The Lower Rhine is where Europeans go to escape from it all, and we don’t waste time in putting our feet up and unwinding. The atmosphere today is a far cry from the horrific three-week battle that cost the lives of up to 30,000 men, women and children.
In September 1944, Operation Market Garden saw Allied forces attempt to consolidate their fresh foothold in Europe with an audacious airborne assault behind German lines. The aim was to overwhelm the enemy, capture intact bridges and cross the Rhine, and then open a new north-eastern battlefront. The plan might have failed, but the attempt spawned tales of heroics immortalised in films such as the 1977 classic A Bridge Too Far and Steven Spielberg’s Band Of Brothers series.
Today, remnants of the conflict are scattered throughout the region with dozens of cemeteries, monuments and the Nijmegen Bridge that Allied troops fought tooth and nail to keep safe from stinging German defence.
The feats of the soldiers, Dutch resistance and civilians during the war are retold in the fabulous National Liberation Museum (Nationaal Berijdingsmuseum 1944-1945) south of Nijmegen in the heart of what was once the frontline. Featuring dioramas, birds-eye-view battle plans and a range of souvenirs, the museum offers unique insight into the lives of Dutch citizens under Nazi rule, as well as the stories of those who took up arms.
Nearby war graves are the last resting place of some of the 17,000 Allied soldiers, including young Kiwi flying officer J Lowrie. The 21-year-old was shot down and killed while flying over enemy territory shortly before Operation Market Garden, and now lies alongside 310 of his fallen comrades in the Mook War Cemetery, a few kilometres south of the museum.
Despite this grim history, the Lower Rhine has taken giant steps after World War II. The small shuffling city of Arnhem, filled with bars, cafés and shops, hums with happy bustle.
Across the border in Germany, the boutique village of Kempen could double as a pre-war fairy-tale film set. With its medieval buildings, classical architecture and lazy pace of life, you would struggle to find a better way to spend a warm summer evening than sipping the local brew in the town square.
For the energetic, a new bogie cart track makes use of a disused stretch of railway line on the Dutch-German border. A local entrepreneur decided a pedal-powered business would revive the line. Cycling down the track, half expecting to be confronted by a speeding freight train, is good fun. The bogie configuration is simple — four seats and pedal berths attached to the back of a wheel-mounted platform. Thanks to a gentle downward slope, we completed the 5.5km stretch in about 25 minutes. Not bad but, our guide casually told us, substantially shy of the record 14 minutes clocked-up by a group of German lads a few days before.
But, we decided while sipping a particularly fine pilsener afterwards, the Lower Rhine is not about getting from A to B in record time. It’s about taking your foot off and coasting it for a bit.
» Matt Torbitt travelled to the Lower Rhine with the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions
Step back in time
Want to see Holland in a day? Situated in Arnhem, The National Heritage Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum) is a large open-air museum and park filled with historical houses, farms and factories. Many of the buildings and machinery have been painstakingly transported to the site and restored to ‘working’ order. Museum staff dress in traditional costumes and re-enact the daily business of various old trades, such as beer production. See www.openluchtmuseum.nl/en.
The Romans arrived on the scene around 15BC and set up a whopping big camp to base their troops fighting the northern hordes. Over time the military base grew to be a thriving Roman city, which today, in the form of Xanten Archaeological Park, is one of the finest archaeological sites of its kind in the region.
Once a year Krefeld welcomes 100,000 visitors to Germany’s largest handicraft market, the medieval Flax Market (Flachsmarkt). It takes place on a weekend in May on the grounds of the 12th-century Castle Linn, where all manner of goods are sold.