West Flanders: Trench of Death and the Yser Tower museum for peace

Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum for peace)

We just made our now semi-annual pilgrimage to Westvleteren to pick up more of the “best beer in the world.” We admit it; we’re hooked…and are possibly beer hoarders as well. But, this post isn’t about beer, it’s about our latest exploration of West Flanders which took us this time through picturesque countryside and villages to the restored WWI Dodengang or “Trench of Death” and the Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) housed in the 22-story tall iron cross tower that’s both a memorial to Flemish soldiers who died in WWI and a sometimes-controversial rallying point for Flemish Belgians.

Brussel sprouts in a western Flanders field

Leaving the Sint-Sixtus Abbey (where Westvleteren beer is brewed), we drove rural back roads past fields of brussel sprouts and farm animals. It always pains me to think of the absolute destruction wrought by WWI on this peaceful countryside. And, of course, WWII was no kinder to Belgium.

Flemish work horses
Happy Flemish cows

We stopped in the pretty little village of Lo-Reninge, lured by the medieval West Gate beside which stands a tree to which, legend claims, Julius Caesar tied his horse. We admired the UNESCO-designated town hall and belfort, and a lovely old Sint-Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) before continuing on to The Royal Museum of the Army’s venue at the Trench of Death outside of the town of Diksmuide.

West Gate in Lo-Reninge, one of the few surviving medieval gatehouses in the region, built sometime around 1250. (And the “Caesar tree”)
Lo (now part of Lo-Reninge) UNESCO-designated city hall and belfort
Sint-Pieterskerk and a WWI memorial to war dead from Lo

Diksmuide is strategically important in WWI history as the site of a line held by defenders after the Belgians flooded large portions of their country to stop the German advance.

The Trench of Death museum was refurbished in August 2014 as part of the WWI centenary and includes videos, photographs and memorabilia from the Royal Army Museum’s collection.

Trench of Death Museum, a venue of the Royal Army Museum
Exhibits in the Trench of Death Museum

Modest-sized, but effective, exhibits on the second floor (1st floor, european) attempt to tell the story of the Trench of Death from both Belgian and German perspectives. A rooftop viewing deck lets visitors get an overview of the trenches and the adjacent Izjer River before descending to walk the extensive rebuilt trenches.

View of the Trench of Death and the Ijzer River from the museum’s rooftop

The museum’s website tells the story of the Trench of Death in 100 words as follows: “In 1915 the Belgian army tries to dislodge the Germans from the petrol tanks north of the city of Dixmude (Diksmuide). After two failed attempts the Belgians decide to dig a trench towards the drums. The Germans however manage to capture part of it. In order to suppress the German threat, Belgian military engineering creates, by the end of 1915, a breach in the Yser dike. The two camps are now only separated by a mere ditch. The trench is then transformed into an impregnable position, called Trench of Death because of the victims buried there after the German attack.”

Beginning the walk from the museum to the Trench of Death

The museum is well-done and the trenches, like those at the Passchendaele Museum, give a sobering glimpse of trench warfare.

Km 16 marker, the Trench of Death

Germans attacked the Belgians on three sides. German trenches lay less than 50m from the Belgians. Belgian soldiers lived under the constant threat of both conventional and gas attack, and kept gas masks with them at all times.

Concrete bags in the shape of the original sandbags have been used to rebuild the trench. Gravel spares visitors the mud that WWI soldiers endured.

A mere 1.5 km away and visible from the Trench of Death Museum stands the 22-story tall Museum aan den IJzer tower and museum (also “Yser” in English), a giant iron cross in the shape of Flemish headstones used to mark the graves of Flemish soldiers.

A large stone “peace arch” with the inscription “PAX” stands at the entrance to the museum grounds. It incorporates the rubble of the original Ijzer tower which was dynamited following WWII in protest of Flemish Nazi collaborators. (Apparently, the Nazis often exploited separatist sentiments to try to drive wedges between social groups in the countries they sought to invade and conquer.) The remains of the original memorial tower are surrounded by its crypt and a circle of Flemish headstones.

The “crypt” with Flemish gravestones at the base of the destroyed first Yser Tower

Later, as we toured the museum, we learned that after the war, the Belgian government decided to install uniform headstones for Belgian soldiers killed during WWI; the headstones were inscribed “Mort pour la patrie” (died for the homeland), in French, with no Dutch (the Flemish language). Existing Flemish headstones were removed and, in at least once case, broken up and used to make a road. Flemish outrage led to the construction of the first memorial Ijzer Tower, constructed as is the present tower in the form of Flemish gravestones with the letters AVV-VVK, representing “Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus” or “All for Flanders-Flanders for Christ.” Given how much time we’ve spent in Belgium in recent years, we’re always trying to understand the complicated history of Belgian society and the rifts between French and Flemish Belgians. Here was a new and fascinating learning opportunity.

22nd floor of the Museum aan den IJzer

Proceeding past the crypt to the tower, we immediately took an elevator to the 22nd floor, the topmost enclosed floor of the tower. There we found 360 windows surmounted by a painted panorama showing the surrounding countryside as it looked during WWI. Labels with directional lines indicated the names of villages, cemeteries and other sites.

Climbing a few more flights of stairs, we came to the open-air rooftop offering an even more dramatic view. The afternoon sun cast the shadow of the tower well beyond the crypt and peace arch below and into the town.

After taking in the views, we began the floor-by-floor descent through the museum. With so many levels to work with, some of the floors were almost throw-aways, one offering only wall-sized black-and-white drawings and another displaying shelf-upon-shelf of ordinance. But, there were fascinating floors as well. One had us wandering a wooden maze of recreated trenches while speakers played the labored breathing of gas attack victims. Around some corners, a large photograph of victims would suddenly light up. A particularly poignant floor offered a display of clothing along with photographs of Belgians fleeing the war. It posited the question, “What would you take if you had only moments to choose before fleeing your home?” It reminds people that their grandparents were the ones fleeing war with the clothes on their back just as today other peoples are fleeing wars in distant lands. The museum is dedicated to peace. “No more war” is printed in Dutch, French, English and German on the four sides of its base.

Clothing display with photographs of Belgians fleeing WWI along the “Via Dolorosa”

Leaving the museum, we walked back past the crypt with a new understanding of what we were seeing. Looking back at the enormous tower with its “AVV-VVK” we now knew that it, and its predecessor, had become a rallying point for Flemish Belgians and has been the site of annual gatherings. After WWI, the Flemish Movement organized pilgrimages to the graves of fallen Flemish soldiers and the first Yser Tower was built in 1930. After the first tower was destroyed in 1946 and the new tower was built, “Flemish minded people” continued to hold large gatherings at the site that attracted a radical, separatist element as well that was sometimes invited, sometimes not. In the 90’s, the organizing committee distanced itself from this radical element. The current museum focuses on promoting peace and tolerance. While the red poppy is the symbol of WWI remembrance for soldiers, the Museum aan den IJzer chose a white poppy with the word “peace” at its center to commemorate all victims of war, both civilian and military. The Museum asks the question, “What remains of life?” addressing the ongoing loss after war, including the mental suffering and difficulties adjusting to civilian life of returning veterans.

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Practical info: The Royal Army Museum’s center at the Trench of Death is located at:
IJzerdijk 62, 8600 Diksmuide
051 50 53 44
Open daily from 10am-6pm, April 1- Nov. 15, Tues. & Thurs. only the rest of the year. (Check online for details and holiday changes.); admission €4 for adults, children under 8 are free.

The Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) is located at:
DE IJZERTOREN – IJzerdijk 49 – 8600 Diksmuide – T 051.50.02.86 – info@aandeijzer.be
Open daily, check online for seasonal variation in times.
Entrance is €8/adult, €2.5 for children 7-17, and free for children under 7. 

 

Het Anker: Touring one of the oldest breweries in Belgium

Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery in Mechelen, Belgium, makes the highly-rated Gouden Carolus beers along with several other varieties. David and I had been to their café before and knew we liked their beers, but hadn’t had the chance to tour the brewery. So, when we called on a recent Sunday and heard there were two open spots for the 1pm tour–and none others for the rest of the day–, we dropped everything and headed to the train station and the 10-minute ride from Antwerpen-Berchem to Mechelen. A quick walk, and we arrived just in time for the €8pp tour.

The brewery sits on the edge of the historic center of Mechelen and actually occupies part of the red brick complex that formerly housed religious ladies known as beguines or begijns in Dutch. Like other beguinages/begijnhofs in Belgium, the Mechelen beguinage has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage. [Mechelen is a beautiful little town and free of the tourist hordes that plague other popular Belgian cities. You can read my raves about Mechelen here.]

The tour begins

Our tour (in both English and Dutch) took us through the main “tower” building which, although newer than the beguinhof, is a historical site itself. We went straight upstairs to the malt silos where a bar with barley malt, corriander, cumin, licorice and other items were on display and passed around to give an idea of the flavors that go into the various Het Anker beers. Our guide a rather opinionated and no-nonsense man, scolded a woman in the back for talking while he was talking, not realizing, I think, that she was translating. I understand both of their situations, but it made for an uncomfortable moment.

From there, we viewed gorgeous old copper tuns and a display of old bottles under a lineup of past and present Het Anker owners. Our guide was very critical of the previous owner (who wished to promote pils-style beers) and praised the current owner who wrested control of the business away from his relative to focus on craft-type beers of stronger and more unique flavors and character. I have to admit my own beer tastes side with the current owner (who lives in a red brick house in front of the brewery and next door to the café and tasting room).

Copper tuns
A timeline of changing owners, beers and bottles

Our tour took us past an old copper “radiator” for cooling beer, a device no longer permitted under European Union regulations since it exposes the beer to the open air. According to our guide, only the lambic brewers who rely on wild ambient yeast are exempted from this rule.

A beer “radiator”

Bottling methods were also on display via sample machinery and video.

A final stop brought us to a large open-air coolship (unused due to those pesky EU rules) perched on the roof of the tower and offering a view of the town.

Rooftop coolship, no longer in use
Rooftop view of old Mechelen and St. Rumbold’s Cathedral bell tower

Descending back to ground level, our guide led us to the tasting room located upstairs in the café building. There, at a long table, we were given two 15cl beers: the Gouden Carolus Tripel and the Gouden Carolus Classic, a Belgian dark beer. David and I have enjoyed Gouden Carolus beers on many occasions. I’ll quote the brewery on these two beers as I have no disputes with their descriptions.

Het Anker offers the following about its Gouden Carolus Tripel: “Despite the technological advances, this beer is brewed according to ancient tradition and unites, as before, the best raw materials from our soil as ripe barley and fine hops, to preserve a maximum of pure flavor. This beer was originally brewed for the Knights of the Golden Fleece in 1491.

Full graceful tenderness, with a clean and neat taste, this beer will enchant you: matured in the bottle, exclusively obtained from pale malt, highly fermented and 100% natural. With a full-bodied flavor that still works thirst quenching, thanks to a balanced hopping. For ideal savouring, gently pour out in one fluent movement, at a temperature of 5-7° C (41-45°F). This pleasant golden blond beer is preferred by all who loves heavier, somewhat seasoned and refreshing beer.

This tripel is world-class.
Already in 2002 this beer won the Gold Award at the biennial World Beer Cup in the category ‘Tripel’. In 2010 this beer won gold at the European Beer Star in the category ‘Belgian Style Tripel’. In 2012, again followed the gold award for best Tripel beer in the world (“World’s Best Belgian-Style Tripel”).”

Het Anker describes the Gouden Carolus Classic as: “Dark, very balanced dosed caramel and aromatic malts provide, in combination with a traditional high fermentation, a unique beer that unites the warmth of wine and the freshness of beer. This makes it very suitable in combination with culinary specialties such as stews, wild, pates and even sabayon.

Following earlier prestigious awards, this beer was selected “Worlds’ Best Dark Ale” (WBA, 2012).”

Tasting time

Our fellow beer fans were from many countries: Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, U.S. and many more. We enjoyed chatting over our excellent beers, then David and I walked the few steps to snag a table at the café for a much-needed late lunch. Although we’d enjoyed a previous dinner at the café (of traditional Belgian beef-and-beer stew and a fish plate), I’m sorry to report that we found our lunchtime hamburgers truly awful. The bun was good and the side salad was fine, but the meat was an odd and unidentifiable tan mix fried in oil. Never again. (This wasn’t the first Belgian hamburger we’ve found to be off-putting. Maybe it’s just a case of “different strokes for different folks.”) Oh well, the beers we chose to accompany the food were excellent, so all was not lost.

Sadly, this burger looks much better than it was.

Practical Stuff: Start to finish, our tour and tasting took about an hour and a half or a little more. Individual tours of the Het Anker Brewery are offered Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 11.00 am, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11.00 am and 1.00 pm. The cost is € 8 per person, € 2 for children under 12 years old. Two 15 cl beers or one soft drink are included with the tour price.  Advance booking is strongly advised. There’s a form (in Dutch) online to request a reservation. (The brewery will respond to confirm or not.) or call 0032 15 28 71 41. Group tours are available daily with reservation.

Beer post: Lier rhymes with beer!

Just 10-15 minutes by train from Antwerp, Lier is not only a picture-perfect Belgian town, but is also known for its beer. With a reputation like that, how could David and I resist going? Short answer: We couldn’t.

We chose a sunny Saturday for our day trip so we could check out the Saturday market in Lier’s main square and take a boat tour on the River Nete in addition to scouting out the local brews. [Check out my previous post for a travelogue of our day in Lier.] At casual market-side café ‘t Gomerke, I chose a Caves (pronounced, more or less, like “cah fess”) for my first beer of the day and David opted for a Sint Gummarus Tripel.

Lier beers with a market day lunch

Caves (5.8% alc) is a high-fermentation beer brewed without artificial coloring or preservatives and without adding sugar. It was the most widely sold beer in Lier in the 1700’s. According to the Visit Lier website, beer has been brewed in the town since the 14th century and although there have been numerous breweries in the town over the years, the last one closed in 1967. This ended the production of Caves until 1976 when a guild called De Heren van Lier (“The Gentlemen of Lier”) arranged to have Caves brewed again using the original recipe.

My Caves poured a dark copper color with a white head that laced thickly and persistently. The smell was green apples and molasses with a hint of funk. My first sip was predominantly caramel and a sweet and sour cherry tartness that reminded me of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. I was surprised there was no added sugar because my initial impression was of too much sweetness. Drinking more, I got caramel and brown sugar, Granny Smith apples, dark bread and sour cherries. Medium body, soft carbonation. I really was afraid Caves was going to be too sweet for me, but the sweetness stopped just short of being a problem and I found myself enjoying this beer. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was served nicely cold on a gorgeous October day overlooking the Saturday market in Lier’s historic Grote Markt (main square).

St. Gummarus is the patron saint of Lier and two beers–a dubbel and a tripel–bear his name. The Sint Gummarus tripel (8.3% alc) is a golden color with a long-lasting 1/4″ white head. The barnyard nose carries through to the flavor along with caramel, bread, a crisp-to-the-point-of-sharp spiciness, peach and coriander. David noted a slight bitter/metallic trace as well. All in all an enjoyable tripel and distinctive, if not the best we’ve had.

Check out that head on the Kempisch Vuur tripel!

Later in the afternoon at Den Moment yet another outdoor café on the main square (now emptied of the market stalls), I ordered a De liter van Pallieter or simply “Pallieter”, a local tripel. Since we found no Bierke Plezierke beers on offer (Lier beers we’ve sadly yet to try), David decided to venture a bit further afield and ordered a Kempisch Vuur tripel from the nearby town of Pirlot.

The Pallieter (8%) was my favorite beer of the day, a classic Belgian tripel with all the barny “banana” goodness that implies in both the nose and taste. The flavor also has a floral/herbal quality. The beer is a not-quite-clear gold with a white head and lacing that dissipates. Pallieter has a smooth, velvety mouthfeel that buffers the alcohol. This beer is a pleasure to drink.

The Kempisch Vuur tripel (7.5%) had, like David’s earlier Sint Gummarus tripel, a spicy sharpness. An opaque golden hue, it poured a large and sustained meringue-like head. (see photo above) The nose was barny and spicy, the taste coriander and spicy clove. It had a thin, effervescent mouthfeel.

Sint Gummarus dubbel and the Zimmertoren

Our final drink opportunity came with a light dinner at Café Refuge where we sat outside just in front of the icon astronomical clock in Lier’s Zimmer Tower. Once again thwarted in our search for Bierke Plezierke beers, I ordered the Sint Gummarus dubbel. This beer poured a cola brown with a 3/4″ head that quickly receded. Classic prunes and dark bread nose. The taste was also prunes, dark bread, figs, caramel, and smooth spice. Medium body. A tasty dubbel.

In sum, we enjoyed all the Lier beers we tried even if they didn’t make our All-Time Favorites list. I’ve seen some mixed reviews online of some of these beers. The most negative seem so off as to make we wonder at the portability of these beers. Some criticisms were so far removed from what we tasted–and even described very different colors than what we saw–that I have to think these reviews simply got a bad and/or poorly stored bottle of beer. We’d definitely visit Lier again, both for its absolutely stunning architecture and setting and for its beer. Besides, we still need to track down Den Strooien Hoed and Den Blèèèter (yes, I got all those è’s right) from Bierke Plezierke.

Picturesque Lier, Belgium

A Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers tour boat on the River Nete in Lier

Pretty Lier, Belgium, is only a 10-minute train ride from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station and it was top on my day trip wish list for our current cat- and house-sitting stay in Antwerp. (The trip is another 5 minutes or so if you leave from Antwerpen-Centraal, the architectural gem that is the only other train station in Antwerp.) With our sights on weekend-only boat tours of Lier, we took advantage of our first gorgeous October Saturday to make the short trip. Our Belgian Rail weekend fare tickets cost €4.40 apiece, round trip. (Choose the “weekend ticket internet” option when given a choice for the half-price weekend fare. Print your ticket and show it to the agent on board the train when asked.)

It’s about a 10-minute walk from the train station to Lier’s lovely Grote Markt (main square) dominated by the stadhuis (city hall) and it’s attached UNESCO-designated belfry dating to 1369. On this sunny Saturday, the square was filled with market stalls selling everything from clothing to cheese, produce, meats and more.

Lier’s Saturday market with the 1369 UNESCO-designated belfry and stathuis in the background

As always, high on our list of to-dos in a new Belgium town is to try the local beer. Lier, which rhymes with “beer,” is known for beer and has 6 such brews. We ordered two with our light lunch at ‘t Goemerke, a market-side café on the main square with a simple menu. I opted for the unique Caves (pronounced more or less like “cah fess”) and found it to be an enjoyable if somewhat sweet sour along the lines of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. David chose the Sint Gummarus Tripel, a crisp version of the Belgian classic. We’ll do a separate write-up on Lier beers in an upcoming post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

With an hour between the end of lunch at the boat tour, we figured we had time to take in the Breugelland exhibit at the modestly-sized Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron. These paintings are on loan from the long-closed-for-rennovations Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Arts Museum) in Antwerp so we were glad for the chance to see them. This is apparently the seventh and last such collaboration between the two museums (although the Antwerp Fine Arts Museum is not set to reopen until 2019).

We finished up the art museum with just enough time to walk to the riverside starting point for the boat tours put on by Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers (Royal Brave Boat Fishermen). We spent 45 minutes gliding through Lier in a converted eel-fishing boat (with a non-stop Dutch commentary that our companions–all Dutch-speaking–found very amusing). While we would have liked to have learned more/anything from our guide, we really enjoyed the boat ride and the perspective of Lier from the River Nete. Boat tours are offered Saturdays, Sundays and holidays April 1 – October 31, 2-6 p.m. Prices are €3.50 for adults, €2 for children.

View of Lier from a tour boat
Old lock house, end of the river for the tour boats

After our boat ride, we wandered charming cobbled streets of the adjacent begijnhof (“beguinage” in French). There are begijnhofs in many Belgian towns and I think all of them are UNESCO-listed. I like to describe beguines as “almost-nuns.” They were religious ladies who lived in these communities and took vows, but these vows did not include forsaking marriage or vows of poverty. The Lier begijnhof is particularly picturesque and the begijnhof church is really spectacular (and a far cry from the tiny chapel in the Antwerp begijnhof). We had the church to ourselves save for an older man playing magical music on the organ. Lovely!

A cobbled begijnhof street. The arch at the end of the lane leads to the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city.
Begijnhof church in Lier

We exited the beginjof onto the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city. We shared the path with other walkers, families and couples, bicycles and baby carriages. This area was part of a walk through town laid out by the nice man in the tourist office in the stadhuis. The downstairs of the stadhuis is open to the public and is worth a look just for the elegant architecture and painted walls and ceilings:

Curved staircase in the stadhuis foyer
Lier Tourist Office in the stadhuis. Maps and lots of brochures (mostly in Dutch) are available along with friendly English-speaking help at the desk.

