Saturday, February 26, 2011


We left Bruges at 0830 on Sunday morning to drive an hour south to the area around the small city of Ypres (pronounced, i prә). Ypres is in the Belgium province of West Flanders about thirty miles from Dunkerque and the English Channel. The town played a pivotal role in the battles of World War I and, as a result, the area surrounding Ypres became known as Flanders Fields. 700,000 allied and axis soldiers were killed in the fighting around Ypres. Although German forces surrounded the city on three sides, other than one single day during the war, German soldiers would only enter Ypres as prisoners of war. Just north of the city Germans used poison gas on the western front for the first time releasing 168 tons of chlorine gas in April 1915. Mustard gas, called Yperite after the city, was also used for the first time near Ypres in late 1917.

British, Canadian, Australian and many other Commonwealth countries would supply troops in the battles around Ypres. British troops intentionally mispronounced the city's name calling it Wipers. By the end of the war 60 different countries had military forces that fought on Flanders Fields. Ypres was an important strategic point in Germany's attempt to sweep through Belgium and enter France from the north. Once the battle lines became relatively stagnant the trenches would run all the way from the North Sea through Belgium and France to the Swiss border.

There were three major battles of Ypres, October/November 1914, April/May 1915 and July to November 1917. The city was repeatedly bombarded by German artillery and, as a result, Ypres was totally destroyed by the end of the war. Amazingly, after the war, using German reparation money, the town was rebuilt and some of Ypres' most impressive medieval buildings were reconstructed to nearly the original design.

Our first stop before driving into Ypres was the Hooge Crater Cemetery just east of the city. Hooge Chateau and stables was a pivotal point of numerous fierce conflicts between British and German forces, changing hands seven times. In July 1915 British forces tunneled almost 200' to beneath the German position and exploded a huge mine that created a crater 40' deep and 130' wide. Germans would use flamethrowers for the first time during the battles here.

Hooge Crater Cemetery originally contained 76 graves but after the Armistice graves were brought from fourteen other cemetaries. Today there are 5,923 Commonwealth servicemen buried at Hooge Crater Cemetery. 3,579 are unidentified.

This soldier is believed to be buried somewhere in the Hooge Crater Cemetery.

A British soldier. Some graves contained the remains of four or five soldiers.

Entering Ypres from the east you drive through Menin Gate Memorial. This memorial was built after the war to commemorate British Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave and died before August 16, 1917. Every night since 1928, at 8PM, to honor the soldiers of the British Empire who died defending the town, all traffic is stopped around the Gate and buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post. During World War II the Germans forces occupying Ypres prohited the ceremony. But, on the first evening of liberation, September 6, 1944, the observation was resumed.

Saint Martin's Cathedral was originally built in 1221 and completely destroyed during World War I. It's been restored but with a higher spire.

Cloth Hall, a huge commercial building, built in the 13th century. It too was destroyed and rebuilt. Complete renovations were not finished until 1967. Today it houses the remarkable, interactive In Flanders Fields Museum, which depicts Ypres' role in WWI. The reconstrucion is so amazing, if you weren't aware of it's history, you would certainly believe Cloth Hall had been built hundreds of years in the past.

A quote from HG Wells at the entrance to the museum.

West of Ypres is an area called Sanctuary Woods, Hill 62. Original trench layouts are still visible here. British forces used this wooded area as a field hospital which, as a sanctuary for wounded soldiers, resulted in its name. These galvanized metal sheets were not used during the war but are needed today to prevent the trenches from falling in.

Artillery craters are still visible. This property is still owned by the family of the farmer who returned here after the war and chose to leave a portion of the trenches intact.

Time to start our four hour drive back home. Driving into and out of Ypres we passed numerous World War I cemeteries, allied and German both. Our visit here was poignant and very moving. Well worth the time and we easily could have spent days taking in all the signigicant points of interest in the area. Bruges and Ypres turned out to be a great trip; fun and educational. Plus, the beer was good too.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Click on pictures to see a larger image.

A couple years ago we watched the movie "In Bruges." It's a dark comedy that we liked very much and, although we're not big Colin Farrell fans, he was very good in it and actually won a Golden Globe award for his performance in this movie. After watching "In Bruges" we figured we'd like to go there sometime if the opportunity arose. So now we're here in Europe and last weekend the opportunity did indeed arise.

Before we left for Bruges (Dutch spelling is Brugge) we noticed that all our recent destinations, Bamberg, Berlin, Buchenwald, Bitburg, have all begun with B and this one is a double B; Bruges, Belgium. We'll probably have to break that trend on our next trip.

