Camping in the Dunes of Dunkirk
From Normandy, we continued on to Dunkirk. Along the way, we made a pit stop in Calais to see if we could catch a glimpse of the white cliffs of Dover, England, about 21 miles away. It was a little hazy, but we saw them for a few minutes before the clouds rolled in.
It was raining hard when we got to Dunkirk, so we spent some time in the Museum Dunkerque 1940 Operation Dynamo. This is a museum with exhibits recounting the evacuation of Allied forces from the beach and harbor of Dunkirk. The German forces had surrounded the Allies and were closing in.
Of course, Allied forces of land, water, and air were involved in the evacuation of over 338,000 troops, but perhaps the most miraculous element was the response of the civilians who dispatched their own fishing boats, lifeboats, and sailing barges to rescue stranded soldiers from the beach.
The courage and bravery that it took to embark on that mission are incredibly inspiring.
After the museum, the rain had stopped, so we walked along the seaside to the Memorial to the Allies. This is a monument commemorating the bravery of the Allied troops during Operation Dynamo. We continued walking along the boardwalk which was lined with pastel-colored beach shacks.
That night, our camping spot in Dunkirk was amongst the sand dunes—the same dunes that gave the Allies shelter while they waited to be evacuated. Every night that we camped along these beaches, it felt surreal. I imagined the terror and fear the men must have felt.
We also couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy sleeping in a tent in a location where so many men lost their lives. As we laid in our sleeping bags, we wondered if any restless spirits were wandering the beach still waiting for a ride to safety.
Welcome (back) to Belgium
Earlier in this trip, we enjoyed a short (only a few hours) layover in Brussels. Belgian beer is one of our favorites, so we knew we had to return and explore other parts of the country.
Our first stop on our road trip through Belgium was Bruges. Ever since we watched the dark comedy In Bruges, we wanted to come here, despite Colin Farrell’s character’s clear distaste for the place (“It’s like an f💣ing fairytale or something”).
We had a great camping spot right outside of town. It was a rainy day but there was a short break while we set up our tent. By the time we got into town, the rain had cleared. We only had the afternoon there, so we drove to the parking garage to catch public transportation around town.
There were bicyclists (ninjas) EVERYWHERE, and it made for incredibly stressful driving.
The town square with its massive bell tower was so quaint and picturesque, especially once the sunset.
The Gothic-style Town Hall is connected to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is famous for housing a cloth containing Christ’s blood.
We spent the evening walking around the parks and canals and even got to see some of the old windmills along the ramparts.
Bruges was a quick stop, but definitely worth seeing. We didn’t have time to take in a lot of the history of the place, but because of the weight of the other places on this road trip, it was kind of nice to just walk around and enjoy the sights.
Andy (having not been to Venice at this time) says “It’s like Venice, but with good beer.”
War is Hell
From Brugge, we drove to Bastogne. The weather was chilly, and the rain continued. What a time to be tent camping. We found a campground that was all but deserted for the season and set up our tent. Then we headed to the Mardasson Memorial and Bastogne War Museum.
The memorial was under construction and the museum was closing soon, but there was an anti-war art exhibit set up in front of the museum.
The exhibit was commemorating 75 years since the Battle of the Bulge and 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It included pieces from the Berlin Wall as well as an authentic Sherman tank.
We drove out to the Peace Woods, 6 acres of land dedicated to the military and civilian casualties that occurred in this area in the winter of 1944-1945. Over 4,000 trees were planted on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and each veteran who returned in 1994 had a tree permanently named after him.
Fall was in the air here, and the leaves were changing colors. We were the only ones walking in the woods and it was at the same time beautiful and eerie, peaceful and heavy.
Roots in the Woods
The next morning, we went to the Bastogne War Museum. It was a very informative and interactive museum that told the history of this region leading up to and following the Battle of the Bulge.
After the museum, we went out to Jack’s Woods, where you can still see the many foxholes where soldiers lived, fought and many died that cold, fateful winter. Again, we were the only ones in the woods. The only sound was our footsteps.
Walking among the foxholes had the same feeling as walking in a cemetery—this was hallowed ground.
One of my great uncles, James Honea, was a soldier here. He died in the Battle of the Bulge, possibly in a foxhole just like one of these, a couple of days before Christmas.
James’s brother, Clifton Honea, was with Patton’s tank column when they broke through German lines to resupply and fortify the front the day after Christmas. The victory at the Battle of the Bulge paved the way to the Allied victory in Europe. Clifton was also with Patton’s tank column when he rolled into Berlin.
I am so proud to be related to these heroes.
Seeing these places firsthand was incredible, but learning about my own family’s history here gave it so much more meaning and depth. As we walked through the woods where my great uncle James died, I felt a connection. A connection to a man I never met, in a place I had never been to before.
That night, we toasted our Belgian beers to “the Honeas who gave ‘em hell” in Bastogne.