Verdun (Verodunum in Latin, Wirten in Old German ; pop. 20,000) is a small town of the Lorraine region which has left its name several times in history. The official name was Verdun-sur-Meuse until 1970. Despite its small population, it is the largest city of the Meuse department.
The first traces of human settlements around Verdun go back to the Paleolithic period, some 350,000 years ago. The first actual town was founded by the Gauls, a bit over 2000 years ago. The name "Verdun" comes from Celtic vir (river) and dunum (fortress on a hill). It was important enough in Roman times to become the seat of a bishopric from the 4th century.
In the 8th century, Verdun was a major slave market, where Europeans, Jews and Muslims alike came to do business. In 783, the army of Charlemagne murdered 4,500 Saxon nobles who were praying, unarmed, at the heathen holy site of the Irminsul (pillar that was said to connect heaven and earth in Saxon mythology).
Just 60 years later, it was also in Verdun that the Carolingian Empire was divided between Charlemagne's three grandsons. It is the famous Treaty of Verdun of 843, which set the foundations for the separation of the Kingdom of France (West Francia) and the Holy Roman Empire (East Francia). Verdun itself becomes part of the kingdom of Lotharingia, then, in 925, of the Holy Roman Empire, in which it was an Imperial Free City.
In the 9th century, the bishop of Verdun obtains the right to designate the Count of Verdun. From 936 to 1089, Verdun experienced a golden age. Emperors, kings, bishops, counts, monks and merchants come and go, all contributing to the richness and diversity of the city.
The goldsmith Nicolas de Verdun, who worked at the end of the 12th century, was reputedly one of the greatest artists of medieval times. He created, among others, the reliquary chests of Our Lady's Cathedral in Tournai (1205), the reliquary chests of the Three Magi in Cologne (1185), and the enamelled triptych representing 51 Biblical scenes in Klosterneuburg Abbey (1181) near Vienna.
In 1552, the troops of Henry II of France occupy the bishoprics of Verdun, Metz and Toul to France. The annexation by France will only be officialised by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
Verdun was fortified by Louis XIV's military architect Vauban. It was besieged and taken by the French revolutionaries in 1792, and by the Germans in 1870.
During World War I, the Battle of Verdun (February to December 1916) was a ten month long ordeal between the French and German armies, and no strategic advantages were gained for either side. The estimated casualties are 540,000 men for France (including 163,000 deaths) and 430,000 men for Germany (143,000 deaths). The Battle of Verdun is considered to be one of the most brutal events of World War I, and the site itself is remembered as the "battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard."
A lot of people visiting Verdun come to remember the tragic events of WWI at the Verdun Memorial, the Victory Monument, the Underground Citadel.
Tourists will want to visit Our Lady's Cathedral, built in 990 by Bishop Heimon, making it one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded on the site of the original St Peter & Paul Church built around 330 by Saint Saintin.
The fortifications are part of the charm of the city. Don't miss the impressive 13th or 14th-century Tour Chaussée, Tour du Champ, Tour de l’Islot, Tour des Plaids, and Porte Châtel.
The vast 18th-century Episcopal Palace now houses the World Centre for Peace (Centre mondial de la paix).
There are quite a few other attractions in town, like the musée de la Princerie, the Byzantine-style synagogue, the 14th-century St Catherine Chapel, the Baroque Buvignier Chapel, the tower of Saint Vanne Abbey, the Neoclassical theatre and townhall, Saint Paul's Gate, etc.
How to get there
Verdun is on the E50 motorway, between Reims and Metz.
Verdun is a 1h20min train ride away from Metz. Tains from Reims or Paris (3h) require a change at Chalons-en-Champagne (1h30min).
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