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.

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