Perched on a cliff overlooking the quaint, gabled houses that make up the tiny town of Bouillon, Castle Bouillon overshadows the pastoral landscape with its imposing facade. The fortress is a constant reminder of the area’s violent history and its feudal past.

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In the midst of a snow storm we drove south in search of what many historians refer to as the Pearl of the Semois Valley–the sleepy town of Bouillon. Once we got off the highway, we were greeted by a winter wonderland. The Ardennes, even in winter’s grasp, possess a sort of storybook beauty that is unforgettable. Rolling hills dotted with woodland, grazing horses, and tiny hamlets with smoking chimneys passed us by as we wound along the Semois River.  Ice and snow clung to the tall, pencil-thin conifers with their bushy tops. As I gazed at the speeding rows of trees my mind raced. I snapped a lot of photos, but few really did the misty countryside justice.

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Castle Bouillon had opened for the season on March 1st and was one of the few places open on Monday, a day when most museums, restaurants and shops in Belgium are closed. We wound around the narrow streets, slowly circling towards the castle entrance. Empty, shuttered shops and cafes with chairs piled high beneath retracted awnings made the cold dampness along the river more palpable. Between the snow and the desolate streets the town felt like something out of an old forgotten movie set. We parked our car in an empty lot beside the town’s movie theater–a ramshackle little building littered with posters and a lopsided sign that read cinema. Next to the cinema was the “Chat Noir”, a shady looking establishment painted in black with a single porthole window. Hmmm…doubt I will find this in my Bouillon guide.

We rushed up the cobbled ramp leading to the castle at a quarter past eleven, a full fifteen minutes before the bird of prey falconry demonstration. We had a good laugh at the ticket booth with my French–I may have asked the woman for a table for two instead of two tickets–but it turned out her English was flawless. Something told me that lady was simply happy to see someone visit the castle in the middle of a snowstorm–especially two D&D nerds so overjoyed to see the falcons.

I thought that the show would be canceled because of the weather, but alas, we were wrong. We crossed the two moats (which were paved in 1913) and entered the dark, dank castle through a wide, low arch complete with a portcullis. Originally, no less than three drawbridges separated the castle from the town.

A Fantastic Falconry Demonstration

In the courtyard beneath five rectangular wooden huts were five exquisite birds. We recognized a Gyrfalcon, a Golden Eagle (this bird is huge), aWhite-headed Vulture, a Great Horned Owl, and a Peregrine Falcon. Promptly at eleven thirty, Falconer Dominic greeted us. Sitting with us was a crowd of grammar school kids whose discipline was commendable. You could hear a pin drop as the birds started flying over our heads. The falconry demonstration wasn’t your run of the mill tourist gaff. Dominic’s skill with the birds was truly impressive. The eagle dive bombed over our heads with its massive wing span, then flew over the castle ramparts, disappearing for a while before returning. I had never seen a vulture used in such a fashion and I have to say that I squealed in surprise when the massive bird dragged its jessesacross the cobbles, doing a little zombie walk for the crowd. Unlike the vulture, the Barn Owl was absolutely gorgeous with its snowy white plumage. Considering that most accomplished falconers have time to keep only one or two birds, Dominic’s skill at handling so many varied species spoke of a lifetime of dedication.

After the show was over, we shook out the cold and prepared for our dungeon crawl. One of the things I love about Europe is the lack of what I call “supervision.” In America everything comes with a rope, a fence, a warning or some other kind of restraint preventing you from exploring places. In Europe you don’t get any of that. The castle ramparts are low, the steps are worn and slippery and some passages pitch black. After getting the map of the castle in the front entrance you are on your own. Touring the grounds is at your own risk. If you happen to fall three stories into the moat because you’re not watching your step, or slip down into the oubliette, that’s your ass. I love being left alone to explore places the way I want without any hand holding.

History of Bouillon

Castle Bouillon is ancient, teeming with winding passageways and dark recesses. There is a real sense of antiquity in this place where moss has begun to grow deep in its bowels, sprouting leaves around the sparse lights. Perhaps more than any enemy force, it is nature who is proving victorious against Godfrey of Bouillon’s hulking fortress.

Although first mentioned historically in a text dating back to 988 AD, the castle was said to have been there hundreds of years prior, if not a full thousand years. It is one of the oldest and best preserved castles in Europe.

On the death of Godfrey III, Duke of Lower Lorraine in 1069, Bouillon passed to his nephew, Godfrey of Bouillon. In 1095 Godfrey of Bouillon, sold the fortress to  Otbert, Bishop of Liège in order to finance the First Crusade. With the money, Godfrey of Bouillon and his two brothers, Bohemond of Taranto (one of my favorite Medieval personages) and Raymond IV of Toulouse set off for Jerusalem. After three years of vicious fighting, Godfrey’s army managed to breach Jerusalem’s walls and reclaimed the city for Christendom. Refusing to be crowned “king” in the city where Christ died, Godfrey took on the title Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (“advocate” or “defender” of the Holy Sepulchre). Sadly for Godfrey he never made it back home. In 1100 he mysteriously dies. Some histories claim it was an arrow, others that he was poisoned.