Back in town, we headed to Sint-Gummaruskerk, Lier’s main church. As we approached, the bells began ringing madly, an at-first-charming call to vespers that continued for 30 minutes, including our quick exploration of the church and our escape to the nearby Sint-Pieterskapel, an unremarkable old chapel save for its painted ceiling. Back outside the chapel, the clanging of the bells of Sint-Gummarus continued to echo off the surrounding buildings and the otherwise-quiet and immaculate residential neighborhoods, a racket that must get old if you live nearby. Enough already!

The bell tower of Sint-Gummaruskerk in the background
Interior of Sint-Gummaruskerk
Painted ceiling of Sint-Pieterskapel

After wandering a further stretch of the riverside park circling the town, we strolled back to the Grote Markt, now empty of the market and glowing in the afternoon sun. Clearly, this was prime time for a couple more local beers at café het Moment. I opted for the Pallieter tripel (a true Lier beer) while David had the Kempisch Vuur (an abbey tripel from Brewery Pirlot in nearby Zandhoven). Again, we found both to be really good, and better than their Rate Beer reviews, especially mine. More details on the beers in a later post.

Afternoon beers on the Grote Markt

Somewhat full from the beer and accompanying snacks, we opted for a light dinner on Zimmersplein, a narrow plaza lined with restaurants and bracketed on one end by the town’s iconic astronomical clock tower, the Zimmertoren, and on the other by the “Prisoner’s Gate” an old jail and part of the long-gone medieval city wall.

Zimmersplein

We snagged another prime outdoor seat, this time just in front of the complicated clock tower in a restaurant aptly-named Café Refuge. We ordered a couple of beers and quiche and salad, not expecting anything remarkable from the food. Happily, both the quiches (one pumpkin and chevre, and one broccoli and nuts) and salads (made with mixed greens, herbs, raisins, grapes, apple, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes) were atypical and excellent. A just-right end to a delightful, low-key day!

Zimmertoren  astronomical clock
Quiche and salad at Café Refuge by the Zimmertoren astronomical clock

Find out more about Lier (in English, Dutch, French and German) at the Visit Lier website.

Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come

David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.

Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.

If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!

Mechelen, Belgium: Why is this place not on tourist radar?? (And how awesome that it’s not!)

Grote Markt (Grand Plaza) in Mechelen

Located a mere 15-minute train ride from Antwerp’s Centraal Station and 15-25 minutes from Brussels, Mechelen, Belgium, is an overlooked gem. I’ve seen several lists of “Most Beautiful Towns in Belgium” (Beauty definitely abounds in Belgium.), but none mentioning Mechelen. Old Town Mechelen is delightfully reminiscent of Bruges and Ghent and lesser “most beautifuls,” but without the mobs of tourists. Mechelen is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the medieval St. Rumbold’s Tower that soars above the magnificent St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the Large Beguinage, a complex that once housed a religious sisterhood similar to nuns, but adhering to less strict vows. (Other beguinages can be found in other Belgian cities, including Antwerp.) With the weather forecast calling for bluebird skies and a high in the low 70F’s, David and I hopped the train yesterday (a mere 13 minutes from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station) to spend a gorgeous Sunday wandering the picturesque cobblestone streets and plazas of Mechelen.

St. Rumbold’s Tower soars above Mechelen

Mechelen offers a wealth of cafes and restaurants, chocolatiers, and shops and boutiques of every variety. Tour boats ply the Dyle that runs through the city, there’s a toy museum just across from Mechelen’s Nekkerspoel train station, and eight historical churches to explore. Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery, located a short way from the Old Town center near the beguinage, offers 2-hour tours as well as tour-free visits to their tasting room and brasserie. The brasserie serves all kinds of traditional beer-based and beer-friendly dishes paired with suggested beers. Het Anker brews some world-class beers and is a destination in and of itself, popular with tour groups from Brussels.

Bustling cafés on Vismarkt (Fish Market) Square in Mechelen
Walkway along the Dyle in Old Mechelen

There are not a ton of museums and the like in Mechelen and it’s a shame that some of it’s many preserved historical buildings aren’t open more regularly. Although, from March 11–May 21, 2017, the “Contour Biennale 8, “Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium” art project offers the opportunity to visit six such sites. One of the buildings open during the Contour Biennale is the “Hof van Savoye” from which Margaret of Austria ruled the Netherlands and where both her nephew Emperor Charles V and Anne Boleyn spent some of their formative years. We were able to duck inside the lovely courtyard with some of the people taking part in the Contour Biennale.

Courtyard of Hof Van Savoye
Exploring Mechelen on a gorgeous spring day

St. Rumbold’s Tower is open regularly and worth the climb to the top, both for the view and to visit the workings of the tower, including a crane operated by a huge hamster-wheel-like contraption for humans and a carillon, a mechanized device for playing the tower’s enormous bells.

Crane wheel inside St. Rumbold’s Tower
Carillon rotating drum

The hole through which objects were hauled up the tower by the crane provides a unique view down onto the pipes and keyboard of the cathedral’s massive organ.

Looking down on the cathedral organ

The cathedral itself boasts a magnificent altar, an Antoon Van Dyck painting of Christ on the Cross, and a spectacular carved wooden pulpit. A small museum in the ambulatory holds a limited but impressive collection of relics and medieval sculpture and paintings.

St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen

We had lunch outside a café on the main plaza in front of the confection-like old Staadhuis (Town Hall). Basking in the sun, sipping our Het Anker beers and admiring the fairy-tale view, we told our young waitress how much we loved her town.

