Day 14+15: Road Trip with Kids, Bastogne, Belgium

WAR! Is that what Bastogne, Belgium is all about? Obviously not. But we came here for that. It’s day 15 of our family camping road trip across Europe this year and it’s time to teach the kids a little about war and a lot about peace. So, what family-friendly things can we do in Bastogne–the only Belgian city that was liberated by the Americans in World War 2 but was completed surrounded by the German army?

Boys playing soldiers in front of a U.S. Army M4 Sherman Barracuda tank knocked out by the Germans and left in place at the center of Bastogne.

When American soldiers referred to the “Battle of the Bulge” towards the end of World Ward 2, I wonder if they were talking about the mean-looking, big and beefy, Belgian blue breed cows that you’d see driving through farmlands in the south of the country.

Apparently, it was here in the densely forested Ardennes region near Bastogne where 76,890 U.S. military members were killed, wounded or missing as they fought through the last stronghold of Nazi Germany’s defense in the Battle of the Bulge.

No wonder Belgians love Americans!

Can you spot the encircled U.S. troops?

On the way up to Poland from champagne country in France, we stopped by Bastogne admittedly because of this happy househusband’s interest in war stuff (I know, I know, I should be teaching the children about the Art of Peace). But, hey, we’re here.

As a slow-go family we’ve come here to see 3 things:  the Bastogne War Museum, the American soldiers’ foxholes, and the Sherman tank in the town center.

First stop, the Museum of World War 2 in Bastogne. It seemed like the best thing to do, especially during the on-and-off rainy gloomy day of our visit. Once we got in line though we decided to leave this WAR museum and save it for the next time when our 4-year old boy will have been a little older and the boys have a bit more context about war.

On the way out they were singing “War, war stupid and people stupid!” (you know, Boy George?).

Mardasson Memorial–an expression of gratitude from the city and citizens of Bastogne, Belgium for the 76,890 U.S. military members who were killed, wounded or missing at the Battle of the Bulge.

Don’t get me wrong. The museum looked like it was family-friendly in the sense that there were many visitors there with young kids. For us, although we do like playing war games (as shown in some of our free play kids videos), it was enough to be at the site and tell the little ones the sanitized versions of what happened here during the war and the role America played in fighting Nazi Germany and liberating Europe.

It turns out there were plenty enough things to do outdoors that piqued the interest of my kids.

From the Berlin Wall to Street Art–Art and Liberty Roaming Exhibit at the Bastogne War Museum.

The Mardasson memorial, next to the War museum, became the main attraction. It’s a great place for an improvised family picnic while reflecting upon the sacrifices of those American soldiers and the nature of war itself.

I thought it was a bit heavy duty conversation for the kids. And yet my older child who can read appreciated seeing “Washington” (could not quite find D.C. though) and the other U.S. States written atop the memorial.

He also asked a lot of questions about war and soldiers, such as “Why so many have to die?” and “Why can’t the leaders just fight each other with swords?”. And then his brother breaks the silence with another: “War, war stupid and people stupid!” song.

A memorial to the American liberators of Bastogne–Mardassonn Memorial, Belgium.

Watch out! There are about 70 steps on a narrow spiral staircase to the top of the memorial, narrow enough that there could not be an easy two-way traffic. Once at the top though, the view of the surrounding countryside, with cows grazing on the lush greenery, was quite beautiful. That is. . . if it weren’t for the thought that might come into your minds that so many young men (and possibly women) died attacking and defending this hill.

As added bonus, there was a roaming art exhibit right in front of the museum from ART LIBERTY about. . . well, art and liberty from the Berlin wall to the Street Art.

2nd stop: the United States 101st Airborne Division EASY COMPANY FOXHOLES–you know, those ditches that soldiers dig to give themselves some form of protection while they secure and hold a specific area? These ones in particular where Easy Company’s foxholes–those guys made more known to the younger generations by HBO’s Band of Brothers.

Christmas 1944 in the Bastogne forests, Belgium.

Well, I screwed up and we did not get to find this on the first try. There were no clear signs, so we ended up instead at some memorial to the Easy Company and a one-kilometer walk to the Peace Forest on gravely dirt road.

While we made it interesting playing soldiers through the pine forest, it was not quite what we were looking for. Why not? Well, it’s a forest. It’s symbolic. Apparently, from above, the forest looks like a mother carrying a child–a UNESCO symbol.

Recon at Boise de la Paix/Peace Forest, Belgium

We recommend spending a day at the Boise de la Paix/Peace Forest for the hike when your kids are not so tired. It’s not really good for strollers. Go through the pine forest make some mysteries of it and discover nature all together. When you get there you can have a picnic among the silence and the trees and just enjoy a peaceful day in the nature.

Kids playing soldiers at the 75-year old foxholes of the 101st Easy Company in Bois Jacques (Jacques Forest), Belgium.

Now, Back to the American foxholes. On the way up to our camping in the Netherlands the following day, we did manage to stop by the foxholes. The thrill for the kids was in finding those 75-year old holes through the trees.

Family tips for visiting: There is a small parking space at the entrance to the forest. There are some marking on the trees to indicate where the foxholes are, but not always. Be careful of ticks. Apparently, there’s a bunch of them during the visit, as advertised.

The boys check out the two holes that knocked out this U.S. Sherman tank in the center of Bastogne, Belgium

3rd stop: A tank in the center of town. It’s an M4 Sherman Barracuda tank shot down by the Germans and left in place ever since. You could see the two holes made by anti-tank munitions. The boys had fun with this one, climbing and crawling under it (at least tried to) and even singing “I don’t know but I’ve been told. Eskimos are mighty cold. . . “ (a sanitized version of this military cadence of course) while marching around the tank and Karol saluting in front of the bust of the famous General McAuliffe who replied, “NUTS!” to the German ultimatum of surrender.

The memorial reads “May this eagle always symbolize the sacrifices and heroism of the 101st Airborne Division and all their attached units” between December 1944 and January 1945 from the city and the citizens of Bastogne.

That’s it.  THANKS for visiting.

NEXT STOP: The highest point of Belgium and Family camping in The Netherlands.

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