All over Belgium
Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
136Trip End Sep 01, 2011
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Our Belgium trip proved to be both exciting and relaxing. We linked up with Stephen and Julie (see Kantors Abroad tpod) for the first weekend in Brussels and Brugge. We left on Friday morning from Amsterdam and headed to Brussels for the Fifth Annual Belgian Beer Weekend. After that, we went to Brugge and then on to southern Belgium (on our own) to tour the Flanders and Ardennes regions. Along the way we learned a lot about the history of the region (including its importance in both World Wars) and enjoyed beautiful countryside, in addition to discovering some new beers.
Belgium produces over 600 beers in many different types of breweries, from big commercial endeavors to very small "artisanal" brews to those made by Trappist monks in Monasteries. So the trip was loosely organized around investigating these different beers and seeing the different circumstances under which they are made. The southwestern part of Belgium was the location of the northern part of the western front during World War I for four years and the southeastern part of Belgium (the Ardennes region) saw the last German offensive battle of World War II so there were many historical sites there that we explored as well. We also saw a couple of old forts and castles. Although organized around the breweries, drinking beer was not the goal of the trip. It was really about getting to places that a person would have little other reason to go to and seeing interesting things along the way.
Friday: Pick up Stephen and Julie. Drive to Brussels. Tour Brussels and experience the Fifth Annual Belgian Beer Weekend.
Saturday: Drive to Waterloo and then on to Brugge. Explore Brugge.
Sunday: Explore Brugge some more. Drive to the De Dolles Brewery in Esen for 2:00 tour. Drive to Watou. Bike in Belgian and French countryside. Dinner at 't Hommelhof.
Monday: Brewery tours around Watou. Drive to Westvleteren to pick up special beer only available directly from the monastery. Drive to Poperinge and tour National Hop Museum. See hop fields. Drive to Ypers. Explore WWI memorials/cemeteries, see British military Last Post, go through In Flanders' Fields Museum. Drive back to Amsterdam.
Tuesday: Ride bikes to Haarlem . Tour Grote Kerk.
Wednesday: Drive to Maastricht to pick up watch books. First "Hunt for Red October" to find lodging. Check out Maastricht.
Thursday: See 9/11 entry. Many failed attempts at brewery tours and war museums. Visit Abbaye Val Dieu, AChouffe, Phantom, Rochefort, LaRoche (including fort). Second "Hunt for Red October".
Friday: Tour Rochefort Monastery (Chris only), drive through Ardennes forest, Boullion (including castle/fort).
Saturday: Drive into France on way to Chimay, visit Chimay and Silly, drive home
BRUSSELS AND THE FIFTH ANNUAL BELGIAN BEER WEEKEND
After arriving in Brussels we promptly got lost since we had no detailed map and Chris forgot to load the GPS with Brussels city details. However, there was a silver lining. In our wanderings we happened into a cute little neighborhood where we stopped for lunch. We asked for directions, but everybody that we asked spoke French and told us we shouldn't drive down town. We were on our own but not driving downtown when we had driven in NYC and Chicago was out of the question. Eventually we found the hotel, checked in, and set off to explore some of downtown Brussels, wandering in and around the Grand Place.
In mid-afternoon the Belgium Brewers Guild, 'Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs', held a ceremony to induct new members into the Guild, including the first American (who happens to own the Brickskellar in Washington, D.C., which some of our friends have been known to frequent -- Rick G. you know you have!). After the induction (a private event) there was a parade that ended with a very interesting church service for the consecration of the beer organized by the Knighthood of the Brewers' Mashstaff, in the Magdalena Church. Stephen and Chris attended. The service was focused on Saint Arnold, the Patron Saint of Brewers.
Meanwhile, while Chris and Stephen were in church, Melanie and Julie wondered around the Grand Place some more and went to the chocolate museum, where they received a few free samples.
