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Day trip: Thionville
Greater Region

Day trip: Thionville

by Sarita RAO 10 min. 16.07.2022 From our online archive
Surprised this border town is worth a day trip? Don’t be, it has a history dating back to Carolingian times, a marina, and plenty of museums, monuments and walking paths
Thionville is steeped in history, including this belfry first mentioned in 1363
Thionville is steeped in history, including this belfry first mentioned in 1363
Photo credit: Lex Kleren

You may be wondering why Thionville merits a day trip, but you’d be surprised. Thionville has a prestigious past and once belonged to the Carolingians, the Burgundians, the Hapsburgs, and even Luxembourg. 

It’s filled with remnants from this unusual history, from an obelisk to lock bridges, and has a couple of notable museums, churches, and several castles on its outskirts, in addition to a German military fortification that once housed thousands of soldiers, and a picturesque marina. 

Just 20 minutes by train (there are works and replacement buses currently scheduled) and 40 minutes by car from Luxembourg City, it’s a great place to explore on a day trip.

A bit of history

Of strategic importance, the town had its defences strengthened by many architects, although the ramparts were destroyed at the turn of the 20th century to allow Thionville to grow. It’s first mentioned in documents dating back to 707, when it was known as Dietenhoven.

Monuments in town

In the middle of Thionville’s town at Place Anne Grommersch is the Belfry, with its golden weather vane.

Mentioned as early as 1363, it was flanked by an alderman’s room (an annex of the town hall) and a hospice for the destitute. It symbolises the freedom’s granted to Thionville’s inhabitants by the “Charte de Franchise” issued in 1239 by Henri, Count of Luxembourg. 

The Gothic windows and buttresses are all that remains of the original construction. The current tower dates back to the 16th century, and a century later the slate roof and onion dome were added. In 1831 a public fountain was built at its front. The Belfry has 132 steps which lead to four bells, the largest of which weighs 2 tonnes and is locally known as “Big Suzanne”.   It’s the tallest monument in Thionville, and around it are plenty of sunny restaurant terraces plus the town’s tourist office.

Another symbol of Thionville is the obelisk, built in 1796 (as were some 3,600) but now the only one remaining in France to survive attacks from Napoleonic soldiers. Dating back to the French Revolution, it provided a focal point for patriotic events, and is built from limestone in a neo-classical style. It stands in Place Claude Arnoult today (after spending time in the local cemetery in order to prevent it being destroyed).

Pont Écluse was a defensive element added to the city to prevent flooding but also to store military equipment
Pont Écluse was a defensive element added to the city to prevent flooding but also to store military equipment
Photo: Shutterstock

Listed monuments since the mid-1980s, the lock bridges of Thionville’s waterways or Pont Écluse were used to house grain, straw and ammunition. It was military engineer and strategist Vauban who noticed that the town flooded frequently, so he included two lock bridges that were built by Louis de Cormontaigne on a side canal of the Moselle in the mid-18th century. 

Not only did they prevent flooding and provide a river crossing, they were also used to store food and military equipment. They could also be used as a defence system as the sluice gates could be used to flood certain areas. The bridges survived sieges in 1792, 1814 1815, and 1870, but sadly not bombing in 1944.  They were reconstructed in the 1990s using the original 18th-century techniques including a coating of Wasselonne lime.

The Sarrelouis Gate was built in the mid-18th century too, representing the style of fortified gates at that time, with motifs representing royalty. In the 19th century the moat and drawbridge were removed and the ramparts demolished to allow for a better flow of traffic. The gate was part of fortifications to strengthen the right bank of the river which included the lock bridges.

If you head to the castle courtyard area you’ll find three important buildings. The Raville private mansion, named after the most influential family in Thionville from the Middle Ages, has a polygone tower, whilst the private mansion of Bernard d’Eltz was built in the 16th century, and the town hall, which was originally a convent run by St Clare nuns in the 17th century, later became a hospital before becoming the town hall at the end of the 19th century. Nearby a fortified gate was the  only access between the castle and the city in the Middle Ages. All that remains is the portcullis and two twin towers on the city side.

Museums, castles and churches

Musée de la Tour aux Puces

Head back in time at this unusually named archaeology museum, with collections from Prehistory to the Renaissance displayed in eight themed rooms, allowing you to take a chronological journey through the great periods of history to rediscover Thionville and the region.

The Tour aux Puces (Tower of fleas) takes its name from a translation error between Luxembourgish and French and “peetzsturm” and “puces”. The building dates back to the 11th century when local lords built a castle on what was a former Carolingian palace. Later the de Raville family built more walls and added chimneys, as well as a mansion within the walls of the castle. A polygon with fourteen sides, the tower was made from the rubble of the Carolingian palace, attested to by a lintel with decorations from that time, which was incorporated into the building. The Tower has in turn served as a keep, a powder magazine and a prison.

