2013 – The 99th Anniversary of the Start of World War I

It’s not getting too much attention yet, but August, 2014 marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of WWI. On this trip, it will be interesting to learn of what events are planned in Europe for next year.

There’s an interesting website which is already memorializing this somber anniversary.  Check it out at http://www.1914.org/why_remember/

Recall that WWI was actually the major cause of WW2 and the two wars were only 21 years apart.  So, there were many soldiers and civilians directly involved in both wars.  For one, President Harry Truman fought in WW1 as an artillery gunner in 1918 and then dropped the atomic bomb to end WW2 in 1945.



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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The sun rose again to illuminate our early morning drive along the rolling, hilly farmland from Chateau-Thierry back to Charles De Gaulle.  Paul and I were anxious to leave this strange, dirty village with it’s creepy townsfolk and begin our long journey home to Madison, Wisconsin.  Well, a long journey by 21st Century standards.

Fortunately, our one hour long drive was uneventful, and with the sun at our backs, we made it to the airport and through Hertz return processing.  We were going to bitch about the crappy Magellan GPS for a credit but didn’t have the energy.  We had larger concerns, like getting Paul’s bottle of Calvados through security in carry-on luggage.  Ramsi Yousef and security won, so the Calvados was destroyed by French authorities one glass at a time.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Morning at Hotel du Sud was pleasant with the omnipresent owners preparing le petit dejeuner for guests.  While Paul and I were eating, Isabelle came to our table and showed us family pictures taken months after the Battle of the Bulge.  Isabelle and her sisters were photographed sitting atop a destroyed Sherman tank.  You don’t see stuff like that in history books.

We took one last tour of the immediate area and found the building location for the US aid station that was bombed on December 24, 1944, killing 30 US soldiers and nurse Renee Lemaire.  There’s a plaque commemorating this event.  I think she’s been nominated for sainthood because of her sacrifice.

We said our goodbyes to Bastogne and hit the autoroute for Soy, about an hour to the north and into much hillier countryside.  We were able to easily identify the brewery by its ghostly signage.  We walked into an empty, quaint establishment except for the female barkeep who explained that she’s a friend of Danny the owner.

Danny arrived soon after, not immediately introducing who he was, until he stood up abruptly and said he would provide us a tour.  Fantome’s production area consisted of a single brew kettle, housed in a ramshackle building strewn with old equipment and debris.  Bottling and labeling is located in an adjacent room.  In spite of the dilapidation of the brewery itself, it had a distinctive charm.

Back in the bar area, we sat down to another Fantome masterpiece, when, through the window, Paul noticed windswept, white smoke swirling around the outside of the building.  We walked outside and saw that the chimney was on fire!  Strangely, at that same moment, our beers in hand outside of Fantome, a beautiful Belgian woman appeared through the smoke, and Jeff was momentarily distracted while Paul responsibly tried to deal with the situation at hand.  I came to my senses and noticed that our car was parked very close to the building and so I decided to move it across the street and out of harms way.

Danny was walking around and indicating in French that all was well.  But it wasn’t.  He stepped back inside and moments later came rushing out, yelling “Appelez les pompiers!”  Call the Fire Department! They eventually came from the next town over and put it out.  It appeared that the damage was isolated to the chimney stack itself and no damage was done to the roof or building structure.  Whew!

We bid our goodbyes to Fantome and continued on our route to Orval.  Along our sun-drenched drive, we saw a monument to an American war hero and another Sherman tank proudly displayed in a town square and quaint villages all along the hilly route towards the Orval monastery.

The restaurant at Orval was located a short drive from the monastery in a valley of lush green rolling hills.  It was busy and we sat down for a beer before heading over to the monastery itself.  The grounds are spectacular, but we decided to refrain from doing the tour itself – it just seemed too touristy.  That didn’t stop us from hitting their gift store where the full marketing prowess of Orval was on display with all of its branded paraphernalia from key chains to glassware.  We love Orval, but it’s bit too much in that respect.

So, to recap, our trip started with WWII (Normandy), then back to WWI (Ypres), then WWII again (Bastogne), and now back to WWI (Chateau-Thierry)!

Continuing on our drive back towards Paris, we chose Chateau-Thierry somewhat arbitrarily for our last night’s stay.  With Paul’s handy iPad, just released prior to our departure, we did a bit of research and learned that it played a significant role in the America’s late involvement in World War I.  In fact, the American Expeditionary Force, led by John “Black Jack Pershing fought the Germans in the town in July, 1918.  The month prior , the Battle of Belleau Wood , located just a mile west took place between the Germans and the US Marines.  It was bloody hand-to-hand combat to the death.

Our evening was spent touring this village which wasn’t as nice and clean as all the Belgian villages we had visited the past week.  It was full of graffiti and dirty.  Our dinner was strange because the otherwise perfectly acceptable restaurant served Andouille Sausage which almost made us hurl!

We took it in early on account of the fact we had to rise early and hit the road west.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wow, another morning of brilliant sunshine!  We spent the day kicking around Bastogne checking out various points of interest including the large Mardesson Monument to America’s critical role in the battle of the Bulge. Shaped like a five pointed star, it has inscribed on its walls the story of the Bulge for posterity.

(Paul – memory not serving me well here.)

In the evening, we searched for the church of Renee Lemaire, the Angel of Bastogne, whose story was featured so poignantly in Band of Brothers. It turns out that the church was located just behind our hotel, but we were also looking for the area that served as a first aid station, but to no avail. (In Band of Brothers, the church served as the first aid station, but this is incorrect according to eyewitnesses of the event.  Rather it was a small store that was converted into an aid station.)

Upon our arrival back at the hotel, we could see our drinking mate in the bar and we again passed the evening drinking Ciney Brunes with him, as he pulled out a poster of the 101st Airborne which was signed by returning vets in recent years.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In the morning, we awoke to bright sun and a wonderful breakfast in the hotel cafe, after which we walked from the hotel on a convenient bike path which took us straight north to the village of Foy which was prominently featured in HBO series Band of Brothers.  We were able to locate a monument to the 101st Airborne near the Bois Jacques, where the paratroopers were shelled by the Germans stationed in the village of Foy.  The foxholes are still there!  We then walked the same line that the US soldiers did when they attacked Foy and successfully displaced the Germans in the last days of the Battle of the Bulge.  What an amazing history in this small, remote village that has changed little since Winter 1944.

A short mile to the northwest of Foy is another small village called Recogne.  What’s intriguing about this place is that there is a beautiful, haunting German cemetery here, where they buried vanquished Germans 3 to 4 soldiers per grave.  Also, there is a monument to a former American cemetery that was disinterred in the 1950′s.  Cows now graze the field where 3,000 Americans were once buried and were later moved to other cemeteries in Luxemburg or back to the States.

We walked the 4 miles back to Bastogne and thus earned our first beers of the day, which included my first La Trappe, at a quaint bar tucked into a side street off the main square.

Next, we had an early dinner of burgers and fries at Cafe Le Nuts and conversed with an American couple who was touring Europe.  The husband was on leave from the Middle East and a soldier in the 101st Airborne.

We passed the evening back at Hotel du Sud drinking Ciney Brunes with the male proprietor.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Morning in Iepers.  And, of course, more sun!  Gloomy weather may be appropriate for touring World War I battlefields, but clear, sunlit skies are always preferred.

Nonetheless, a great day to head to the World War I Museum right on the main square, only a few blocks from the Old Tom Hotel.  It’s called “In Flanders Fields Museum” (after the famous poem), and it’s housed in the stunning Lakenhalle building, otherwise known as “Cloth Hall”.  (Ypres was known for it’s fine woolen cloth and was the center of the Flemish weaving industry.)  The building was started in 1200 and took a hundred years to complete.  It stood majestically until early November, 1914, when the first German shell hit the building.  By April, 1915, German howitzers and “Big Bertha” tag-teamed to lay almost complete waste to the building, leaving only remnants of the belfry tower walls standing.  This became the iconic image of the war’s destruction, not only just for Ypres but for all of Europe.  Interesting fact:  Ypres and Hiroshima are sister cities.

They have a great website: www.inflandersfields.be.  In person, your entrance ticket bears the name/picture/bio of an actual person of the era from the beginning to the end of the war. Then you proceed through the museum’s multimedia experience from life before the war, it’s causes, escalation, battles, weaponry, poison gas, etc., to it’s aftermath and at the very end learn if your person survived or not, and if so, what became of them after the war.  As far as museum’s go, one of the best experiences you’ll have.  By the way, the US National World War I Museum in Kansas City is on par with this one.

