We’ve recently spent a week in the Ardennes, Belgium. Specifically, in a miniscule village about 8 miles outside Bastogne. We rented a ground floor apartment in a barn conversion with thick stone walls, tiled floors and those continental shutters that the sons still insist on calling ‘blast doors’ after first encountering them at the age of ten or so, when they were really getting into the thrills of SF. So even with outdoor temperatures in the high twenties centigrade, that was a wonderfully cool place to relax, especially after a week spent working in the Netherlands in 35C heat.
Why Bastogne? Well, both Husband and I are interested in history and this area is famous as the arena for the World War Two ‘Battle of the Bulge’. We have a particular interest in this as my brother in law is a historical re-enactor with a group honouring the 101st Airborne, The Screaming Eagles, who were besieged in Bastogne by the German counter-attack of December 1944. When the Germans invited them to surrender, the U.S. commanding officer, General McAuliffe sent back the simple reply ‘Nuts’. This apparently baffled the Germans comprehensively.
If this is all new to you, I can seriously recommend the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ for an overview of post D-Day WWII. If you’re already interested in such things, we visited and can very much recommend the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson Memorial, the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne itself and also the Bastogne Barracks, still a Belgian Army base where the soldiers offer guided tours of what were the U.S. HQ buildings, now with historical displays, along with one of the finest collections of World War Two military vehicles we’ve seen, including some real rarities.
If you’re not interested in such things? If you consider all this to be ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’? I’d still recommend a visit to the area as it offers wonderful opportunities for outdoor pursuits of all kinds; hiking, cycling etc, through a beautiful region. While you’re there, you might like visit one of those museums and I think you will find more contemporary relevance than you might imagine. Exploring the rise of fascist nationalism in the 1930s, displays used contemporary documents and sources to highlight the failure of the political establishment as parties in all countries became more interested in internal back-biting and rivalries than tackling the very real, severe economic hardships and social inequalities which ordinary people faced. The demagogues – to the extreme left and the extreme right – offered simple-sounding solutions. They promised to sort everything out, they pointed the finger at easy scapegoats – and no one countered their deceptive narrative.
In the era of Trump and Brexit, that should give us all pause for thought. From the UK perspective in particular, I was struck yet again by how different the European experience of World War Two was from the British one. These museums make plain the impact of the war on the civilian population. There were the posters detailing requirements for the compulsory registration of Jews. Turn up on the appointed day and give all the details of your family, your parents, your grandparents, everyone’s dates of birth, addresses etc. – or else. Sabotage and any other resistance activity was strictly forbidden – warning posters specifically included such things as turning up late for work, or not doing your job with sufficient enthusiasm…
I recall my grandmother talking about getting twin babies and a dog down to the air raid shelter night after night on England’s south coast. They were in very real danger, as were all my relatives. In Bastogne I saw a video of a woman of much the same age, recalling spending two nights outdoors hiding in a wood in freezing temperatures with her baby. Driven back into the town by hunger and desperation, she was caught in a bombardment and both were injured. Her baby died of his wounds two days later. There are people suffering the same today. The 101st Airborne Museum has an audio-visual presentation in one of the building’s cellars. It gives you something of the experience of the townsfolk sheltering in those very cellars as the war raged overhead. Sitting there, with my ears ringing, dazzled by the flashes of light in the darkness and feeling the floor shake beneath my feet, I was forcefully struck by the thought, ‘This must be what life is like in Syria now’.
It’s not just the museums. I’m used to English village war memorials listing tragic losses through 1914-18 and 1939-45. I wince when I see the same surnames repeated, as families lost successive generations of fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, uncles. In Europe though, as I saw time and again on this trip, these memorials also have lists of ‘civilians’, ‘resistants’ or simply ‘shot by the Germans’. In some cases those outnumber those who died in the armed forces – in villages of under a hundred houses. No wonder the peaceful co-operation of the European Union (yes, with all its flaws) is so valued across the Channel. No wonder the couple of ordinary people who raised the subject with me were so baffled and politely indignant about the UK Referendum – both the campaign’s distortions and lies, and the vote’s outcome.
Gosh this all sounds very serious. Yes, such things are, and they matter, and I value these experiences which inform and expand my understanding. We also had plenty of fun as well as relaxing with books, DVDs and computer games according to taste. We had some splendid meals out; the local cuisine is good, hearty, farmland food. The countryside is lovely and the people are friendly and welcoming – and French speaking which was a relief as my Dutch is still really minimal.
We visited the Musee des Celtes and that was well worth the trip. It’s small, six rooms over two floors of an old building but with some nice artefacts well displayed, plus a replica Celtic chariot since chariot burials are a notable local feature. Overall it does a sound job of focusing on the specifically Ardennes Celtic populations and archaeology, within the overall context of Celts Europe-wide. That was interesting of itself to us since we’re so used to the Celtic focus being Scots/Welsh/Irish. There’s stuff to keep children interested, plus a wrap-up display about Celts in popular culture today, featuring Asterix, naturally. An interesting side note was the display on the 19th century Celtic Revival in the context of Belgian nationalism. I think I learned more specifically Belgian history that week than I’ve ever known before.
The displays and audio visuals are primarily in French but there is a English booklet offered which translates all the display case cards – in some cases rather amusingly. ‘The defunct’ instead of ‘the deceased’ raised a grin. Not that this party of three with two non-French speakers is in any position to feel superior, you understand. Overall, through the week, I was pleased/relieved how well my French held up as the family’s sole communicator, given I’ve never been properly fluent and I don’t use it overmuch.
By contrast, the Chateau de Bouillon is one of the biggest castles we’ve visited. It’s high on a rocky outcrop – and substantially built into it – dominating one of the river valleys that’s been a passage through the Ardennes for Germanic invaders heading west for, well, forever. Consequently this castle’s defences have been successively used, refined and updated from 968 to 1944. The views from it, and of it from the town, are spectacular and its long history is fascinating.
It’s also the only castle we’ve visited where dogs are banned specifically because the resident and apparently highly territorial eagles will see them as prey and attack accordingly… There’s an impressive collection of birds of prey with excellent daily displays featuring assorted owls and raptors from sparrowhawks to steppe eagles. Unsurprisingly I am now thinking how to integrate the new things I learned about falconry into my next fantasy project…
As promised, here are some pictures.