WB-Day+6: The road to Bastogne

I’m writing this on our 4 hour trip from the Mereville Battery, Normandy, to Chimay, Belgium, our second Trappist Brewery after Westvleteran.

We spent the last 3 days driving up and down the D-Day Invasion areas, from St. Mere Eglise to Benouville. This is my third time to the area and I’m still amazed at the immense scope of the undertaking, and of course learning new things.

One of the two new “experiential” museums we discovered was the 360 Experience in Arromanches – a very emotional depiction of the invasion and liberation of Normandy using surround sound and 360 degrees of real war footage. The other was a fantastic sound, light, and smoke “show” in a real gun encasement in Mereville.

Wine is the drink of choice in France and there isn’t much of a selection of beer, and every one you can find is relatively clear and tasteless. Things should get more interesting now as we enter Trappist Country in eastern Belgium.

B-Day +1: A Comedy of Errors

The company that rented us the mobile wifi hotspot that was supposed to liberate us, royally screwed us. After figuring out they had sent Jeff a UK SIM, we bought a prepaid data SIM only to discover the unit itself was defective. We thought oh well we’ll put it in Jeff’s iPhone, but of course it didn’t fit because we didn’t think different ™ enough. We wasted many hours (and euros) dealing with this and are going to ask the company (TEP Wireless) for a full refund, plus extra. They haven’t returned our requests for support or even answered their phone so they are a huge “avoid”!

That aside, we walked through Bruges (and our second day of light rain) to the train station and caught a train to Gent for the day. We underestimated the distance to the Gent Centrum and ended up doing too much walking. Poor Glenn’s metal hip was hurting like crazy but he was a trooper. Eventually we stumbled across the central part of town which is chock full of beautiful, *massive* churches. In the past you could simply walk into any European church you came across, but now many of them seem to be under renovation and are either closed to the public or charge some kind of “admission” (or “tourist”) fees. Since we had spent far too long walking we headed first for Het Waterhuis a/d Bierkant (hi Matt!) for some beer.

Het Waterhuis a/d Bierkant is situated right on the canal and set back a bit from the street. We hunkered down in the nearly empty upper room, looking out over the canal and enjoyed several fine beers we had never heard of from their ample menu.

Since I had no wifi yesterday (damn you TEP!!!!!!) I will summarize our first day in Belgium. We met up with Jeff at the Zavantam (ZAVANTAM!!!) in Brussels, and after a thorough reaming by the car rental place and several (dubious) misunderstandings about the number of drivers (we eventually sprung for all three of us, just in case), we headed out. Thanks to Ambien and a glass of wine I actually managed to sleep more than 5 minutes on a long haul flight (I think I managed at least 4 hours) so I offered to drive our first leg to Bruges.

Our brand new Volvo came with a fancy GPS so we routed directly to Brugge center. This was Glenn’s first trip to an ancient European city and we enjoyed his reaction as we wove through the narrow cobble streets. We found a random spot a few blocks off the square and headed off in a random direction looking for something to eat and drink and came across De Halve Maan brewery, makers of Zot. Glenn and I had the Flemish Stew (hi Erin!). They had free wifi so we found a really nice (it turned out) hotel north of the square using Kayak. We checked in, then headed into Bruges Centrum looking for beer.

Unfortunately, it was a bank holiday and nothing was open.

Just kidding! We hit De Garre, the Bertje, had pricey moules frites right on the square, then spent the rest of the evening in the The Basement (de Poote’s). Glenn fell in love with this place despite the slippery stone stair under the old church. It’s a popular place amongst beer-seeking tourists and young, well-built local coeds (hi Jill!).

We crashed about 11:30 and all got a solid 8 hours. Off to Ip/Ypres, St. Sixtus, and St. Bernardus tomorrow!

Two weeks to go!

Hedgehogs at Utah BeachHow time flies! Only two weeks to go.

For you WWII fans living vicariously through us, here are some of the key locations we’re planning on hitting:

  • Bénouville (Pegasus Bridge)
  • Caen
  • Sainte-Mère-Église
  • Sainte-Marie-du-Mont
  • Brécourt Manor
  • Utah Beach
  • Saint-Côme-du-Mont
  • Carantan
  • Pointe du Hoc
  • Maisy Battery (visit lined up with owner’s son)
  • La Cambe German war cemetery
  • Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer
  • Omaha Beach
  • American Cemetery
  • Colleville-sur-Mer
  • Arromanches-les-Bains (and battery)
  • Bastogne
  • Foy

Glenn, are you excited yet?

 

One month to go

Foxhole near FoyWe will be adding several new WWI sites to our trip this year while near Ypres, in Flanders. Jeff has been doing a lot of research on the area and we should be able to find some interesting fields to hike through.

We also have some exciting beer-related events lined up. We will be staying a night at the B&B at the St. Bernardus brewery near Watou. We also have a special visit lined up with La Chouffe.

Oh, and here’s a test photo for the new gallery plugin.

It’s on – 2013 War & Beer tour coming

Jeff and I have been planning a return to Europe since the day we returned back in 2010, and it looks like this May it’ll happen. We’ll have a group of 4 this time, including a good friend who hasn’t been to Europe yet. We actually met playing WWII war games online, almost 10 years ago, so this should be an exciting adventure for all of us.