After dinner of mussels, French onion soup, salad and Belgian fries, it was time for the beer festival to begin. Chris had been trying since we arrived to get a press kit for the event. Finally, at 5:00 they gave him one, which allowed him to enter the festival 1 hour early. He was able to get stickers for all 4 of us to get in early as well. We attribute this not only to Chris' natural charm, but also to his Clark Street Ale House baseball cap that he wore all week. Once inside, we found out that the press stickers entitled us to free beer all night! BONUS!!! Thus, we had the freedom to try many more beers than we would have if we were buying them. Here Melanie is carefully writing down tasting notes.
Additionally, since they were free, we did not feel obligated to drink more than a taste. This is particularly good since the Belgian beers are very strong, so drinking more than 1 or 2 is a bad idea. Since the samples were full beers and not just tastings, this led to a table full of much more beer than any 4 people should ever have. We kept trying to give it away; some people were leery of taking beer from strangers and others stopped and drank some with us! When we asked Stephen which beer he liked best, his reply was, "They're all good!" - which nobody could dispute.
While deciding which beer to sample next, Chris started talking to some people and discovered that they were from northern Virginia near Wahington, DC! It is through them that we met the only American inductee, the owner of the Brickskeller, as well as the owner of Chris' father's favorite Olney, MD, restaurant, Mannekin Pis (that's the restaurant's name, not the owner's). This restaurant is about 3 miles from where Chris grew up. The restaurant owner was there to sample the Belgian beers as well. It's a small world!
This was a very enjoyable event. We met some new friends and got to try many new beers. There was a brass band (12-15 people) wandering throughout the event. People kept buying them beer, so they got louder as the night went on, but it was still fun.
The celebration was right in the main center square of Brussels set among many 16th century guild and town halls. The whole setting really was enjoyable. Here is a picture from the beer tents in the main square taken by Stephen as the evening descended:
After trying a number of beers, some of the guests had to take a break including this little guy:
On Saturday morning, we joined a tour (for the press) that was supposed to be of hidden pubs in Brussels. We found out about it from the press kit and went in, but the tour was really bad. It was given by the tourist board of Brussels and was targeted at journalists so you would have thought that they would try to do something that would be packed with information and new things, but that was not the case. The big excitement occurred when we were waiting for the tour to start and saw "the giants" come through the plaza. It turned out that Mannekin Pis (the little guy above) was getting a new outfit and there is a whole parade and ceremony that goes with that, so we got to see the parade:
Here he is in his new outfit that looks like those that the brewer guild members wear:
No one is really sure of how the Mannequin Pis statue came to be in Brussels....but the statue certainly is a popular site there. And some how he seemed very fitting on a beer weekend in Brussels.
WATERLOO AND BRUGGE
After enduring the 2 hour non-tour tour and getting lost again on our way out of Brussels (we've decided we don't like driving in Brussels) we were on our way to Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated. This site contains a memorial (a huge hill that can be walked up for a view of the surrounding fields), a private museum, a movie, and a panorama (a big painting of the battle). You have to pay separately for each thing (or buy a package) and since we had already spent too much time in Brussels we decided to pay only 1 Euro and climb up the big hill to the Lion's Head memorial (Pont du Lion). It was interesting, but not terribly so - probably because we skipped the most informative parts.
After Waterloo we headed to Brugge. Julie and Stephen wanted to help us navigate but the events of the previous evening caught up to them:
Of course the directions on how to get to our B&B were incorrect and we again we did not have a detailed map of the city. But this time Chris did have the GPS loaded, so despite being right in the middle of a bunch of very narrow winding streets loaded with pedestrians we were able to find the B&B without too much trouble. When we got there, we discovered that one of the owners is a veterinarian. There was a dog, 3 cats, a goldfish and a backyard full of box turtles in residence. We wandered around Brugge, sampled the chocolate, and then went to dinner - more mussels for Melanie (they're in season now) and Flemish stew for Chris and Julie. After dinner we were walking around the town and, as usual, Chris was behind, googling at something. Some very drunk British guys stopped Stephan and asked if he spoke English. He said yes, so they asked what time it was, Stephan told him, and they moved on. A block later we saw that they had run into Chris and were talking to him. When Chris finally caught up to us, we found out that they had the same questions for him. However, because everyone in Amsterdam answers "a little" to the question, Do you speak English?, Chris has gotten into the habit of answering the same way. So these drunk Brits were very confused when they asked Chris if he spoke English, he answered "a little", and when they asked the time he answered in his usually gabby-Hooper fashion. They didn't know if he was playing a joke on them or serious. Pretty funny.
