Okay, so that’s a little bit of a lie. There is some Brussels in this post. Just not a lot. As the one bit of Belgium that I’m familiar with (apart from a very brief foray to the North Sea at Knokke), I think I’ve written enough about it. This is going to be a post about exploring some of the more distant corners of Belgium instead.
It’s been an odd year for holidays, 2017. Very much in opposition to my usual habit, all my trips so far have been in company and to places that I’ve already visited. Hence, I haven’t really written them up, seeing as I already said most of what I wanted to say the first time around. This trip was also in company, in this case of a Brussels-based friend of mine, but it did take me to new vistas, hence it’s worthy of a post.
Let’s skip quickly over the Thursday flight from Dublin to Brussels, courtesy of a scarily punctual Aer Lingus, and the somewhat underwhelming burger that tided me over until my friend escaped work. Likewise we can skip most of the Friday, except to say that driving a hire car through the centre of Brussels when you’ve fallen out of the habit of driving manual-shift vehicles and don’t have a fully functional GPS system is just a little bit scary. Certainly for me and probably also for those trying to interpret my struggles to decide which way I needed to turn at any given moment.
The car safely parked (courtesy of Brussels’ convenient city-centre parking system, which saw me return to it every two hours to adjust the parking ticket), I just had to wait for my friend to escape from work. Once he managed this, we were on our way, and having a navigator in tow, together with Belgium’s excellent highway system, made for a much smoother experience once we escaped Brussels itself.
Our initial goal was Bastogne, heart of the action during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The siege of the small town was celebrated during an episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers, and my friend being something of a military history nut, this was a place he’d been wanting to visit for years. Given that it’s also at a higher elevation than Brussels and that we were visiting at the start of December, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find one particular adornment to the town when we arrived in the darkness: snow. In MacAuliffe Square in the heart of Bastogne, a bust of the eponymous general and a Sherman tank (with a couple of nasty holes in it) were liberally covered in the stuff. Bastogne on a December Friday night was a tough place to get a drink though, so after a nice steak dinner in Hotel Leo, we retired to our lodgings above a filling station and awaited the next day’s explorations.
Saturday dawned clear but with plenty of snow still covering the ground. Breakfast was accompanied by plans, most of which had long since been made by my travelling companion. Despite the snow, the roads were well cleared, so we headed for Bastogne’s War Museum. There, the story of the Battle of the Bulge – how it came to happen and what it was – is told from the viewpoint of four civilian and military participants, who you only learn at the end were actual people caught up in the battle. It’s an impressively comprehensive tale, well told, with plenty of relics from the battle, up to and including yet more tanks. Outside, in the snow, we had a chance to look around the Mardasson Memorial, where the U.S. Army units involved in the battle are impressively commemorated on a memorial that also lists all of the U.S. states, plus Hawaii and Alaska, which weren’t states at the time.
A short drive afterwards brought us to the nearby Bois Jacques (Jack Woods), where yet more tramping through the snow eventually saw us locate the foxholes of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, still visible where they were dug more than seventy years earlier, overlooking the village of Foy. With the sun shining through the trees all around, it wasn’t hard to imagine how the experience of being there in the midst of battle might have been. Though to be fair, our winter weather was relatively mild, and we didn’t have German infantry and panzers bearing down on us either.
A short walk away, albeit one that involved some backtracking when our path turned out to be too waterlogged, lay the Bois de la Paix (Peace Woods). Here in 1994, veterans of the Battle of the Bulge gathered to dedicate a memorial in the form of a forest. Each of the veterans has a tree dedicated to them, and we were more or less alone in the pristine snow as we took the whole thing in. Some sizeable tracks progressing erratically around the area suggested we’d just missed a particularly enthusiastic dog enjoying an outing in the snow, but there was no sign either of that or of the overly prepared German tourists we’d spotted in the parking lot.
A return to Bastogne brought us to the Bastogne Barracks museum, where we were hoping to enjoy a tour, but as it turned out we were late – the museum is still a manned barracks and one can’t just wander about. So instead, we hopped in the car and headed across to Houffalize, a town caught in the coils of a twisting river and its steep-sided valley walls. Here there had been some fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge, and here was a particular prize for my friend: a German Panther tank. Or at least it should have been there. Instead, after some confused wandering, we found the place where it was supposed to be, only to find that it had been taken away for repair some months before – to the very place we’d just left, the Barracks Museum.
So instead, we found a nearby pub, the oH Rock, where we had a quick drink (water for me) and crisps and were curtly told that the snow and chill wind didn’t amount to actual cold weather. Be that as it may, the drive home saw us faced with a freezing fog that reduced visibility to as little as ten metres at times. Again, Belgium’s good quality roads eased my driver’s worries, but I was still happy to take my time on the way back to Bastogne.
Back in town, we had time to wander around and have some heavy burger-based sustenance to make up for the cold weather, and to enjoy the Christmas lights, which put Dublin’s to shame in terms of their extravagance. Beyond that though, there wasn’t much left to do in the day. We had a couple of beers in the Nuts! cafe – the oddly-glassed La Corne du Bois des Pendus for preference – and then retired in preparation for the next day’s exploring.
The night added a further dusting of snow to the already solid covering, but it was only a light dusting. Having marked 2pm as the time to return to the Barracks museum for the tour, we headed out to explore, first to Manhay, where my friend found something to make up for the previous day’s disappointment: another Panther tank, this one sitting beside a roundabout and covered in a healthy coat of snow. Some impressive photo opportunities later, we retired to the car to warm up again and drop into a nearby Spar for snacks.
We had time for another visit, so we headed further afield to La Gleize for an even rarer prize. Not a Panther, but a massive Tiger II tank, or King Tiger depending on which name you prefer. Back in World War II it was a terrifying sight. Now covered in snow and perched on a hillside in a tiny town, it’s a little incongruous, but its sheer size and the sight of the dents left by the ineffectual attempts of other tanks to pierce its hide make it worth seeking out.