This time we’re going to fly into Brussels and take a counter-clockwise route through Flanders, Normandy, and the Ardennes, with many stops along the way. We have two more days as well, so we should be able to pack more in or take a more leisurely pace, depending on how we’re feeling.

More route information to follow.

Ypres/Iepers

Ypres or Iepers, or, as the British soldiers called it, “Wipers”, is one of a few Belgian villages that defines the utter devastation of World War I.  Even today, nearly 100 years later, you can feel the war’s impact on the village by simply roaming its charming rebuilt streets.

Iepers laid on the Germans’ path to conquer France (it’s just 45 minutes driving from the French city of Lille), and so they surrounded it and shelled it continually from 1914-18.  By war’s end, it was a pile of rubble.  (Ieper’s sister city is Hiroshima.)  It was completely rebuilt in the 1920′s, and fortunately wasn’t again destroyed during World War II!

A trip to Europe to learn more about World War I wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Iepers.  The battlefields around the village saw the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers - German, English, French, Belgian and Canadian and fewer Americans than other parts of Belgium and France.  The Menin Gate is a memorial – an evening ceremony held every night at 8pm – to the 50,000 missing English soldiers – a testament to the large number of casualties experienced by all nations involved in the Great War.

Sainte-Mère-Église

The purpose of the midnight airborne operations (Operation Neptune) which preceded the early morning amphibious landings of D-Day (Operation Overlord) was to capture key towns, access roads and bridges, so that infantry forces could progress further inland with minimal German resistance or counterattack. The 82nd and 101st American Airborne Divisions were tasked with securing and protecting the right flank of the allied landing forces of Utah Beach.  Heavy cloud cover and intense German anti-aircraft fire caused the majority of the paratroopers to miss their intended drop zones, many not able to locate their units until days later.   Sainte-Mère-Eglise was one of a number of towns strategically targeted for capture that morning, because it was on a major route that the Germans would have used for a counterattack.  In fact, it was the first town liberated on D-Day, at approximately 5am.

A dramatic situation occurred in the center of the town, as 82nd Airborne paratroopers who missed their dropped zone just west of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, landed around the town’s main square and church.  A bucket brigade of French locals was putting out a house fire on the east side of the church, the fire itself illuminating the area sufficiently for German and Austrian ground troops to shoot at and bayonet landing paratroopers.  One soldier, John Steele of the 505th PIR, caught his parachute on the spire of the church and dangled for a couple of hours pretending to be dead.  The Germans took him prisoner after which he escaped to rejoin his division.  The event was recreated in The Longest Day.

Sainte-Marie-du-Mont

Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is a quintessential Normandy village just a couple of kilometers south of Utah Beach.  A beautiful, centuries old church is at the center of town and it was a key landmark for both sides in the conflict for control of the village.

It was quite unremarkable in terms of major D-Day events, but that is probably what makes it so appealing; it’s like so many other French hamlets, villages and towns in this region.

That’s not to say Sainte-Marie-du-Mont isn’t full of stories and experiences of the fighting forces on D-Day.  You have to go there to experience what it was like to be a paratrooper of the 101st Airborne Division roaming the village in the early hours of the invasion.  Going from street to street, house to house in search of the enemy.  The village walls around the centre ville are full of historical markers and plaques telling these individual stories of D-Day.

Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer

Upon your first visit to any stretch of Omaha Beach, but especially at Colleville and St. Laurent-Sur-Mer (site of the American Cemetery), if you do not, as an American, at least have your eyes well up with tears, then you are truly made of stone.

It’s more an experience than something you read or watch a movie about, although Saving Private Ryan comes the closest to visually depicting 6:30AM on D-Day.  I’ve been there twice and still cannot get my head completely around what happened here.  American combat soldiers typically don’t share much, except long after it happened, and only in small doses, and usually just the good times. Omaha Beach was so awful that it was rarely shared by those who lived through the experience.  It was such a mess that they still don’t have accurate casualty statistics, but the latest research puts the estimate at approximately 3,000 dead, wounded and missing after a single day of combat along a 5 mile stretch of shoreline.

St. Laurent-Sur-Mer is a small village at an area called “Les Moulins” – an apocalypse depicted in the The Longest Day.  The main Omaha Beach Memorial, Les Braves, is on the oceanfront, a beautiful stainless steel structure fanning toward the sea and sky.  So, with that, watch all the movies and read the books (including D-Day by Stephen Ambrose), and then go there.  If you have a teenage son, bring him too.

Saint-Côme-du-Mont

Saint-Côme-du-Mont is more sigificant for events that took place on its periphery rather than in the central part of the town.  Just south of the centre ville is an intersection called Dead Man’s Corner, with a building at its intersection, significant because it was the command post of the elite German paratroopers led by Major Friedrich Von Der Heydte.  A tank column arriving from Utah Beach (from the road on the right in the above photograph) was attacked by the German defenders at this intersection.  One of the tanks was immobolized by a Panzerfaust and the commander lay dead, hanging partially out of the hatch, for days as Allied troops passed by on their way inland.

Also, the causeway leading south towards Carentan, the old N13, is known as “Purple Heart Lane” after the heavy casualties experienced by the 101st Airborne in attacking German positions along the road.  It was the site of the first bayonet attack of WWII led by Lt. Col. Robert Cole, which earned him a Medal of Honor.