Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Logbook: BeNeLux Wars I

Beneluxwarsi1I was up and out of my little Amsterdam hotel room early on Monday morning to meet my friend Greg at the airport. With my gear in tow I found my way to the arrivals area, got myself a cup of coffee and had just started drinking it when "Pumito" came into view. We high-fived then sat and caught up for a few minutes while I finished my coffee -- and he had an ice cream cone -- then got our car, loaded up and took off. Shortly after leaving the parking deck, we asked each other -- almost in unison -- "Where to?" Fortunately, there was a service plaza right at the junction of the airport service road and the main north/south highway, so we stopped at a McDonald's to have breakfast, more coffee and a look at the map. Since our preliminary "plan" was to explore WWII areas of the Battle of the Bulge (in the Ardennes of Belgium) and Operation Market Garden (generally north of the Bulge), we figured it would be a good idea to head south toward and through Brussels. While examining the map, we spotted the town of Waterloo just south of Brussels and decided that Napoleon's last battle must certainly be worth at least a stop along the way. A little after noon, we pulled into Waterloo and stumbled right into the tourist center where we got some great information, a suggestion for a place to eat lunch and -- because Pumito was showing preliminary signs of jet-lag exhaustion-- a lead on a place to stay for the night.

Beneluxwarsi2The lunch place was a great little soup/salad/sandwich shop, made even more enjoyable by the fact that it was very French! I honestly hadn't expected southern Belgium to be quite so French, and was surprised to find myself comfortably -- even happily -- conjuring up my French and navigating our way through the meal. With some food in his belly, Greg started fading even faster. We made our way to the hotel, checked in and dropped our gear then made a quick run down the road to the Lion Monument at the Battle of Waterloo site. To be honest, the exhibits and A/V presentations were not very interesting or informative, and we didn't really learn anything more about the battle than the little we knew before we got there. Disregarding his accelerating fatigue, I made Pumito climb the 224 steps to the top of the monument for a quick view of the battlefield -- and a photo of him posing like Napoleon -- then we beat a hasty retreat back to town. Intending just to have coffee, I was surprised when Greg ordered an omelette and said it would be his dinner -- at 5 o'clock! -- but I decided to join him with a toasted sandwich. From there it was another hasty retreat back to the hotel for lights out about 8 o'clock.

Beneluxwarsi3At breakfast Yesterday morning we started talking about all the wars that have been fought in the BeNeLux area throughout history and somehow got onto the subject of WWI and Flanders Fields. A quick query of the hotelier informed us that Flanders was only a short drive away, so instead of heading east toward the Ardennes of WWII we headed west toward the "no man's land" of WWI. Such is the spontaneity of The Voyage, and Greg had quickly gotten into the groove. While he drove, I used my now pretty well developed sense of European navigation and we arrived right at the front gate of the American Cemetery in Flanders about an hour later. We had a nice visit then a chat with the superintendent of the facility and asked him if there were any other good WWI sites in the area. He suggested we head a little farther west to Ypres, so off we went and arrived there in time for lunch. An hour or so at the excellent museum and a quick visit to a small site of partially restored trenches sated our immediate appetite for WWI, so we decided it was time to start heading east toward the Ardennes. A lovely afternoon drive across almost the entire width of Belgium later, we pulled into the central square of Bastogne where a Sherman tank and a bust of Gen. McAuliffe greeted us. We found a perfect little hotel on the square, checked in then walked around for a bit before having dinner and calling it a day.

Beneluxwarsi4Although the Battle of the Bulge was immense in scale, we were satisfied to limit our exploration to the area around Bastogne because of it's particularly extraordinary role and consequence in the larger battle. We started our day with a lengthy visit to the exquisite memorial and the excellent museum where we were treated to a very broad array of displays and a pretty good AV show. From there, we embarked on a driving tour of the historical route that covers much of the action and offers a good sense of the size, scope and sequence of the siege of Bastogne. About half way through the route we found ourselves within a few kilometers of Luxembourg and decided to cross the border just for fun. In the first village we came to, we stopped at a deli/baker and got some lunch stuff which we ate in the car. Hereinafter, of course, we shall refer to that charming little country as "Lunchenbourg." By taking an indirect route back to where we left the tour, we can at least say we did a little more than set foot in the country.

Beneluxwarsi5One of the highlights of our day was a stop at a German cemetery. We have both been to a number of American or Allied cemeteries before, and it was an interesting perspective to visit one from "the other side" for a change. We were both struck by the facts that soldiers are buried six to a headstone -- making the markers not very accurate in their depiction of how many soldiers are actually there -- and by the number of unknown, "Ein Deutscher Soldat" markers there are. Another highlight -- if you can call it that -- was visiting so many of the little towns immediately adjacent to Bastogne and seeing photos of how completely destroyed they were during the battle. The devastation of combined artillery, aerial bombing and armored tank warfare was truly astonishing. We have also been struck by the degree of respect and appreciation still shown for the Allies -- especially the American 101st Airborne -- for their heroic struggle here. We had a beautiful, sunny day for our peaceful exploration and cannot imagine what it must have been like for the troops to fight an all out war in the middle of a winter blizzard with temperatures down to -20F. While we are satisfied with our brief, one-day exploration of the area, both Pumito and I commented repeatedly that it would be great to spend a lot longer time here to really explore and understand this extraordinary battle.

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