Up to the year 1678 when it was annexed by France, Maubeuge had been sacked and looted an amazing 20 times. So once the town was under French control Maubeuge became a fortified border town with walls designed by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s decorated military engineer.
Large sections of these walls, ditches, water channels and bastions are still here, and they all add a lot of character to Maubeuge. The old pattern of destruction carried over into the Second World War when Maubeuge bore the brunt of the German invasion. A lot of the history was wiped out in 1940, but the town rebounded with utopian modernist townscape by André Lurçat.
Lets explore the best things to do in Maubeuge:
1. Remparts de Vauban
In 1678 after the Treaty of Nijmegen Maubeuge fell into French hands, placing it on the frontline between France and the Habsburg Empire.
Within months construction of a citadel around Maubeuge was afoot, and the man with the plan was Vauban, the military engineer extraordinaire.
Even after German bombardment in 1940 two thirds of Maubeuge’s outer wall remains.
The remainder was torn down voluntarily after the war to allow the town to grow on the right bank of the Sambre.
The walls and bastions were always designed to be low-profile and are now a sort of large park, with passageways, grassy ditches and solemn stone curtains.
2. Porte de Mons
The grandest remnant of the fortifications is this gate at Place Vauban on the north side of the town.
As with most of Vauban’s work the Porte de Mons has a lot of finesse considering it was designed for defence.
It’s a gateway with three portals under a pavilion with a pediment and mansard roof facing the town.
Pointing away from the town, the building is a little less refined, with a guardroom (now home to a museum), hefty wooden doors and traces of the original drawbridge winch.
The Porte de Mons should be the starting point for a visit to Maubeuge as the tourist office is inside.
3. Musée du Corps de Garde
While investigating Vauban’s ramparts you might be in need of a little context, and that is provided by the museum in a guardroom tucked behind the Porte de Mons.
This building dates to 1683 and was in Vauban’s original plans, made up of a guard room, dormitory and powder room.
It was an army property up to 1914 and in the 70s it was chosen to be the citadel’s gallery, packed with antique weapons, uniforms and documents to give a clearer picture of military life in Maubeuge.
Best of all is the plan-relief, a 3D map of the town made in 1825.
4. Zoo de Maubeuge
One of the many cool things about this zoo is the way in adapts to Vauban’s ramparts.
These old embankments and walls make for useful barriers and give great vantage points to look down into the enclosures.
The zoo is relatively small, but well formed, with 350 animals from 56 species.
There’s a white tiger, a Sri Lankan panther, giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos, capybaras, kangaroos and a lot more.
Check the schedule to catch feeding times for the hippos, gibbons, elephants and wolves.
5. Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul
Maubeuge’s church was obliterated in the Second World War, and its replacement from 1955 has become a lasting emblem of the post-war reconstruction.
It’s now recognised as a French historic monument, and one of the architects to work on the building was the modernist trailblazer André Lurçat.
There’s a lot of Lurçat’s personality in the church, as he was a communist convinced that all religion was coming to an end.
He decided to make the building neutral so that it could be converted into a theatre in the future.
At the entrance pause to inspect the beautiful mosaic by André’s brother, Jean Lurçat, who was also an influential artist.
6. Historic Religious Buildings
Despite the widespread destruction in Maubeauge in the Second World War a couple of religious buildings came through unscathed.
On Rue de La Croix take a peek at 16th-century Béguinage des Cantuaines, which was home to a community of beguines, nuns who had not taken formal religious vows.
On Avenue du Lieutenant-Colonel-Martin is La Chapelle des Sœurs Noires, a small 17th-century chapel in the Baroque style, belonging to a convent that has since vanished.
In its time the chapel has been a library, military depot and protestant temple, and now part of the university.
7. La Ferme du Zoo
Fun and educational for smaller family members, La Ferme du Zoo is to the east of the town in open countryside.
Kids can make friends with tame farmyard breeds like Jersey cows, shaggy highland cows, donkeys, ponies, goats, texel sheep and rabbits.
There are large lawns for picnics and playgrounds where children can burn off some more energy.
Adults will also be pleased with the space and tranquillity of the place, helped by the farm’s conservatory orchard growing Avesnois fruits.
There’s also a lovely kitchen garden with medicinal and aromatic plants, and an apiary.
8. Zone des Etangs
In the southeast of the town there’s a serene green space on the site of channels dug by Vauban next to the Sambre.
