Saturday, December 17, 2005

Battle of the Bulge Memorial Walk, Bastogne, Belgium

Today, Lance and I had the privilege of participating in the annual Battle of the Bulge Memorial Walk in Bastogne, a tradition that spans 28 years. The emcee of the event was a Belgian soldier who served as a translator with Patton’s army. He’s 80 years old and he outwalked the rest of us. I got to talk to him briefly and he’s a remarkable man. ;)

Anyway, the busses departed Geilenkirchen at 5 am. We had a nice luxury motorcoach, so we relaxed and slept most of the way to Bastogne, which is about a 2.5 hour drive from Geilenkirchen. Once there, we discovered that it was quite different from the weather in Geilenkirchen. Bastogne was covered in a blanket of snow. Pretty, but not the most ideal conditions for walking. The men who fought and died here did it in similar weather though (although I believe it was colder), so we were going to tough it out.

After spending a brief time in the start hall preparing for the walk, we made our way outside at 8 am to the starting point. They had 3 walk routes – 6 km, 14 km, and 20 km. Lance and I planned on doing the shortest route, since it was pretty cold outside. We were told we could start later – the 20 km walkers would be going first. But we decided to go with them, since the routes for each distance are marked. I believe most of the group decided to leave at that time also.

It was slow-going, as the route was icy and treacherous. I saw several people wipe out, and just crossed my fingers that Lance and I wouldn’t be included. After awhile though, walking was actually pretty pleasant. It didn’t feel very cold, and we actually started peeling off layers.

Occasionally, there would be stops along the route where you could see re-enactments of the Battle of the Bulge. There were soldiers in foxholes…most of the actors were depicting American soldiers, even though most of them were Belgian or Dutch. There were some American actors there, but not as many. They had places every 5 kilometers or so to get hot chocolate or mulled wine and use a porta potty. When we got to the 6 km turn-off, we decided that we were feeling good, so we would go for the 14.

There were times along the route where it was quite windy, once we reached the top of the hill and were out in the open, not sheltered by trees or hillsides. We just put all our layers back on and trudged onward. Also, toward the end, the last 5 km or so, the snow really started to fall. We had small ice pellets at one point, which stung when they hit you.

The coolest thing about this walk (besides the weather), was that soldiers would constantly come marching by you or jeeps and tanks would be driving up the streets of all the villages around Bastogne. At one point, we even heard machine gun fire. I can’t say the re-enactments were totally authentic though. I saw no Nazis, and all the guys looked pretty happy doing what they were doing. They didn’t make it look like war was hard work. They made it look pretty fun, actually. It was also amusing to see these guys in 1944 military uniforms talking on cellphones and using digital cameras.

Anyway, once we got to the 14 km turn-off, we decided that we could go no further. Lance said he could actually do 20. But I was wet, sore, and getting exhausted at that point. It would have been less of a hardship without the slush and mud all over the paths. We stopped at a tent so I could get a nourishing cup of mulled wine (which was good, by the way, first time I ever had it), and met up with my friend Emily and her husband Jamison, who had gotten way ahead of us on the trail, and we marched on.

Toward the end of our route, there was a Battle of the Bulge Museum and a monument, which you could climb to get great views of the Ardennes countryside. But we decided against both of these things. It was too cold and windy and snowy to climb an open air monument and we were too sore to pass some time in the museum. We tried to finish the route as quickly as we could (it took us exactly 4 hours). The bells were tolling noon as we walked up to the start hall for the completion of our walk.

We had 6 hours at that point until the busses departed for Geilenkirchen. Time enough for a little sightseeing and shopping. But first thing’s first – lunch! There was a cafeteria near the start hall, which happened to be in a mall, so we had lunch there. It was quite tasty, but all of the ordering had to be done in French, since the employees spoke no English. But we managed. I still remember enough French to order food, at least.

I tell you, it felt so good to sit. And sit we did. We stayed there for quite some time.

Afterwards, we walked into town. We stopped in the church to look around, only to find out that a wedding was about to begin (the bride and groom already entered). Ooops. We discreetly walked out.

We poked around in shops and as we were doing so, we noticed the parade about to begin on the main street. So we caught that. It was neat. They had all the actors from the re-enactment and some of the Belgian veterans marching in it, as well as children carrying the state flags from all the states. We had heard a rumor that people would be throwing nuts down from the windows of the town hall (this has to do with the time during the battle where the Germans asked for our surrender, and American General McAuliffe responded with “Nuts!”). Nuts, by the way, were a big theme on souvenirs and there was even a restaurant in the Bastogne town square called “Le Nut’s.” HAHAHA. We missed the nut throwing though.

After the parade, we stopped at a café because Jamison’s knee was hurting. So we had hot drinks and then he stayed there while Emily, Lance, and I did some more looking around in the shops. Finally, we gave up on the shopping, as the snow was coming down harder. We had a couple of hours until we had to meet the bus, so we stopped by the café to pick up Jamison, and then went to an Italian restaurant to eat dinner and wait out the couple of hours for the bus.

It was a snowy ride back, but by the time we reached the German border, the snow gave way to freezing rain. But we got home safe. Sore and exhausted, but safe.

Pictures (which Photobucket seems to want to show in reverse chronological order)

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