Next, we checked out a place just a 10 minute drive east of Ypres called Sanctuary Woods – which is kind of a creepy, weird, demented touristy place.  But, unlike many such places in the USA, this was authentic, nothing is pretend here, because this is the very heart of World War I misery.  Apparently, the story is that the grandfather of its current owner was a farmer who, upon his return to his land after the War, decided to keep a portion of it as it was during the war and open to tourists.

Now back to beer! And not just any beer, but St. Bernardus, one the best breweries in the world and located only 30 minutes west from Sanctuary Woods.   We asked at the front desk for a tour, and at first, we didn’t get the impression that it would be possible.  However, the Sales Manager arrived and gave us an outstanding tour of production and inventory of the new brewery which is located next to the original grounds of the facility.

Next, we drove to the small  enchanting Flemish village of Vichte and the Verhaege family brewery that makes Duchesse du Bourgogne and Vichtenaar, both legendary Red Flemish Ales.  The Verhaege family member that greeted us shared that he wasn’t set up nor had the time to give us a tour.  So, Paul and I settled for the next best thing, which was a local watering hole which we believe was also owned by the Verhaeges.  The bartender was very friendly and accomodating and we drank Duchesse, Vichtenaar and a few others.  He was gracious enough to give us both a couple glasses and coasters to keep.

We were in fine driving shape – truly, because we always mind the drinking and driving – to continue on our pilgrimage, this time to St. Remy, Belgium, home of the Trappiste Rochefort brewery.  We got a little lost on the way, but eventually arrived.  No brewery tours.  An old monk told us to go around to the only area accessible to the public which was the church – Zzzzz.  Still, it was neat to see yet another legendary Belgian Trappiste brewery.  The hills in eastern Belgium – the Ardennes Forest  - are in sharp contrast to the flat fields of western Belgium.  These same hills were significant factor in the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944.

At sundown, we drove into Bastogne, again with no reservations, but confident that we’d find a hospitable place to stay and we found it – Hotel du Sud.  Located just on the the northwest side of the Centre Ville, it was a quaint hotel owned by a charming couple.  The hotel was established in 1930, and when the Germans invaded in 1940, promptly shelled the building, so it existed as a pile of rubble through the end of the war, until the family rebuilt it after the war.

We roamed around the village for a bit, where one clearly notices the huge American influence, including an aging park memorial to General Patton just to the south of the main square which was the route by which he ceremoniously entered Bastogne on December 26, 1944.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

After our first Belgian-style continental breakfast at our hotel – again a brilliant sunny morning – we ventured back into the center of Brugge.  What a gorgeous city - it’s got everything an enlightened tourist would want in a sophisticated yet comfortable European city - including Cuban cigars!  We found a great cigar store with a stylish gentleman and snagged (2) Montecristo #2′s and (2) Partagas’ for the evening – more on those later.

Then, we hit the road to Iepers or Ypres – whichever spelling you prefer.  As usual, we set the GPS for the “city center”, almost always the best option for lodging, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc.  We parked in the main square and found our hotel as recommended by our beer book: The Old Tom Hotel.

Ypres was a town at the very center of major action in World War I and was utterly destroyed, later rebuilt to look the same as before the war. It was our hub for the next few days of World War I history and Flemish beer.

After securing our nice room overlooking the main square, we headed directly to the Saint Sixtus Monestery in Westvleteran. This is one of the seven Trappist Monesteries still brewing beer in the Trappist tradition, but the only one that doesn’t export. If you want to drink their beer, you go visit them! The drive alone through hop fields along narrow roads is nearly worth it. You can’t actually visit the Monestery, but across the street is their own cafe when you can sit outside and enjoy all of their beer along with light snacks. We got their somewhat early and had our pick of tables outside, but as we sat and enjoyed all three of their beer styles the “beer garden” filled to overflowing. This is a popular place, and people visit from all over the world. The beer is very good!

We also visited De Struise Brouwers brewery in nearby Oostvletern. These guys make some of the richest, darkest, strongest stouts around, brewed in the lambic style of open fermentation. We chatted with one of the head brewers, Carlo, for an hour as he served us several of their beers to sample, each with its own interesting origin story.

