Visiting a German bunker from World War Two

World War Two, AntwerpBelgium had it tough in World War Two. Unlike in the First World War, when the Belgian army stubbornly held on to part of the nation and its allies rallied to beat the Germans, in the second war the Low Countries and France were quickly overrun by a German army that now enjoyed superior military technology.

Occupied Belgium was soon covered with fortifications. The Germans feared an Allied landing and dug in. In a park on the outskirts of Antwerp you can see a network of these bunkers at the Bunker Museum.

Not many tourists make it here. In fact, my taxi driver had to call ahead to get directions. Those who do make the journey will be rewarded with a rare look at the life of the German soldier in World War Two. There are eleven bunkers, including barracks, a hospital, a communications bunker, and two large command bunkers.

One of the command bunkers has been turned into a museum. The entrance, shown here, clearly shows the two-meter-thick concrete walls. The roof is 2.5 meters thick. Inside are recreated sleeping quarters, displays about the war around Antwerp, and a large collection of parts from the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

My tour guide was Pierre Koreman, one of the museum caretakers. He was a young boy during the war and clearly remembers the day in 1943 when an American bombing run went astray and destroyed much of Mortsel, the town near Antwerp where he lived. Two schools were destroyed, but the third, which he attended, was spared. A total of 943 civilians were killed. Koreman showed me a letter of apology sent by one of the American airman.

“They had nothing to apologize for,” he said. “They just did their job.”

The intended target was the Messerschmitt airplane factory, where Koreman’s father worked as forced labor.

“He was the biggest saboteur there,” Koreman told me proudly.

He wasn’t the only one. The factory was supposed to test Messerschmitt engines. The workers discovered that the oil they were using separated at high temperatures, making the engine seize up. Of course they didn’t bother telling the Germans that.

“Instead of running the engines they played cards,” Koreman informed me with a smile.
World War Two, Antwerp

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Antwerp was liberated by British, Canadian, and Polish forces on September 4, 1944, but there was no fighting around the bunkers. This has left them in a good state. When the museum started they were completely empty, but careful research and collecting material from other bunkers has allowed the caretakers to give visitors a clear picture of how they operated.

Technologically they’re very impressive considering they were built more than 60 years ago. They have temperature control, filtered air, a system to keep the air pressure normal, generators, telephone, and radio. All this combined with the high-tech remains from the German rockets on display really brought home to me what a massive waste the Third Reich was. With all that effort and ingenuity they could have gone to the Moon. Instead they wrecked Europe. Luckily there was a generation of heroes to stop them, both on the battlefield and through quiet acts of resistance like Koreman’s father.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Fine dining in Antwerp!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Madrid daytrip: a Renaissance castle and Spanish Civil War bunker

Madrid, madrid, castle, castles
Madrid has a lot to offer–tasty tapas, wonderful wine, and amazing art. There’s so much to do in the center of town it’s easy to spend your entire vacation there without ever seeing the outskirts. Yet several daytrips offer a different look at Spain.

One possibility just opened up last year. Near the Metro stop Alameda de Osuna on the outskirts of town, the city government has recently opened a Renaissance castle and a Spanish Civil War bunker.

The castle is called Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, and it guarded an important road between Madrid and the city of Alacalá de Henares. Alameda was a village back then; Madrid was barely a town. The castle was home to the local duke and was built in the 15th century when Spain was becoming a major empire. It was improved in the 16th century and is a good example of a small Renaissance fort. A deep stone-lined moat is the first line of defense for a thick square fort with towers at the corners. Cannons and men with matchlock rifles would have defended the walls and it would have been tough to take. Sieges at the time were deadly affairs and the attacking army preferred to try and starve the fort into submission. The defenders made sure to have plenty of food stored up and some sieges lasted for a year or more.

You can find out more information at Castillosnet, including a handy Google map showing how to get there. The website is in Spanish but if you hit the little British flag at the top it will put it through Google translator, always an amusing experience.

