Pristine in their natural beauty, these countries have a rich history and vibrant culture, both of which are evident at every step of the road less travelled as I discovered. Recent history however has been bloody and I cannot avoid mentioning some incidents relating to World War 2.
THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE OR THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE.
The Germans called their offensive the "Wacht Am Rhine" (The watch on the river Rhine) and the allied forces termed it "The Ardennes Offensive". Due to the natural terrain on which this battle was fought in the Ardennes forest, history recorded it as "The Battle of the Bulge". The Ardennes is a heavily wooded plateau in North East France extending to South East Belgium and Northern Luxembourg, which cuts through the river Meuse. It is breathtaking in in its natural beauty with thick forest cover in shades of glorious green and perceiving it from anywhere is soothing to the soul, a panorama of peaceful beauty resplendent in its verdant solitude. The Japanese have a phrase for nature's treasures such as the Ardennes expressed in one simple line......"Take a walk in the wind and clear your mind......." They refer to it very aptly as "Forest Bathing ". It is difficult to imagine that a little over seventy years ago this part of paradise around the town of Bastogne was the scene of savage blood letting, guts and gore and killing unlimited, as Adolf Hitler unleashed his plan for a breakthrough in the allied forces defensive line by his Field Marshall Von Runstedt.
The German attack took the allies by complete surprise, but ultimately they held out against a very superior German force in a conflict which lasted from the 16th December 1944 until the 28th January 1945. The allies lost 80,000 soldiers and the German casualties were listed at 130,000, including Hitler's last powerful reserve, the Panzer Elite. The beauty of the Ardennes today conceals the horror and barbarism of that terrible time. Perhaps a line from the poem "The Windmill" by Henry Longfellow sums up the contrast today...... :
" On Sundays I take my rest, church going bells begin
I cross my hands upon my breast and all is peace within....."
All is peace within today, but over seventy years ago it seemed that hell was unleashed on earth. A visit to the Luxembourg American cemetery and Memorial in Luxembourg City is a harsh lesson in reality. I spent a long time reading the graves of the American soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice, and what tears one's heart out is reading the ages of the soldiers 22, 25, 23, 32, citing a few examples, and there was one of a soldier who was just nineteen years old. I suppose it is one of many. The graves are laid out row by row in a beautiful garden setting. At the entrance to the cemetery, as if by some bizarre twist of fate is the grave of General George S.Patton who was Commander of the US 7th army in the Mediterranean, and the US 3rd army in France and Germany. It was his decisive leadership which turned the tide in relieving the beleagured allied troops in Bastogne at 'the Battle of the Bulge'. The graves of the fallen soldiers are laid out in a slight slope below his grave which is set apart. It gives one the impression that even in death he is at the head of his troops. It was General Patton who after the war once remarked " We have accepted the mystery of the atom - and rejected the Sermon on the Mount"......" Having survived the dangers of war, General Patton was tragically killed in a car accident in Mannheim Germany, a few days before he was to return home to the USA.
In the senior forms at St.Anthony's College Kandy, I recall the English literature class where under Mr.John Isaacs we studied the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two in particular "Kublai Khan" and "The Ancient Mariner". Amazingly, while reading the epitaphs of the fallen US soldiers, the veil of time was parted and through the mists of time I recalled a passage from one of Coleridge's passages dealing with melancholy thoughts of the past. It read " If men could learn from history, what lessons it would teach us ! But passion blinds our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us....." I surmise what he was telling us is that the lessons of history are never learned.
The Mardasson Memorial also in Luxembourg city is worth a visit for those interested in World War 2 history, and is another tribute to all the American soldiers who gave their lives for their country.
A leisurely walking tour in the beautiful city center of Luxembourg is therapeutic to heart and mind. Marvel at the Grand Ducal Palace with its Flemish renaissance facades, and the medieval cathedral. To add a fairy tale character to this ethereal city, there are spectacular views of the gorge of the rivers Alzette and Petrusse. Here nature has excelled.......Following this walk, some of my travelling companions and I spent a leisurely afternoon in the leafy Place d' Armes watching the world go by fortified by some of the best coffee in the world !
The 12th century Cistercian Orval Abbey in an excellent state of preservation is a pearl of great price. This medieval abbey which was founded in 1132, is in the Gaume region of Belgium and is renowned for its distinct cheese and for being one of the few breweries that produces Trappist beer.
