2001 and the comments are from a 2001 letter.
Tomorrow we travel to Doha and I.M. Pei’s stunning Museum of Islamic Art.