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Arnhem And The Liberation Route

Jonathan Payne strides a 3,000 new style 'Santiago' pilgrimage

Written by . Published on April 30th 2014.

Arnhem And The Liberation Route

THE reminders of some of the most brutal hand-to-hand fighting in WWII on the second day of the Netherlands trip had become a little overwhelming.

As one of my colleagues on the trip remarked, the overall ambience of the Dutch landscapes and towns is a relaxed one. The bike lanes slow everything down, the people are polite, and of course, nearly all speak English.

Such insistence on commemoration, on remembering - do you end up living in the past? Is there a slide into what has become known as 'recreational grieving'? 

Reichswald cemetery

Reichswald cemetery

And then we were told about the new bridge in Nijmegan. 

Opened last year in time for the 70th anniversary of D-Day and Operation Market Garden, this bridge commemorates the loss of 48 American soldiers who found themselves picked off by German troops. Called, simply, The Crossing, it has 48 lanterns, and at dusk each evening the lights come on one by one, and as it reaches the city, the city lights are activated. It is an affecting conceit, my qualms about grief-tourism faded.

All Dutch children in primary school adopt the grave of a buried Allied solider (I think I heard this right). One pupil, Niet Aanraken, has grown up to be a sculptor. Her piece Resurrection is an uncanny work - main image at the top of the page. She dreamed when still at school of the soliders coming back to life, restored to health and vigour. Each face in her sculpture is modelled from the photograph of an actual airman, or parachutist, or soldier. The dreams of the young girl have been transformed into an arresting tableaux by the older artist. The group I was with took pictures. Lots of them.

In comparison, one of the memories I have to bear is crossing the Channel on a tempestuous, vomity, night about thirty years ago. I hadn't been on a ferry since.

Embarking at Hull for Rotterdam on P&O's Pride of Hull, a friend texted 'Ferry? Excellent! Ferries have everything you need (everything being booze and food)’.

Throw in a surprisingly spacious cabin and she was right.


Leaving Hull at sunset

We ended up eating in The Kitchen on the way out - shouldn't it be the Galley? - which is also a buffet, but we went for the Treat Yourself menu, which was table service. The steaks were excellent, and the wine list, all of which came in under the purple drinking voucher included an impressive English Riesling, a fine Spanish Rioja and a trusty French Chablis. Retiring afterwards to the fully stocked Sky Lounge we talked until gone midnight. The next morning I couldn't decide if it was the boat or myself that was unsteady as we came into dock.

Rotterdam took about 35km to leave. The port is vast, the biggest in Europe. Colossal tankers travel right up the estuary to refineries and docks and storage. It was of course levelled in the war.


Sweet commemoration

Reaching Arnhem (in under two hours) we stopped in at the Hotel Haarhuis. It is opposite the station and main square which is being rebuilt. Apparently, it has been being rebuilt for seven or eight years. I don't think that this had anything to do with commemoration, more to do with the financial crisis. The excellent Haarhuis was our first base for our trip out to see the sites of Operation Market Garden (begun Sept 17th 1944), and our introduction to Liberation Route Europe.

This route is ambitious.

Juriaan de Mol, from the Dutch tourist board likened it to a new, secular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. A 3,000km trail from southern England, across the Channel into Normandy, up through the Ardennes, into Nijmegan and Arnhem, and then across the Rhine into Germany. It all goes live on the 6 June, 70 years after D-Day.

The area where we were concentrates on Operation Market Garden, which stalled and Operation Veritable (8 Feb, 1945) which succeeded in crossing the Rhine. Eighty or so boulders line the Dutch route, each with a plaque; when you chance on one of these, you can download facts and info and staged dramoletts ('Come on chaps, time to take orff...') via an app.


A jeep from D-Day

One such boulder sits next to the John Frost Bridge, the one 'too far' in the 1977 film. Renamed (and rebuilt) in honour of the officer who commanded that troops that held on far beyond expectations, it now has docked beneath it vast Rhine cruise ships - you can cruise from Nijmegan and up into Germany without the shell fire.

We travelled to the Bridge in Dodge jeeps that had seen action on D-Day and visited the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek, five floors of artefacts and dioramas, and in the basement, The Airborne Experience. We lunched in Restaurant Schoonoord, nicknamed 'Airborne pub no 1', the bar-restaurant that was the HQ for the British troops.


Grim wallpaper from Arnhem

We stood at the spot where the retreating British troops crossed the Rhine under heavy fire. The following day we visited the National Liberation Museum 1944-1945, and saw the Honorary Dome with the Roll of Honour, containing the names of tens of thousands of fallen troops.

Standing next to the Dome we looked out over the hills - this area is nicknamed 'The Tuscany of the Netherlands' - and towards the German border. With a tour arranged by the museum, we travelled by mini bus to the border. Actually, we crossed the border back and forth into Germany half a dozen times, not that there is any signage. And then we came to the Reichswald War Cemetary. 7,418 graves, all but 200 of them British.  Airforce to one side, army to the other. Immaculately kept. Silence broken by birdsong. Here one could try and come to terms with the numbers and stories and facts and the people who had died.

Respite was to be found in the hotel we stayed at, the Scandic Sanadome. The architect was obviously very taken with 'Stingray' and 'Thunderbirds' as Gerry Anderson would have approved. It calls itself a spa hotel, and the spa is open to non-guests (it's free for residents). The double heated pool, one inside and one out, and various spa pools are undoubtedly popular. At breakfast at 9am I wondered where everyone was; at ten as we left, the whole of the breakfast room was full - and everyone was dressed in white robes. I guess once you get there you don't need to leave. The hotel restaurant is pretty exceptional as well.


Gerry Anderson inspired hotel?

As one of my colleagues on the trip remarked, the overall ambience of the Dutch landscapes and towns is a relaxed one. The bike lanes slow everything down, the people are polite, and of course, nearly all speak English. In Arnhem and Nijmegan, their debts to the Allies - the British, Polish, Canadian and Americans - are acknowledged. The five years of Nazi occupation are still within living memory, being freed from that tyranny is something they want to celebrate.

The Liberation Route booklet talks about 'our road to freedom' - how we lost our freedom, how we regained it, and how we must keep it. With events in the Ukraine occupying much European conversation, it is wise to remember that lesson.

P&O ferries - www.POferries.com - 08716 646464

Buses can take you to Rotterdam station, where there are connections to Arnhem and Nijmegan 

Scandic Sanadome - www.sanadome.nl

Best Western Hotel Haarhuis - www.hotelhaarhuis.nl/

National Liberation Museum - www.liberationmuseum.com

Facebook - /bevrijdingsmuseum

Liberation Tour jeeps - www.liberationtour.com or call Bert Eikelenboom (0 (031) 6 2248 4551)

National Airborne Museum - www.airbornemuseum.nl 

Package tours are also available from Shearing Tours, Majestic Tours, Simply Group and Albatross Travel

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