In case you need reminding that relations between France and Germany haven’t always been cordial, come to Thionville in the Grand Est Region.
The town, close to the Luxembourg border has been hotly contested since it was founded, and has witnessed six sieges in the last 500 years alone.
The more recent conflicts between the nations have left the landscape littered with fortresses, some built when Lorraine was annexed by Germany and others part of the ambitious French Maginot Line.
Thionville was loaded with heavy industry after the war, and although the iron mines and steelworks are consigned to the past their memory has been preserved at museums and gardens.
Lets explore the best things to do in Thionville:
1. Ouvrage Hackenberg
If you want somewhere to start your tour of the Maginot Line, make it this fortress in the countryside east of Thionville.
The Ouvrage Hackenburg never faced a frontal assault, so the concrete shell and labyrinth of underground tunnels is still intact.
One of the blocks here has been restored to working order, and you’ll take the elevator to the bowels of the fortress and ride on the electric train that serviced these tunnels.
The tour is exhaustive, demonstrating the working gun turrets and explaining every technical detail you could want to know, including how the tunnels were cleverly designed to extract smoke and gas.
2. Tour aux Puces
The oldest monument in the city is the former keep of a castle built by the Counts of Luxembourg.
The Tour aux Puces (Tower of the Fleas) would have been raised around the 11th or 12th centuries and was modified right up to the 16th century.
Its current 14-sided design is from the time of the Spanish occupation, when it was integrated into a sequence of defences on the Moselle River.
The oldest walls are on the northeastern side where you can still see the stonework from the 1000s.
3. Musée de la Tour aux Puces
To get a handle on Thionville’s complex history step inside the tower where there’s a museum with a large hoard of artefacts to inspect.
You’ll get a chronological summary of the main episodes in the town’s past, from prehistory up to the Renaissance.
The attraction has been updated with modern museography and helpful explanations accompanying its displays.
You’ll see Neolithic hand axes, Gallo-Roman sculptures, Merovingian jewellery and beautiful carved tombstones from the late middle ages.
4. Fort de Guentrange
Here’s another sight that reveals Thionville’s complex heritage.
The Fort de Guentrange was built between 1899 and 1905 when Thionville was in German hands.
It’s a formidable construction, and was actually one of a whole program of fortifications between here and Metz.
Despite the massive amount of money spent on this fort it never saw any action, and escaped harm during Second World War attacks when it stored weapons like the V-1 flying bomb.
There are regular 90-minute tours of this enormous installation that could hold a garrison of 2,000 men, and was fitted with eight long-range guns and early telephone communications.
5. Mines de Fer de Neufchef
The northwestern side of Lorraine is pocked with iron mines that were sunk two hundred years ago, but closed down after the war.
Two of these have been kept as museums to educate the next generation about the region’s bygone iron and steel industry.
The local one is minutes west of Thionville at Neufchef, and has maintained 1.5 kilometres of underground galleries.
You’ll be talked through it all by a former miner, before entering several well laid-out rooms explaining the day-to-day life of a miner and the geology that made the industry possible.
6. Zoo d’Amnéville
In 15 minutes you’ll be at the biggest zoo in eastern France, with 1,500 animals from 360 species.
The Zoo d’Amnéville stands out for its gorillas and orangutans and is spread over 18 hectares of meadow and woodland.
The Plaine Africaine is a highpoint, with giraffes, zebras, ostriches and antelopes coexisting in a three-hectare enclosure.
Park attendance has shot up in the last couple of years after the zoo unveiled its Tiger World shows, using tamed tigers.
These are 45-minute spectacles with a dozen big cats, but they’re a controversial addition and have see the zoo downgraded to a temporary member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
7. Sights around Thionville
Thionville is a small town, so you can take a whistle-stop tour of Thionville in a couple of hours.
As well as the sights and attractions covered in this list there are a few minor landmarks to look out for.
One is the Autel de la Patrie (Altar of the Fatherland), a highly rare memorial to the Revolution, erected in 1796 and featuring the Masonic symbol of the Eye of Providence.
The town’s streets are edged by some lovely old houses from between the 1400s and 1700s, as well as more extravagant hôtels particuliers.
See the Hôtel de Créhange-Pittange from the 18th century and the town hall, which is in fact a converted convent dating to 1641.
