As regular readers will know, my brother visited me for a week a couple of weeks back, and while he’s generally pretty up for doing stuff, it’s not necessarily the same stuff I like doing (though the things I like doing are basically sitting inside, eating, and reading), so I wanted to try to find some activities we would both enjoy. He’s not too much of a museum kind of guy, but he does have some interest in the Second World War, so I thought a trip through Belgium would give us a chance to combine some of his interests (WWII and beer) with some of mine (eating chocolate and waffles). I prefer Flanders to Wallonia, but Flanders is of course very much WWI country, and for WWII, we would have to venture deep into the French-speaking part of Belgium, to the Ardennes.
Things didn’t get off to a great start when I really had to pee about an hour outside of Brussels, and there was nowhere to stop. We finally found a gas station large enough to have a toilet, but they had a sign on the door stating it was 50 cents to use the bathroom for non-customers, and none of us had any cash, having forgotten to get some in Brussels. This was obviously complete nonsense (charging to use a toilet at a gas station is almost literally taking the piss. Or maybe the opposite of taking the piss? I can’t decide), but I was willing to buy a bag of crisps with a card if it would give me access to the facilities. My brother asked them in English if we could use the toilet (he’s not accustomed to being in non-Anglophone countries), which got him a blank stare, so I just urgently shouted, “la toilette, s’il vous plait!” which got me the key, but the two women working there did mock me in French for quite some time, which I let slide because they did let me use the damn toilet in the end, but I obviously still bear a grudge (I took seven years of French, which is apparently enough to make my need for the toilet understood, but not quite enough to reply to insults in an appropriately biting manner).
Anyway, we eventually made it to Bastogne, and the Bastogne War Museum, which happily offers numerous free toilets once you’ve paid the admission fee (€14). Admission includes the use of their audio guide, which is one of those fancy modern ones that is triggered when you enter each audio zone. This is easier than punching in the numbers yourself, but annoying when you accidentally wander out of one of the zones and the audio guide gets cut off, with no way to bring it back. I liked that the sound came out of two little prongs that sat on the side of your head just above your ears, because those headphones that cover your entire ear make the outsides of my ears ache after a while (and don’t get me started on ear buds!). I read somewhere that the Bastogne War Museum was recently redone, and the new design was heavily influenced by the In Flanders Fields Museum, which everyone but me appears to really love (I didn’t hate it, I just think there’s better WWI museums out there).
This was apparent from the audio guide, which aimed to give us a more human perspective on the war by having people who lived through the war serve as our guides – though unlike the In Flanders Field Museum, which assigns you a historical counterpart based on your age and where you’re from, in Bastogne War Museum, everyone was given the points of view of four different people throughout – Robert, an American soldier, a 12 year old Belgian boy named Emile, his 20-something year old teacher Mathilde, who worked for the Resistance, and Hans, a German soldier (they emphasised that he was fighting because he had pride in his homeland, rather than being pro-genocide (which is still problematic because of the horrible things people do in the name of nationalism) but it seemed a bit odd to ignore that major aspect of Nazi Germany, though the Holocaust was covered elsewhere in the galleries). Actually Hans was probably the most interesting to listen to, just because it’s a perspective you don’t always hear – Emile was kind of irritating, but you ended up feeling bad for him in the end once you heard his story – and I think the four perspectives all together made for a more nuanced view of the war than what we got at the In Flanders Fields Museum (cool though it was to have been given someone to identify with based on your own stats), though obviously WWII was a very different war.
In addition to the audio guide, there were also three “multi-sensory” experiences dispersed throughout the museum (a bit hard to describe – basically you entered a themed theatre and sat down to watch some projections and audio commentary, with sound and light effects) – an Allied General HQ from 1944, the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge (my personal favourite, even though it was really really cold in there, but I think that may have been intentional to enhance the atmosphere), and a cellar under a cafe in Bastogne, where our four audio guide characters finally all met in real life. The rest of the museum was a fairly standard layout, with a few interactive things for children exclusively in French, though of course you had your audio guide popping on and off in the midst of reading signage.
