Fri, Dec 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Site of World War II battle reborn as hot tourist spot

AP , La Roche-en-Ardenne, Belgium

Sixty years after the Battle of the Bulge reduced it to rubble, the "pearl of the Ardennes" is shining again.

Squeezed between its hilltop medieval fortress and the serpentine River Ourthe, the little town has rediscovered its pre-World War II fame as a thriving tourist center. Its population of 1,400 swells tenfold with summer visitors attracted by the charms of the Ardennes forest. It epitomizes a peaceful, uniting Europe reborn from the ashes of war.

"Tourism has seen an extraordinary boom," says Mayor Jean-Pierre Dardenne. "Hardly a week goes by without the Town Hall getting a request from somebody wanting to open a new bed-and-breakfast."

Sixty years ago, the Ardennes' valleys, trout streams and rolling hills were the scene of Hitler's last gamble.

In December 1944, his panzer divisions smashed through the forests, catching the Allies by surprise and driving the front westward in a "bulge" that ran deep into Belgian territory. It took a month to push the Germans back.

La Roche was seized by the Germans on Dec. 20, then razed by US bombing raids before a pincer action by US and Scottish troops finally liberated the town on Jan. 9. Almost one in 10 of the locals were killed.

"The Americans smashed everything," remembers Jeanne Fourny, 83. "It was necessary of course because they chased out the Germans, but we didn't really enjoy it at the time."

Nowadays, La Roche's location is bringing people back.

"We have space here, which others don't have, where people can just get away to breathe freely for a couple of days," says Dardenne, pointing out that 66 million Europeans live within 320km of La Roche.

Although incomes in the Ardennes are lower than in the rest of Belgium, Dardenne says the region is fast catching up. With tourism replacing farming as the economic mainstay, the population is growing faster than in the rest of the country.

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