The bunker stands right next to the castle, on the brow of a low hill with a clear field of fire across what would then have been open countryside. Madrid was under siege for much of the Civil War and many such bunkers remain. You can see several when hiking near Madrid.

While the city of Madrid is working hard to restore the castle, it still needs a lot of work. An ugly fence surrounds the place and gets in the way of the view, plus the park next to it is filled with trash and dog shit. Reconstruction on the castle isn’t complete and parts of look like a building site. The castle and bunker are open Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 10am to 9pm. Admission is free. The Metro stop is about forty minutes from central Madrid at the end of Line 5. While the place isn’t ideal, it’s well worth a visit for any history buff.

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12 underground tours around the world

Sometimes there’s more to a city that what you see above ground. Several cities around the world sit above underground labyrinths just waiting to be explored. Budget Travel has put together a list of some of the best underground tours around the world.

In Paris, you can tour the sewer system, in Berlin, check out a hidden world of bunkers and tunnels used during World War II and the Cold War, and see the remains of the older city (which the new city was built upon) in Seattle. Other cities with tours that take you underground include Vienna, Rome, Seoul, Portland, Naples, New York, Jerusalem, Edinburgh, and Istanbul.

And to Budget Travel’s list of spots with unique attractions below ground, I’ll add two of my own. Most visitors to Chicago don’t realize that the city has it’s own network of underground tunnels, called the Pedway, that connect many of the city’s government buildings and allow people to travel between them without suffering in the bitter winter cold. And in Logrono, in Spain’s Rioja region, the area underneath the town is actually larger in area than that above, thanks to an extensive network of tunnels that were once used for defense and are now used as wine cellars.

When we visit a new city we generally spend a lot of our time looking up, gawking at the tall buildings. But, it seems, maybe should pay a little more attention to the wonders just underneath our feet.

Zero Star Hotel opens in Switzerland fallout shelter

Fallout shelterOh, Switzerland.

In a subterranean fallout shelter in Sevelen, Switzerland, the Null Stern Hotel, biliing itself as “The World’s First Zero Star Hotel” is preparing to open its crappy, crappy doors.

“Null stern” actually means “zero star,” which is a little relieving. They’re being clever, not insane. Normally, this is a cultural misunderstanding we have with Norway. Maybe we’ve misjudged Switzerland.

The Null Stern Hotel will cost between 6 and 18 euros per night, and includes former bomb shelter facilities, no daylight, slippers, earplugs, communal bathrooms and showers, and a butler (there was one in the photo shoot, I’m not sure he’ll be there when you show up).

We don’t know why they get earplugs.

The Null Stern hotel will open in early 2009, but recently opened up to volunteers for a test run. See the photos here.

What to do in Sevelen? I don’t know. But at least you know there’s a bomb shelter where you can stay. If you can read German, here you go.

For sale – one underground bunker in London

Feeling a tad paranoid? Is the downward spiral of the economy becoming too much to handle? Why not relocate to London and move into your very own underground bunker complex!

The Kingsway tunnel bunker complex was originally built as an air raid shelter and as a spare war room for the British government.

After the second world war, the tunnels were handed over to the Post Office who used it as a telephone exchange. When the phone exchange switched to automated dialing system, the bunker became obsolete again and has been on the market since 1996.

The bunker is a whopping 77,000 square feet, which is more than enough for your average bachelor pad. In its original state, it was large enough to provide shelter for 8000 people. Unfortunately you’ll need a spare 5 million pounds (almost 9 million dollars) before you can move in.

Some of the ideas being floated around for the bunker include a car showroom (HUH?), a snooker club or a firing range.

According to the current owners (British Telecom), the structure is unsuitable for conversion to a hotel or office, so that rules out that concept. Personally, I think it would make a fantastic museum.

If you are interested in buying the complex, or if you just want to learn more about the Kingsway tunnel and other underground structures, I suggest checking out the fantastic site of Subterranea Britannica who have been documenting the Kingsway tunnel for years.