BELGIUM: Since 1945 this small country has been a major force for international co-operation in Europe being a founder member of the Benelux Economic Union, the Council of Europe, and the Economic Union. (EU). I found this country to be the proverbial pearl of great price -- a rare gem in the chain of any travel itinerary. My introduction to this resplendent land commenced with a visit to the historic city of Bruges in North West Belgium. Bruges is the capital of the province of West Flanders. And there are more gems to behold - The 14th century cathedral of Notre Dame has a rare statue of the Virgin and Child by Michaelangelo. Visit the Gothic Town and Market Hall and you think a time machine has taken you back 800 hundred years, because the historic buildings and the old roads weaving in and out are the originals from that period......Bruges incidentally has been named for its many bridges. For lovers of chocolate, a visit to a chocolate factory or even a shop will reveal why Belgian chocolates are the most exquisite and so highly prized worldwide. I have no sweet tooth, but having tasted Belgian chocolates I swear they are worth every calorie !!
Before this however, there was another surprise in store. We stopped at the charming town of Dinant, an enchanting medieval village with history in every corner. But the most famous son of this town is Adolphe Sax, credited with having invented the saxophone. His home today is a museum visited by many, specially jazz music afficionados. This town is on the banks of a lovely river, and the scenery surrounding the area is once again, nature's handiwork. Arriving in Bruges in the evening, another surprise awaited the group - a dinner invitation to the home of Marc and Judy Nyssen at their 17th century Bruges farmstead to learn about Flanders farm life and enjoy hearty Belgian fare. And cordon bleu fare it was, washed down by copious amounts of the nectar of the Gods - Belgian beer and homemade wine ! Much more than that, the dinner was prepared and served with a lot of love and hospitality and was a feast for the Gods. I wished the night would never end ! In this simple act of kindness - entertaining strangers in their home - Marc and Judy were sharing the essence of who they were, their humanity and generosity with us. Where there is sharing, everybody wins - the giver and the receiver. Waking up the next morning in beautiful Bruges was akin to living in a dream. The hotel was by the banks of a river and in a very historic quarter. Taking a stroll down the old medieval road before breakfast, I made a note of the house numbers.....1604, 1624, 1658, 1712, 1759, 1780, 1792.......all original historic houses still standing....the place is a time warp. I started the day with a walking tour of Bruges, and then took to the water to enjoy a whimsical sightseeing cruise along the city's wonderful canals lined with Gothic facades. A visit to a Lace Centre run by the nuns of the Immaculate Conception to admire the delicate art of Belgian lace followed. I spent the rest of the day soaking up the old world charm of this beguiling city.
The next stop was the city of Ghent to delve into the centuries of port heritage of this city with its picturesque riverine backdrop. What stands out in Ghent are the three famous medieval towers - Saint Nichola's church, the belfry and Saint Bavo's cathedral dating from the eleven hundreds, in an excellent state of preservation. There was another surprise in store. Passing the municipality of Ixelles located South of the city centre of Brussels, I was told that this was the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn. Her mother was a Dutch baroness Ella Van Heemstra, and her father was an English banker. They divorced when she was only six years old and she spent her childhood in Belgium, the UK and the Netherlands. Hollywood and stardom followed much later.
The multicultural melting pot of the Belgian capital Brussells is a revelation. The Atomium which was designed for the 1958 Brussel's World Fair and the exquisite Grand Palace with its opulent and ornate guildhalls are only a small sample of the many splendoured delights and attractions of this charming city. The first enchanted evening in Brussels was spent sampling taste bud tantalizing Belgian cuisine washed down with the city's best beers ! The next day I embraced a full day at leisure to explore the Belgian capital on my own terms. A visit to the Cinquantenaire taught me all I needed to know about Belgian military history through the centuries. From there I meandered to the Royal Palace through the leafy lanes of the Brussels park. Intoxicated with the beautiful architecture of the buildings, I immersed myself in all this city had to offer and was not short of any food for thought.
The Belgian town of Ypres in West Flanders is not far from Brussels. Called 'The City of Peace' which I thought was very ironic, Ypres was a centre of heavy fighting during World War 1. I visited the cemeteries of Paschendale and Taryn Cot where many of the allied soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice are buried. Again, the ages of the soldiers engraved on the tombstones will move the hardest heart. The poem by William Collins "How Sleep the Brave" expresses the emotion felt by any visitor to this spot.....As I pondered life's futility in the calm of an Autumn evening, some lines from this poem came to mind......