ON TO THE BREWERIES. . .
On Sunday we took a canal tour of Brugge (very relaxing, but not nearly as interesting as the Amsterdam tours), bought more chocolates, and then left Stephan and Julie on their own in Brugge while we drove to the teeny tiny town of Esen. The De Dolle Brouwers, makers of Oerbier, is in Esen. It is a teeny tiny brewery owned and run by two brothers - a doctor and a dentist - who used to be home brewers and decided to expand. They only brew on weekends and they only open the brewery for tours on Sundays at 2:00. On this particular Sunday, one of the owners, who in addition to being a doctor or dentist is also an artist, was having an opening exhibition of his artwork in the brewery. He was obviously more interested in the art than in telling us about his brewery, but after a ˝ hour wait while he went home and had lunch, we got the tour. Several interesting things about this brewery:
1) The building looks medieval, but it isn't. Apparently many buildings in Belgium (and probably Europe generally) were destroyed during various wars and were reconstructed after the wars using the original bricks (early recycling!). So, whereas we had always assumed that a building made of really old materials was a really old building, it turns out that many of these buildings are actually from the 1920s. Chris knew this all along (it is possible to tell from the architecture), but it was news to Melanie. 2) The artist/owner/doctor/dentist loves bright colors, so the whole place is decked out in primary colors:
Sitting on the terrace feels like being on a playground - all bright yellow, blue and red. 3) Esen is in the middle of nowhere - sorta like being in the middle of Iowa. There are cows in the field out back and the main street is about 4 blocks long. But somehow, despite being in the middle of nowhere and brewing only on weekends, these two brother brewers have made a successful beer that is carried in at least 2 of the Belgian specialty bars in Amsterdam. 4) People here really don't understand why two fairly young people from Chicago would go to Esen to see the brewery. We met several "locals" during out ˝ hour wait and they were clearly surprised by our presence. Actually, now that we think about it, most people that we know don't understand the appeal of this vacation either!
WATOU AND THE FLANDERS AREA
After the De Dolles brewery we drove on to the little town of Watou. Watou sits very close to the French border, so we rented bicycles and biked into the French countryside, over to the neighboring town, and back to Watou. It felt great to be outside in the fresh air after so much driving. Along the way we saw lots of farmland including fields of corn and Swiss chard. We also saw several Catholic shrines at the corners of fields in remembrance of the GReat War:
We're not sure if they are war memorials or religious shrines used by the farmers, but they are very common. Watou is a very small village, but it is known throughout Belgium for its literary arts culture. They have a 1 week poetry festival each year where people go to various venues, including people's homes, and listen to poetry. The walls and rooftops are literally covered with poetry in Watou. We were fortunate enough to arrive on the last day of the festival. Unfortunately, all (or at least most) of the poetry was in Flemish (very similar to Dutch), so we did not understand it. The other claim to fame in Watou is a beer cuisine restaurant, 't Hommelhof (roughly translated as the Hop House). This is a very upscale restaurant that cooks with the local beers. We had dinner there and it was one of the best meals of our trip. Truly worth the drive if you are already in that area of the country:
There are three or four breweries in Watou. All were closed to tours, but Chris walked into the warehouse at St. Bernadus and discovered that it was possible to buy beer direct from the warehouse (at factory direct prices), so Melanie went in to see what was there. We started talking to the guy who was running the warehouse, asking questions, etc., and at one point he mentioned that they were brewing a particular beer that day. He could see that Melanie was very curious about seeing the process, so he bent the rules and gave us a quick tour. In all the tours we've been on, this is the first one during which brewing (creation of the wort) has actually been taking place. Cleanliness is paramount to quality beer, so in general a brewery would not give tours while anything is open -- for fear of contamination. We got to see the brewing tank in use, go into the cold storage room where the beer sits to bottle ferment prior to sale, and got an explanation of the bottle cleaning machine. OK, maybe this doesn't sound so fascinating to some of you, but believe us, it was. The bottle cleaning machine is integrated directly into the bottling machine. The dirty bottles come back from the distributors in plastic crates. The crate and bottles are put into the machine. They are separated, cleaned and sterilized and the bottles go directly into the bottling machine before they can become contaminated again. The bottles are filled with beer and at the end of the process, bottles and plastic crate are reunited. We learned that the bottle fermented beers take a lot of time to create. Depending on the beer, it must sit up to 8 weeks longer than a typical Budweiser would require before it is ready for consumption.
