I decided on a change of pace for this trip. I could have flown to the Netherlands in an hour from London, but the stress involved in airports creates a journey full of angst and worry. So, I ventured into the world of the overnight ferry and what a joy it was.
From Harwich International train station, it is a simple stroll to the ferry terminal where, much to my surprise I found very few people. Foot passengers were thin on the ground, which made going through customs a breeze. No clear plastic bags with only 100ml bottles here, no officious security men emptying your carefully packed bag just a friendly smile and a cheerful nod and I was on board.
My cabin was bright and larger than I expected with a giant porthole window. The en-suite had a good-sized shower. I was on deck 11 so it was only a short walk down to deck 9 for dinner before we sailed. The night ferry allows you to board at 8.30pm which gives you plenty of time to settle in, have a meal and get to bed before she sets sail.
The Metropolitan restaurant offers waiter service and white tablecloths. A three-course meal costs £32, smoked salmon followed by a good Scottish steak and three cheeses. The wine list is short but good and my Malbec went down a treat. If you’re in the mood you can while away an hour or two in the bar, watch a movie in the small cinema or even try your hand at roulette. I was ready for my bed, which proved very comfortable.
I woke early while we were still at sea so had time for a buffet breakfast. The restaurant was a hive of activity. Then we docked at Rotterdam and foot passengers were off quicker than the walk from a plane to the baggage reclaim.
My travels through Holland were trouble-free. The trains were on time, very clean if not brand new and everyone speaks a bit of English. Getting to Arnhem only took a couple of hours on the train.
Arnhem is surrounded by national parks and as if I was in a living cliché everyone was cycling around with shopping in their baskets (those who didn’t have small dogs in them). Sonsbeekpark even has deer roaming battling for cuteness with rabbits and squirrels. It’s a small town with a big heart. The reason for my visit was to see the tribute to the Allied Forces during the struggle for the bridge, Arnhem’s most famous landmark.
Operation Market Garden was in military terms a failure. On 17th September 1944, 35,000 British, Polish and American troops were dropped via gliders and parachute into the surrounding area in an attempt to take and hold the bridge at Arnhem long enough to allow the land forces to push through German lines. Beset by bad luck; lots of the communications equipment didn’t work, two German SS Panzer divisions were hidden in the surrounding fields and crucial supply failures all added up to near disaster.
Expected to hold the bridge for a couple of days the Allied forces experienced considerable resistance and fought hard to make it as far as Arnhem. Cornered and exhausted of supplies along with a failure of the advancing forces to relieve them, they withdrew after a week. Amazingly either side didn’t destroy the bridge during the battle and it still stands today.
Every year to mark the anniversary the town mounts a series of events. A floating pontoon with an orchestra that played to an audience on the riverbank was this year’s highlight. The weekend was full of marches, memorial services, wreath laying and a spectacular drive by of over 200 WWII vehicles from tanks to jeeps. They even recreated some of the airdrops outside town. The Airborne at Arnhem Museum just near the bridge tells the story well.
The old town is closed off to traffic and is very walkable. Plenty of independent shops offer a slice of hipster fare in the fashion quarter Modekwartier as well cool bars and eateries dotted around the centre. Frites Atelier by Sergio Herman a 3* Michelin chef is worth a look in. Small and simple in concept he sells frites and a few ‘sauces’ along with different mayonnaises including truffle. More than a snack but not quite a meal it hits the spot.
Café Vrijdag (café Friday) is great for a glass of wine or a meal. It’s very laid back and relaxed (something they have down to a fine art in Holland) and a great wine list.
Over breakfast I heard a Canadian voice exclaim that her “wish had come true”. Harriet, an elderly lady from Nova Scotia who had entered a Wish of a Lifetime competition to visit the resting place of the father she never knew. He had left for war before she had been born and died during Operation Market Garden. With help from the organisers she had been taken to the spot where he died and where he was buried. Harriet discovered that he had saved somebody’s life and had been awarded a medal. Such is the pull of the region that people travel far and wide for many reasons.
Arnhem and the surrounding area continue to be indebted to the Allied Forces failed attempt to break through the German lines. There is much love and respect from the people here. Of the 35,000 troops involved in Operation Market Garden nearly half lost their lives attempting to secure it. The bridge was eventually saved after fierce fighting but at a high cost. Much of Arnhem was destroyed in the process but has largely been rebuilt.
The area offers other attractions too. Nijmegen is a short train ride away and was part of Operation Market Garden. It is also the oldest city in The Netherlands and has historic roots that go as far back as the Romans. The Valkhof Museum is the best place to discover the history of the area.
This is an interesting region of Holland with a tremendous WWII history. It also happens to be rather beautiful, as most of the city and surrounding areas have been rebuilt in their original style. Getting there was a joy on the ferry and if travelling to this part of Europe again I would take my car to allow further discovery although the trains are very good and reliable.
Return fares start from £148 for two adults and a car. Return fares for a family of four starts from £178. Additional adults costs start from £15 and children (between four and 15 years old) from £7.50 one way. Foot passenger prices start from £36 per adult and £18 for a child. Infants (under four years old) travel free of charge. Cabins start from £17 per person each way.
Stena Line offers twice daily, seven-hour return crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland Rail and Sail option starts from £55 one way, ferry travel and train. Stena Line’s Dutchflyer rail-and-sail service allows customers to take any Greater Anglia service to Harwich, and then on to any Dutch city of their choice.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass