Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Visiting Another Castle, World War Sites, and Beer!

Whew!  Just got back from dropping the girls off from school.  We walked in the rain.  I still don’t have a car so we have no other choice but to walk.  Even if I had a car though, we still would have walked.  I enjoyed it.  It’s just a slow steady rain, not much wind so we didn’t have to worry about the umbrella flying away.  If I didn’t have to get them to school, I probably wouldn’t force myself to go outside for a walk on a day such as this.  But, I had to go out and I actually walked slowly on the way back so I could enjoy the pitter-patter of the rain on the umbrella. 

Back to our vacation story.  Where were we?  Ah, yes, we were finishing up our time in the picturesque country of Luxembourg.  It was Friday and we needed to head back towards the English Channel where we would be catching a late afternoon ferry back to Dover on Saturday.  We decided to spend our last two days on mainland Europe exploring a couple of World War I and II sites AND visiting an Abbey where we needed to pick up some beer.  Yes, you read that right – our last stop before the ferry terminal would be the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren where the good brothers apparently make the best beer IN THE WORLD!  I kid you not – just check out the RateBeer website if you don’t believe me.  But more on this later. 

We headed back across the picturesque country of Luxembourg on Friday morning toward the English Channel and our first stop that day was in a town called Bastogne in Belgium, located in the area where the Battle of the Bulge took place, the largest and bloodiest battle that was fought by the United States during World War II.  Just outside of Bastogne stands a gigantic monument honoring the 76,890 American solders killed or wounded during the Battle of the Bulge - the Mardasson Monument.  The crown of the monument is engraved with the names of all fifty states.  It was quite the site to behold, not just because of it’s enormous size, but also to see the United States honored and represented in this way on foreign soil gave me a better appreciation of what a significant part the US played during the world wars.  
The Mardasson Monument
From Bastogne, we headed toward Lille, France where we would spend the night.  The weather was not cooperating with us.  When we arrived in the city of Lille late in the day, we were greeted by rain.  But we were not deterred from seeing a little of the city.  After checking into the hotel, we walked to the city center which, like many European cities is a large square with lots of restaurants, shops and impressive buildings around it.  After walking around for a bit and ditching out of the first restaurant we took a seat in because of the dodgy interior and very peculiar smell (don’t worry, we hadn’t even ordered anything yet), we found a restaurant with outdoor seating under a tent.  They go to great lengths in France to be able to eat outside regardless of the weather.  No offense France, but we did not see the point.  It was cold and damp, water was running across the ground underneath us and every now and then, the maître de from the restaurant would come outside to tip the water that was collecting on the roof of the tent off, which would run like a faucet right down next to Eric, splashing all over the ground at his feet.  Next time, we will eat inside.  On a happier note, the girls had another amazing kids meal that was better than what Eric and I ordered.  The children’s menus in Europe rock!

The next morning, we headed out of Lille early because we had two more stops to make before catching the ferry later on that afternoon.  Stop one was back in Belgium in a small town called Zonnebeke where the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 is located.  This is the area where the Battle of Passchendaele was fought – over a hundred days, half a million casualties fell for only 4 miles of ground.  The wonderfully interactive Museum focuses on uniforms, battlefield archaeology and artillery from World War I.  There’s a huge collection of artifacts on display and many pictures from during the war showing how this beautiful, picturesque area was turned into a barren, muddy wasteland because of all the fighting.  In fact, one plaque said a lot of soldiers died by simply drowning in the mud.  You get to walk through a dugout deep underground which the British solders were forced to build and live in because there was no cover left by 1917 aboveground - every structure aboveground had been wiped out during the War and there was simply no place to take cover.  They were forced to go underground.  At the end of the tour, you go outside and down into a series of trenches to get a feel for what trench warfare was like which was absolutely amazing to see.  I thought eating under a tent in the rain in Lille was a bit unpleasant – hmmmm, don’t think that compares to what the soldiers in these trenches dealt with day after day after day.  It's hard to describe what seeing these World War I and II sites up close and in person feels like.  It's very humbling and very interesting at the same time, and it's very sad to imagine what the whole experience was like for both soldiers and civilians alike.  And at the same time, I felt an enormous amount of pride and respect for the courage of those soldiers back during the World Wars and up until today, all the men and women serving in the armed forces.  The girls found visiting the Museum very interesting as well.  Being so young, they didn’t fully understand what it was we were seeing, but the Museum was so well done and really brought the war to life. I’m sure they will remember their visit and someday better understand the significance of it. 
A part of the trench we walked through.
Our last stop before catching the ferry back to England was The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren.  Now, you may be thinking we headed here to see some beautiful buildings, gardens, etc., but you are wrong.  We headed to this Abbey, in fact, to try and get our hands on some beer – some Westvleteren 12 to be exact.  These monks have been brewing beer for about 175 years and the Westvleteren 12 is touted as being the best beer in the world by many beer aficionados.  Now, this isn’t just any old microbrewery.  Don’t go looking for this fine Belgium beer at your local beer store because you won’t find it.  It is exclusively sold at the Abbey and nowhere else in the entire world!  In fact, you can’t even just pop in and expect to pick up a six-pack.  If you want to get your hands on some Westvleteren 12, you must follow these very specific rules:
(1) Call the Abbey between 1:30 and 3:30 (Belgium time) on the few days each month when they accept orders for their beer.  (2) Expect to try calling around a hundred times and MAYBE you’ll get through.  When 3:30 comes, if you haven’t gotten through to the beer phone operator, too bad.  (3) If you are lucky enough to get through, have your license plate number ready because you need to provide it to the operator as that same vehicle is not allowed to buy beer again for 60 days (you can’t call again for 60 days either – they track your phone number and you won’t even be able to get through).  (4) If you are lucky enough to connect with the Abbey, you will be provided with the date and time at which you can pick up the beer in person at the Abbey.  Don’t be late cuz they won’t keep it for you.

