Bastogne is a small village in Belgium with old stone buildings, charming bakeries, and chocolatrías swimming with Belgium’s famously decadent chocolate. It is an enchanting village that makes one yearn for the pure simplicity of the past. You walk its streets and you can’t help but fantasize about going home from the market carrying a basket full of fresh produce with that signature warm loaf of French bread peeking out the corner. If you are like me you might even secretly play that opening scene from Beauty and the Beast in your head and imagine yourself being greeted by the townspeople of that quiet little village with a hearty chorus of “Bonjour! Good Day! “
We stayed in a small hotel that was run by a family who also made us a meal of quiche, and some type of beef stew that was truly fantastic. And there was bread…lots and lots of bread. They kept sending it out with the family’s adorable 8-year-old son. I accidentally scared this unsuspecting bread deliverer by asking him how old he was. He replied in very broken and loud English “ MY NAME IS ALLEN”. This was clearly the only phrase he knew in English. This struck me as funny because the only French I knew was “ja ma pel Claude” (My name is Claude). In my hurried excitement to communicate, I screamed this phrase at the little boy, which undoubtedly startled him. The primary reason for his confusion was that I used the masculine name Claude instead of my own. That would be the French equivalent to me shouting that my name was Frank or Bob or Bill. Needless to say, my effort at communicating in French was not successful and our table did not receive any more bread.
Even though it is quite charming, this small village would be easily overlooked by the traveler if not for its historical significance in WWII. In an effort to capture the important harbor of Antwerp, near the end of 1944 Germany had attacked the American troops in the area and occupied this small Belgium village. This siege initiated the infamous Battle of the Bulge. A few days later, the 101st Airborne Division and others lead a counter-attack. After several days of intense and deadly fighting the US troops were surrounded and left to fight the harsh winter elements with diminishing supplies. As a visitor you can wonder the dense forests where these brave American men fought, struggled and died. You can see where they dug foxholes in an attempt to stay warm and safe from exploding debris. Nearly 76,890 US soldiers died during this long and arduous battle, which is more than 7 times more than those who died on D-Day at Normandy.
The people of Belgium were so thankful for the sacrifice of American soldiers that they built the giant Mardasson Memorial in 1950 and dedicated it to the American men who died to protect and liberate the people of Belgium. This memorial is tasteful, beautiful and massively powerful. It is a pentagon raised to the sky by giant columns that are inscribed with the historic depictions of this tragic battle that highlights America’s classic resilience and perseverance. When you climb to the top of the structure you can view the surrounding battlefields of the past. You realize these now peaceful trees were once audience to all the horrors the men endured during those harsh winter months. If those trees could talk…what would they say? What tragedies did they witness?