It’s not a pretty sight.

On a hill in the middle of the French town of Bitche, a massive, gray fortification looms over the surrounding homes, shops and restaurants. And yet, that very same citadel earned a place in the hearts of French citizens and French history by withstanding assault after assault by Bavarian forces for some 230 days following the collapse of the French army in the war of 1870.

Located not far from the Maginot Line and about 30 kilometers south of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the Citadel of Bitche offers a unique journey through European history. At a time when Germany was still not united into a single entity, the War of 1870, also known as the Franco-Prussian War, helped bring the Germans together, eventually leading to the formation of the German state, and toppled the government of Napolean III, changing the course of French history.

The war itself was an ill-conceived attempt by France to expand its dominion and avenge alleged slights to its national honor. Instead of victory, France sacrificed twice as many troops as the Germans — and many more civilians — and gave up towns and territory along the border which remained part of Germany until the end of World War I.

Among many routs and crushing defeats on the battlefield, the events in Bitche, alone, stood out as worthy of national pride. Led by French Col. Teyssier, the citizens of Bitche and retreating Soldiers found safe haven within the massive walls of the citadel while staving off starvation, cannon fire and repeated attacks during the nine-month siege.

Visitors today are treated to a multi-media tour through the extensive fortification. After paying the admission, one is provided a wireless headset which offers dialogue accompanying the film which depicts an account of the siege on screens located in the various chambers throughout the citadel. More than a simple documentary, the film features actors and actresses playing the parts of historical figures in the dramatic re-enactment of the battle to take Bitche. As one gazes down into the deep well in the inner chambers of the citadel, small televisions come to life continuing the story of the resistance effort.

One learns that an earlier castle already stood on the rocky hill, built by the Dukes of Lorraine, centuries before the current fortress was constructed. In the 18th century French architect Cormontaigne envisioned a self-sustaining structure, complete with its own water supply in the form of a deep cistern, an ironworks, impregnable ammunition storage facility, a large bakery, chapel and other facilities.

When the French military forces collapsed against the superior might of the Germans in the War of 1870, fleeing Soldiers and citizens sought refuge in the fortress as a last resort, never envisioning that they would remain within the citadel walls for the large part of a year. Despite smallpox, hunger and other monumental challenges, the vastly outnumbered French soldiers managed to hold off the Bavarian forces, even managing to mount a counterattack during the siege.

But in the end France capitulated, and those who had held the citadel for so long were finally permitted to evacuate the fortress without recourse from the victors.

With the Treaty of Frankfurt in January of 1871, Bitche was handed over to the German Empire, along with other Alsace-Lorraine territory to remain German property for nearly half a century.

Because Bitche is situated so close to U.S. military communities in Kaiserslautern and Baumholder, Americans might want to make the trek to explore this region of historical significance in European history. During a visit to the citadel they’ll also note a plaque paying tribute to members of the U.S. 100th Infantry Division who liberated the town during World War II in March 1945.

Besides the citadel, which is open daily March 15 through Nov. 15, visitors can also wander through the town’s “Garden for Peace,” also opened in the warmer months. On the way to or from Bitche (when driving from Landstuhl) consider taking a side trip to visit one of the Maginot Line sites which also feature interactive displays. The remnants of these World War II concrete fortifications, conceived by French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, offer a unique glimpse into the French government’s planning in the years between World Wars I and II.

Admission to the Citadel of Bitche is €8 for adults, €6 for students (free for children under age 7) or €23 for a family ticket (two adults and two children).