Given what a windy day it was, with hints of rain on the horizon, after seeing James Ensorhuis and the kite festival, the only logical thing to do would be to visit an outdoor attraction, right? Well, anyway, that’s what I did. If you venture a few miles down the road from Ostend, you’ll find one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans during WWII (the wall originally stretched all along the coast from France to Norway, which is pretty impressive, until you bear in mind that it did them a fat lot of good in the end, am I right?), which has now been turned into a whole museum complex that also includes a living history fishing village (knowing my penchant for fishing heritage centres, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn’t also visit that).
Atlantikwall costs 8 euros, with an included audio guide, or 10 euros if you want to visit the fishing village as well (a saving of 4 euros), but be forewarned that it involves a lot of walking. Even just getting from the carpark to the museum entrance is a fair hike, and then the museum itself is spread out over a couple kilometres with lots of stairs (though nothing like the 366 in Belfort), and although there are a few bunkers and stuff you can go inside, the vast majority is outside, so pick a nice day for your visit. I didn’t exactly follow my own advice, but fortunately the rain held off, so aside from it being windy and a bit chilly, it wasn’t too bad in the end.
After my boyfriend and I picked up our audio guides, we were initially a bit confused, as a map near the entrance seemed to indicate we had a choice of two different routes: a green and a red, but the arrow signs were all yellow, so perhaps they’ve been consolidated into one route, since we definitely saw everything. The interesting thing about this section of the Atlantikwall is that it also includes some ruins from WWI (the “ONLY preserved German coastal battery from WWI,” according to their website), so I guess you get more bang for your buck/euro. You all know by now of my long-running feud with audio guides, but these ones were alright. They only rambled on for a minute or so at each stopping point, usually the time it took to walk to the next one, so you weren’t left dawdling around for ages waiting for it to finish.
This being Belgium, there were of course a fair amount of rather hilarious mannequins (though nothing on the level of my all-time favourite one from Ijzertoren; I still genuinely can’t believe how terrible he looks); I think the soldier on the right has something of Dr. Crippen about him, only with less creepy eyes.
You are of course, right on the sea, as you’re reminded every time you step out onto a raised section of the wall and have a look towards the coast, and it really would be quite lovely without all the barbed wire and concrete bunkers. The stark contrast really helps ram the war home and makes you feel as though you might well have been transported back in time, only with non-threatening mannequins instead of Nazis.
I feel as though I should maybe be talking more about all the weaponry laying around, and military history generally, but munitions lie well outside my area of expertise, and the audio guides pretty much tell you all you need to know, being supplemented by actual signs here and there. There was even a sample of the different horrible obstructions the Germans attempted to put in the way of the Allies, including Rommelspargel, pointy post things named for both Rommel and their resemblance to asparagus. Rommel himself was actually transferred here for a bit to make improvements, so he was the one responsible for all the additional fortifications, at least until Hitler forced him to commit suicide.
Atlantikwall was mercifully nearly deserted the majority of the time we were walking through, although we managed to catch up with some annoying Euro-hipsters near the end (not sure how that worked, because the audio guide should mean that everyone is moving around at roughly the same pace. Maybe because they kept stopping to flap their jaws instead of just moving along to the next number), which was irritating because it was the one section that did have a lot indoors, and some videos to watch, which I skipped just to get away from all the people. Instead, I lingered in the storeroom, with its display of tinned sausages and other hilarious yet disgusting German foodstuffs, and copies of the menu that the soldiers were served.
In general, I liked Atlantikwall, and I learned a fair bit (how much I’ve retained is another matter entirely, as evidenced by the scarcity of war information in this post, though one thing I did find interesting is that some Eastern Europeans who were opposed to communism volunteered with the Nazis, in the hopes of taking down Stalin, but the Germans didn’t fully trust them, so they were generally given shitty jobs of no major importance to do). I think it’s fantastic that these pieces of history have been preserved (Belgium in general seems to make a real effort to honour the past, probably because it’s been used as a battleground in so many major wars), and I think the set-up is generally quite good; while we weren’t sure about the yellow arrows at first, as sometimes it felt like we were bypassing stuff, it’s actually arranged in quite a clever way, and the path winds you back around in such a manner that you get to see everything without much backtracking. I also liked how we were left free to wander and explore (save for the alarm we were warned about if you stray beyond the ropes, leaving me anxious about accidentally triggering it). So yeah, I suppose it was a pretty worthwhile experience, and something a bit different from all the WWI stuff that dominates most of Belgium (though there’ll be some of that coming soon, don’t worry!). Maybe I’ll have to return to see that fishing village someday, though if they’re speaking Flemish, perhaps not… 3.5/5.