8. Château de Volkrange
A little way beyond Thionville’s western outskirts is an exquisite château from the 1200s embedded in a 30-hectare park.
In spring and summer the property is brought to life with workshops for ancestral activities and crafts like stone-cutting, stained glass and manuscript illumination.
The property itself suffered serious damage in the Thirty Years’ War, then to be restored in the 18th century.
But the original moat, and basic outline of the building remain unchanged.
In the grounds you can also poke around outbuildings like the beautiful 18th-century dovecote and the stables.
9. Jardin des Traces
Up the Moselle at Uckange is an extraordinary garden billed as “Le Jardin de l’Impossible”. You’ll know why when you see it, because the attraction is in the shadow of a blast furnace in a former industrial wasteland.
And although this isn’t the ideal location for a garden to thrive in, it’s a perfect statement of the Moselle department’s industrial past and what it wants to be in the future.
The garden has three sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the iron industry, from the elements that came together to make it thrive, to the people who travelled from all over Europe to work here.
And finally there’s a statement about the region in the future and its commitment to renewable energy.
10. Église Saint-Maximin
Thionville’s solid-looking church was built in the French Classical style in the middle of the 18th century.
The French army actually had a hand in its design as they wanted the two towers above the western portal to be lookout posts.
But it’s the interior that really shines, especially the high altar and the Great Organ.
The latter is a true historical document, rolling together the French and Northern German organ styles, as it was modified throughout the 19th century when Thionville was both French and German.
This marvellous instrument has 4,500 pipes played with three 56-note keyboards and a 30-note set of pedals.
11. Beffroi de Thionville
A beloved fixture of Thionville’s skyline is a belfry that dates to the end of the 14th century.
It’s a symbol of the town’s communal freedoms, because permission to build a watchtower was something that could only be granted by the Counts of Luxembourg at that time.
The belfry was later remodelled in at the turn of the 18th century, and has kept the same appearance to this day.
At the top of the tower there’s a carillon of four bells from 1656, 1689, 1746 and 1844.
12. U4 Blast Furnace
You can actually visit the U4 Blast Furnace that looms over the Jardin des Traces in Uckange.
Most traces of the Moselle Valley’s industry have been cleared away, but this beast was protected as a French “historic monument”. It dates to 1890 and is the last of six furnaces used by Uckange’s smelting works.
Two decades after the furnace closed down it is now seen in a new way: As a memorial to the past and also a backdrop for modern art installations.
At the moment there’s only an interpretation trail around the outside of the building, but there are plans to make it accessible in future.
13. Ouvrage Fermont
Hackenberg may have whetted you appetite for the Maginot Line, and there’s another immense compound to the west of Thionville in Fermont.
Unlike Hackenberg, Fermont took a lot of damage in the Battle of France in 1940. But after the war it was repaired to prepare for a possible invasion from the east by the Soviet Union.
On weekends you can visit to descend into the tunnels 30 metres down and see every nook of the chambers at ground level.
There’s also a rail line running from the entrance to the combat blocks.
A new museum at the fort records the fierce fighting that happened here, gathering weapons and gun turrets from other forts on the Maginot Line.
14. Château de La Grange
This palatial property has been in the same family for more than 250 years.
The château has room after room enriched with luxurious furniture, ceramics, paintings and other decorative items.
But these walls have their own tale to tell, as personalities as diverse as Charles de Gaulle, Wallis Simpson and Casanova have spent the night.
The grounds deserve equal attention for the Jardin des Prairiales, two large bands of meadow speckled with flowers from around the world bordering a lush central lawn.
While on the terraces are compact parterres with boxwood sculptures.
15. Food and Drink
Lorriane’s cross-pollination of cultures also happens in the kitchen.
You’ll know this from the big choice of cold cuts, which includes German-style white sausage, ham sausage and liver sausage.
Quiche Lorraine is the star though, cherished far beyond these borders, and prepared with cream, eggs and bacon.
The landscape around Thionville is decked with orchards growing mirabelle plums and these go into all sorts of products.
You can buy mirabelle jam in the market, as well as mirabelle liqueur, which is also blended with plum juice to make mirabelle eau-de-vie.
The patisseries will sell mirabelle tarts, and you can buy these delicious plums on their own in August and September.