The Ardennes in Belgium
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The interest in the exploits and sacrifices of Canadian soldiers and other allied veterans on the battlegrounds of Europe is increasing as the veterans of WW2 continue to shrink with each passing year.
We wanted to take a trip allowing us to spend a week leisurely travelling through the wonderful valleys and forest of the Ardennes in Belgium and visit many of the WW2 historical sites in the region. When planning a trip for a family or small group, it is worth contacting the Time Travel Company in Belgium.
Most tour operators specialized in WW tours offer a maximum number of activities in a minimum amount of time. The Time Travel Company is focused on ensuring visitors discover other things and get in the heart of Belgium. They offer “all in” packages, including hotels, restaurants featuring special regional meals, guides and site and museum visits, while keeping bus travel time to a minimum. The distances between the sites are short and allow you to really enjoy the tour. Their guides are selected to ensure your experience is memorable and pleasant and their tour groups are limited in size so you feel comfortable. Our tour guide was a local resident named Michael Baert, who has studied the Ardennes Offensive in detail since 1994 and has walked the woods and talked to veterans for years. He is recognized as a true local expert on the Ardennes history and the Battle of the Bulge.
While our tour was historical in nature, we also had lots of opportunities to learn about local cultural heritage and languages (Dutch, French German, Flemish, Walloon), enjoy delicious local cuisine, drink famous Belgian beers and spoil ourselves with Belgian chocolate.
Our trip began with a direct flight from Toronto to Brussels. We checked into the very snazzy Atlas Hotel in the heart of Brussels. Brussels has so much to offer with its restaurants, museums, bars and nightlife. We did the tourist thing and strolled around the city, stopping for beers and a nice dinner at a local pub.
The next morning our Time Travel tour guide picked us up and we took a leisurely drive out of Brussels towards the beautiful Ardennes Forest. As we traveled through the Belgian countryside, I was struck by the beauty of the small towns with pretty chapels and storybook stone exterior homes with well-manicured lawns. The Ardennes is a peaceful and serene place surrounded by miles of farmland divided by four to eight foot hedges acting as natural fences for livestock.
We then checked into the Hotel Spa-Balmoral. Located on the hill of Balmoral, surrounded by trees, in perfect harmony with the generous natural landscapes of the Belgian Ardennes, the Hotel Spa-Balmoral offers a panoramic view of the valley and Lake Warfaaz, one of the most beautiful locations in the region. It features a Well-Being and Beauty Centre, including a Finnish sauna, outdoor jacuzzi, steam room, solarium, covered swimming pool, massages, beauty treatments, cardioweight machines and a free shuttle to the Thermes of Spa, and to a golf course (less than three k.m. away). If you want to go to a spa hotel in Belgium, this is the place. The rooms were comfy and BIG, and we had a great view from our terrace of the Spa valley! The exceptional Belgian breakfast served here is a great way to start your day!
Next up was a visit to the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle where 7992 Americans are laid to rest. Most died during the U.S. advance into Germany. The American cemeteries in Europe are honored hallow spots and the grounds and buildings housing them are immaculate. They provide a true honour to the soldiers who lives were lost.
If you are visiting The Ardennes, one of the most unique stops you will encounter is the Remember 45 Museum located four km from Henri Chapelle in Thimister-Clermont. This privately-run museum has a powerful human dimension. Marcel Schmetzes established it in an old barn and the 110 First Infantry Division soldiers left most of the artifacts on the Schmetzes’ farm during the war. The museum is dedicated to showing the gratefulness of the Belgian people “to all G.I.s who came, at the risk of their life, to give us our freedom back.”
The next morning began with a walk through the woods near Hollerath. This is where the German Battle of the Bulge offensive began in the Ardennes. The surprise German attack on the American soldiers almost changed the course of the war. There were some atrocious acts carried out against American soldiers and Belgian civilians by the Gestapo during the Battle of the Bulge. Belgians still revere and hold the American military in the highest regard in this area. This is no more evident than when visiting the site of the massacre of several U.S. prisoners in Baugnez, in December, 1944. Nearby in La Glieze sits a King Tiger tank, serving as a reminder of the horrors of war. One can only imagine the fear the locals felt when dozens of tanks came barreling through their small towns destroying everything in their path.
We toured the Bellevaux Brewery, set in middle of lush farmlands close to La Glieze. The owners transformed their farm into a small Belgian microbrewery, with aspirations to brew the highest quality ale.
The Melba Hotel in Bastogne is a great place to use as a home base to explore the area. Located a block away from the town square, the Melba offers comfortable rooms with a variety of services, including hearty healthy breakfasts and wifi. The hotel restaurant and bar feature local Belgian beers and exceptional dinner meals highlighting local fare. Another great local restaurant is the Wagon Leo. The front part of the restaurant was in an old train car that was extended into a larger restaurant. The food, service, atmosphere and staff were exceptional. The restaurant is one block from the Bastogne town square.
In March 2014, the new Bastogne Museum opened, providing an important interpretation and context for the causes and significance of WW2. Using up-to-date displays, film and interactive exhibits, the museum tracks the years leading up to WW2, the war itself and how cataclysmic events led to a final and desperate bid by Hitler and the Nazis to push the Allies out of Europe. This was a bold and violent attack in the Ardennes forest between December, 1944 and January, 1945. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest, most murderous and bloody battle of WW2 between the Germans and Americans. The British and Canadians were involved in the fight on the periphery. Over 610,000 American forces were involved in the battle, which included over 19,000 Americans killed, 100,000 German casualties and 30,000 killed. Tourists can also visit the German cemetery near the small village of Recogne where 6807 Germans are buried.
The Bastogne Museum sits next to the Mardasson monument, a new memorial centre dedicated to the WW2 and its soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of the Bulge. When visiting the Battle of the Bulge sites it is best to start at the Bastogne Museum. Spend half a day there and then take a short drive through the beautiful Belgian countryside to visit Schumann’s Corner. This is where many historians say the U.S. troops “went into hell” in beating back the pounding and violent German offensive. There is a memorial at the spot and a trail taking you through the foxholes in the woods where much of the fighting took place.
It is worthwhile to visit the Museum of Bras, which is eight km from Bastogne. It transports you back to 1944 with its destroyed houses, first aid stations and images of shellshocked and war weary citizens.
The final stop was a visit to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE), where we were given a briefing on NATO by a NATO military expert. The Time Travel Company arranged this unique outing and it was one of the highlights of the tour.
Upcoming Time Travel Company excursions for 2015 include Vimy Ridge, Flanders Fields (The Somme) and excursions for the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo near Mons, Belgium in 2015.