From 1100’s onwards, Castle Bouillon’s ownership was viciously contested, but remained in Liege’s hands until the late 1600’s. Ironically, the Bishops of Liege lost Bouillon to the very governors they had installed to look after the duchy. In 1482, the Chatelain of Bouillon, William de La Marck ordered the assassination of Louis de Bourbon, Bishop of Liege and Duke of Bouillon. The plot was unsuccessful, but never forgotten.When John of Hornes succeeded Louis de Bourbon, he declared war against William de La Marck. The Treaty of Tongeren, signed May 21st, 1484 brought the war to an end. In accordance to the treaty, the La Marck Family relinquished their claims on Liege, but retained Bouillon Castle as a pledge.

In 1492 Robert II de la Marck began to call himself “Duke of Bouillon”–a title that never sat well with Liege. In 1521 another member of the La Marck family, Erard de La Marck, supported by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, regained Bouillon for the Prince-Bishopric.

After this squabble, Castle Bouillon remained in the La Marck family’s hands, passing from one family member to another. In 1594, with the death of Charlotte de La Marck, the duchy passed to her husband Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne. House of La Tour d’Auvergne gained control of tCastle Bouillon until 1794 when the French Revolutionary Army invaded the duchy creating the short-lived Republic of Bouillon. In 1795 Bouillon was annexed to France. In 1815, the title of Duke of Bouillon” was restored to Charles Alain Gabriel de Rohan, a distant cousin of Jacques Léopold de La Tour d’Auvergne, the last known duke.

In 1830 the Duchy of Bouillon is annexed to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, then in personal union with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, becoming part of the Kingdom of the Belgians in 1830. Charles Alain Gabriel de Rohan dies heirless six years later bringing an end to the controversial title of Duke of Bouillon.

Horror Within the Walls of Bouillon

stairs-castle-bouillonI could go on and on about the history of the place, but I rather tell you what it felt to visit this magnificent fortress. In all the hours we spent exploring, we crossed paths with maybe four other visitors. We had the place to ourselves. The first feeling we experienced was awe at the magnitude and sheer size of this architectural marvel. Just how did the builders do it? The castle is massive and the walls are twenty feet thick in places, rising vertically from the bedrock. I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken to build such a place.

It was cold outside, but the coldness trapped in the walls seemed to seep under our clothes. It was a damp and menacing cold that left me feeling truly sorry for anyone who was trapped in the gallows and oubliettes in this remote corner of the world. Torture seemed preferable to the drafty cells and dripping, flooded dungeons devoid of sunlight. In certain parts of the castle we navigated with cell phone flashlights and moved very slowly, afraid that we might slip and fall to our doom. There were spaces that required us to crawl through hand carved tunnels culminating in iron bars. During our foray into the depths of Castle Bouillon I kept thinking about the unfortunate individuals who had ever spent time in such a place. In spite of not being a prison, it was a damnable death sentence. The cold and the humidity coupled with the fumes of torches would have slain lungs even in the blush of life. Castle Bouillon lacks fireplaces as those were not invented until later.

It was no surprise to see the desperate last words  of prisoners carved and clawed along the stone walls of the dungeons. In such deplorable conditions perhaps a quick death was preferable to the slow rot that would set in after a mere few days. As we ventured deeper towards the cistern (which works as well today as it did two thousand years ago) I began to thank God for electricity and the comforts of modern day life. It’s easy to romanticize the Medieval life of lords and ladies, but the truth is far from glamorous. Life in the time of Godfrey was nightmarish. It consisted of death, disease and ignorance and was ruled over by violence and darkness. Why else would mankind build such impregnable building from which to hide in? All of us have watched the History Channel shows about barbarian invasions and warfare, but until you’ve felt that kind of awe and fear in your bones, the type of reality that lives and breathes in the darkest corners of a fortress such as Bouillon, that understanding is only skin deep. Bouillon has changed my perspective on Medieval life in a way that only an ancient military stronghold can.

On the drive back to Ghent, the snowy woods and pastoral fields had taken on another note. I saw a countryside besieged by invading armies, generations upon generations of peasants laboring the fields to fill up the granaries of their lords’ castle. I saw a world where the only shining light came in the form of frescoes on church walls. Even mass was recited in a language that was alien to the people. Alas I finally understood why the Dark Ages, were indeed, called dark.

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