Belgium, WWI and Beer

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Dad is a beer nerd, to say the least. He loves the stuff. Loves drinking it, talking about it, learning about brewing it, seeing hops grow…. if it has to do with beer, He’s there. When we arrived in Germany, everyone was talking about the “Best Beer in the World”, and he knew he just had to get some!

Westvleteren 12 is a beer that the Monks at Saint Sixtus Abby in Belgium brew. It’s amazing, and also, impossible to get. If you want some, you have to wait until they open up their phone line, call in, hope you get through, and then give them your license plate number. Only after you do that, do you have the privilege of getting in your car, driving the abbey in the Belgium countryside, to buy it. This is the only way to buy it, although if you want to have a glass, you can also do that at the cafe near the abbey.

When Hubby told me he wanted to do this, I was less than thrilled. I pulled up a Google map only to see that this abbey is 5 hours away! To make matters worse, it didn’t look like there were any towns really worth visiting near it. With three small children there was no way we were going to make it in one day, and we are going through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University right now, and I didn’t want to budget it in, and I don’t even LIKE beer…. and…. you get the point. I didn’t really want to go. Not this week, not for beer. But, I am a sucker for his big brown eyes and boyish charm! I planned the route, booked some hotels, and off we went.

We drove north through Klon so we could go through Maastricht in the Netherlands on our way to Belgium. Maastrict is (arguably) the oldest city in the Netherlands. It has a beautiful medieval city wall, with a canal around the city, cute little cobblestone streets, and it was already decorated for Carnival festivities. Maastricht is two hours away and was beautiful- while we were in the car! Since this was our first stop, I hadn’t quite registered how COLD 10 degrees F is. We made it less than an hour before the kids (and me too!) were in tears. I was so cold I felt like my face would crack when I tried to speak! The Netherlands is NOT the place to go during the coldest week Europe has had in years.

Once we got in the car, Mr. Man was crying and begging me to “speed to Africa!”. I looked at our plans and realized the next stop I had planned was also on the northern end of Belgium, Antwerp. Forget that! We decided it would be better to go to Brussels, hoping it would be warmer.

Brussels was beautiful. We only had an hour there because of our pick up time at Westvleteren, so we drove straight to the city center and jumped out of the car. The first thing we did was get our hands on some Belgium chocolate… and OH MY GOSH it is every bit as good as its reputation. We wandered around, explored the city square and enjoyed the sights.

We allowed an extra hour to get to Westvleteren, and it’s awesome that we did. The people in Brussels do NOT know how to drive. Lights, lane markings, cars being in the way- apparently meant nothing to these people. It took us an hour to get out of the city center due to a crash in the tunnels and people driving like maniacs!

The drive to Westvleteren was a bit nerve-wracking. Flanders is filled with construction right now as the area prepares for an influx of visitors during the WWI centennial. Once we figured out how to get there, we pulled up with just a few moments to spare and were the only people at the abbey.

St. Sixtus does not allow visitors to walk around the grounds or enter the abbey. Seeing the brewery would be impossible, but the secrecy is part of the intrigue. I think Hubby and I were both equally giddy as we pulled up to the pickup point and waited for someone to come out.

We were hoping it would be one of the monks, but it turns out they employ a few civilians to deal with the beer fanatics. The monks are not keen on all the attention they receive, as they have been said they “brew to live, not live to brew”. The beer is sold only as a means to support the monastery, and any remainder is used for charitable works. They do not increase production to meet demand, do not give interviews, and avoid anything that takes away from their religious works. They are one of the few remaining Trappist Breweries in Europe.

Once we had the beer, we realized the shop nearby was closed until Saturday, so that meant another change in plans so Hubby could pick up a Westvleteren glass to add to his collection. We headed over to the next hotel in Brugge to spend the night and figure out what we should do next.

Brugge was stunning. Our hotel was only 500 meters from the historic city center. In the winter, it was empty to tourists. Brugge is a canal city, with enough Belgium charm to make anyone fall in love with the whole country. The canals were frozen over and the trees were bare, but the architecture was stunning regardless. We stumbled into a cathedral (my first in Europe) and I could have died it was so beautiful. Even the kids were quietly admiring the stained glass and gold plated sculptures.

The next morning, we enjoyed Belgium waffles (Denny’s should be ashamed to claim they sell Belgium waffles…. these ones are so much more sweet and fluffy and …. ah…. wonderful!) and headed off to our next destination. I was sooo disappointed when we pulled up the next hotel. It was quite literally in the IKEA parking lot in Gent. I’m sure Gent is awesome, but we didn’t really give it a chance once we stopped at IKEA.

Hubby ran into the hotel to cancel our reservation, and I jumped online in their lobby to book a new reservation. I checked the map back to Westvleteren, as we still wanted to go back for the glass, and picked the first town that looked like it would have a place to stay nearby: Ieper (Ypres). I grabbed the first hotel that could fit our “large” family, took down the address, and headed off again.

The view from our “Hotel”- the Menen Gate

Ieper, it turns out is right smack dab in the middle of Flanders Fields and is home to the largest WWI memorial in Europe for soldiers with no known grave. The inscription on the memorial reads, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. There are over 54,000 names on the gate. Every night, the city of Ieper comes together for the Last Call ceremony. They play the bugle and give a moment of silence for all those who lost their lives at Flanders Fields. They lay wreaths of Poppies at the memorial to remember them, in the spirit of the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The “hotel” I booked turned out to be a house, right at the Menin Gate. The owner, Benoit, the chairman of the Last Post Association. The home was stunning, we had access to the whole house, with a separate bedroom for the kids. It was full of history, old war posters, collections of bugles used at the Last Post, old Rifles. We explored the town and then joined everyone under the Menin Gate for the ceremony. Benoit’s wife came to find us in the crowd, and brought us to the center to stand by him during the ceremony.

