This Walloon municipality in Belgian Luxembourg is on a ridge in the Ardennes at 500 metres above sea level.
Bastogne is at a strategic putting it in the path of the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. The Siege of Bastogne of December 1944 was a bloody engagement in a brutal couple of months, during Germany’s final attempt to break the advancing Allied lines.
The events around Bastogne in December 1944 have been made even more famous by HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers (2001). In Bastogne you can track the movement of the 101st Airborne Division at historical sites and museums, pausing at monuments like the Mardasson Memorial and the Bois de la Paix.
1. Bastogne War Museum
A definitive account of the Battle of the Bulge is given at the Bastogne War Museum on the grounds of the Mardasson Memorial (1950). Like the memorial, this museum, which opened in 2014 on the site of the forerunning Bastogne Historical Centre, is in the shape of a five-pointed American star.
The War Museum is a multilingual attraction, in French, Dutch, English and German, and presents an enthralling 30-minute film about the Ardennes Offensive in the winter of 1944-45. On your way through the gripping, multisensory galleries you’ll be led by four characters, an American soldier, a German soldier, a Bastogne schoolteacher and a local boy to understand the causes, course and consequences of the conflict from all angles.
2. Bastogne Barracks
In 2010, following a restoration project, this valuable piece of history from the Siege of Bastogne, became a WW2 interpretation centre.
These are the barracks which held the Allied headquarters during the Ardennes Offensive, set up by General McAuliffe in December 1944. There’s a small battalion of military vehicles to pore over, partly belonging to Belgium’s Royal Museum of the Armed Forces.
These Tigers, Shermans, jeeps and tankettes are kept in good condition at the Vehicle Restoration Center.
The undoubted highlight of the museum is the office from which, on 22 December 1944, McAuliffe gave the single-word response of “Nuts!” to the German commander’s demand of surrender.
At this point German forces had encircled Bastogne and it would be another five days before the American forces were relieved by General George Patton’s Third Army.
3. 101st Airborne Museum
Housed in Bastogne’s stately Chasseurs Ardennais officers’ mess from 1936, the 101st Airborne Museum goes into depth on the Siege of Bastogne from the perspective of the units that took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
This building was employed by the Wehrmacht during the fighting and became a temporary hospital after the war.
Across four floors the museum is flush with immersive displays and genuine artefacts including weapons, equipment, uniforms, documents, photographs and civilian objects from the time.
In the basement you can feel what it might have been like to experience the bloody winter of 1944-45 as a resident of Bastogne in a bomb shelter.
4. Mardasson Memorial
In the same ensemble as the Bastogne War Museum is the Mardasson Memorial, commemorating the American soldiers wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge.
Unveiled in 1950 this is an imposing structure designed by Liège architect Georges Dedoyard.
In the shape of a five-pointed American star it rises to a height of 12 metres, with points 31 metres long and a central atrium 20 metres in diameter.
The insignia of the participating battalions are shown on the walls, representing the 76,890 killed and wounded in the battle.
Lining the inside of the memorial are ten panels recounting the story of the Battle of the Bulge, and in the crypt are three altars one each for Catholic, Jewish and Protestant services, carved and decorated with mosaics by Fernand Léger.
A spiral stairway lifts you to the roof of the monument to look over the Ardennes countryside, and study maps that explain the course of the battle in each direction.
5. Bois de la Paix
On the way from the Mardasson Memorial to the village of Bizory you’ll come to Bois de la Paix.
Here, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge 4,000 trees were planted in the pattern of the UNICEF logo, depicting a mother and child.
These birches, service trees, oaks and beeches were planted in tribute to the American veterans, Belgian combatants and all of the civilians and military personnel killed in the fighting.
At the centre of the wood, cities famously caught up in war are honoured with a panel and three trees.
These include the likes of Verdun, Warsaw, Volgograd and Coventry.
The American veterans who returned to Bastogne in 1994 were each invited to pick an individual tree, now permanently labelled with their names.
6. Le Piconrue – Musée de la Grande Ardenne
For some context about the culture of the Ardennes and Belgian Luxembourg, there’s a museum in a 17th-century former Recollects convent.
Le Piconrue’s collection numbers almost 70,000 pieces, covering religious art, ethnology, legends and popular beliefs.
There’s a startling wealth of religious imagery and liturgical ornaments gathered from churches around the region and spanning hundreds of years.
You can dive into the Ardennes many legends, like the ghost riders of the Wild Hunt, Four Sons of Aymon and their magical horse, the werewolf and many more.
When we put this list together in early 2020 there was a temporary show for the award-winning cartoonist/graphic novelist Jean-Claude Servais, with immersive scenography and 120 original panels.
After retracing the events of the Battle of the Bulge you may be in the mood for something lighter.
Animalaine is a hands-on and living museum that deals with wool production and textile crafts down the years.
First there are animal paddocks where you’ll get to interact with numerous different fibre-producing species, from sheep to rabbits to alpacas.
Afterwards you’ll find out more about the many different methods and stages for working wool, seeing how it’s done today, and what the techniques were more than a century ago.
Also at Animalaine is a meticulously reconstructed period house revealing domestic life and the trades in days gone by.
