Pictures From Day 8

We left the B&B to make our trek to the Ardennes forest, specifically around the towns of Foy (pronounced Fwa) and Bastogne. There’s a pretty substantial German cemetery outside of Foy, which we stopped at. Unlike the one we saw earlier, this one is a bit more chaotic in terms of how the markers are placed, and many of the plots hold up to 5 soldiers each. Also, names were inscribed on both sides of the markers, which I’ve never seen before. After that, we headed to where the 101st Airborne held the line during the Battle of the Bulge.

The forest is protected land, so nothing has really been touched at all, meaning that many of the foxholes that they used during those days in the Ardennes are stiil there. We roamed the forest for quite a while, and I walked all the way down to the end, which opens up overlooking the town of Foy, which is the field that the 101st ran across to finally liberate the town from the entrenched Germans. We even found a small memorial to the men of the 101st, so we lit a couple of candles while we were there. Seeing sites like this bring so much perspective to what I’ve only heard and read about in the past.

We then headed to Bastogne, and we had planned to stay there for the night at the Hotel de Sud, since Paul and Jeff had stayed there before and loved it. The museum was closed for a huge expansion, but the 101st Airborne memorial was a treat to see. The story of the Battle of the Bulge was told on the walls, and you could climb a spiral staircase to walk around on the top if it as well, giving a great view of the surrounding areas. We went into town and headed to the hotel to check in, and to meet Miss Isabel, who was 6 years old when the Nazis rolled-in to Bastogne. After walking around a bit, we found the Patton Memorial, which they’re now building apartments about 6 feet from it, which was a bit disheartening. The town has a lot of references to the battle though, and to their liberators, which they show a lot of love for even to this day.

Before dinner, we had been told by both Chris from La Chouffe and from Paul from Inter-Pol, to visit the guys at the La Trouffette, a small brewery not far from Bastogne. We explained who sent us, and the guys took nbo time to set us up with glasses full of their phenomenal beers! Seriously, these guys know what they are doing, and they told us that their “Christmas beer” would soon be coming to the states via a distributor in Austin, Texas (get on that Matt V!). It was also cool to be there, because we found out that the grounds we were on were involved in the WWII happenings, as the house was being used as a lookout post and lodging for the Germans. We were shown a section of the wall where a Sherman tank had blown a hole in it, from far out on the fields across from the home. It was said that the house burned for a month, and that the father had a picture that had been taken of the house by a P-38 on recon. Though since the house is built of stone and brick, it’s still there but had to be rebuilt on the inside.

We had dinner at Le Nuts (a reference to General McAuliffe’s response to the German demand of our “unconditional surrender” during Christmas 1944.) We had a humongous burger and a few beers, but at that point, I was pretty beered-out for the day. We retired to our room for the night to finish off the bottle of Calvados that we had.

Pictures From Day 7

Day 7 started in the quaint village of Lompret, and as you can see, it’s the town that time forgot. The stone hanging from the chain outside of the building is actually a cheese press, which I’ve only seen one other time in my life.

We were in the Chimay region, so we tried to hunt the brewery down to see if we could score a tour. We found the actual brewery, but were told that they have a different location for visitors. They gave us a brochure and we put the address into the GPS, only to find nothing but the Abbey itself. We roamed around the Abbey a bit, but every way we drove, we found nothing else. So, we said “screw it, lets get to the town of Achouffe instead.”

Paul had met Chris, one of the founders of the La Chouffe brewery, a couple of years ago, and Chris had a manuscript in French that he wanted translated to English. Jeff ended-up doing the translation, so when they found out that we were coming, Chris offered to give us a private tou, and then we got to move over to their beatiful tasting room, which is nesteled alonsgide a small pond. We drank with Chris, and enjoyed their beers heartily. We swapped stories, and even chatted some folks up that were actually from the states. Afterword, Chris walked us over to their cafe, where we had a few more drinks, some trout (Paul and Jeff did) and the famous Belgian meatballs I’d read about (they were fantastic!) It was one of the best days we’d had on this trip, and that wasn’t even the end of our day.

