Battlefield tourism is today one of the few growth areas in an otherwise struggling travel industry. What used to be mainly pilgrimages for veterans and their families have now become fascinating excursions for anyone with a sense of history.
That’s the inspiration behind the Liberation Route ( liberationroute.com), a project developed to provide a waymarked trail that retaces the progress of the Allied forces from the Normandy landings in 1944 on up through the Low Countries and on into Germany and VE Day. Boulders placed along the route are fitted with audio transmitters that relate the saga through the reminiscences of actual participants in those momentous events – all you have to do is dial 0900 5423728 on your mobile.
“Interest in what happened, when and how, now spans the generations and the nations,” says Jan Van Helden, a tourist guide at the Arnhem and Nijmegen battle sites in The Netherlands.
Most nations celebrate their victories. We, on the other hand, tend to make more of our glorious failures. It is the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade and the retreat from disastrous Dunkirk rather than the triumphs of Blenheim, Waterloo and El Alamein that are etched most stronglyin our folk memory.
It was Ulsterman Bernard Montgomery who masterminded victory in the Western Desert but history also marks him in the boldest of print as the deluded egotistical architect behind the unmitigated cock-up at Arnhem – the infamous ‘Bridge Too Far’. It was a tragedy of monumental proportions, thanks to poor planning, poor supply, over-ambitious expectations and rank bad luck.
The September 1944 ‘Operation Market Garden’ paratroop and glider landings that had been conceived to forge crossings of the Maas (Meuse) and Rhine and end the war by Christmas produced instead a bloody defeat and consequently the war continued into 1945 with the loss of millions more lives.
British military cemeteries dotted around Nijmegen, Arnhem, Oosterbeek and other hotspots of the ferocious battle stand in silent testament.
The very name of The Netherlands conjures up images of canals, flatlands and water-logged polders but this exquisitely pretty part of the country is like another land: wooded and hilly, dotted today with peaceful villages and prosperous towns where a handful of generations ago destruction, hunger and human misery prevailed.
It’s a great region in which to spend a few days, not only visiting the 49 strategically placed boulders that dot the local section of the Liberation Route and tell its story but taking in such attractions as the vast Hoge Veluwe National Park and its remarkable Kröller Müller Museum (0031 318 591 261; kmm.nl), set deep in the woods and a treasure house endowed in the 1930’s by a shipping magnate’s wife who had amassed a collection of more than 11,500 art works.
It is home to the world’s second largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s work – comprising 80 drawings and 87 paintings – as well as masterpiece canvasses by Picasso, Renoir, Monet and many others and a sculpture park featuring works by Rodin, Moore, Hepworth and Dubuffet.
Virtually underneath the infamous bridge at Arnhem, which was re-built after the war and named for John Frost, the British officer who led its defence, the Battle of Arnhem Information Centre (0031 6 30 00 35 95; freedomtrail.nl) has evocative commentaries from British, Polish, Dutch and Germans who fought there for a ferocious 10 days. From its portals, the waymarked Freedom Trail walk takes in the battle’s strategic spots.
The Villa Hartenstein, a former hotel in neighbouring Oosterbeek, a graciously elegant building that served as General Urquahart’s headquarters, is now home to the Airborne Museum (0031 26 333 77 10; airbornemuseum.nl) whose underground Airborne Experience recreates the fever pitch of the battle.
The continuing warm bond between the Market Garden veterans – many of them from Ulster – and the Dutch people they fought to liberate is wonderfully illustrated by the school children of Arnhem and Oosterbeek who, at the age of eight, are each given responsibility for tending one of the graves in the Commonwealth War Cemetery – a duty that is passed to them by an older child and which becomes theirs for the following four years,
Giving a broad overview of the whole occupation era, the National Liberation Museum 1944-1945 ( bevrijdingsmuseum.nl), set in the hill country at Groesbeek, close to the German frontier, features interactive presentations, dioramas, models, original film footage and audio fragments, as well as the sounds and smells of war. Guided battlefield tours by bus or bicycle are available here.
Despite the depredations of World War II, which saw much of the town destroyed, Nijmegen, set on a bluff above the river, is a fascinating and lively place. Here the Kronenburger park, laid out in 1880 by Belgian garden architect Lieven Rosseels, features more than 150 species of tree, as well as a fairytale grotto and the 100-feet tall Gunpowder Tower,
One of this city’s key attractions is the superb Museum Het Valkhof (0031 24 360 88 05; museumhetvalkhof.nl), an exuberantly modernistic museum and gallery renowned for its 1960s Dutch pop art collection and an eclectic mix of other works,
While in the region, visit the riverside city of Maastricht with its cobbled alleys and imposing squares. Here you can walk the 13th Century city walls, explore the redoubtable Fort Sint Pieter, navigate the Kazematten underground tunnels and admire the Flemish masterpieces at the strikingly designed bonnefantenmuseum and marvel at the treasure chamber of the Basilica of St. Servatius.
Maastricht is often described as a very un-Dutch city, thanks to the contemporary, almost Mediterranean ambiance of its lively squares with their abundance of pavement cafés, trendy bars and superb eating places and a location in the Ardennes foothills of southern Limburg. Don’t ever tell a local he’s from Holland – that’s like telling an Ulsterman he’s from England!
Why go to Arnhem?
It’s not a bridge too far if you want to discover an important slice of history amid delightful rolling countryside and now prosperous towns whose roots go back to Roman times.
Fly in to Amsterdam and take the efficient train service to Maastricht. Roger St. Pierre lodged at that city’s trendy Eden Design Hotel (031 43 328 25 25; edendesignhotel.com, close to the main railway station and spent two nights at the comfortable family-run Holland Hotel Dreyeroord (0031 263 3333169; dreyeroord.nl) – a favourite haunt of returning veterans,
In Oosterbeek he dined on classic Dutch fare offered by Monique and John Van Der Heijden at the swish Grand Café Restaurant Schoonoord (0031 263 333 051; restaurant-schoonoord.nl) known to veterans as Airborne Pub No. 1.
Highly recommended in Maastricht is the ever busy pub-style Café Sjiek (0031 433 210 158; cafesjiek.nl) where offerings included local black pudding with apple and bacon, rabbit with prunes and zoervleis – minced beef marinated in vinegar and served with a sweet and sour sauce.