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July 21, 2013

The double couronne of Bellecroix forms half of a sixteen-pointed star, that one-time ideal in defensive architecture. Désiremont, itself a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, had been part of one system of fortifications or another since the 13th century, but, at the beginning of the 18th century, as per the vision of Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban, the hill and the defenses ringed about it were swallowed by a vast, new network, intended to make Metz “une place forte bastionnée.”

The new defenses comprised some three kilometres of dry moats, 4600 meters of underground galleries and passages, a number of parade grounds between the forward and secondary ramparts, barracks. These fortifications were again expanded after the German annexation to accommodate advances in artillery, both offensive and defensive, and add additional subterranean passages and storage.

Old stone stairs still run from the parade grounds up the back of the forward ramparts. The stairs are, however, choked with brush, and your attempt to climb them involves picking your way carefully up the weathered steps. Halfway up, you are forced to wade through thicker brush and vines. Hidden thorns catch at your clothing and flesh, not content simply to forbid entry, but charged with the task of repelling the thoughtless intruder. You turn back.

Large sections of the belt were demolished in the 1950’s, giving way to housing developments, parks, football fields, small glens. By this time, the double couronne of Bellecroix was largely obsolete, although the Wehrmacht had made use of the high ground at the end of 1944 to slow the American entry into Metz. Numerous trees sprout from soil where gunfire was once exchanged.

The gravelled path is now home only to walkers, bikers, and tourist, urged as they are to make the lovely tour of Bellecroix, a walk of some four kilometers. On this quiet autumn afternoon, you see a family in the distance: grandparents, parents, daughter. Listening carefully, you hear the hints of German fricatives, although it is hard to be sure. As they grow closer, distinctive French rhythms make themselves heard across the distance. As you pass them, the grandmother looks up and addresses a not unkindly “Bonjour” to you. Somewhat reserved, you return her courtesy.

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