Anyway, Bruges (pronounced Brooj) is a wonderful city with a colorful history. In the 12th to 15th centuries it was the main commerical city of the entire world. During those years it grew to a population of 200,000, a huge city in those days. However, it's access to the North Sea became silted over and its economic role rapidly fell behind that of Antwerp. By the end of the 1800s its population had fallen to 50,000 and many considered it a dead city. The boom in international tourism has made Bruges a thriving city once again. Jeff and I were in Bruge last weekend on a mid-February Friday and Saturday. The streets were full of tourists. It's hard to imagine what Bruges must be like in the spring and summer.

Well we had a great time in Bruges!! Here's the stuff we did.

We drove into the city at noon and checked into our hotel which was a very short walk from the Markt, Bruges' main square. The most prominent feature in the entire city is the Belfry on the south side of the Markt. Since the Belfry plays a major role in the movie "In Bruges" that was the first picture we had to get. The Belfry was formerly a treasury. It stands 84 meters high and it takes 366 steps to get to the observation level.

On the opposite side of the Markt from the Belfry are these colorful buildings that now is a row of great restaurants. We were hungry and needed something to eat and drink before we started our afternoon activities. We ate in the far left building.

Jeff and I had some of the local faire to eat and a Belgium lager; Jupiler.

After eating we walked over to our first attraction but along the way we were inundated with chocolate. Belgium chocolate is world famous and Bruges has 72 chocolate stores in the old town. This store had a rather weird way to present their chocolate. Four pieces of chocolate in isolation. I suppose there's supposed to be some kind of symbolism here. Our interpretation was to go to the next store.

Well, yes it's strange but it must be a big seller because just about every chocolate store was selling some form of it.

Finally to our destination. De Halve Maan (Halve Moon)Brewery tour. Founded in 1856 it's the only brewery that still operates in the old town. At one time there were over 3000 breweries in Belgium. Today, just 173.

Brugse Zot is the top beer brewed at De Halve Maan. It's won highest honors at a number of world beer competitions. It is available in the US too. Of course, this free sample came with the tour.

After the brewery tour we had to check out a couple pubs that Jeff had read about. On the way we spotted this rather unique bicycle. Not surprising they came up with something like this since bikes are a major form of transportation in Belgium.

On our way we walked through the Markt again. The lights at dusk made for a very nice affect. Our little bit of art, no symbolism attached.

Almost to our first pub when Jeff made a sudden stop. It was like the culmination of a life long search, finally, the Beer Temple. Nice store.

First pub we were looking for, Rose Red. Wonder where they got the idea for the decorations?

We wanted to sample as many Trappist beers as possible while in Bruges. There are 171 Trappist monasteries in the world. Of those, only seven are brewerieis; six in Belgium and one in The Netherlands. To be an authentic Trappist beer it must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery under the control of Trappist monks and the profits must go to some type of assistance program. At the Rose Red we had La Trappe. Very good!

Our last stop of the evening was a place that was on the list of best pubs in Bruges and also best restaurants, Cambrinus. They advertise 400 available beers. Their menu was about two inches thick with a few pages of food and the rest a list of their beers.

Walking back to the hotel, past the Belfry at night. The Belfry is a 13th century bell tower that contains 48 bells that play various tunes throughout the day.

DAY 2. We had signed up for a Segway tour of the city. What great fun!!. The Segways were very easy and our tour guide was great too. They took our camera to take pictures for us during most of the tour since they didn't trust us driving their machine and simultaneously taking pictures.

Here's a couple pretty scenes in Bruges.

This is a housing development that was built in 1607. It was only for poor woman and children and some nuns. Men were not allowed inside the walls of this area because they were such notorious drunks back at this time that they were not to be trusted. (Things really haven't changed all that much. Haha!) These little houses are very small and inhabited even today. Originally, they had no toilets until three community outside stalls were built just to the right of us in this picture. Long walk for the folks at the far end.

Another little housing area for poor women. The building with the 1713 on it is the smallest church in Bruges. To the left of the church is one of the little homes. Woman who lived here had to promise to pray in the church twice a day. Seems like a fair trade for a free house.

This area is a convent. Twenty nuns, whose ages range from 55 to 92, still live here. Guess they need to get a new recruitment program. I thought these trees were interesting. Kind of obvious where the wind normally blows from.

This is Love Lake. It got it's name because this is where the proper ladies and gentlemen strolled during Bruges' golden era. Apparently strolling was all that happened along the shoreline and the surrounding woods, hence the name, Love Lake.

After the Segway tour we walked to some of the sightseeing highlights in Bruges. This statue, entitled Madonna and Child, located in the Church of Our Lady, was the only work by Michelangelo to have left Italy during his lifetime. It's a relatively small sculpture, only about four feet tall.