View from our café: St. Rumbold’s Tower rising above buildings bordering the Grote Markt
Mechelen’s old Staadhuis with its confection-like roof

She credited the mayor, saying “ten years ago none of us liked our town.” Hmm. Since many of the most picturesque buildings go back 300-600 years judging by the “anno” signs visible on facades, I’m not sure what changes have been wrought in the last ten years, but most of the old buildings have been maintained and/or restored well. There are stylish new residences and commercial buildings amongst the old as well, and the Old Town is clean and prosperous-looking and apparently drawing more visitors. Kudos to the mayor of Mechelen!

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There are two train stations in Mechelen near to the Old Town: Mechelen and Mechelen-Nekkerspoel. We chose Mechelen-Nekkerspoel as the most convenient to Old Town and offering the most scenic stroll into the historic center. It’s also the closest (by a minute or two) to Antwerp. Mechelen Station is also within walking distance of Old Town, just a bit farther. As always, Google Map is your friend for these kind of decisions. Train tickets are available via Belgian Rail and are half-price on weekends. For more information on what the town has to offer, check out Visit Mechelen.

Carnaval de La Louvière in southern Belgium

[Beer tasting, the Tour of Flanders bike race, and general busyness with life in Antwerp distracted me from posting this promptly. The Carnaval de La Louvière was the weekend before last, March 26-28 9 (Sun. – Tues.)]

One of the first things I do after basic travel plans (dates, transport, lodging) are set is check the holiday and festival/event schedule for a destination. Bank holidays are especially worth knowing since they can change opening dates and hours for things you really want and/or need to do. Festivals and events can effect practical things, too (like anticipated crowds, parking, elevated prices, etc.), but they can also be tons of fun and unique experiences not to be missed.

Although we’re currently on our fourth extended stay in Antwerp, Belgium, it’s the first time we’ve been here at this particular time of year: Voila! Potential for new things to see and do! I’ve got several things in my sights for the coming weeks, but we felt like we hit the jackpot this past weekend when we hopped a train down to La Louvière in the south of Belgium for the annual Carnaval de La Louvière “Laetare” festival. I learned about La Louvière’s Carnaval while doing a little research pre-trip. La Louvière is in an industrial area of Belgium and it along with several surrounding towns have been hosting these mid-Lent carnivals featuring local characters called “Gilles” since the 1800’s.

Somewhat like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras “crewes,” various societies form groups of Gilles who participate in various festivities and parades, finishing off several days of festivities with bonfires. The Gilles wear very distinctive traditional costumes in the Belgian national colors of red, yellow and black. The most spectacular feature of the Gille costume is an enormous headdress of ostrich plumes, in gleaming white or tipped with color at the wearer’s discretion.

Otherwise, the costumes are nearly identical: barrel-shaped jackets stuffed with oat straw and matching pants, both covered with felt appliques of crowns and lions; white “caps” worn with or without the ostrich-plume headdresses; wooden clogs; belled belts; lace flourishes.

Gilles at the Carnaval de La Louvière

Each Gille carries a basket of oranges to hand or toss to spectators. The Gilles march along in a step intended to maximize the clacking of their clogs and the jangling of their bells.

A musical band including drums, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, souzaphones and sometimes euphonia and tubas. Periodically, the band would really fire up; then the Gilles would stop, face the band and begin a sort of semi-organized group dance consisting of more stomping and sharp quarter turns. After a bit of this, the whole group would move further along the parade route before the routine would be repeated. [Video of the Gilles’ dance is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]

Firing up the Gilles dance
A young Gille with carnival-goers in horse costumes
Lots of spectators were in costume. Hats like these, decorated with dried orange slices, were on sale for those who weren’t in costume but wanted to get in the spirit of things.

The parade–short in length and long in time–ended up on the main square where the various groups of Gilles and other variously-costumed participants converged via two streets. The growing mass group began the final “rondeau” a large circle dance filling the entire square.

Heading for the rondeau; even little ones get into the act
The final “rondeau”

Afterwards, spectators and participants poured out of the square, scattering to restaurants, food stalls, beer pubs and carnival rides until things geared up again later in the evening for more dancing and drinking.

Parade refuse: orange remnants and confetti (and a close up of those clogs)
After the rondeau, we opted for a surprisingly good burger and people watching at Le Goulaf’.

The Carnaval de la Louvière goes on for three days with the final festivities topped off by bonfires. You can learn more at the web site of Amicale des Sociétes du Carnaval Louvièrois. Nearby sister towns host similar Laetare festivals.

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The direct train from Antwerp took about 1.5 hours and dropped us off just blocks from the main action. The Carnaval is free, so we just wandered our way over and arrived just as the parade was really kicking off. We joined the crowd marching along with a group of Gilles, then moved along to other groups at whim. It was easy to get right along-side the Gilles and join in the action. Everyone was friendly and in high spirits…and the oranges were particularly good!

(Although there’s almost no difference between 1st and 2nd class on local Belgian trains, I opted for 1st class out of an abundance of caution, afraid that the train might be full when we were ready to leave. This turned out not to be the case at all, so the extra <$20 was wasted…save for when the conductor made a very loud and food-smelly group move to another car. That was actually pretty welcome as we’d been dozing until that mob plopped into the seats next to us. Anyway, if you decide to go to La Louviere by train, there’s no point in springing for 1st class. If you go by car, be warned that parking looked to be hard to find and several roads are closed off for Carnaval. Book tickets on the Belgian Rail site.)