Isabel at La Chouffe had set us up to stay at a Bed and Breakfast very close to the brewery, and it holds its own brewery onsite, the smallest brewery in Belgium actually, Inter-Pol. The owners, Paul and Tina, were wonderful, and Paul gave us a quick tour of his brewery, the bar (a cafe’ on the weekends,) and then grabbed some of his beers for us to partake in that night. We drank a couple of bottles while talking to Paul, but he needed some rest. So we moved outside, where we ran into Gavin and Laurie, a couple from the San Francisco area that we’d actually met at La Chouffe earlier that day. After a few minutes, I got a fire going in the little beer garden that had recently been built. A great end to a great day!

By the way, the beers at both La Chouffe and Inter-Pol were some of the best I’ve had on this trip. It truly was an honor and privilege to meet everyone and to sample such great beers!

Pictures From Day 6

Day 6 took us to a couple more WWII sites in the morning, and then we made the drive back to Belgium from France. We headed first to the Pegasus Bridge site. This was an operation by the British to capture and hold a key bridge in the area, as it was vital to move forward from the initial landing zones. They swooped down in gliders, with some landing roughly 150 feet from their objective. The soldiers caught little resistance as the Germans were completely caught off-guard, although this did mark the first casualty of D-Day, but also marked the 1st building liberated on D-Day. The bridge itself was replaced in the 90′s, but they moved the original to a museum just over a small field. It’s an incredibly important event for the D-Day invasion, and remains a key historical site.

After that we stopped to check the Battery at Merville at the recommendation of Chris and Erick(sp) that we met in St Mere Eglise’. The bunkers were in pretty good shape, but what made this a nice site to visit was that they setup each bunker like almost mini museums, with different displays in each, ending with a pretty cool multimedia experience in a the largest bunker. It’s definitely worth visiting if you’re in the area.

On our travels back to Belgium, we chose to take more of the country roads instead of the expensive toll roads, and we happened-upon the town of Brie (which is also the name of the region, and yes, that’s where the cheese originated.) We tried to get lodgingin the town of Chimay but couldn’t, so we were pointed to a smal B&B in a town called Lompret, which is nestled in a deep valley about 5km from Chimay. It was a fantastic place, and such an incredibly charming town. We walked down to have dinner, and were pleased to see that Chimay was available for the equivalent of around $3 a bottle, and the food was fantastic as well. I’m convinced that we couldn’t have found a better place to stay for the night for sure.

Pictures From Day 5

The day started in Arromanches, France for breakfast. There’s a museum here, but we’d heard it was “more of the same”, so we headed up the hill to hit the 360 theater, which sits high on a cliff overlooking the town and the ocean. The theater is a complete 360 degree experience and was truly fantastic. Also, as you can see, the view was breathtaking.

We then headed to Point du Hoc, which was the Alliies’ number one target on D-Day. The nazis had released a film showing Hitler proudly taunting the Allies to just “try and take” this installation, and Eisenhower made it his mission to do just that. With the new evidence that’s been coming lately though (since a bunch of new records etc were declassified in 2004,) it’s looking more and more that the Nazis used Point du Hoc as a decoy, leaving the Maisy Battery complex untouched until a day or two after the initial invasion. It’s a beautiful site though, and one of the only sites where the bomb craters haven’t been filled-in, and they’re MASSIVE! It’s a sprawling network of bunkers, all located on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, and is definitely worth a visit.

We left there and stopped in a small village called St Laurent Marie. Jeff and Paul had stopped here a few years previous, and had met the mayor of the town, who gave them some pretty cool info about what had happened on D-Day in that area. The church, and the monuments in teh cemetery still show damage from shells and bullets, and when you go inside, there are a few of the stained glass windows that were changed after liberation. They depict the armies moving-in on the beach, and the paratroopers flying in to save the locals. It’s quite moving when you think about how this small town was affected by the outside world in such a terrible way,

From there, we headed to the American Cemetery at Normandy, which actually overlooks Omaha Beach. It’s tough to even describe what I saw, especially when you walk past the hedge rows only to see what looks like endless rows of crosses, all perfectly placed in rows and columns, as they stretch for what seems like eternity to the back of the field. A small chapel sits directly in the middle, and a massive memorial sits at the end, with a semi-circled wall where the names of all of the missing are placed. I was speechless as I walked slowly past all of the monuments, seeing where the men were from and when during the operation that they’d lost their lives. I don’t care who you are, walking through this field of fallen soldiers will affect you deeply.

