Thursday – (Day 5) Bastogne
With my one Euro chitty in hand I headed for a shower in the communal washing block. I had forgotten the pressure of timing a shower to 60 seconds, the frisson of excitement that that time challenge presents were almost as exciting as my mint shower gel on my privates. Almost but not quite.
The whole shower experience was significantly better then breakfast which was a pot of syrup flavoured porridge that I made up with boiling water. It tasted like wallpaper paste mixed with cough. It was at this point that I realised how much I missed proper English tea!
I drove into town parked up just off the main street. I wandered back to the town square named McAuliffe Square after the wartime General. The town of Bastogne was a key crossroads and was of a critical strategic importance to the Axis troops. Surrounding the Allied forces in the town, the Germans sent a messenger to offer the chance of surrender, to which General McAuliffe responded with the now legendary single word, ‘NUTS’.
Next to his monument, beside the crossroads at the top of the town square, stands a Sherman tank from that battle. It looked defiant and strong; a symbol of strength and the epitome of resilience. It wasn’t until you walked around and took a closer look that you could, very clearly, see that a shell had entered the side of the tank making a perfectly smooth hole through which, I suspect, you could have slotted in a can of soft drink. When you walked around to the back you could see a larger, more ragged hole where it had clearly been hit from behind.
It is a very real, and somewhat sickening, reminder of the power of the weapons that were in use. The way that this massive lump of metal has been broken with such apparent ease blew my mind and the damage that must have been caused inside was quite moving.
I walked down the hill, through town and then followed the sign to the museum. I thought it would be in the town centre but ended up walking about 2 miles in the blazing sunshine of mid-day. It was worth the walk. The American Liberators Memorial was next to the museum and was a thing of beauty. It is in the shape of a five-pointed star and must be over 10 metres high. You can climb up some stairs in one of the points and walk around the roof area which gives amazing views of the town back down the valley.
The names of the 48 states that made up the USA during the war are engraved on the memorial and there is a history of the battle written over around ten panels. The scale of the piece is breath-taking and the fact that it was paid for and is maintained by the Belgian people is amazing.
The museum next door tells the story of the battle from the point of view of four different people; a young lad, a female resistance fighter and an American and a German soldier. It was very interesting and stuffed with artefacts and memories. I was just about getting to the stage where I had had too much of war stories when I got to the end of the tour.
I set off on the long walk back into town and realised I had missed lunch. I made up for it with a very exclusive lunch in the town square….chicken kebab and chips! Stuffed to the brim, I had a final walk around town. It was a lovely place, clean and tidy with a feel of wealth and prosperity everywhere you looked. Sure, there were reminders of war all over the town, in the gift shops, the roadside tanks and pill boxes and the occasional ostentatious American tourist wearing crazy caps and loud shirts. But life was very, well, normal.
I know that the war ended over 70 years ago and you can’t expect people to still be walking around in period costumes for the tourists, but it just seems as if life is going on inside a film set and it all looks out of place. I know it sounds crackers, but that’s how it felt!
I had a nice stroll back to the campsite for a nice cup of coffee and a tin of beans. A quick change of clothes and I wandered over to the campsite bar for a few beers and to catch up on emails and to download a few podcasts for the car. I also spent a good chunk of time looking at maps and trying to work out where I was heading. I knew that the choice was going to be either towards Berchtesgaden on the German/Austrian border or through the Alps and through Northern Italy.
I still wasn’t sure which way to go but knew that, whatever the call, I could set off from the area around Munich and so that would be the target for tomorrow’s drive.