Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.
We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.
Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African
Bastogne was a key point of conflict in that infamous Battle of the Bulge. Though the town itself isn’t much to write about, the history is jaw dropping, serious and mind-boggling. Bastogne does have a cosy enough main-street scene with sufficient cafés and restaurants to explore the many many beers from the area and to refresh your emotions after your visit to the War Museum and war sites. No traveller can afford not to visit Bastogne and spend decent time in the Bastogne War Museum.
It justly is one of the most exquisite museums I have been to and where the story of the Battle of the Bulge is told through the eyes of four different participants:
- Emile, a thirteen year old Belgian schoolboy
- Mathilde, his Belgian teacher
- Hans, a German officer, and
- Robert, an American corporal
The presentations and storyline is good and top-notch, with a practical and conciseness about the entire experience. This museum is a must see and should be very high on any European trip to-do list.
Though I may seem overly enthusiastic about a War Museum, it must always be remembered what lunacy the entire affair was. Specific words from that museum that is stuck in my head include the reference to Hitler and his German army’s motivation to ‘indicate their superiority and invade Poland’, which started the war, as well as the following phrase:
‘Hitler owes his victory as much to the negligence of the democratic parties and their political manoeuvring as to his electoral successes, won by populist promises to overcome the crisis and restore German power. Having risen to power through parliamentary democracy, the new regime soon shows its true colours’.
These words sound to close for comfort in the world wide 2019 politics. It is estimated that 50 to 65 million people were killed in WW2, plus a further 15 to 20 million by war related famine and disease. It is too horrific to contemplate.
We headed off to Dinant and surrounds for a day trip, and soon realised when Jacques Brel sings about ‘mijn vlakke land’, he really refers to Flandres, where ‘the churches seem to be the only mountains’, and not Belgium in general. Here, in the Belgian Ardenne, the scenic splendour includes mountainous forests and gorgeous river valleys, with beautiful towns lacing the hills and valleys. Dinant is such a town, on the banks of The Meuse (Maas in Dutch) river. Though a small town, Dinant should not be underestimated at all. Dinant, as with the entire Belgium, have seen its (un)fair share of war and horror. The battle of Dinant in 1916 became known as the Rape of Belgium for the atrocious massacre of 674 unarmed civilians by the Germans, while the town also commemorates the bravery of Charles da Gaulle who was wounded in battle there with a statue in his honour. I however prefer two other reasons for Dinant’s fame. In 1152 the Abbaye Notre Dame de Leffe was established on the eastern banks of La Meuse and as long back as 1240 the monks started to brew that beautiful full round blonde called Leffe Blonde. Continue reading though, to get to my beer report in more detail. The other positive reason I enjoy about Dinant’s history is that it’s the birthplace of one Adolphe Sax, the inventor who founded the saxophone in 1840. The bridge over the river hosts a couple of saxophones in his honour.
Globalisation is nowadays visible on a couple of new frontiers. On the banks of La Meuse in Dinant one has a choice of many restaurants with beautiful views of the river and the Leffe Abbey across the river. It was still breakfast hour and with a decent coffee and croissant in my mind a sat down in good faith. Although I’m aware of the safe mannerism of browsing the menu before committing to a restaurant, this was nor the hour nor the setting to merit such nit-picking safety precautions. I had a decent coffee I can confirm, but I’m not sure that my French Belgian anticipation had me prepared for the necessity to have to settle for Chinese spring rolls for breakfast. They were tasty though, but still, it seemed to be croissant time.
Durbuy claims to be the smallest city in the world. Other than the fact that John 1, Count of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia declared it a city in 1331, it has no other credential to justify being called a city. You can actually walk through this city in less than 10 minutes. If quaintness, architectural splendour and mere awe factors are the criteria though, I buy into its city status. Its situated in a lush valley on the banks of the river Ourthe and makes a perfect stop for wandering around, trying to get the best angle and light for Instagram and then finding something to eat so that you can proceed with your continuous experimenting with the multitude of beers on offer.
