Monday, June 20, 2016

Musée Méindeg: Bastogne War Museum

Méindeg, 20 Juni.

Today's Musée Méindeg takes us outside of the Grand Duchy to the Bastogne War Museum. Located just across the Luxembourg-Belgium border, the museum is within easy driving distance of Luxembourg and makes for a popular day trip destination.

History buffs will surely recognize Bastogne for the strategic role it played in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, an event that was immortalized in the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers. (Haven't heard of it? Ask your dad.)

Just a few months after being liberated by Allied Forces, the town of Bastogne became the site of the one of the most dramatic events of World War II, when it was attacked by the Germans in December 1944 as part of Hitler's last-ditch attempt to recapture Antwerp and change the tide of the war. The siege lasted for a week, during which time the town -- and the small number of American soldiers defending it -- suffered many casualties. At one point during the Battle of Bastogne, German troops at succeeded in fully encircling the town and even gave the Americans the opportunity to surrender ... an offer to which General McAuliffe famously responded: "Nuts!" Ultimately, Patton's Third Army came to the relief of the exhausted forces: within a few weeks, the battle was won and the town of Bastogne re-liberated. Given the historical importance of the Battle of the Bulge, it's no wonder that Bastogne continues to be defined by its role in World War II.

As you may be aware, I have been to quite a few World War II museums in my day. (See: that 127-page document I wrote that one time.) After spending nearly two months researching and visiting war museums in France back in 2013, I am not easily impressed. But I have to say: the Bastogne War Museum is something else.

Visitors to the museum are given an audio guide and headset, which kicks in automatically as you move through the exhibits. In addition to the occasional general introduction or explanation, the audio guides give visitors the opportunity to listen to 'first-hand' testimonials from four characters: a Belgian student, a schoolteacher / Resistance fighter, a German officer, and an American GI. It's an approach that seems at first gimmicky, with comic book-style characters and cartoon-sounding voices ... but I was quickly won over.

Although it follows a largely chronological order, the museum itself is divided in two halves: the first half focuses on the general history of the war (including both its causes and major events) and the occupation of Belgium, while the second half focuses specifically of the Battle of the Bulge before briefly addressing the conclusion and consequences of the war. Between the physical exhibits, the audio guide, and three films (not to be skipped!), it takes a solid three hours to get through the whole thing.

Not just for grownups! The museum features exhibits geared toward younger visitors.

In addition to the museum, the site is also home to the Mardasson Memorial. Dedicated in 1950, the memorial honors the sacrifice of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. It was designed in the shape of a five-pointed star (a unique look that is replicated in the Bastogne War Museum) and stands an arresting 40 feet in height and is inscribed with the names of the states (then, only 48 of them!) as well as passages describing the battle.

The memorial is located a stone's throw from the museum and is open to the public. Visitors can climb to the top of the memorial via a spiral staircase and catch a glimpse of the surrounding countryside.

Practical Information.

The Bastogne War Museum is located just outside of the town of Bastogne, under two hours from both Luxembourg City and Brussels. The site is only accessible via car. (And if you're lucky, your GPS may decide to take you on a back road between fields of cows! A story for another day...)

The museum is open daily except on Mondays. Opening hours vary throughout the year, with extended hours in the months of July and August. Check out the Calendar and Scheduling section on the website for more information. Admission is not cheap: an adult ticket costs 14€, which includes an audioguide but not admission to the museum's temporary exhibit.

If you plan to spend some time in the area, the Bastogne War Museum is hardly the only site in town. Visitors may also be interested in spending some time at the the Bastogne Barracks, the Ardennes 44 Museum, the Bois de la Paix, or the recently-renovated 101st Airborne Museum. You can even pay to take a guided tour of the region and visit the locations of the Battle of the Bulge in person!

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