#Battlefields & #Breweries of #Flanders
Last Saturday, Jim and I joined a small group of Expats for a tour, Trenches & Trappistes. The itinerary featured two things for which #Belgium is known–#Beer and #Battlefields. Belgium is awash in war history and sudsy splendor. Perhaps this is an odd mix—honor and alcohol; maybe the correlation makes sense.
Our day centered on the Flanders’ countryside in an area of Belgium tucked up against France to the west and the North Sea to the north. We met up with our tour in the town of Ypres (Ieper), site of three WWI battles. Befuddled by French and Flemish, English-speaking troops called the town, ‘Wipers’.
The town’s current charm belies the fact that it lay in ruins at the end of WWI, it’s 13th century Cloth Hall reduced to rubble. Fortunately, the historic structure was painstakingly restored between 1933 and 1967. It’s now home to the #InFlandersFieldsMuseum which offers a great introduction to WWI. Over fifty thousand Commonwealth Troops killed in the war, and whose final resting places are unknown are honored at the Menin Gate. Each night at 8pm, the Last Post sounds as it has for nearly 90 years.
Living in #Belgium and being a fancier of history, I know that this tiny country, about the size of the US State of Maryland, has hosted more than its fair share of battles. Seems, not a year goes by without some anniversary of a major conflict. 2014 marked 100 years since the start of #WWI, much of that war fought on ‘neutral’ Belgian soil. 2014 also marked the 70th anniversary of the #Battle_of_the_Bulge, fought in Belgium’s Ardennes region. June of 2015 marks 200 years since #Napoleon met his #Waterloo at the eponymous town, today a suburb fifteen miles south of #Brussels. One can go deeper into history for more Belgian tragedy. 2015 marks the 320th anniversary of the bombardment of Brussels by Louis XIV in his war with the Hapsburgs.
In his Commentaries on the Gallic War, Julius Caesar wrote, “The Belgae are the bravest of them all.” Sadly, the Belge’s bravery has been tested for centuries. In her book, “The Guns of August”, Barbara Tuchman describes the incredible courage and fighting spirit of the Belgians during WWI’s first month of battle. In August 1914, outnumbered 34 divisions to 6, Belgian fighters held off the German invaders who violated their neutral land far longer than anyone thought possible. Belgian citizens paid a hefty price for enraging the Germans, the words, FUSILLÉ PAR LES ALLEMANDS inscribed on many a civilian tombstone.
As we left Ypres this past Saturday, our first stop took us to Essex Farm Cemetery on the western bank of the Ypres-Yser canal.
Exactly one hundred years before our visit, the site was a forward dressing station on the western front. The second battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915 is considered the first gas attack of the war, when the Germans used Chlorine Gas on Canadian troops. It was here, in May of that year that Canadian doctor, John McCrae penned his poem, In Flanders Fields as a tribute to a dead comrade.
In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, 1872 – 1918
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae’s poem inspired use of the poppy, still seen today, to honor war veterans.
Later in the afternoon we stopped at Vladslo Cemetery, final resting place of more than 25,000 German soldiers who never made it home.
A sculpture, #The Grieving Parents by German artist, #Käthe Kollwitz casts a somber shadow over the grave of her youngest son, Peter who died in battle in 1914.
Young people sent off to fight in foreign fields—history’s common and tragic thread. Regardless of one’s sympathies, a common soldier’s grave is a sad reminder of war’s human cost.
Recently, I came across a poem from one of my favorite English authors, Thomas Hardy. He wrote his piece, #Drummer Hodge for a casualty of a different war, a British soldier killed in South Africa during the Boer War. Yet Hardy’s images and sentiment of young, idealism wasted by war, and soldiers never to return home resonate in any foreign field.
Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest Uncoffined — just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the drummer never knew — Fresh from his Wessex home —
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain Grow up some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign His stars eternally.
A trench survives from WWI as tribute to the brave soldiers who waged the insufferable war of attrition. This memorial bears the ominous name, Trench of Death.
But our tour guide also promised us Belgian Beer. After so much reflection on the tolls of war, not a single one of us refused a sampling of Belgium’s best. I won’t attempt to review the beers we drank. Beer blogs too numerous to cite fill the internet. Chief among these is Ratebeer.com whose reviews turned many Belgian beers into the brewery equivalent of rock stars.
We had time for three visits. That’s probably all our systems could bear with some alcohol contents drifting above 12%. Click on the links below for more info on the fantastic breweries we visited.
1) Westvleteren Trappist Brewery Where you can combine peaceful devotion with a lust for beer. By certification, “trappist” brews must be brewed on monastery property and monks must be involved in the process. 6-8-12 isn’t the prayer schedule, but the alcohol content of their yummy brews. We tasted beer in their cafe over lunch and even caught a very peaceful prayer service officiated by white-robed monks. Monasteries began brewing beers at the time of the Crusades, permission granted by the catholic church for fundraising purposes. Sure beats B-I-N-G-O.
Production is limited, although rumor has it that the monks have been busy brewing more to pay off a recent addition. The day we were there, they were even selling the 8% brew in the cafe–in brown, unmarked bottles of course–tres chic! To deal with the high demand, once the monks announce a production, a hotline is initiated for orders on a first-come, first serve basis. License numbers are tracked to prevent cheats from absconding with someone else’s stash.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that these were the most cheerful monks I’d ever seen.
Dolle Brouwers Oerbier was founded by two brothers in 1980. Along with Chouffe Beer founded two years later in 1982, Dolle Brouwers is credited with beginning the Belgian beer renaissance. One of the brothers stopped to chat and take a picture with us. He’s fourth from the right. The tasting room is warm and inviting.
A transformed school house is the home of Struise Brouwers. They have thirty brews on tap in their tasting room for as little as 1 euro a taste. Their flagship brand is Pannepot . Another fun experience in this modest, welcoming setting. If only every school had a tasting room….
By the end of our mellow afternoon, we were… hopped up on hops. Not even a missed train for our two-hour journey back home to Brussels could deflate our buzz.
Over the centuries, the land that makes up the modern nation of Belgium was overrun by Romans, French, Burgundians, Spanish, English, Austrians, Germans, etc…. With such a history, who wouldn’t turn to beer?