Eric wanted some of this beer.  Eric really wanted some of this beer.  He couldn’t call to order it in advance.  He was at work during their call time and I don’t have a phone that I can use to make out of country calls.  He was going to the Abbey none the less because, being a bit of a beer aficionado himself, he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to at least try a glass of the best beer in the world at the only place in the world it is served - the Abbey owned café and visitor center right across the street.  And, if you are really, really, really lucky, they just may have some Westvleteren 12 in stock at the small store in the visitor center – but don’t count on it!

Enjoying some sunshine, beer (Cokes for the girls), and cheese
No such luck on that Saturday.  They did not have any of the Westvleteren 12 available.  Eric wasn’t too disappointed because he knew it was a long shot anyway.  And he didn’t go home completely empty handed as they did have some of their Westvleteren Blond available at the store (not as prestigious at the 12, but still pretty good), so Eric got in line, bought 2 six packs and some of their awesome cheese to make me happy, we got ourselves a beer from the café (he did at least get to enjoy one Westvleteren 12) and sat outside and enjoyed the sunshine, beer and cheese before heading on to the ferry terminal. 
A happy, happy man!
Beautiful field of brussel sprouts!
Fun Fact:  Do you know where brussel sprouts come from?  Why, Brussels, Belgium of course.  Personally, I never put two and two together to make this connection, but while traveling to the Abbey to pick up the beer, we drove through field upon field of this peculiar looking plant neither of us recognized at first. Finally, Eric stopped the car so we could get a better look and there they were – stem after stem covered in beautiful round brussel sprouts.  After some Internet researching, we discovered that brussel sprouts are wildly popular in Brussels and are believed to have first been cultivated in Belgium, possibly as far back as the 13th century.  Hence the name.  Who knew?

We made it to the ferry terminal on time, headed back across the English Channel to Dover where we spent the night so we could explore the great castle of Dover sitting high above the town on top of the White Cliffs.  Our hotel sat right on the water’s edge, so before we headed to the castle the next morning, we took a stroll along the water and what should we see – some crazy people standing in swimming suits on the rocky beach in the 55 degree weather getting ready for a swim in the English Channel.  And that is exactly what they did.  After a few minutes, they all jumped in the water and away they went. 
Time for a swim!
Our final stop was the Dover castle.  This is one of the best-preserved castles in England and exploring the interior was fantastic.  You would go from a huge, colorfully decorated stateroom to a long narrow stone corridor where you expected to see a ghost around any corner.  The girls loved it!  After we toured the castle, we headed up to take a quick walk along the top of the magnificent White Cliffs, and then headed for home.  We set the bar high on our first major trip over here, so many beautiful and amazing sites to see.  Good food.  The girls are awesome travelers!  And of course, we headed home with a trunk full of Belgium beer, French wine, cheese and a box of the best darn chocolates I have ever had.  
The girls favorite room in the castle - the kitchen.  Time to make the kings dinner.

Are these cauldrons for making stew or cooking children?

View from high on top of the castle.

Spooky, dark corridor.

The throne room.

A cozy fire in the castle.

Time for bed.

We visited the castle right before Halloween and got to enjoy a ghost tour.

High on top of the White Cliffs.


  1. Hey Kris:

    I finally had some time and got caught up reading your blog -- I love it so much. England sounds amazing and my life in Bolivia is very different but has alot of similarities. I'm glad things are no nice for your family there and I really enjoy reading your blog.

    1. Thanks Tracy. Glad you are enjoying it. Good to hear from you. I've been thinking about you and Aubri and wondering how everything is going in Bolivia.