If you need a reminder that relations between France and Germany are not always friendly, come to Thionville in the Great East.
The town near the Luxembourg border has been controversial since its founding, with six sieges in the past 500 years alone.
Recent conflicts between the nations have left the land full of forts, some built when Lorraine was annexed by Germany, others part of the ambitious French Maginot Line.
After the war Thionville was full of heavy industry, and although the iron ore and steel mills are a thing of the past, their memory is preserved in museums and gardens.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Thionville:
1. Ofrag Hackenberg
If you want to start your tour of the Maginot Line somewhere, make it this fortress in the countryside east of Thionville.
The Ouvrage Hackenburg has never faced a frontal attack, so the concrete shell and labyrinth of the underground tunnels are still intact.
One block here is back to normal work, and you’ll take the elevator to the inside of the fort and ride the electric train that serves these tunnels.
The tour is very detailed, showing the turret at work and explaining every technical detail you might want to know, including how the tunnels are cleverly designed to extract smoke and gases.
2. Tour aux Puces
The oldest monument in the city is the former castle of the castle built by the Count of Luxembourg.
Tour aux Puces (Tower of Fleas) was built around the 11th or 12th century and modified in the 16th century.
Its current 14-sided design dates from the Spanish occupation, when it was integrated into a series of fortifications on the Moselle.
The oldest wall is on the northeast side and you can still see stonework from the 1000’s.
3. Musée de la Tour aux Puces
To learn about Thionville’s complex history, step inside the tower, which houses a museum with a wealth of artifacts to examine.
You’ll get a chronological summary of major events in the town’s past, from prehistory to the Renaissance.
The attraction has been updated with modern museology and helpful explanations that accompany its displays.
You’ll see Neolithic hand axes, Gallo-Roman sculptures, Merovingian jewelry and beautiful carved late medieval tombstones.
4. Fort Dagontrange
This is another sight that reveals Thionville’s complex heritage.
Fort Guentrange was built between 1899 and 1905 when Thionville was in German hands.
This is an awesome building, actually one of the whole fortification plans between here and Metz.
Despite the large sums spent on the fort, it never saw any action and escaped harm by stockpiling weapons such as V-1 flying bombs during World War II raids.
Regular 90-minute tours take place at this massive facility, which accommodated a garrison of 2,000 troops and was equipped with eight long-range artillery pieces and early telephone communications.
5. Mines de Fer de Neufchef
The northwest of Lorraine is littered with iron mines that sank two hundred years ago but closed after the war.
Two of them have been preserved as museums to educate the next generation about the area’s past steel industry.
The local one is located in Neufchef a few minutes west of Thionville and maintains a 1.5 km underground gallery.
Before entering several beautifully furnished rooms, you will speak to a former miner to explain to you the daily life of a miner and the geology that makes the industry possible.
6. Anneville Zoo
In 15 minutes you will arrive at the largest zoo in eastern France, with 1,500 animals from 360 species.
Famous for its gorillas and orangutans, Zoo d’Amnéville covers 18 hectares of meadows and woodlands.
The African Plain is a high point where giraffes, zebras, ostriches and antelopes coexist in three hectares of paddock.
Visits to the park have soared over the past few years after the zoo launched its Tiger World show using tamed tigers.
These are 45-minute glasses for viewing with a dozen big cats, but they are a controversial addition and have seen the zoo relegated to temporary membership of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
7. Attractions around Thionville
Thionville is a small town, so you can complete a short tour of Thionville in a few hours.
In addition to the sights and attractions covered in this list, there are a few small landmarks to look out for.
One of them is the Autel de la Patrie (Altar of the Fatherland), an extremely rare memorial to the Revolution, built in 1796 and featuring the Eye of Providence, the Masonic symbol.
The town’s streets are lined with lovely old houses from the 1400s to 1700s, as well as more luxurious hotels.
Visit the 18th-century Hôtel de Créhange-Pittange and the Town Hall, which is actually a monastery dating back to 1641.