Kids can burn some energy at the playground and there’s a cafe serving local beer and light meals.
8. Église Saint-Pierre
This Romanesque and Gothic church in front of the Porte de Trèves gate has been restored a few times down the years, including after the Battle of the Bulge.
But what is known is that there was a place of worship right here as long ago as the 7th century.
Some older, Romanesque parts of the Église Saint-Pierre survive, most clearly in the stocky Romanesque bell tower, dating to the 11th century.
Gothic elements were added over the next few centuries, including the 1500s when the building was turned into a hall church.
There are polychrome frescos on the vault from this time depicting scenes from contemporaneous daily life as well as the Old and New Testaments.
Some other fittings have stood the test of time, like the 12th-century Romanesque baptismal font and the 11th-century high altar, portions of which may be even older, going back to the 600s.
There’s also some fine art produced later, in the 17th-century pulpit, the 18th-century altar in the left aisle and the remarkable carving of the Entombment from the end of the 16th century.
9. Bois Jacques
Ten minutes from Bastogne, on a rise outside the village of Foy , is the forest Bois Jacques, which was held by the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge.
Foy itself was heavily occupied by German forces and the forest was the scene of fierce fighting and many casualties.
The current woodland, a pine plantation, is new, but in the ground you can see traces of the foxholes dug by members the 101st Airborne Division more than 75 years ago.
These were made famous by Band of Brothers, and the forest has been listed as “exceptional cultural heritage” since 2017.
10. Porte de Trèves
Standing behind Église Saint-Pierre is the last notable vestige of Bastogne’s Medieval city walls.
Composed of local shale sandstone under a slate roof, the Porte de Trèves (Trier Gate) was constructed in the middle of the 14th century, in a defensive system that comprised two gates and 12 towers.
Bastogne’s walls were pulled down at the behest of Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century, after which the Porte de Trèves became a prison.
The gate suffered damage during the Siege of Bastogne and was reconstructed after the war.
On the northeast and southwest sides are small traces of the city walls.
11. Place Général Mc Auliffe
Something to take in on your way around Bastogne is the main square, which was renamed after Anthony McAuliffe following the Second World War.
There’s a bust of the man on the square’s southern corner, before a preserved M4A3(75)W Sherman Tank “Barracuda”, from the 11th Armored Division.
Also here is the last marker for the Liberty Road, a 1,146-kilometre commemorative way on the course of the Allied advance in 1944 following D-Day in June of that.
And finally, you can get yourself oriented at the Maison du Tourisme a few steps from the tank.
12. La Foire aux Noix
It’s a happy convenience that Bastogne’s historic festival in mid-December should be called the Walnut Fair.
As it happens, La Foire aux Noix goes back at least as far as the mid-19th century.
As part of the ritual, couples who had married in the previous year would head to the balcony of the city hall to throw walnuts into the crowd to earn good luck for their households.
After the war this tradition mingled with thanksgiving ceremonies for the efforts of the Allied troops in the Battle of the Bulge.
So over the weekend there are military events and re-enactments, including a procession and flower-laying ceremony, as well as a parade of military vehicles.
On the Saturday afternoon at 16:00, you can watch the climactic walnut-throwing ritual at the “Jet de Noix”.
On one day at the end of April Bastogne is taken over by one of the five “Monuments” of the European professional road cycling calendar.
As one of the “spring classics”, there’s no doubt that Liège–Bastogne–Liège is among the toughest and most prestigious races in the sport, crossing the Ardennes along a 250-260-kilometre course.
What makes the race so gruelling is its unbroken succession of long, steep climbs, adding up to around a dozen in total.
The most famous of these is the Côte de La Redoute, which has appeared in most editions and has an average gradient almost 9% with slopes of more than 20%. Inevitably, the man with most wins in the history of the event is the great Eddy Merckx (five), ahead of Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and Italy’s Moreno Argentin (four each).
14. Memorial Day
Falling on the last Monday in May, this American holiday remembering and honouring military personnel is also an important date in Bastogne’s calendar.
Every year there’s a solemn ceremony at the Mardasson monument, and a customary wreath is laid at the Foy American military ceremony up the road.
This usually takes place on the first Saturday after Memorial Monday.
This event has been observed since 1946, when the Belgian-American Association sought a way to pay tribute to American veterans, and its war dead and missing.
The ceremony is attended every year by Belgium’s American ambassador as well as numerous other dignitaries.
When we wrote this article in early 2020 preparations were being made for a 75th anniversary event, incorporating a Reconciliation Ceremony on the Friday.
15. Guided Tour
If you’re on the trail of the Siege of Bastogne and the wider Ardennes Offensive there’s a lot of sights to keep on your agenda and a lot of information to take on board.
If you don’t want to miss a thing, it might be worth getting in contact with one of the tour companies based in Bastogne (Reg Jans Battlefield Experience, Battle of the Bulge Guided Tours). On an individual tour you’ll be in the presence of an expert local historian who knows the terrain and is able to separate fact from fiction, laying out the stark reality of the Siege of Bastogne.
This might be particularly valuable – not to mention moving – if a member of your family served in the Ardennes in 1944-45, as the guides will be able to trace the exact movements of each unit more than 75 years later.