Craft breweries are a newish worldwide phenomenon, except that it’s not at all new. Europe is scattered with what is essentially ‘craft’ beers, of which many originated in the Abbeys where the monks perfected the art of brewing. Nowadays these ‘craft’ breweries obviously produce on much larger scale to quench the omnipresent Belgian (and tourist) thirst. And this is where I thoroughly enjoyed my five days Belgium beer belly bulge and braai tour. Here is my summary of some of the beers I tested.
|Leffe Blond||Since 1240 – smooth full-bodied and curvy Blond that stood the test of time. 6.6% alcohol easy connoisseur pale ale|
|Maredsous Bruin||A young beer, brewed since 1963. Intense dark Bruin (Brown) beer with a distinct fruity flavour, even with a hint of Wilson toffee. 8% alcohol|
|Durboyse Blonde||Since 1331 – this 8% alcohol blonde has a definite preference for the sun and beach with a distinct flavour of the east coast. ‘Dis lekker by die see!’|
|McChouffe||Youngest and a dwarf that became a giant brewery since 1982. Dark humorous 8% alcohol Belgian beer leaving an enchanted taste which is further enhanced when you dip your beard in the foam; not a favourite with the ladies. Hints of aniseed and liquorice|
|Orval Trappiste||Now this is a serious quality aperitif beer with a serious history, brewed in the Abbaye Notre Dame d’Orval in the woods in Southern Ardenne. It’s a world classic brewed since about 1628 though the current brewery was restored in 1931. 6.2% alcohol|
|Trappiste Rochefort 6||At 7.2% alcohol by far the lightest of the three Rochefort beers, brewed since 1899 in the current brewery. It’s a delightful darkish Belgian bitter brew with a subtle but distinctive hint of malt|
|Lupulus Hibernatus||Sleepy in brand but serious in character with 9% alcohol, intense dark bittersweet beer with a definite hint of coffee. Wolf in sheep’s clothing since 2004|
|Gauloise Blonde||Brewed since 1858 presenting a smooth creamy head and 6.3% alcohol. A playful light Blonde suggesting pepper and vanilla|
|La Corne du Bois des Pendus||5.9% alcohol pale ale. After breaking through the delightful creamy head it enchants with a subtle citrus and rose reference. Grabbing the bull by the horns, this pleasing aperitif is drank from a unique horn shaped glass|
|Rulles Blonde||New kid on the block established 2000. 7% alcohol and a blonde to be handled with care. Easy drinking yet rich and complex with every sip, enticing you into wanting another|
I listed 10 beers of the more than 800 (yes, you read correctly, there are 800) Belgian beers above. I’m no beer fundi. To say the truth, I can taste the difference between a Bruin and a Blonde, and that’s about it, but I do enjoy having beer in these parts of the world for the sub-culture, branding and glasses that come with it. Each brew has its specific stylish glass, which mostly resembles an Abbey style chalice. The La Corne du Bois des Pendus, however, immediately drew the attention of the three Americans at the table behind me, as the glass is in the form of a goat horn, and has a neat little wooden stand to keep it up straight. As soon as my La Corne was delivered, the Yanks glanced across and ordered three La Cornes. I expect to receive my sales commission from Ebly Brewery soon.
I was so impressed with the story of the Trappiste Beers and specifically Orval, that we took the scenic route to visit the Abbaye Notre Dame d’Orval. The ruins of the original abbey makes for nice photographic challenges and the 1931 rebuilt new abbey impresses with its sheer size and architecture. This is still the facility where modern day Orval is brewed, complete with an ‘off-sales’ and shop.
As mentioned earlier, our gîte was ideal, and provided us with added comfort by having a veranda area with a braai, nogal. A further fun past time is to find good meat for the braai as my experience is that the pedantic European culture somehow believes in the misnomer that meat should be lean. I was fortunate enough to find some decent quality T-bone- and rump steaks at a little butcher in Bastogne. I am convinced though, that this was not from the local ‘blanc bleu Belge’ cattle we’ve seen in the fields. They are particularly muscular cattle and I honestly doubt of those fatty and marrow soft steaks I procured could come from those muscular beasts.
The long spring evenings spend around a fire and braai perfected a most educating and enjoyable 6 days in the Belgian Ardenne, a mere 200km from my house.
On my way back home, we discovered a real traveller’s gem by chance. As I kept my eyes on the traffic, Heleen saw a terrific example of ‘tank traps’ next to the road. They are clearly tagged with an Internet reference informing the traveller that it was built in haste and naively by the Belgians hoping it would keep the German enemy out! For further information on similar tank traps or ‘dragon teeth’ by the Germans, read about the Siegfried Line.