These are ensconced in woodland, and the blend of greenery, soothing water and fragments of old fortifications makes for agreeable walks.
It’s hard to imagine now, but this was once a sophisticated defensive system, using water and dams to protect the southeastern approach to Maubeuge.
Later, in the 1800s it was a adapted as a canal, binding the coalfields in Belgium to steel plants in the Nord region.
All of that is long gone, replaced by dragonflies, irises, willows, alders and people fishing on the banks.
The Maubeuge tourist office has a fleet of 22 bicycles, and you can hire one for up to three days at a time.
There are mountain bikes for racing up forest tracks, and city bikes for coasting along country lanes and exploring sleepy villages like Feignies.
And before you set off you’ll get maps and leaflets of the three loops disappearing into the Avesnois Natural Regional Park from Maubeuge.
You’ll roll by trickling streams, watermills, deciduous forests, orchards, hedgerows and meadows bright with wildflowers in summer.
10. Avesnois Regional Natural Park
As a rule of thumb the further you travel from the Sambre Valley and its old industrial communities the quieter and more idyllic the countryside.
There are thousands of kilometres of tributaries coursing down to the Sambre, and if you follow these back you’ll ramble through cool oak and beech forest.
Since heavy industry disappeared from the region in the 20th century the water and woodland is cleaner than it’s been for hundreds of years.
Where the forest is cleared there’s a “bocage” landscape of meadows and cereal farms divided by rows of pollarded trees and hedges.
Another characteristic is the local bluestone, a dark compact type of limestone used in cottages and ancient chapel and oratories.
11. Théâtre du Manège
Established in 1990, Maubeuge’s theatre is a Scène Nationale, and so a regional hub for contemporary arts.
There’s another Manège theatre not far away in the Belgian city of Mons, and the pair act as a cross border cultural platform, often booking the same artists while they’re in the region.
The best time to visit is spring: In March there’s the VIA festival, curating theatre, dance and digital arts.
Then in June you’ve got the Festival des Folies, which is for younger audiences, booking nightly gigs, street performers and contemporary circus artists.
12. Maubeuge-Élesmes Aerodrome
Many visitors end up in Maubeuge because of the airport, which is used only for light aviation and parachuting.
People travel from both sides of the Belgian border for this activity.
“Skydive Maubeuge” offers tandem jumps, which don’t require much training or preparation as you’re attached to an experienced skydiver.
All the same, you’ll jump from 4,000 metres and hit speeds of 200km/h.
The entire jump will also be recorded on HD video for you to download later.
You could also visit the aerodrome for one-off flying lessons in a glider or light aircraft.
An enjoyable drive through the Avesnois countryside to the south will bring you to the town of Sars-Poteries.
Up to the 1930s Sars-Poteries had a booming glassware industry.
This disappeared after the war, but the memory was rekindled in the 1960s, and the museum has just moved into a stylish new purpose-built home.
This is a thing of beauty on its own, and is clad with that local bluestone.
The rough, chiselled edges are supposed to remind you of silica, the main ingredient in glass.
As well as old pieces of local glassware MusVerre has the largest public collection of contemporary glass design in France.
There are 550 marvellous creations by more than 100 international artists.
14. Forum Antique de Bavay
Little more than 15 minutes west is the small town of Bavay, which in Roman times was a regional capital.
Bagacum Nerviorum was the home city of the Nervii Belgic tribe, and came together around the 1st century BC. In 1906 the immense forum (one of the largest north of the Alps) was rediscovered, along with thermal baths that were fed by an aqueduct channelling water for more than 20 kilometres.
You don’t need much imagination to appreciate the scale, but the accompanying museum has a fantastic 3D projection of the site as it would have been in the 2nd BC. This comes with displays of artefacts, including pottery, which was a local strong suit in 2,000 years ago.
15. Regional Food
The easternmost reaches of the Nord department have a few delicacies to seek out at local markets.
The Avesnois is draped with apple orchards and there are several mills in the region brewing French-style “cidre”. Their pressed apple juice is also delicious, while there’s also a small beer industry here: Try cuvée des jonquilles, which ferments in the bottle with live, unfiltered yeast.
Food-wise the very robust maroilles cheese has AOC status and is sold in rectangular blocks.
Flamiche au mairolles is a filling tart topped with this cheese and a layer of crème fraîche.
For an authentic local dessert go with tarte au sucre, a decadent cream and vanilla pastry slathered with brown sugar.