Ardennes battlefields now thrive as rustic tourist haven
LA ROCHE-EN-ARDENNE, Belgium – Sixty years after the Battle of the Bulge reduced it to rubble, the “pearl of the Ardennes” is shining again.
Squeezed between its hilltop medieval fortress and the serpentine River Ourthe, the little town has rediscovered its pre-World War II fame as a thriving tourist center. Its population of 1,400 swells tenfold with summer visitors attracted by the charms of the Ardennes forest. It epitomizes a peaceful, uniting Europe reborn from the ashes of war.
“Tourism has seen an extraordinary boom,” says Mayor Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “Hardly a week goes by without the Town Hall getting a request from somebody wanting to open a new bed-and-breakfast.”
Rising out of the Champagne fields of northern France, the Ardennes highlands sweep across southeastern Belgium, cover much of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, then flow into western Germany’s Eiffel range.
Sixty years ago, their valleys, trout streams and rolling hills were the scene of Hitler’s last gamble.
In December 1944, his panzer divisions smashed through the forests, catching the Allies by surprise and driving the front westward in a “bulge” that ran deep into Belgian territory. It took a month to push the Germans back.
La Roche was seized by the Germans on Dec. 20, then razed by American bombing raids before a pincer action by American and Scottish troops finally liberated the town on Jan. 9. Almost one in 10 of the locals were killed.
“The Americans smashed everything,” remembers Jeanne Fourny, 83. “It was necessary of course because they chased out the Germans, but we didn’t really enjoy it at the time.”
For 10 years, the survivors lived in a shanty village. Thousands left for the cities.
“Some villages were completely deserted,” Dardenne said.
Nowadays, La Roche’s location is bringing people back.
“We have space here, which others don’t have, where people can just get away to breathe freely for a couple of days,” says Dardenne, pointing out that 66 million Europeans live within 200 miles of La Roche.
Before World War II, the Ardennes was a poor backwater inhabited mostly by subsistence cattle farmers and occasional visitors from the hunting and fishing aristocracy.
Although incomes in the Ardennes are lower than in the rest of Belgium, Dardenne says the region is fast catching up. With tourism replacing farming as the economic mainstay, the population is growing faster than in the rest of the country.
Like other towns across the Ardennes, La Roche will hold ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary. The biggest will be in Bastogne where King Albert II plans to greet American veterans.
Dardenne acknowledges that with the passing of time, interest in the liberation is waning. Many villages stopped commemorating the battle after the 50th anniversary.
“There are fewer and fewer people who remember it,” says the mayor. “When there are no more it will be difficult.”