8. Volklanges Castle
On the western outskirts of Thionville is a fine castle from the 1200s, set in a 30-hectare park.
In spring and summer, workshops for ancestral activities and handicrafts are held here, such as stone cutting, stained glass and manuscript lighting.
The property itself was badly damaged in the Thirty Years’ War and then restored in the 18th century.
But the original moat, the basic outline of the building remains unchanged.
On the grounds, you can also explore outbuildings such as the beautiful 18th century pigeon loft and stables.
9. Trace Garden
Upper Moselle in Uckange is an extraordinary garden known as “Le Jardin de l’Impossible”. You’ll know why when you see it, as the attraction is in the shadow of a blast furnace in a former industrial wasteland.
While not an ideal location for a garden to thrive, it is a perfect illustration of the Moselle sector’s industrial past and what the future wants to be.
The garden is divided into three sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the steel industry, from the elements that made it flourish, to the people who traveled to work here from all over Europe.
Finally, a statement on the future of the region and its commitment to renewable energy.
10. Église Saint-Maximin
Thionville’s sturdy-looking church was built in the mid-18th century in French classical style.
The French army was actually involved in its design because they wanted the two towers above the western gateway to be lookout posts.
But it is the interior that really shines, especially the high altar and grand organ.
The latter is a true historical document, a fusion of French and northern German organ styles, as it was modified throughout the 19th century, when Thionville was both French and German.
This fantastic instrument has 4,500 pipes and is played on three 56-key keyboards and a set of 30-key pedals.
11. Beffroi de Thionville
The most popular fixture in Thionville’s skyline is a clock tower dating from the end of the 14th century.
It was a symbol of the town’s public freedom, as only the Count of Luxembourg at the time allowed the construction of the watchtower.
The bell tower was later remodeled at the turn of the 18th century and remains in its original state.
At the top of the tower is a carillon consisting of four bells from 1656, 1689, 1746 and 1844.
12. U4 blast furnace
You can actually visit the U4 blast furnace on the Jardin des Traces in Uckange.
Most of the industrial traces of the Moselle Valley have been removed, but the beast is protected as a French “Historic Monument”. It dates back to 1890 and was the last of six furnaces used at the Uckange smelter.
Twenty years after the melting pot closed, it is now seen in a new way: as a memorial to the past and as a backdrop for a modern art installation.
There is currently only an interpretive trail outside the building, but there are plans to open it in the future.
13. Ouvrage Fermont
Hackenberg may have piqued your interest in the Maginot Line, and there is another massive complex in Fairmont west of Thionville.
Unlike Hackenberg, Fairmont suffered considerable damage during the French campaign of 1940. But after the war it was repaired in preparation for a possible Soviet invasion from the east.
On weekends, you can visit the tunnel 30 meters underground and see every corner of the room above ground.
There is also a railway line from the entrance to the battle block.
A new museum in the fort documents the fierce battles that took place here, collecting weapons and turrets from other forts along the Maginot Line.
14. La Grange Castle
This palatial property has been in the same family for over 250 years.
The castle’s rooms are filled with room after room filled with luxurious furniture, ceramics, paintings and other decorations.
But the walls have their own stories to tell, and various characters like de Gaulle, Wallis Simpson and Casanova have all spent the night here.
Also noteworthy is Prairie Park, two large meadows dotted with flowers from around the world that adjoin a lush central lawn.
And on the terrace are compact flower beds with boxwood sculptures.
15. Food and drink
Lorriane’s cultural cross-pollination also occurs in the kitchen.
You’ll know this from the large selection of cold cuts, including white sausages, ham and liver sausages.
Quiche Lorraine is the star, though, going well beyond those boundaries and preparing it with cream, eggs, and bacon.
The landscape around Thionville is decorated with orchards growing Mirabell plums, which are used to produce various products.
You can buy mirabelle jam in the market, or mirabelle liqueur, which is also mixed with plum juice to make mirabelle eau-de-vie.
Pastry shops sell mirabelle tart, and you can buy these delicious plums yourself in August and September.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Thionville, France
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