How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their countries wishes blest
When Spring with dewy fingers cold
Returns to deck their hallowed mould
She there shall dress a sweeter sod
Than fancy feet have ever trod
By fairy hands their knell is rung
By forms unseen their dirge is sung
There honour comes a pilgrim grey
To bless the form that wraps their clay........
If the dead are always with us, it is in places like this that their presence is felt so intensely. I cannot remember who asked the question "If we can rest in peace, why cant we live in peace?
Ypres was the town in which the bulk of the allied forces were stationed. Each morning they sallied forth to the battlefield, and many never returned. Exiting the town, they had to go through The Menin Gate. Today, a very moving memorial ceremony takes place at 6.00 pm. sharp each evening. It is a ceremony to remember the soldiers who perished in the battles of World War 1 fought around the town from 1914 to 1918, and commences with a small parade, a eulogy followed by a hymn or two, and then the climax of this ceremony when a trumpeter plays "The Last Post". If one has managed to hold back his or her tears through the entire proceedings so far, the trumpeter's rendition of 'The Last Post' will soon break down any emotional resistance. The sadness epitomised in each individual note sears through one's very soul, and the only relief to assauge one's grief is to let a few teardrops fall. The names of the soldiers who perished are engraved on the huge columns of the Menin Gate and I was also happy to read the names of the Indian and Bengali soldiers who left their home far away to fight for the empire and never returned to their homeland. I mention this because often in any remembrance ceremonies, the soldiers from the colonies hardly merit a mention. I hasten to add that this memorial ceremony has been enacted EVERY EVENING SINCE THE END OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR TO THIS VERY DAY. I was told that the place is packed every evening - there was hardly any room the evening, when I with the rest of the group were privileged to attend.
Two Canadians from the group and I made a special visit to the tomb of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the Canadian poet who served as a medical officer in the first World War. This poet has left us a lasting legacy in his masterpiece IN FLANDERS FIELD, which was the reason I made the visit because I had admired this poem for as long as I care to remember. Google it and you can read all three verses, but I shall quote the first verse to emphasise its poignancy :
"In Flanders Fields the poppies grow/ Between the crosses row on row/ That mark our place and in the sky/
The larks still bravely singing fly/ Scarce heard amid the guns below........."
This poem which was published in 1915, honours and commemorates the men who died in the horrific battles in Flanders. He was inspired to write it having presided over the funeral of a comrade Alex Helmer, and having seen the blood red poppies grow on the graves of the soldiers who lost their lives. He wrote it seated in the back of an ambulance. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae died of pneumonia towards the end of the war.
In the year 1815, a battle was fought here which changed the face of Europe forever. The all conquering Corsican colonel Napoleon Bonaparte confronted the British army led by the Duke of Wellington in what history records as The Battle of Waterloo. The result is known to history, and this is where the once mighty emperor met HIS Waterloo. I visited the house which the Duke of Wellington occupied for the duration of this conflict located in the town of Waterloo. It is a museum today and houses many valuable exhibits, maps, letters, arms, swords, and other interesting exhibits. The room occupied by the Duke is still preserved with his writing desk and the bed he slept on. At one stage in this battle Napoleon almost had the upper hand, and it was the gallant arrival of the Prussians under General Blucher which turned the tide and saved the day for the English. Having played his part, General Blucher suffered an unexpected mishap, and suffered a broken leg when his horse fell on him ! He had to be removed from the field of battle and there is a picture of him being commended and presented with honours and awards a few weeks after the battle lying on a bed, his injured leg swathed in thick bandages. General Blucher was also the oldest soldier on the field that day. He was 72 years of age, while Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington were in their forties.The battlefield is partly farmland today and wide beautiful fields and grassland bordered by a few farms.
This has been a journey on a long road of many twists and turns......there have been moments of euphoria, delights, surprises, sadness, a lot of inspiration - and beautiful salt of the earth human beings who give of themselves unhesitatingly to make the world a better place. Art, culture, history, interaction with different people, unseen miracles which defy description but have to be experienced, the handiwork of Mother Nature, and other travel tit bits all combine to enrich one's spirit and soothe the soul in a world which has lost its way.
And I headed home having learned the best lesson of all - The more I saw and learned, I realized how little I knew, and how much more there was to learn........