Back to Bastogne then and the Barracks museum. We arrived dead on time and settled into a small group of American, Dutch, and Irish (us) tourists for the tour. Our guide was a Belgian veteran soldier who was all to keen to call “bullshit” on myths about veterans and war but proved to be an enthusiastic and engaged guide to the Battle of the Bulge and the barracks themselves, where the 101st Airborne were headquartered at the time. The first part of the tour, after an introductory overview of the battle, took place in the barracks themselves, where dioramas show off how the soldiers lived at the time. The second part, for my friend, was the greater prize. The museum is now also a centre for the repair and maintenance of World War II vehicles (the reason the previous day’s Panther had been taken there), and while our Sunday visit meant that we couldn’t view the repairs in progress, we did get into the massive warehouse where dozens of tanks and other military vehicles are stored. These range from the huge Soviet IS-3 to the tiny Hetzer and a two-man Renault tank with no armament at all.
Once my friend had been persuaded to leave this treasury, we had a long drive ahead of us. The sun was already going down, and by the time we’d gone too far it was dark, but as we descended out of Bastogne we left the snow behind and hit the broad, smooth tracks of Belgium’s motorway system. Three hours on this took us from east to west, from the border of Luxembourg to the fringes of the North Sea. The land became flat and featureless, but with Google’s help we found our way to a small town called Poperinge. Here we had some fast-food burgers in Frituur du Tram and a quick drink in Oude Vlaenderen, but there wasn’t much in the way of atmosphere, and when we went in search of more, we found that the town on a winter Sunday night was as close to dead as a town can get. In the town square, there was one pub with some superannuated customers and another occupied with policemen belting out such hits as “YMCA” loud enough to be heard several streets away, but given a choice between that and dead, it seemed like a good idea to head back to our lodgings.
Waking in the Palace Hotel, we had enough time to enjoy a pleasant breakfast and seek out some nearby pastries to sustain us further before driving off. If Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge were something that my friend had been wanting to experience for years, being in Poperinge was something that I hadn’t wanted to miss. Why? Well, it’s just down the road from a place called the Saint Sixtus Abbey. This abbey, isolated among the flat fields of Flanders, makes beer. Not much of it per year, compared to Belgium’s other Trappist abbeys, but what it does make is acclaimed. Its Westvleteren 12 brew has been called the world’s best, and its Westvleteren 8 and Blond are not to be sneezed at.
Why come to the abbey to get the beer? Because there’s no other legitimate way to do it. Apart from a few years ago, when the abbey sold some beer on the general market to finance some necessary repairs, they only make enough to fund their continued existence. The way to get it is to phone them up (on a line that’s almost always jammed) six weeks in advance and show up on the day to collect a maximum of two crates each. There is an alternative – the In de Vrede cafe across the road sells beer over the counter and its shop sometimes carries boxes of beer for those who turn up on spec. Having utterly failed to secure beer on the phone, showing up early on a Monday morning seemed the best chance we had.
Long story short, it worked. We bought as much of the 12 and 8 as we could (the Blond wasn’t available that day) and loaded it into the car, then sat back to enjoy a few glasses in the cafe. Well, my friend enjoyed most of the three glasses that we bought (one of each kind) – given that I was driving, I contented myself with a few sips of each one, enough to reassure myself that our long journey had been worthwhile. Moral of the Story: put the effort in and you’ll get what you want, but it helps to get up early in the morning and hope for the best too.
The last leg of our journey took us back from the abbey to Brussels, dealing with some of the worst excesses of Belgium’s love of motorways. Convenient they may be, but if you aren’t exactly sure of where you need to go and when you need to switch lanes, it’s all too easy to find yourself backtracking to return to where you’d intended to be in the first place. Eventually though, we arrived back at my friend’s place, unloaded our booty, and then dropped the car back to Brussels Midi with not a scratch on it – always a worry until it’s sorted.
The rest of the day was spent in rest and preparation for the week to come. I had dinner and a drink with another friend, but while a few days in the fresh air and a lot of walking may refresh the soul, it tends to drain the body a bit, and I was glad enough to get back to my friend’s place to rest for the night.
One day remained, and I wasn’t inclined to stay in bed for too long. Some exploration and attempted shopping on behalf of others preceded a belated breakfast in the Jat cafe, where my friend joined me on a break from his work. When we parted, I had one last fun exploration to enjoy: a tour of Brussels’ Christmas market, which extends from the Bourse de Bruxelles to Place Saint-Catherine. It’s a fine market, with an abundance of stalls and an impressive Ferris Wheel at the far end of Sainte Catherine, but the real stars of the show were two of the wildest carousels I’ve ever seen. Instead of gaudily painted horses, these featured instead dinosaurs, pterodactyls, rockets, hot air balloons, and an oversized mechanical beetle. While I didn’t go for a spin myself, I found myself wishing that some of my nieces and nephews were around so that they could have a spin in my place.
That last bit discovery was the end of it though. I dropped by the Brew Dog cafe beside the Central Station for a drink, then hopped on a train right to the airport. Even with the doubled-up security at Zaventem, I was there in plenty of time, as is traditional for me, and got to rest up before boarding. Of the flight, there’s not much interesting to say, so let’s call a halt to this here. It was a great extended weekend in Belgium, seeing parts of the country that I hadn’t encountered before, and between the snow of Bastogne and the deep ditches and flat lands of Poperinge, there was plenty of variety to enjoy. Add to that a store of fine beer that I’ll get to enjoy just as soon as I arrange to have it transported to Dublin and it’s a trip that’ll keep me happy for a long time to come. Not a bad result at all.