Westvleteren 12: Scoring Two Cases of the Elusive “Best Beer in the World”

Fruits of a successful beer pilgrimage: David and our first crates of Westvleteren 12…and a 6-pack and glasses. It was hard not to get greedy!

Year after year, Westvleteren 12, a Belgian quadrupel beer brewed by Trappist monks in a rural Flanders abbey has been named the “Best Beer in the World” by the major beer rating sites. While I’m the first to say that claiming any food or drink to be the “best” of its kind is always going to be a subjective exercise, “Westy 12″ is undoubtedly an outstanding beer. It’s also really hard to come by. I’ve read that only five monks brew the beer and another five help when it comes time to bottle. I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are, but I am sure that the Westvleteren Abbey is a small beer-making operation with no signs that it cares to be anything larger. The monks’ primary focus is on being monks, not brewers. The reputation and mystique around Westvleteren 12 has led to a mad and highly competitive scramble to buy this elusive beer.

A Little Background on Trappist Beers
Trappist beer is brewed by Trappist monasteries. As of today, only 11 monasteries produce beer officially recognized by the International Trappist Association: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy, the United States (New Jersey). Many of these are very old breweries with recipes going back to medieval times, but one in the Netherlands and those in Austria, Italy and the U.S. are recent entries, only being recognized in the years since 2012. Some are tiny, like Westvleteren (producing only 4050 US bbl/year), while others are substantial producers, the largest by volume being La Trappe in the Netherlands which produces 124,000 US bbl/year. To be able to designate their beer as Authorized Trappist Product and display a special logo, these beers must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, the brewing should be secondary to and in keeping with the monastic way of life, and the brewery should not be a profit-making enterprise, but rather to support the monastery and the monastic lifestyle.

Westvleteren 12 and Our Beer Journey
I first heard of Westvleteren 12 in reading about Belgian beers prior to the first housesit David and I did in Antwerp. When we discovered our favorite local beerpub, Gollem, and attached ourselves to our favorite bartender/beer sensei there, Sam, I asked about this then-unpronounceable beer. Sam informed us they had it–at a very steep price since, except at the abbey, it’s a gray-market product. We balked then, but soon went for it at our second favorite Antwerp beerpub, the legendary Kulminator. We were total beer newbies at the time with no real way to evaluate except to say, “Hey, this beer is really good!” Sigh. We’ve come a long way.

Since then, David and I have done an awful lot of beer tasting, reading and even brewed our first batch of homebrew. David became so obsessed with The Beer Bible, a Christmas gift from my elder son, that he read it every night for over a year and lugged the tome with us around the world. (Thankfully, we’ve got it on Kindle version now, so can read up on iPad or cellphone…even sitting in a pub.) You can get your own addictive copy of The Beer Bible on Amazon.

Buying Our First 6-Packs of Westies at the Abbey Café
So, of course, as part of our beer odyssey, we wanted to try Westvleteren again at the abbey. When my younger son, Dillon, arrived to spend a week with us in Antwerp in August 2015, we used the opportunity to drive the hour and 40 minutes into rural Flanders where the St. Sixtus Abbey sits amid fields of crops and sheep.

Flanders fields on the road to the St. Sixtus Abbey

A modern and spacious abbey-owned café called “In De Vrede” (“In Peace”) lies across the road from the main abbey building.

In De Vrede, the St. Sixtus Abbey café in Westvleteren, Belgium

The three Trappist beers brewed at the abbey are always available to drink on-site at the café. These are Westvleteren 12, Westvleteren 8 (a tripel) and the Westvleteren Blonde. At random times 6-packs of whatever beer the abbey happens to provide are sold at the café shop. On that first trip, we were thrilled to learn that 8’s and blondes would be available in the café shop after 2pm, but disappointed that none of the top-of-the-top 12’s were available for take-away. Oh well, we consoled ourselves with breakfast Westy 12’s before showing Dillon some of our favorite World War I museums and sites until it was time to return for the afternoon beer sale. Back at In De Vrede, we happily joined a long line and bought the maximum two 6-packs/person of the unlabeled brown bottles. [The sum total of packaging information on a Westy bottle comes on the cap and in the simple molded glass collar on the bottle that reads “TRAPPISTENBIER.”]

Lining up in In De Vrede for 6-packs to go

Buying Cases of Westvleteren: The “Beer Hotline”
The only way to get more than those random 6-packs at the abbey is to make an appointment to pick up cases of beer. To do this, you have to consult the abbey’s website and click through until you get to their beer page. There you’ll find a page displaying a 2-week schedule: On the left is the current week with times blocked off when the “beer hotline” will be open for the abbey to receive calls from those wanting to place an order for beer. (Only calls from identifiable numbers, land or mobile, will be accepted.) On the right is a schedule for the following week showing the dates and times when the maximum 2 cases/car is available to pick up and which beer (12, 8 or blonde) will be available. David and I have done this twice now.  The first time, it took us over 400 calls, using three phones to get through to a monk. Usually, you are required to give a license plate number, but the monk very kindly agreed to take our name instead since we planned to rent a car to pick up the beer.