The first collections for the museum were gathered in 1902, when destruction of more modern era ramparts unearthed an Augustinian convent (possibly destroyed in 1558) and tombstones, an altar piece and other key stones. Bombed heavily during the Second World War, the museum relocated whilst the tower was renovated. Earlier this century the museum incorporated a panoramic view of the tombstones via a glass cover in the floor. Inside, a spiral staircase leads you past the many artefacts, including a beautiful statue of Apollo (you can take a virtual tour to see exhibits here). Open Tuesday to Sunday 14.00 to 18.00, with a small charge for adults (aged 26 years or more).

Volkrange Castle

A seigneurial residence on the outskirts of the city, destroyed in party during the 30 Years War, Volkrange Castle still retains is round tower, drawbridge, and private chapel. Built between 1242 and 1248, the castle was surrounded by moats and protected by two towers. When you cross the drawbridge the first room you enter has beautiful barrel vaulting, a French-style ceiling and a fireplace dating from the 18th century Restoration period. You can also visit the stable-barn, the old house for servants, plus the castle’s magnificent 30 hectare estate. Unfortunately you can only visit in a group of 10 to 19 people for a two-hour tour, but the organisers can also incorporate a workshop for children.

The recently renovated fortress-style Church of St Maxim was built in the 18th century and has a certain stature from the outside, with its two watchtowers, and within, stations of the cross, a Baroque organ and an 18th century canopy from the Chartreuse de Rettel. Beneath the church, cellars kept residents of the town safe during war bombardments. Within the church are paintings and murals, plus stained-glass windows by Moselle artist Camille Hilaire.

You can see the Church of Saint Joseph de Beauregard from the motorway, but its better to get up close to see the ornate stonework. Built in neo-Gothic style and completed in 1870, its architecture is inspired by the Cathedral at Metz. Located on the site of the former Beauregard Hospital, in 1874 the Christian Brothers who founded the school and church left Thionville, but it was restored at the end of the 19th century, by local resident Madame Laydecker.

Just outside Thionville

Chateau de la Grange

In a nice wooded area, you’ll find this chateau built from the early Middle Ages and updated over the years to the end of the 18th century. The direct descendants of the Marquis de Fouquet are still the owners. Inside you’ll find lots of treasures including original furniture, tapestries, paintings, and an authentic medieval kitchen. This is where to see how the other half lived, with marble staircases, sumptuous rooms, a library with thousands of books, and a monumental fireplace. 

It’s still a family home rather than a museum, and there are beautiful gardens, with meadows strewn with flowers from all over the world, vegetable gardens, and a very large boxwood collection. There are also some unusual residents – trees with a moustache, a green giraffe and a rhinoceros, that litter the lawns. Due to renovation work the castle is closed this year to individual visitors (hopefully reopening soon) but you can organise group tours.

Guentrange Fortress

This massive German fortification on a hill west of the city was built between 1899 and 1906 and extended during the First World War. It conceals bunkers and underground barracks. It was constructed before the Maginot line, but later incorporated into it, and has several artillery guns. At one time, the 47 hectares was home to 2,000 men.

It’s open for guided tours that last about two-and-a-half hours (in French), and which include visiting rooms with rare equipment such as a V1 rocket from the Second World War, and items used to prevent death in the event the fortress was gassed, plus a kitchen, bedrooms, and a gunsmith room. Surprisingly the fortress was equipped with heating and a hot water system. Outside you can explore the hill top (careful as there are still trenches and some barbed wire). Tours take place at 15.00 on Saturday and Sunday from 1 May to 30 September.

Nature, walks and cycle paths 

Nautic'Ham is an aquatic centre, where you can cycle, take sailing lessons or even jet ski. You can hire motor and pedal boats or bikes, or just go for a walk and picnic around the marina.

You can take the Blue Way cycle path in the direction of Metz, past industrial heritage and the Illange Port and U4 blast furnace, crossing lakes and wetlands to arrive in the city. In the other direction, cycle to the castle-town of Sierck-les-Bains to see the chateau of the Dukes of Lorraine, and the vine covered slopes.

The 5.9km Charlemagne loop walk takes you on a historical tour of the town
The 5.9km Charlemagne loop walk takes you on a historical tour of the town
Photo: LW Archives

The 5.9km Charlemagne Loop takes in the main sights of the town via boulevards Charlemagne, Hildegarde and rue Berthe and rue des Carolingiens. Cross the river and take a stroll in Yutz on the circuit Mermoz, home to the Saint-Joseph church and some lovely murals representing the area by Greg Gawra.

The circuit du Chalet – Bois de la Côte is a 4.7km walk through the forests that are now part of a nature reserve formed in an area once mined. Nature lovers can also try the one-hour 6.4km Hostart Loop which passes by a colony of storks who take up residence near the village of Garche together with herons.  

You’ll find a number of other walking routes and cycle tours listed here

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