That evening we enjoyed a nice dinner outside at The Old Tom and headed to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony, which has been happening daily since 1927. Truly something to behold, as many people gather to remember the 55,000 missing British soldiers from World War I.

Afterwards, we decided to torch our Montecristo #2s at our hotel’s outdoor cafe.  It was Paul’s first M2, and he was already sick of me saying how this was absolutely my favorite cigar in the whole world.  So, Murphy’s Law ensured that his experience would be the polar opposite.  His M2 unraveled, canoed, extinguished multiple times before he gave up halfway through his miserable experience.  The only way it could have been worse was for it to have burned his lip.  I’m not sure what the problem was with his M2, mine was perfect.  Actually, I know exactly what the problem was:  Cuban cigar quality is not what it used to be and it’s inconsistent from cigar to cigar, even within the same box of a great label.  Too bad we weren’t still in Brugge, because we would have gone back to the store, and I’m sure the gentleman would have happily obliged Paul with a new cigar of his choosing – well, except for a Cohiba Siglo 6, maybe.

Monday, May 17, 2010

We awoke to a cloudless, deep blue sky and brilliant sun radiating the western hills of Port-en-Bessin which we had climbed the night before.  After petit dejeuner in the common area of the hotel, we were off in the direction of Belgium.  But not before visiting the massive German guns at Longues-sur-Mer!  There are four of these monsters (150mm, with a range of 12.5 miles) which were characteristic of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.  Installed in Spring, 1944, they were bombed in the early hours of June 6, two were out of action early that day, but one of them fired until evening.  They were captured D+1.

Continuing on our drive east, our next stop was Arromanches.  This picturesque seaside village was the site of a British engineering marvel.  They pre-fabricated a harbor in England, including these massive concrete caissons which they floated across the channel and then filled with water and sunk to create a break water for an artificial port harbor. (you can see them still at Google Maps, Satellite or Earth view).  We walked up the hill for a great view from the west side of town.

One could spend weeks in Normandy, but after three days we’re now off to Brugge!

On our northeasterly drive, I realized that we’d not had a drop of rain.  The toll roads take all major credit cards which is very convenient, because you go through them every 20 miles or so.  Once we arrived in Brugge, we randomly parked and after a bit of searching for hotel options, we returned to our first choice.  We dragged our stuff up to the top floor, and then promptly headed back down the stairs and out for an evening of massive beer consumption.  (Our car was parked for the evening and Brugge is a great stumbling…er, walking city.)

Using a small tourist map, we made our way into the heart of the city. Twenty minutes later we were standing in the Markt square, surrounded by wonderful old buildings and of course home of the Belfry Tower. Under the tower are several frites stands where you can get freshly-made frites and your choice of sauce.

First order of business was to find a bar with a nice beer selection. We walked around for a bit but all of the bars along the touristy routes in town have only a few of the standard Belgian fair. We wanted more variety. Eventually, I remembered we had brought a copy of Tim Webb’s excellent Good Beer Guide Belgium, where he had specifically circled the t’ Brugs Beertje as a must-visit location. We found the bar in a narrow alley a short walk from the main square, and made it our home for about six hours.

The Beertje was full of people from literally everywhere. We overheard groups of people from Japan, the UK, the US, and some unidentifiable places during our stay. The bartender, Martin, was very helpful and always found a nice beer for us a try, from their ample selection of common and exotic Belgian beers. Some of the beers we tried that evening include a dry-hopped Saison Dupont that was on tap, Black Damnation from De Struise Brouwers (who we would visit later), Taras Boulba Blonde, Cuvee de Ranke, Val-Dieu Grand Cru, and a Brugge Zot to finish up the night. We spent a few hours chatting with some great chaps from the UK, Guy (the drayman) and Tristan. We lost all track of time and when Martin flipped the lights on about 1am we bid everyone a good night and began our trek back to the hotel.

The city was absolutely dead quiet as we made our way back, which was very surreal. Fortunately. I had my little map and enough cognition to interpret it, as we stumbled through dim alleys and brightly-lit but sleeping boulevards. Jeff (who could have been thrown in the brig for public intoxication) pretended to be a paratrooper storming the town, ducking from opening to opening with his invisible rifle at ready, demanding “Captain Sobel” read the map properly. Normandy had obviously made a big impact on him (along with the alcohol).  Fortunately we made it, and not too worse for wear!