After Watou, we drove to Westvleteren for our first Trappist beer. There are only 6 Trappist beers in Belgium and the Netherlands (defined as: brewed at the monastery with the actual monks maintaining substantial control over the brewing process) and Westvleteren is one of them. This is a very special beer because the monks actually brew the beer themselves instead of just supervising the process. They only brew when they feel like it and when they have enough bottles available. Their philosophy is that they work to live not the other way around....think about that concept! The beer is sold only for personal consumption, not for resale, so it has no label - just a plain naked bottle. The bottle cap tells what type of beer it is and when it was brewed. According to many beer experts (and Chris and I agree) it is consistently ranked one of the top beers in the world. It is not possible to visit the monastery itself, so basically the whole point of going there is to get a drive in the country, buy some great beer, and have lunch at the little cafe across the street from the Monastery - where they have the Westvleteren beer available and serve tostis made with Trappist cheeses.
From Westvleteren, it was on Poperinge and the National Hop Museum. Hop plants are very susceptible to disease, so there are only specific places in the world where they are still able to be grown and the area around Poperinge is one of them. The Hop Museum is small and interesting. There was a 30 minute introductory film that could be viewed in French or Flemish (the two official languages of Belgium), so we decided to test our Dutch and view the Flemish version. Occasionally Melanie though she understood something, but afterwards as we were reading the English brochure that explained the museum displays we found that her interpretations were generally wrong. Guess a few more Dutch lessons are in order!
From Poperinge it is a short drive to Ypers. There is a good explanation of Ypers in the July 8 travelpod, which we won't repeat here, except to note that this is the site of the Mennen Gate, a very moving WWI museum, and a town totally rebuilt from its own ruins after WWI. We wandered around the town of Ypers as well as the outskirts and saw many war memorials and military cemeteries. It is amazing how many military cemeteries and memorials exist in this area. It seems like every field has another military cemetery. Some are quite small, like the one we happened into while riding our bikes, while others, such as the Tyne Cot Cemetery are incredibly huge - especially considering that the cemetery is usually for a particular group of soldiers from a particular period of a particular battle. It's just overwhelming how many people died. Melanie got to see the Last Post (although 1 week later) and go through the museum. It's a very small town, but definitely worth the trip.
