This is the way my life has been lately. It’s the middle of 2017, and I still haven’t finished recounting a travel story that took place last year! But that’s the kind of busy that I’ve been dealing with lately. It seems that between writing and editing (upcoming book release!), there’s been very little time for anecdotes. But I found my way clear to some free time, so I thought I’d wrap this story up!
So welcome to the final installment of my tale of the Williams family Eurotrip, the 2016 edition! To pick up where I left off, the last leg of our trip involved finishing our tour of Belgium and checking out some of the famous art that was the subject of the story (and film adaptation) Monuments Men. We then paid a visit to The Netherlands, swung back through Belgium, and then stayed in the city of Beauvais (north of Paris) before flying home.
Here are some of the highlights…
Ghent and Bruges:
After leaving Ypres, we decided to head to what is, by all accounts, Belgium’s most touristy place – the city of Bruges. This city, which consists of a modern ring surrounding a medieval core, is famous for its canals, breweries, Beer Museum, chocolatiers, and many, many stores! Seriously, people who love shopping would LOVE this town!
But before stopping there, we swung by what is arguably the less-touristy version of Bruges. Ghent, located not far away and to the northwest, consists of a well-preserved medieval core surrounded by modern burroughs. Much like Bruges, Ghent is famous its canals, medieval and Baroque architecture, and rich history. While there, we stopped for some lunch at a lovely bakery – consisting of baguette sandwiches and apple tarts – and then began wandering to see some of wonderful sites. Some of these were planned, some we just saw along the way.
For instance, after lunch, we walked down the street and saw the “Dulle Griet” (trans. “evil woman”), which is a massive cast-iron cannon that was built in the 15th century and used in the siege of Oudenaarde. Today, it is a historic landmark that sits next to Ghent’s largest river – the Lelle. Speaking of which, we then decided to follow this river as we made our way to planned stop of St. Pavo’s Cathedral. On the way, we got some great pictures of the waterways, a lovely shop with hundreds of different bottles of beer in the window, and the castle of Gravensteen.
We then made our way to St. Bavo’s Cathedral, where the purpose for our visit was waiting for us. This would be the “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, otherwise known as the Ghent Altarpiece. This tableau, which features some of the most detailed religious art from the High Middle Ages, was created by the Flemish artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck in the 15th century. And, as Monuments Men addresses, the altarpiece was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and repatriated thanks to the efforts of the Allies.
As you would expect, seeing it means cramming into a small alcove and listening to an audio guide explaining the history of the altarpiece and giving an in-depth description of every image it holds. Once that was done, we packed and drove for Bruges, arriving in the mid-afternoon. After finding our way to Bruge’s medieval core, we dropped our kit at the BandB and grabbed some dinner. The next day, we proceeded to find the Church of our Lady, which is located near the heart of the Medieval core and is the location of the Bruges Madonna.
To give you a quick rundown on the Bruges Madonna, this Rennaissance work of art has had a turbulent history. It was created by none-other than Michaelangelo himself and was bought by a wealthy family of cloth merchants in Bruges. Since its creation, it left the country twice. The first was after the French Revolution when, in 1794, the French army took it as the spoils of war and brought it to Paris. It was returned in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In 1944, the Nazis removed it during their retreat from Belgium. Thanks to the efforts of the Monuments Men, it was retrieved from a hidden cache of stolen art in Austria the following year and again returned to Bruges.
As the days went by, we took in a number of other lovely attractions. These included the many restaurants that dot the canals, the extensive shops – never seen so many ways to get chocolate, waffles, beer, tobacco and french fries! But the coolest thing, after seeing the Madonna, was definitely the Bruges Beer Museum! This edifice is right in the old town square, a medieval building that has several levels dedicated to recounting the city’s long history of brewing. And of course, on the ground floor, there is a bar where lots of samples can be enjoyed.
A tour consists of them giving you a specialized tablet and earphone. You walk around the top two floors, point the tablet at a display, and it reads the icon there. Information and images then flow from your tablet, telling you about an important piece of beer history, and how the town of Bruges featured prominently in it. As one of Belgium’s oldest cities, the town was at the center of a lot of developments, ranging from the rise of Trappist brewing, the birth of brewing as a modern profession, the war years, the resurgence of Belgian brewing, and the rise of craft brewing.
One of the biggest lessons I learned on that visit was the identity of the patron Saint of brewing – St. Bernardus. This medieval Benedictine monk became a local hero when it an epidemic was traced to the town’s water supply. He urged the townspeople to drink beer instead of water, a measure which helped end the outbreak. Today, many Belgian beers are named after him or feature his likeness, which shows him holding a mash paddle – a key brewers instrument that is used for stirring malted grains as they are being boiled.
I learned of several beers while I was there, which included Bruges Zot, a local favorite brewed by the Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery that takes it name from an old joke that claimed that the people of Bruges were all insane! Speaking of which, one thing we learned after the trip – much to our chagrin! – was that the historic Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery had just finished work on a beer pipeline! That’s right, this brewery created an underground pipeline so that beer trucks (which are 40 tonnes each and play havoc with the old cobblestone streets) would no longer be making runs. From that point onward, drinking establishments all over town could just hook up to the pipeline and pull the tap! Though we did wonder if people might try to hook up taps of their own along the way 🙂
Check out the video below for more details…
After Belgium, we proceeded into Holland to see this lovely Low Country. We were still tracing World War II routes at this point, and Holland is considered an important pilgrimage for Canadians doing war tours. In September of 1944, six months after the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy, the 1st Canadian Army was tasked with pushing the Nazis out of the country.
