I am, as regular readers will have noticed, an unapologetic supporter of The Netherlands. It’s a small country that not only welcomes the British tourist but embraces them. There are few language problems, yes the water is safe to drink, the little-known food is delicious, and there is history and landscape aplenty.
2014 is a year of commemoration of the start of Liberation across Europe at the end of the Second World War. The Netherlands has its portion of the Liberation Route which offers a new generation, and indeed several generations, a glimpse of those tragic days. There are fewer living eye-witnesses with every year that passes. The Netherlands has done a sterling job of the preservation of facts.
Liberation Route Europe is an ever-growing international remembrance trail, linking those significant events of modern European history. Liberation Route Europe connects the main regions along the way of the Western Allied Forces’ advance. The towns of Arnhem and Nijmegen played a great part in the story of the conflict. There are around 50 boulders at various locations throughout the region, the so-called Listening Locations, where you can learn about the people who lived and fought there during 1944 and 1945. The audio stories are available on the Liberation Route website and can be downloaded free.
One might assume that a Liberation Route tour would be strictly for enthusiasts of all things military – those who sport khaki sweaters all year round and probably boast a kitchen modelled on a NAAFI canteen. Not a bit of it. I am a woman of a certain age with not the slightest interest in wars, apart from being an enthusiastic supporter of the notion that they are probably not a good idea. The Netherlands presents history wrapped in charm, excitement and even fun.
We met Bert Eikelenboom who runs Liberation Tour and owns an original World War 2 Dodge. For the untutored, and I certainly was, this is something like a big Jeep, so it’s a Beep. We snuggled in the back under fleeces and listened to Glenn Miller as we drove through, initially, streets and then into open countryside. Bert can lead you through the fields where the famous Market Garden parachute drop took place. He can also take you to the National Liberation Museum which will give all the background to the events before, during and after Liberation. It’s seldom one has the chance to interact with living history, but this unique tour is informative and gently thrilling.
Another site of battle at the time of Market Garden and at the end of the war is the town of Arnhem. The Information Centre for the Battle of Arnhem is at the foot of the John Frost Bridge. This small but animated museum will tell the story of bloodshed and heroism but without glorification. Both military and civilian stories are illustrated here, bringing events to life.
The Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ is a larger affair than the Arnhem centre. Its exhibits have their focus mostly on the British 1st Airborne Division. It was a hotel during WWII and for a short time became General Urquhart’s HQ during the ill-fated Market Garden landing. It was retaken by the Germans and one can still see a bullet hole in a handrail. The kids will love that! The gardens are delightful so plenty of chance for relaxed contemplation.
The small towns and villages are picturesque and it’s hard to believe that this area was at the epicentre of international hostilities 70 years ago. There are statues and poignant monuments that remind one of those times but this is not an area given over to mawkish sentiment. It’s a beautiful region with plenty to see and do, and some rather smart restaurants and hotels, too.
Landgoed Jachtslot de Mookerheide was built in 1903 and is any architecture-lover’s dream. It took advantage of the design trends of the era and is a veritable showcase of the Art Nouveau movement. Its original features include stained glass, tiles and sumptuous dark wood, and all with the classic organic lines of the period, reflecting the taste of the original owner who built this gem as a personal residence and hunting lodge. He was Baron Jan Jacob Luden and he commissioned brothers Oscan and Henry Leo Jr. to build Jachtslot Mookerheide. He lived there till 1910 when, to pay debts, the lodge was sold at a fraction of the cost of building.
During the Second World War both German and Canadian soldiers were stationed at Jactslot Mookerheide – but not at the same time. Remarkably the lodge survived the war without any damage, and in 1946 the property was purchased by the Dominican Nuns of Bethany to use as a convent. The Sisters remained until 1985, when the convent was sold to the Van Hout family and was converted into the hotel and restaurant that we see today. It’s now a national monument and worth a visit for lunch or an overnight stay. It’s close to Het Rijk Golf Club, National Liberation Museum, and Bijbels Openluchtmuseum.
Hotel Courage Sionshof is set in a forested area near Nijmegen and offers an attractive restaurant and a garden terrace. Nijmegen is an 8-minute drive away. Built in 1930 the Hotel Sionshof has cultivated a reputation for friendly hospitality. It played a part in World War II as it was the headquarters for the Germans for 4 years. On 17 September 1944 the hotel was re-taken by General Gavin and was used as headquarters for the Allies before the liberation of Nijmegen. There’s a Liberation Route boulder next to the hotel which gives some background to that event.
The rooms here are spacious and my room sported a bathroom of generous proportions. It was comfortable and cosy and more like a domestic bedroom than a room at a commercial hotel. However, it’s the dining room that is the jewel in the hotel’s crown. It’s light and airy with Art Deco elements that set this room apart from many another hotel restaurant. The quality of the décor is matched by the food which is fresh and well-presented.
It’s always good to find a truly different hotel. There are those with striking historic features, others have memorable views …and then there are those which present the guest with an all-round different experience. That would be Hotel Papendal! It’s a Sport Hotel but don’t fear, dear inert reader, one is not forced into a track-suit or, for heaven’s sake, a leotard. It’s a hotel that offers outstanding facilities to sportsmen and women.
The setting is tranquil and the only clue that energetic sorts are courted are the groups of young and trim guests who are indeed wearing track-suits …or skateboard attire. The up-side that will no doubt balance your shame (“Will join the gym next week”) is that food here is great. Breakfast is memorable and truly the brekkie of champions with a choice that puts many 5-star hotels to shame. Rooms are contemporary and the location is both convenient and green. There are jogging and Nordic Walking routes and others for mountain biking in the hotel grounds.
The Netherlands in general offers so much to the visitor. It has history, beauty, delicious and unpublicised food – and it’s accessible. The Liberation Route offers a look at a very particular time, and that picture is framed in charming fashion.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018