BACK TO THE NETHERLANDS
Since by Monday night our car was already full of beer and we still had almost another week to go, we decided to go back to Amsterdam. In retrospect, we probably should have scheduled Westvleteren last on the trip so we wouldn't have to worry about the car getting too hot, but hind sight is always 20-20 (or at least closer to it). Also, Chris had some business he wanted to take care of, so we drove back, arriving in Amsterdam around midnight. On Tuesday morning we slept in until 10:40. It felt so good!!! After such a restful sleep we decided to ride our bikes to Haarlem - a town about 12 miles from Amsterdam. There are bike paths throughout this whole country so it is very easy to ride from one town to the next on a dedicated path. Sometimes the path goes through beautiful green countryside and sometimes it is following beside a highway or other industrial area, but it is always pretty easy to follow and generally protected from traffic. We had very strong head wind going there so it took almost 1.5 hours, but the return trip, with tail wind, took less than 1 hour. While in Haarlem we saw the Grote Kerk where Mozart and Haydn each played the famous organ - Mozart when he was 10 years old:
There were a few exhibits in the church, one of which was on bats. After looking at that exhibit, we were walking around the church and saw an almost dead bat crawling along the floor. Creepy! It's a good thing Melanie's Mom wasn't with us - she hates bats! In keeping with our vacation's theme, we had lunch in a brown café where Jopen beer (brewed locally in Haarlem) was sold and had dinner at our favorite Belgian restaurant/ beer cafe in Amsterdam, De Zotte.
On Wednesday, we drove to Maastrich, in the southern part of the Netherlands that is sandwiched between Germany and Belgium. There is a clock expert who lives in Dusseldorf who has published a book that Chris sells on his website, so we met him in Maastrich to pick up a fresh supply of books. People had told us that we would really enjoy Maastrich, but the traffic was bad getting there and the weather was bad as well - very cold and rainy. We met the book author at 12:30, transferred the books, then had a hot chocolate and talked. Konrad, the author, was a little boy living in Germany during the second World War and he remembers the American liberation and then the Americans leaving and the Russians being in control. His father somehow managed to escape being part of the military and was generally challenged trying to keep his principles while not offending those in control and putting his life and his family's life in danger. It was very interesting to hear his views on European politics - both present and historical - and we ended up spending several hours together. By the time we said adieu and Chris and I found a place to have lunch, all of the museums and churches in Maastrich had just closed. Bad timing again. We wondered around a bit and enjoyed the pretty neighborhoods. We then decided to drive on to Belguim.
We had heard that Leige was a nice city, so decided to drive there. We knew nothing about the city, but it was big enough to get lost in (and of course tourist information was closed), the weather was still bad, and it was starting to get dark, so after getting lost enough to be discouraged we decided to keep driving so that we would be close to the next brewery (Abbaye Val-Dieu) the following morning. Unfortunately, we were driving into "Iowa" again, so we didn't realize how low our probability of finding a place to stay really was. Luckily, along with the signs to the abbey there were also signs for two B&Bs. One was deserted, but the other was available and really, really nice. What luck! The remainder of the story is on the 9/11 tpod, so we won't repeat it here, but bottom line: we found a nice place to stay in a beautiful part of the country and very close to our first stop the following day.
BACK IN BELGIUM
We discovered the beers of Abbaye Val-Dieu at the Belgian beer festival and really liked them, so decided to see what the brewery was like. There are no monks at the abbey anymore, so it is not a Trappist beer. It also didn't feel like a peaceful abbey sort of place. Everybody was running around very busy. We finally got the attention of some guy who didn't speak English, but who brought out the guy who does the tours. Turns out they only do tours for groups of 14 or more and only by appointment, so we were SOL. He did convince the brewmaster to take 30 seconds to find some brochure in English for us, we poked our heads inside the brewery, and saw beer cases of beer being loaded on a truck, but that was the extent of the tour. The chapel was open, so we peeked in there as well. We did learn that they ship beer to Chicago, so somewhere in Chicago (Sam's maybe?) the beer of Abbaye Val Dieu is available. Despite the fact that we didn't get a tour, it's still a great beer that we would recommend trying if you get the opportunity.
After stopping at the U.S. war memorial and the town of Aubel which was liberated by the American Army on Spetember 11, 1944 (see 9/11 for details) we drove on to Achouffe, where the LaChouffe and McChouffe beers are created. After a little searching we found the brewery, only to learn that tours are only given at 10:30 only by appointment and only for more than 10 people. Strike two.