After that, we stopped in Port En Bessin for a cigar and to check out low tide, as all of the boats in the water were currently sitting in the mud. There was a German batter atop the hill in this town, but British RAF Elite stormed and liberated the installation, but at a heavy price. The twon now though, is pretty much like any other port town, even down to the fresh fish market on the pier.

Our last stop was the battery at Longues Sur Mer, which is one of my favorite sites that we’ve seen so far. The biggest reason being that the original guns are still present, with two fully intact, a third partially damaged, and the last taking a direct hit from a shell, obliterating the gun and taking the back wall out of the bunker. There’s also a lookout and radar post right on the cliff, which we almost missed since it’s a good distance away from the main guns. It’s amazing to see how these were all built, and it makes me cringe to think of how loud it had to be in those bunkers when they were firing these huge cannons.

Tomorrow, we stop at the Pegasus Bridge and one last gun battery before heading back to Belgium. Talk to you soon!

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.

Pictures from Days 3 and 4

We drove a lot in Day 3, so I included the pics from Day 4 as well in this one. We stayed at the Bed & Breakfast at the St Bernardus Brewey (my favorite Belgian Beer,) and were treated like kings by Jacki. Then Marko gave us a quick tour of the brewery, showing us how they’re actually expanding operations. This place still works off of a single mash barrel still! It was great to meet some of the folks there, and the B&B was quite awesome. Then it was time to hit the road and head to northern France, and we were lucky enough to find a good hotel in St Mere’ Eglese, which is where some of the first paratroopers landed on D-Day. We hit the road for what would be about a 6 hour trip, and were hit with nastry rainstorms throughout the ride.

We checked-in to the room, then walked into town to get the lay of the land and a quick bite to eat. When we returned, we sat at the bar for a couple of beers, and met a couple of chaps from the UK. We chatted them up about our trip and theirs. which they were doing all on bicycle (crazy!) We all compared notes, which was great because they suggested a couple of places that we probably would have skipped otherwise.

In the morning, we hit the Airborne museum in St Mere’ Eglese, which had some pretty cool pieces. Then we checked out the beautifully simple church in the town square. If you’ve seen the movie “The Longest Day”, this is the church that Red Buttons’ character got hung-up on, and the actual soldier’s predicament is portrayed by a dummy hanging from the roof. Once we’d finished there, we headed toward Utah Beach, taking the back roads to get a taste of the scenery. This netted us a wonderful find though, as we came up right behind the beach, which was littered with German bunkers and emplacements. Even though the weather was nasty, we started climbing around the hills, and walked along the line of structures, seeing some truly impressive structures. They kept appearing as we drove along too, and a few that we stopped at were very impressive to experience. At the end of the road was the Utah museum, which we only roamed around the outside to see some of the memorials etc, plus, Carentan was next!

Many soldiers lost their lives heading into Carentan. There were only a couple of ways in, via what’s known as a ‘draw’, which are basically roads in small valleys leading all the way into town. The Germans setup machine gun nests and even cannons that were homed right in on these draws. One of these draws, where “Dead Man’s Corner” appears, was quickly deemed “The Purple Heart Highway” because of how many men were slaughtered. You don’t really understand what happened by simply reading about it, but seeing these draws, and how they flooded both sides of it to funnel the soldiers down a very narrow path that also included FOUR bridges to cross, it just had to be terrible.

Carentan was quite lovely, but yet again, the weather just didn’t play very nice. They have some informational signs around the town center, which filled us in on where some events took place, but one location we couldn’t miss was their church, which was built in the 15th century. It’s enormous and incredibly striking, with detailed craftsmanship throughout. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves though. It was interesting though that it just felt like an old castle or something, with kind-of a dirty, cold, and unforgiving sense. I’m so glad we got to see it.

Once we had a quick lunch, it was time to see the German cemetery at La Cambe. The feeling you get it so much darker than the others we’ve visited. Over 21,000 German soldiers are buried here, with most graves holding two men, one known and one unknown. In the middle is a huge hill with a statue atop it. It’s not just a hill though, but instead is a burial mound. It’s a beautiful site, and truly must be visited if you’re ever in the area. We were surprised to find out that it was originally an American cemetery, but they were all moved to the main site in 1948.

