The Fortress Town - History - The Fortified Town - Fredrikstad and Hvaler - Visit Østfold

The Fortress Town

Fredrikstad's historic Old Town is a dynamic quarter of the city, full of history.

Want to see Fredrikstad at its most modern? Go to the Old Town!

 

It may be over-simplifying its history somewhat, but the old Fortress Town can be regarded as a designer town.  Founded by a king fond of parties; developed by officers with continental swagger and a penchant for powdered elegance and military aesthetics.

 

Plenty of Norwegian towns have their old districts, but only Fredrikstad has the Old Town. Don´t be misled by the antiquated name, this place is nobody´s maiden aunt! On the contrary, the Old Town is still young and promising, having recently hung up its army uniform for good – after 350 years of military discipline - and slipped into its civvies.

With history as a springboard the Old Town is putting itself on display, in its markets, carnivals and culture. You´ll find a bakery, a restaurant, shops with antiques and groceries, galleries and a museum. All framed within the extraordinary fortress walls; it´s not "hype" when the Old Town is described as Northern Europe´s best preserved fortress town - it´s plain fact.

 

Behind the walls and moats, in a village of genuine postcard charm, you can take a breather with a cup of coffee (all continental varieties available) and a bite to eat, and imagine yourself playing a small role in the drama of Norway´s history. Or stroll along cobbled streets, mount the fortress rampart and relax in the shade of full-grown chestnut trees. Close your eyes and you´ll hear it, the quiet rustle of history.

 

A safe town

 

It all began in 1567 when the king of Denmark-Norway decreed that the town of Sarpsborg, burned to the ground by arch enemy Sweden, should be rebuilt. The king bent his ear to a popular appeal to have the town resituated at a place that was easier to defend and had better living conditions. The east bank of the Glomma estuary was the obvious choice, and for the first time in Norway a king let a town take its name from a person. That person was the king himself; and Fredrikstad would prove itself a town worthy of a king. The inhabitants didn´t even complain that the man who christened the town never stopped there, but merely sailed past a couple of times. Then again, during his lifetime the place was more a building site than an arena in which this most social of kings could enjoy himself. He should have been around a century or two later, by which time he would have no difficulty getting his glass filled for a toast to a well-proportioned and attractive town. And a fortress that deterred the enemy.

 

The old Fortress Town is a part of our European heritage, and many regard it as an obvious candidate for a place on UNESCO´s World Heritage list. Why isn´t the Old Town on the list? There are several reasons, not least of all Fredrikstad´s desire to keep it an integrated part of the city´s life. The Old Town has existed and continues to exist without the aid of any "tourist attraction"-label with all the dangers of commercialisation that brings with it. The real thing The Old Town is "the real thing", an historic town with worn cobbles, narrow streets and impressive buildings, but also hidden courtyards and alleyways. The sounds of marching feet and horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by the squeals of delighted children when they discover there are cannon here – and even better, they are real cannon. - They used them to shoot at the Swedes! relates an enthralled 7-year old, and counts under his breath all 200 cannon that at one time were in position. - 200, so-o-o many!! That´s all it takes to put Fredrikstad´s Old Town on the map of a 7 year old imagination. Comics and TV-games can´t match the fascination of real cannon, real dungeons, real sniper positions and deep moats. And the first visit is rarely the last. So take your time. Let young imaginations wander at will through the narrow streets.

 

Past and present

 

Many people visit each year, Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, Japanese and Americans. All of them encountered a place with one foot in contemporary society – with its pizza restaurant, cash dispenser, and doctor´s surgery – and with its soul securely tethered to the past. It has an 18th century soul, dating from the period when two young and creative officers, Willem Coucheron and Johan Caspar de Cicignon, gave the town its distinctive profile. In 1663 Coucheron, one of many Dutch officers serving under the king in Copenhagen, was given the task of constructing defensive walls round the town. The result – an effective deterrent in its day – seems strikingly beautiful to us today.

 

Military aesthetics

 

The defensive walls were built to a Dutch design, unsurprisingly, and were a so effective deterrent that the town was never invaded. Coucheron must share the honour for the Fortress Town´s distinctive geometric construction with another foreign officer, Johan Casper de Cicignon, an aristrocrat from Luxembourg. He was assigned the task of strengthening the town´s defences, and this he did elegantly and with clear references to the Central European military aesthetic of the day. Contemporary etchings depict him as a warlike soldier. His sober appearance seems to fit well with the creator of a fortress with a geometric shape – precise, strict and efficient. A Dutch officer and a Luxembourg aristocrat are still heroes in Fredrikstad.

 

Another of their kind is Tordenskjold, who stationed his fleet here in the early 18th century. From here he could sail out and annoy the Swedes as much as he wanted. He didn´t live to see the fateful day in 1814 when Denmark finally relinquished Norway to the arch enemy Sweden.

 

Saved the town

 

Sweden and Denmark had fought each other for Scandinavian superiority for several hundred years. After long and exhaustive wars with complicated front lines the two countries finally signed a peace treaty in 1814, under which Norway was ceded to Sweden. The Norwegians revolted against the new union, provoking the Swedes to send their troops towards Fredrikstad and in August 1814 they took both Kråkerøy and Isegran with surprising ease. They were now in range to direct their cannonfire over the defensive walls. Fearing that the town would soon be ablaze, Commander Niels Christian Fredrik Bastiansen Hals took an historic decision. A decision which the warlords in Copenhagen would have strongly disapproved of, but which every visitor to the Old Town today will applaud. He surrendered. By the standards of the day his actions were by no means valorous. But today we can look back and think kindly of him as the town´s first conservationist. In the absence of a white flag he attached a white bridal veil to the flag pole, and secured himself a place in history. The town was saved, but Norway got a new "proprietor". In August 1814 the Swedish prince regent Karl Johan Bernadotte signed the document making Norway Swedish.

 

Holding the fort

 

The Commander´s Residence is still intact. It was in fact in use as the Commander´s Residence right up to Autumn 2002, for even thought the strategic importance of the fortress diminished under Swedish rule, the Old Town had a military garrison until just three years ago. It is a splendid house which is now hired out for formal receptions and garden parties.

 

The Old Town stands on the threshold of a new age, now holding the fort as a symbol of cultural values and living history.

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