The logo for the Chouffe beers is a little trollish guy who looks a little devilish. Our impression of the town of Achouffe was that the whole town felt a little trollish. At first we thought it was cute, but when we walked into a local restaurant everybody looked like trolls. They were short and stubby and had goofy shaped heads and really short arms. There were these two trollish guys in the kitchen. It didn't look too clean and the troll thing was kinda creepy so after waiting a few minutes and not getting any service we decided to leave.
We had a tourist map of Belgium that showed not only most of the breweries, but also historical sites and museums. From the map it looked like there was a good war museum in Bastogne, on the way to the next brewery, so we drove there. When we arrived, we discovered that the museum was privately run (like the one at Waterloo) and had the feel of a tourist trap, so we decided to skip it. However, it was right next to another U.S. war memorial that was very nice. The memorial was in the shape of a star and we could climb the stairs to have a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.
In Bastogne, there was a tank that had received damage during the Battle of the Bulge and a statue of General McAuliffe (see gallery above). General McAuliffe told the Germans "Nuts" when given the ultimatum to surrender during the Battle of the Bulge.
After seeing all this cool stuff, we were starving, so we stopped at the closest grocery store and grabbed some cheese, bread and fruit for lunch. Stopping at grocery stores in different places can be interesting because there is often something strikingly different from place to place. In this instance, the store was the anchor to a very small shopping center - sort of like a strip mall only enclosed and perpendicular to the parking, so more like a mall. Anyway, in the middle of the shopping center, where an American shopping center would have the little jewelry, sunglasses, or engraving kiosks, this place had a bar. It was like a gazebo shape with the bartender in the middle and bar stools surrounding, but no other enclosure. You sure wouldn't see that in the U.S.!
LA ROCHE, BOULLION AND HUNTING FOR RED OCTOBER
Next on our tourist map was LaRoche, a small town right in the middle of the Ardennes, where the Battle of the Ardennes Museum resides. Surely this one would be a winner! But, when we arrived, we found a very tourist town with another cheesy privately run tourist trap museum and again decided to pass. Not all was lost though. The Ardennes are where the Dutch go for hiking and other outdoor activities. It is hilly with lots of dense forest, so the drive there was beautiful and very different from what we had experienced in the western part of Belgium. Also in LaRoche is a castle ruin which we spent an hour or so exploring. The number and quality of ruins in Europe is just amazing to us. So many little towns have these old castles or forts. This particular castle had something extra for the tourists though - a ghost! The ghost only appears on the weekends during tourist season, but when it does it looks amazingly like a KKK guy. No kidding. It's a person all in white with a white face mask and the pointy white hat. We couldn't believe it. You can even buy postcards of the "ghost" to send to your friends. We thought about it, but decided that we didn't want to risk that somebody who saw the postcard along the way would get the wrong idea. Clearly this is a town that could use some diversity training!
Despite the ghost and the tacky museum, LaRoche seemed like a cute little tourist town with plenty of lodging, so we decided we should stay there. Chris checked with the tourist office and got a listing of B&Bs and confirmation that there was no danger of places being full for the night. Since it was about 4:00 and we were about 30 minutes drive from another small brewery, Phantom (maybe named after the LaRoche ghost?), we decided to go there. We eventually found this little place, but it was only open on weekends. Strike 3. Three breweries in one day and no tours. Still, it was interesting to see the relative size of the breweries, what kind of buildings they were in, and the surrounding countryside. After all, that's the real point of a trip like this. As many of you are probably thinking: "Ya seen one brewery, you've seen 'em all."