Our last stop for the night in terms of battle sites is one of the most interesting, the Maisy Battery. It’s a privately owned site that was only discovered in 2004, and holds a lot of answers to how things actually went down on D-Day. It was always understood that Point Du Hoc was one of the major defensive points and was the US Number 1 target. But this may have all been a strategic decoy, reinforced by propaganda films released by the Nazis. It’s being discovered now that the battery outside of Grandcamp Maisy was actually the regional HQ for many of the Nazi companies, and held over 800 soldiers and numerous structures, less than a 3rd to have been unearthed so far.

The theory (with more and more facts proving it) is that the Nazis made Point du Hoc out to look like they’re “prized jewel” to get the Allies to focus on it, but that the facilities at the Maisy Battery were actually one of the larger HQ’s in the area. The owner is releasing a book in November, with records and even accounts from 3 US Rangers that liberated the battery. We talked to Dan, the owner’s son, who gave us some astonishing info on the site and surrounding areas. This is definitely a book that I can’t wait for!

When we were done, we tried to find a hotel in Beyoux, but nothing was available, and we got a fair amount of attitude from the guy at the Hotel Churchill. Luckily though, we happened upon a great little place outside of Arromanches, where we had a fantastic dinner and restful sleep.

Tune in for more on our travels along the coast through Omaha Beach, Point du Hoc, and MUCH more. We saw some truly amazing stuff!

Pics from Day 3

On Day 3, we left Bruges and headed to Ypres, which was right in the middle of WWI, and was the site of over 500,000 deaths during the war. The city itself was shelled constantly for 4 years by the Germans, ending in the almost complete destruction of the city. After the war, the city was completely rebuilt, and as you can see, it’s absolutely stunning. We parked by the Menin Gate, which is the start of the road that the British walked down to get to the battlefields. In it are inscribed the names of soldiers missing from the war (over 55,000 soldiers.) After that, we toured a huge church, and then hit the Flanders Fields museum, which holds many artifacts of the battles in and around Ypres.

We left Ypres and headed toward Paschendale, and arrived at the Tyne-Cot cemetery, one that is incredibly beautiful while at the same time quite moving. After that, we came to the St Bernardus brewery, where we stayed the night at the Bed & Breakfast. At the moment, we finished a delicious breakfast and are now heading next door for our private tour. Enjoy the pics!

Day 2 Pictures

After walking about 5KM in Gent, we were treated to some stunning architecture and wonderful beers. Now we’re sitting in the same basement bar as last night, mainly because it’s fun and they have great WiFi :-)

Tomorrow, we’re leaving Bruges to head to Ypres and other battle sites, and staying at the Bed and Breakfast at the St. Bernardus Brewery!

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!

Our First Day

We all met up at the Brussels airport, only to find that the mobile hotspot wasn’t setup on the cell network, and that Avis decided that we didn’t pre-pay enough for our car…

Luckily, I noticed the huge screen in the dashboard, and pressed the button labeled ‘Nav’ and whaddya know, the car has built-in navigation! We headed about 100KM to Bruges directly, walked around a bit, and found the Half Moon brewery and restaurant. At the insistence of Erin, I ordered the Flemish Stew, and it was delicious. We had a couple of beers there, and found a hotel for the next couple of nights. We parked in the Hippo lot underground, and checked-in to our gorgeous room, which included 4 beds and a huge bathroom. After cleaning up a bit. We headed to the beer establishments here in Bruges, all under the cover of a steady rain, which is perfect for my new camera…

Paul knows the name of these places, but each has been incredibly charming and an absolute treat to visit. Two of them were hidden back in tight alleys, completely hidden from the tourists that roam the streets here. We’re now at a bar that’s Ben the basement of an ancient church, almost resembling a German beer hall, only smaller in stature. We’re all full of beer, and the other guys stopped to eat a 2 pound bucket of Mussels that smelled horribly of the ocean, we’ve had a lot of fancy and strong beers today, and when we finally make it back to the room, I’ll attempt to get some pictures ready to post right here. We don’t have free wi-fi at the hotel, so I’m not sure when the first batch will go up.

Also, I’m running on about 33-34 hours of no sleep, so. We’Ll see how far I make it. It’s been a lot of cool so far, and this is only the beginning. Tomorrow we’re catching a train to Gent for the day, and we’ll probably still hit some spots in Bruges tomorrow night if we’re not exhausted, Stay tuned for a bunch of pics as soon as I can get them converted and posted.