That night, he showed us around the house, and shared with us some of the history of the war and Ieper. Benoit, and everyone we met in Ieper, took the mission of remembering the soldiers who fought there to heart. Everyone was so proud of their city which had been built back up from reparations money after the war. Some of the repairs took as long as the 1970’s to complete, so this war is still very much in the memories of the residents. Benoit left us with a tourist book, a lot to think about, and a promise that he would come back the next morning with better maps.

The next day, he came back with maps and encouraged us to explore the area, pointing out the cemeteries and monuments along the way to St. Sixtus Abby. We had a full list of things to see as we waited for Westvleteren to open!

Our first stop was the American Monument, which falls right in the middle of “no man’s land” between the trenches. Standing in the field, you would have never known it. It was nothing but farms and fields, and was the perfect calm winter morning in the country. We added our poppy to the wreaths already laying on the monument to the American soldiers who lost their lives in that field, and headed to the nearby trenches.

Bayernwald was 5 minutes, if that, from the American monument. To get inside, we had to stop by the tourist office and pay a small fee for the access code to the fenced in plot of land. We were the only ones visiting that morning. The trenches are currently being repaired to allow for people to see them safely; some areas had rotting wood, others were simply holes in the ground. There was a sign posted warning us to be careful, as they do not want to compromise the integrity of the historic site by adding guardrails. I had also been warned to be careful as we explored as every day, more shells, human remains and other unexploded remnants of the war are uncovered in the area.

Of course, I hadn’t thought much of the warning. As I was helping Hubby get Miss Em into a baby carrier, the boys were running around in the area where we parked. I looked up to see them kicking what looked like a log, and did a double take right as Hubby said “they are kicking a SHELL!”. An unexploded shell. I ran over to them yelling and waving my arms, and acting like a total lunatic…. Which resulted in two, unexploded little boys in tears.

We explained to them very sternly (read: I yelled!) that you do NOT kick ANYTHING you find on the ground in a battle field. Heck, you don’t kick anything ever. And you do not move or breathe without permission. You don’t do anything, ever, anywhere, without ME, ever, ever again.

Once we got that issue cleared up, we headed over to the trenches. I must have made an impression on Mr. Man, because the poor kid panicked, and cried and begged me not to take him into the trench because he didn’t want to “get blowed up”. Poor baby. I carried him anyways (mean mama) and he warmed up quickly.

The trenches were about 5 to 6 feet deep, and two feet, maybe 3 at most wide, at their widest area. There were multiple concrete bunkers and dug out spots still in good condition. The old “Duck Boards” at the bottom were rotting in areas not yet repaired, but the spots that had been fixed allowed a foot and a half of space to walk on. There also were wells that they had placed a protective cover over so people would not fall in. The bunkers themselves were just tall enough for Mr. Man to stand up in, but Bug had to bend over to go through them. I didn’t go inside at all, as I would have needed to crawl on my hands and knees.

I can’t imagine living in a place like that for months, if not years at a time. Standing in the trench, with my kids running and laughing on the quiet peaceful morning…. It’s not something I can put into words. Bug, in all his innocence turned to me and asked “Mom, if they were fighting a war down here, they died down here, didn’t they?” Even a small boy could figure out the significance of the trip. We explained to him that’s why we laid our poppy down earlier, to remember the men who fought and died in this place. He thought about it a moment, and then went on skipping and laughing.

I didn’t so much feel like skipping and laughing, but I am so glad that we went. After Bayernwald, we headed on to the next town, Poperinge. Poperinge was a place for soldiers to go for short breaks from the trenches. It was a place to relax, but for some men, instead of finding a small amount of peace, they were put to death. 300 plus men, now thought to have been suffering from shell shock, were put to death in the center of town for abandoning their posts. We didn’t stay long in Poperinge, Hubby and I both got a bad feeling from the place, and the people were not friendly, so we headed out quickly! I don’t know if it really was an unfriendly place, or if it were just us. In the town’s defense, we parked near a cathedral, and as we got out of our car, funeral bells began ringing. As we walked to breakfast, we passed the hearse as they pulled out the coffin. At breakfast, we read about the executions. Stuff like that doesn’t make you want to hang around.

Talbot House in Poperinge, A place for the front line soldiers to relax

We decided that was enough war and death for the kids (and us too!) for the morning. We turned our attention back to Belgium Beer, and the rest of the day flew by. We headed back to the Abby café for Hubby to try the other two types of beer the monks brew, the “8” and their Blonde. They were wonderful, according to him. (I wouldn’t know, I can’t bring myself to drink the stuff, even the best beer in the world makes me want to turn up my nose!)

On the way back, I had him stop at Oostvleteren’s own craft brewery, De Struise Brouwers. De Struise is also locally known as one of the “best beers in the world” and as their production expands, you can expect to start hearing about these guys. We waited on the street for them to open the doors, and then they did, we were surprised by the number of people who lined up! Hubby was skeptical at first, but I think by the end of the visit, he was sold.

Our Favorite Restaurant in Oostvleteren (It may be the only one, the town is so small!)

Over all, the trip was a total success. It was nothing like we had planned due to all the changes we made along the way, but I have to say, it was the best trip I had ever been on. In three days time, I was in three countries; I spoke some German, some French, and learned a small amount of Dutch and Flemish. I ate Flemish Stew, Belgium Waffles, German Sausage and French Sandwiches. I can’t believe the opportunities we have to see so much history right in our back yard. All the complaining I’ve done about moving overseas? Yeah, I take it all back. I’m ready to extend and spend the rest of our time in the military overseas!

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