Instead of calling it a day, we decided we were fairly close to the 2nd Trappist brewery on our tour, Rochefort, and drove over there. Rochefort makes relatively small quantities of beer, but not as small as Westvleteren. Their beers are commercially available, but the abbey is closed to the public and no sales occur at the abbey itself, so there's really no reason to go there. Still, we thought it would be interesting to see where this place was. Curious Chris, of course, was not content to just drive by the place, though. We had to stop and he had to wander in to see if anything was open to the public. There are no tours at Rochefort, but the monk that Chris talked to only spoke French, so he called the abbot and put Chris on the phone with him. After confirming that Chris was not with a tour group and asking some other questions, the Abbot instructed Chris that if he came back at 10:30 the following day he could have a private tour! Homerun! This made up for the 3 strikes earlier in the day - plus the monk handed him a beer on the way out! One caveat though - only Chris could go on the tour. No girls allowed in the abbey. So, Melanie had to wait in the car the next day while Chris got a private tour with one of the monks. It was a nice tour. Chris got to see the brewery, meet the actual brewer in the quality lab, and see the monastery grounds.
Chris' sister, Jeannine, calls wild goose chases "the Hunt for Red October". In LaRoche we experienced our second serious Hunt for Red October (the first being for dinner and lodging the previous night). When we had left LaRoche around 4:00 it was a bustling little tourist town - like the beach towns on the East Coast. When we returned at 8:00 they had rolled up the sidewalks. Everything was closed, there was nobody on the streets, the place was deserted. Although it was true that there were plenty of rooms available, we had a hard time finding one that would be preferable to sleeping in the car. As most of you know, we are not terribly picky about accommodations, but these places smelled BAD. Many of them smelled of stale (or fresh) cigarettes, mold, mildew or just plain funky. One place was essentially the extra bedroom of some old bat who chain smoked. We could hardly breathe there! Another place had torn bedspreads and nasty tiles in the bathroom that looked like they were about to fall off. Chris finally asked somebody at a restaurant if they could recommend a place. That person sent us to a place that was "Hilton quality, only cheaper". We're not sure what Hilton this guy had stayed at, but this one smelled just as nasty as every place else we had stayed and was still about $70 per night. Finally we found a place that didn't smell and was relatively clean. The room was tiny, the sink was in the bedroom instead of the bathroom, the wallpaper was starting to pull away from the wall, the linens were quite worn (including cigarette holes), but appeared clean, and the bathroom door was a sheet of plywood on rollers, but it was by far the best we could find. It's one redeeming feature was that it had a view of the castle with a full moon was rising next to it (no ghost), so if we turned off the lights and looked out the window it wasn't too bad.
After finding lodging, the next "Red", as we would begin to call these adventures, was to find dinner. Most restaurants were closed by now, so we went back to the place with the Hilton guy. They had Phantom beer available, so we got to try that. Chris thinks it's really good; Melanie thinks it's ok. It only comes in really large bottles though, (wine bottle size) so we both have to like it to open a bottle.
We learned a new tourist catch phrase in LaRoche - artisanal. Everything there is artisanal, meaning that it is made as if by an artist - or some such b.s. In LaRoche (and later we noticed throughout most of Belgium) they had artisanal ham, artisanal cheese, artisanal beer and artisanal chocolates. I'm sure there are other artisanal products that I've missed because as we continued our travels we realized that the Belgians have discovered that if something is labeled "artisanal", the tourists will buy it.
Here was a Patton tank from the Battle of the Bulge that was among an outdoor market in LaRoche:
On Friday, after Chris' tour of Rochefort, we drove to Boullion - another small town with an ancient fort and (we thought) 3 breweries. The drive was very pretty through the Ardennes forest. We were surprised, however, to see that the U.S. is not alone in clearcutting its forests. There were many places along the drive where clearcutting was very evident. In Boullion, we found one very small brewery and learned that the other two had closed. The one that we found was really a beer store with a little brewing equipment in the back. It had the feel of somebody's home brew on steroids that they brought to work with them. The store itself was interesting because they had almost every beer made in Belgium - which is impressive when you consider that over 600 different beers. So, with no additional breweries to tour, we went to the fort. This fort was much larger than the one in LaRoche. It dated originally from medieval times but had also been added onto over the years and was even used by the allied military in WWII.
