I first saw the bridge at Nijmegen from the top deck of one of those wonderful Dutch intercity trains. In an hour and a half it had taken me from Schipol Airport through Amsterdam and across the country towards the German border.
Through the panoramic window I had watched as the suburbs were swiftly left behind. We emerged into green fields and tree lined waterways where powerful barges, lying low in the water pushed up impressive bow waves. They were sizable boats; big enough to carry the owner’s car on the back deck.
We caught glimpses of the odd busy motorway, but what attracted me were the little roads that outlined the flat low lying green fields. They were just perfect for cycling.
Most Dutch folk have more than one bike, one with gears for long runs and perhaps another sturdy one for going about the town. Indeed at Nijmegen station there was a massive cycle parking facility. It seemed to be on more than one level. Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands so it’s hardly surprising that it has its fair share of museums and they include one dedicated to the bicycle.
It is the biggest of its kind in the world and houses 450 bikes, the earliest being the "hobby horse" which had no pedals. You just sat astride it and padded along with your feet. On display there was even a model that had been built from a drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
If you fancy using a more up to date model, these are easily hired at the station and if you visit the tourist office you can pick up a Cycle Network map. This will help you get the best out of your visit. Using the reference points and signposts, you can plan and navigate your way through the region.
You just follow the signs and explore the polders, forests and towns. I particularly enjoyed a small road that took me along the top of the Ooijpolder past small villages and farms. At one attractive spot there was a picnic table and a small hand cranked ferry to take you and your bike closer to a wetland nature reserve.
Generally it was peaceful and there was almost a feeling of having stepped back in time. At one point we found a couple of horse drawn wagons taking guests to a wedding party and we caught up with the bride and groom later in Nijmegen. They had a photographer in tow as they hurried toward the Nijmegen Bridge for an iconic picture. It was also at the bridge that we found the landing stage for the cruise boats that can take you from Nijmegen to Emmerich in one direction and Rotterdam in the other.
The River Waal is very fast flowing and the busiest river in Europe. The Rhine joins it and 500 to 600 ships a day come past Nijmegen.
It was also fast flowing in World War Two, when, in 1944, a party of German frog man tried unsuccessfully to set charges to blow up the bridge and halt the Allied advance. This is something that you learn more about at a nearby boulder which is one of the marker points on the "Liberation Trail."
You can download a sound commentary from the internet and listen to it on your Ipod or mp3 player. There are a further 22 places along the route up to Arnhem. (One day they hope to extend the scheme to cover from the D-Day Landings in Normandy to Hitler’s bunker in Berlin.)
In the operation “Market Garden”, the Allies liberated Nijmegen but the advance was fiercely opposed and they were unable to reach the airbourne forces dropped ahead of them at Arnhem. That proved to be “a bridge too far”
A lot of what happened during the campaign is featured at the National Liberation Museum just South East of Nijmegen. On a lighter note, an exhibit there called “Love in Wartime” had me thinking back to the bride that we met at the bridge. At least her wedding dress was not made out of ‘parachute silk’ as many were in 1944 - 45.
Although much has been developed in Holland in the past 65 years, the dropping zone near Oosterbeek outside Arnhem has not changed. (I was lucky enough to fly over it.) Each year there are commemorative events. This year they included jumps by parachutists from the British Parachute Regiment and the 6th Polish Parachute Brigade.
There is also an annual ceremony of remembrance at the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek with local children laying flowers on the graves and a one day march in which some 30,000 people from Holland and abroad take part.
The Battle of Arnhem is well remembered, but to better understand what happened a visit to the Airborne Museum at Villa Hartenstein in Oosterbeek is recommended.
It is a peaceful place now and deer run freely in the adjacent fields.
The flags of Britain, Canada, Poland, the United States and Europe fly outside the Villa which for four days in September 1944 served as the British headquarters. The building is now a national monument and there has been a complete renovation of the museum which now has additional audio and video presentations in which civilians and German veterans give eye witness accounts.
Allan Rogers visits Nijmegen and Arnhem, for bikes, bridges and battles.
The battle was to gain control of the Arnhem Bridge, but of the 12,000 British and Polish airborne soldiers fighting only 700 were able to reach it and in the end, because of the strong German defence, they had to withdraw to the HQ at the Hartenstein. The museum has now a large underground space that houses an exhibition called the “Airborne Experience” The entrance is through the fuselage of a Horsa Glider and this heightens the effect. The shell damaged burning houses and street battles in Arnhem have been faithfully recreated.
There is nothing there that glorifies war. What it does convey, is that war is a frightening, scary and horrible thing. It makes you stop and think how fortunate we are now and also to be grateful to the men took part.
Had we been born a few years earlier or later, you or I could have been involved.
On a memorial I read the words “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”