A screenshot of the Abbey web page described above with the 2-week schedule for reservation calls (on the left) and beer pick-up times the following week (on the right). For the coming week, the beer hotline will be open on Tuesday and Wednesday at the times shown. You can request 12’s on either day at the given times and Blonde on Wednesday from 10-12. Pick up days for the 12’s are the following M-Th. The only pick-up day for the Blondes is Saturday April 9.

The second time (this past week) it took us over 1100 calls to get through, again using three phones. Since the hotline opened at 8am that day, we started dialing in bed, getting busy signal after busy signal. Three times, we thought we’d gotten through only to have a Dutch-language recording of a female voice (apparently from the phone company) give way to yet another busy signal. Hungry and discouraged, we went downstairs to make breakfast, but kept doggedly dialing in the process. Finally, the recording gave way to an actual dialing and finally, a monk. This time we had a license plate to give (thanks to the friends for whom we housesit), chose one of the available dates the following week, and were done. Victory!

Part of the reason the monks ask for a license plate or identification is that the same vehicle or person cannot buy cases of beer from them again for 60 days. You must also agree not to resell their beer. This is a widely ignored prohibition and an active gray market exists in Belgium and elsewhere for the beer. We, on the other hand, buy for our own consumption, to cellar and to give away. Besides, there’s just something about lying to nice monks that just wouldn’t sit right!

Both times we’ve bought cases of Westvleteren beer, we’ve had a 1pm pick-up time. We drive over from Antwerp, arriving in time for lunch at In De Vrede (which I’ll review later) before picking up our cases. The iconic wooden crates are available at a small drive-through loop adjacent to the abbey.

The drive-through loop for beer pick-up at the St. Sixtus Abbey at Westvleteren

A lone monk mans the stacks of cases and will help load if need be, although he’s fine with you loading yourself.

Loading up crates of Westvleteren Trappist 12 beer

Once we have our beer, we pull forward to pay by credit card. (The monks don’t accept cash.) Although a single bottle of Westy 12 can run €13-20 on the gray market, at the abbey a case of Westvleteren 12 costs €42, a case of 8 is €37, and a case of Blonde costs €32. In addition, there’s a €12/case deposit that you can get back if you return the case and empty bottles to the abbey.

So What Does it Taste Like?
Now that we’re a little past “Hey, this is really good beer!”, how would we describe the taste of Westvleteren 12? Well, first, for the appearance: It’s a medium dark beer with a warm red-brown color and a dense tan head. It pours clear, but there’s often lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The nose is rich, molasses-y, fig-sweet with that wonderful Belgian “barny” yeast smell that conjures for me images of horses and the green pastures of Flanders. The taste is fig, prune, toffee/molasses, yeasty “barniness” and warm spices. (So, now we had to go open a bottle to double check our perceptions and report them in real-time. It’s a tough job, but we’re willing to go that extra mile!) Westvleteren 12 is well-carbonated, effervescent with tiny bubbles that foam in the mouth. At 10.2% alcohol, it’s a substantial beer, but the alcohol is not too forward. It’s wonderfully easy to drink.

A Westvleteren 12 and a Westvleteren Blonde at In De Vrede

I also really like the Westvleteren 8 and love the Blonde, which is harder to come by and needs to be drunk fairly quickly, not being amenable to cellaring like the 12 and 8.

And finally, how to get it home?
We’ve discovered that a wooden case of Westvleteren beer fits perfectly into the reinforced “medium-extra strong” cardboard moving box sold by Shurgard in Belgium (a branch of which in Antwerp is particularly handy to us) for €3.50. We wrap each bottle in bubble wrap to wedge it securely into the case. Then, we line the bottom of the box with foam pads and/or styrofoam peanuts, set the whole case inside, pour in more peanuts and tape like crazy, being sure to reinforce the corners. Packed like this, each case becomes our 2nd piece of luggage on our international flight home. It’s within airline size and weight limits, so there’s no charge. On our last flight home, our beer arrived perfectly, with no breakage or leaking. This time, we brought a light-weight duffel bag full of the recycled peanuts and bubble wrap to repeat the process. We’ll just fold up the duffel and stash it in a suitcase for the return.

A crate of Westvleteren 12 safely back in Texas

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Follow up to our latest transport of Westy 12’s back to the States, 5/2017: Our latest two cases (plus a few extras) made it home on British Airways in perfect condition; no leaks, no breakage. The handles on the cardboard boxes had started to tear despite our reinforcement, though, and we’re considering having the boxes plastic wrapped at the airport next time. (It would be best if the handle holes weren’t used at all.) There was also a small hole in the bottom of one of the boxes, but it was a non-issue given the protection afforded by the wooden crate and the layer of styrofoam on the bottom. We saved the styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the duffel and stored it away for repeat duty on our next trip to Belgium in the fall.

Mid-packing in Antwerp, before adding the final layer of styrofoam and sealing.
Both cases safely in Dallas with the worst damage to the boxes being at the handle holes.

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The St. Sixtus Abbey website is: http://sintsixtus.be/ It’s in Dutch for the most part, but hover over “Gasten en bezoekers” at the top then click on “Bierverkoop” to get to the information about buying beer. There you’ll have an option to choose “English” (or French or German) which will pull up a screen with the beer hotline number as well as the method and rules for buying their beer. Once read, close that window then click on the big green button that says “Bierverkoop, Ventes de Bières, Beer Sales, Bierabsatz”. This will take you to the screen with the 2-week schedule for calls and pick-up times described above.