Boullion also has several "artisanal" chocolate shops and "artisanal" pastry shops. Fruit pastries are a specialty of this region and Melanie found plum tarts like her Grandmother Bernhardt is reputed to have made. So, lunch this day was very healthy. We each had: an apple, 1.5 tarts and lots of chocolates. Thus, we were ready for "real" food for dinner. Around the corner from the brewery/beer store, across the street from the church whose carillon sung Beethoven's 9th several times during our visit, was an odd little restaurant that we think was also a cabaret or theatre or had some sort of performing art thing happening on the 2nd floor. It played lovely Parisian music, had a French menu that we couldn't understand, and absolutely the best food of our entire trip. Even better than the beer restaurant in Watou. It was amazing. Given that this was so good and was just a little nothing restaurant, we now have a desire to go to France and see what all the fuss is about with their multi-star restaurants!
Boullion offered another "Red" opportunity. Although the hotels appeared to be reasonably well maintained, we had the same smelly issues as in LaRoche. In one hotel the lobby bathroom had cloth towels to dry your hands and bathrobes in the room, but the hallway smelled like aged urine. Gross. Finally, we found a normal hotel that didn't smell at the top of the hill over looking the town and the fort. As is common throughout Europe instead of a shower we had a tub with a shower hose, but the room was spacious, the hotel had been recently refurbished, and the whole thing was stink-free, so we were very happy. Here was the view:
THE FINAL DAY: FRANCE AND CHIMAY
To get from Boullion to the Chimay monastery, the most direct route was to drive through France. Coming into France was not like the other European Union border crossings we'd experienced thus far. When driving across the German or Belgian borders, it's sort of like driving to another state in the U.S. There's a sign that says "Welcome to Germany" and that's about it. But, coming into France was a little different. There are signs starting 5 km before the border warning of the advancing border. 2 km, 1 km, 800 meters, 500 meters, 100 meters. At the border itself we had to slow down to go through what looked like a toll gate without a toll. Guards stood at the border crossing, but didn't seem to do anything. We're not sure what the purpose of all this fuss was, but it was definitely different than other border crossings. The roads in France are also difficult. Highways become diverted into little towns then back onto the highway then back into the little towns again. Generally it was a mess and very confusing. Still it was nice to see the French countryside. It made us want to take a driving tour next summer of France or Italy.
Back in Belgium, we made our way to Chimay. The abbey was difficult to find; the signs were about as clear as those in France (in other words, confusing). Finally, decided to just stop at a restaurant and see if we could figure out where we were. It turned out that the restaurant was owned by the abbey and was across the street from the forest path that leads to the abbey itself. So, after lunch, we walked through the forest to the Abbey and were able to walk around the grounds somewhat and into the church. The brewery is not open to the public. The Chimay beer is available on tap in a few special bars in the immediate area.
After Chimay, we drove to the small town of Silly in search of the Brewery de Silly. Melanie had discovered the Scotch Silly beer at the Brussels Beer Weekend and thought it would be fun to see where it was brewed. Plus, according to our map, there was another really good beer cuisine restaurant in Silly. This was another really tiny town, maybe 8 blocks long. Everything was closed except for a small local tavern where we decided to sample the beer. The restaurant, it turned out, was only open on weekends, but was closed for the whole month right now because the owner/chef was on vacation. We looked at the only restaurant that was open in town and it looked pretty bad, so we finished our Trappist cheeses, bread and fruit sitting next to a war memorial in the town square. The church's bells were calling people to Saturday evening service (which we had also witnessed on Sunday morning in Brugge). We decided that since it was already 7:00 and we were in the middle of nowhere, we could either start on another lodging "Red" or just drive home. Given the experience of the past 2 nights we decided to go home, be with our kitties, and have a relaxing Sunday to catch up before heading back to work (for Melanie anyway) on Monday.
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