I’m personally much more into WWI than WWII, so I didn’t know much about the Battle of the Bulge going in, other than the few episodes of Band of Brothers that I’ve watched (and I don’t even know if I watched the Battle of the Bulge one. My grandpa was stationed in Belgium for a while, but not until after the war ended, so he didn’t take part in any of these battles). But the museum offers a more comprehensive view of the war than just what happened in Bastogne, which was only one section of it (though it was the subject of two of the “multi-sensory experiences”), albeit a very sad part, as civilian casualties during the battle were very high (around 3000) due to all the bombing (from both sides), and the Germans also randomly executed a bunch of Belgian civilians just because they could (including, spoiler alert, Emile’s father).
By the end of the museum, I was fairly attached to all of the audio guide characters, even Emile, so it was interesting when we discovered they were all based on real people, and were told what happened to them after the war. They are now all dead, except Emile (at least at the time the audio guide was recorded), who took over his father’s bike shop in a nearby town, and apparently can still sometimes be seen walking down the road in Bastogne (as I’ve said, I wasn’t that keen on Emile, mainly because Emile had an accordion which he insisted on playing whilst hiding out in a cellar with a group of random villagers throughout the long days of bombing, and he played the same song over and over again (I think I would have left the cellar and taken my chances with the bombs!), but I loved the characterisation of Emile’s dad, who apparently said things like, “Holy Handlebars!” and “Holy Spokes!” because of being in the bicycle business. I think the latter phrase works better than the former). Overall, I think it was quite an interesting and fun experience, so I’ll give it 4/5.
This wasn’t all that was on site though, as there was also a huge, rather hideous sculpture of the famous scene of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square during V-J Day located behind the museum. As the nurse tells it, they didn’t know each other and he just randomly grabbed her and kissed her (she said it wasn’t even a good kiss!). I get it was the end of the war and people were excited, but it’s still a bit unpleasant and has nothing to do with Belgium, so I guess it’s just here on account of being an iconic image? The Mardasson War Memorial is also right behind the museum, and wow, that is a pretty imposing structure! It was built in the late 1940s to commemorate those killed in the battle, and includes a weirdly modern arty crypt underneath, decorated with the mosaics of Fernand Leger. I actually quite liked the crypt, it just wasn’t really what I was expecting from a site connected to the military, which tend to be much more staid, and I dunno, eagle-y?
It had gotten really cold and kind of rainy whilst we were in the museum, but my brother still wanted to view a few nearby sites, so we spent some time driving along the roads outside Bastogne, and quickly jumping out when we got to a memorial. My favourite one was the one that abutted a pine forest – though it was clearly planted after the battle, it was eerily silent inside, and gave you some idea of what the soldiers might have experienced before the fighting commenced. There was also a memorial paid for by Tom Hanks, who keeps on living up to his decent guy reputation (That Thing You Do is seriously one of my favourite movies of all time, and I actually really enjoyed his book of short stories, so I am kind of a fan).
We also walked through the town of Bastogne, and despite the tourist brochure’s assurance that “shops are open even on Sundays!” apparently they weren’t open on Mondays, as we were starving, and virtually everything was shut (echoes of our experience in France). We did enjoy the animal sculptures that we found lining the high street, but with no prospect of food there, we didn’t linger (so staying in Bastogne may not be a great idea on a Monday). We ended up stopping by a small crappy Carrefour just outside of town for bread and cheese (not knocking Carrefour, because I love the hypermarche versions), and didn’t find much more open, even when we got to Liege, so whilst my brother and Marcus wandered the cold streets in search of a hot dinner, I was perfectly content to pop down to the Delhaize next to the hotel and read a book in the warm hotel room in my jams whilst eating crisps and packaged chocolate waffles (and I think I chose wisely, because they went to some revolting taco place where my brother couldn’t even eat his food because it had unadvertised mayonnaise all over it. Mayonnaise is one of the things we both detest, but because I don’t eat meat, I find it easy enough to avoid, even in Belgium). Fortunately, we were heading to Flanders the next day, where things are open on weekdays!