This they did, though at great cost to themselves. Knowing that defeat was inevitable, the Nazis broke the levies around the Dutch waterways and flooded the countryside. They also fought bitterly to stall the Canadian troops’ advance. But by April of 1945 (just one month before the end of the war), the 1st Canadian Army had completed the liberation of the Netherlands.
Once again, we were staying in a lovely BandB in the city, which took some time to locate! The streets in the area of town we were staying in got a little bendy-curvy and that kind of threw off our GPS. Nevertheless, we found it before long and realized we had much of the place to ourselves.
The nice lady who ran the place also had a lovely big, brown dog who came to say hi to us, even though it was having some back issues from running around all day. Again, we unpacked, walked to the main thorough fair (just a few blocks away) and began taking in the sights. We also scoped out places to eat that night and the following morning, and chose a few places to visit in the coming days.
On the first night, we walked across town, taking in the lovely canals and quiet streets. I honestly never saw so many bikes moving along a main street. And the people were quite lovely too. While the signs were very confusing to me (I don’t do Dutch very well!), everybody was fluent in English. We eventually made our way to the lovely St. Michael’s Cathedral, which lies next to the University of Utrecht and across from the famous Dom Tower of Utretch.
For dinner, we ducked into a nearby restaurant called Grand Cafe Lebowski. The name alone is what sold it for us!
The highlight of our visit though was none other than our visit to the Overloon War Museum , one of the largest World War II museums in the country. It is set on the sight of the Battle of Overloon, where Allied and German forces fought in September and October of 1944, just after Operation Market Garden. The museum itself sits in a massive greenspace known as Liberty Park. Many vehicles are situated outside as you make your way towards the entrance. But the biggest attractions are inside!
Basically, after winding your way through numerous displays that explain the lead-up to the war and discuss the major battles, social developments and atrocities of the war, you enter a massive hangar. In there, dozens of Allied and German vehicles sit, just waited for history buffs to drool over them! And while describing what I liked best is a bit like asking someone which of their children they love most, I would have to go with the massive US Army amphibious vehicle that was as tall as a small house, and had tires that were taller than me!
Check out this video that offers a virtual tour of the museum (word of warning, its all in Dutch!). From 1:42 onward, you get to see the inside of the hangar, where all the big vehicles are kept. At precisely the 2:00 mark, you see the huge amphibous craft I was talking about.
Ypres and Beauvais:
After leaving The Netherlands, we started making our way back to France, and stopped again in Ypres for the night. It was nice, and gave us a chance to see our favorite spots again. And while my folks had a quiet evening, Carla and I took the opportunity to walk the streets and sample some lovely Belgian beers. While I drink Belgian beer ALL THE TIME here at home, it has always been fun for me to do it in the land of its birth. Not only is the selection more varied over there, but the price is significantly lower! I tell ya, what for us are fine imported examples of artisinal Trappist beers that date to the High Middle Ages are basically domestic beer for them!
Naturally, we also took this opportunity to go to Menin Gate again and pay our respects. We also got some wonderful pictures of the ceremony, which included the one below of my father and I standing next to each other on the east side of the gate.
The next day, we made our way to the last stop in our journey – the city of Beauvais, located just north of Paris. This town was quite charming and an interesting mix of the historic and modern. Our hotel was at a busy intersection, right across from a bloody dance club. And this place was open WELL into the wee hours of the morning and blasting dance music. I tell you, if I never hear the techno remix of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” again, I will die a happy man!
However, we did get so see some nice sights. Once again, we visited the local cathedral – the large and historic Beauvais Cathedral. In addition to having a rather cavernous interior, this building is famous for having had all the small statues that depict the saints removed from its facade. This took place during the French Revolution, when a wave of anti-clerical sentiment was sweeping the country an mobs forcible took all the statues down.
After visiting the Cathedral, we grabbed dinner from a local bakery (baguette sandwiches and some apple tarts, as usual!) and then proceeded back to the hotel. We tried to get a good’s night sleep but, as I said, the damn club across from us was pumping out music until the wee hours of the morning! Somehow, someway, we managed to get a few good hours and then head to Charles de Gaulle International to fly out the next morning!
Needless to say, we were quite tired and jetlagged when we got home. And upon our arrival, something very cute happened. Our cat (Jasper), who is most demanding and dedicated to his mommy and daddy, was out at the time. I went to the neighbors house to thank them for looking after him and to retrieve our key. Suddenly, I heard energetic meows coming from the bushes. When I went over, Jasper came running out, mewing happily! After about two weeks of being attended to by his surrogate mother (our neighbor Jen), he was thrilled to see us. Not that he doesn’t love her, but… you know. There’s no substitute for your actual family!
Wow, that took me forever to describe. I guess it was because it was our second major visit, and because it was both very special but also more familiar this time around. And we are planning on going back in 2019, to be part of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the liberation of France. The focal point of that trip will be going to Juno Beach (where the Canadian Forces landed on D-Day), since that is where the Canadian celebrations will be taking place, and because my aunt is on the board of directors at the Juno Center. It promises to be a major event and should involve several members of my family!