This is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. During the Second Crusade in the 1140s a returning knight brought back a vile of blood that was purported to be the blood of Jesus Christ. That relic of the Holy Blood is kept here.

We were lucky enough to be there when the relic of the Holy Blood was displayed. The vile of blood is layed on a display table and covered with thick plastic. People are allowed to place their hands on the plastic cover and say a pray or just look. The priest there watches over the people and cleans off the plastic after each person finishes their viewing.

OK, Jeff said that's enough sightseeing. So we walked to Café Vlissinghe, the oldest pub in Bruges, founded in 1515.

We were tired from all the sightseeing and the recuperative powers of the amber nectar came through once again. A nice Belgium lager, Vedett.

Inside Café Vlissinghe. Just a single square room about 20' x 20'. Big clear windows. Very cozy.

The heat in Café Vlissinghe was supplied by this old coal burning stove. It was cranking out some big time BTU's.

't Brugs Beertje was on our list of pubs to visit and what a great place. It was packed but the guys working here were so friendly.

We each had a different Trappist beer. Westmalle Tripel on the left and a Rochefort 8 on the right. Both have just over 8% alcohol content. Rochefort also makes a 6 and a 10. Both beers were great!

The last pub on our list was down this little cobble stoned alley. I'm standing here in the entrance to the alley. Luckily we found it on our first walk by.

About a 100' down the alley we found Staminee de Garre. It's a quirky, two story pub, both floors are small rooms with creaky wooden floors. We sat at a table with a British couple and had so much fun talking with them that we forgot the picture of our beer, Gulden Draak, Golden Dragon; a very dark beer with a surprisingly light taste. Tasty!

Well, we finished Day 2 with a nice meal and stopped in at the ice cream shop next to our hotel. The end of a great day.

Bruges was a wonderful experience. It is such a beautiful city that each time you turned a corner you just had to say "Wow" another amazing sight. We had one more day in Belgium which we would spend about an hour south of Bruges but that little adventure is for our next blog.

Monday, February 21, 2011

German Hooters

No, not those kinds of hooters; the restaurant kind of Hooters. There is one, just one, here in Germany and it's only 30 minutes from our house in the town of Neunkirchen (translates to nine churches, so we assume there must be that many in the town). Hooters in Germany is almost identical to Hooters in the US. Same celebrity pictures on the wall. Same pretty young ladies in the same outfits. Wings tasted almost the same, maybe a little more butter flavor but, still, very good. You could put this Hooters down in any city in the US and not notice a difference. Well, except for the two things we saw. Beers are available in the big, heavy one-liter glass mugs and, like most other German restaurants, it's OK to bring in your dog and let it curl up under the table, which we saw a few of the Neunkircheners do.

Here's the Hooters in Neunkirchen. Don't ask me what that large cylindrical structure is in the background. I don't think there was any intentional symbolism there but seems to go amusingly with the Hooters theme.

A little strange drinking Dutch beer, in an American themed restaurant, in Germany, but, as the Hooters saying goes, it's "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined."

Standard hot wings. Kind of over did it with the curly fries.

Everything tasted great and it was a refreshing change from schnitzel. Mondays and Tuesdays are all-you-can-eat for ten euros so we'll probably get back there again when the hot wings low-level light goes on again.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Beer and Guns

Back during the Cold War, most of the US fighter bases in Europe built Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) to protect their jets from a Soviet attack. These structures still exist today and are in use by the active US fighter wings at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, Aviano Air Base in Italy and at Spangdahlem Air Base here in Germany. Most NATO fighter bases have and use HAS's also. Of course, with the Cold War long over, there are numerous closed bases across Europe. One problem countries have when deciding what to do with these disused bases, what to do with the HAS's? By design a HAS is a nearly indestructible building. The expense to tear them down would be huge and, as a result, most countries have decided to just lock them up and leave them in place. Sembach Air Base is about 15 miles east of Ramstein, a 20 minute drive from our house here in Weilerbach. The operational side of the base has been closed for over 15 years. The runway was pulled up and the land is now used by grazing sheep. The HAS's at Sembach have been taken over by a number of companies for various uses; storage facilities, actual company offices or just painting the side of the HAS like a billboard. However, one use of an old HAS at Sembach is quite unique.

This is a side view of a HAS. The doors and front opening are on the left. Two A-10's could be pushed into a single HAS and then closed up. The fan tail on the right is the rear of the HAS. Doors at the rear could be opened and a jet inside could then run its engines with the exhaust diverted by the fan tail.

Here you can see the front doors of the HAS that would split and slide open to either side. Behind this front HAS you can see the unique use of one of the other HAS's at Sembach.

It's a Schützenhaus (Shooting House), Zur Zielscheibe (The Target). It's an indoor shooting range.

The folks at the Zeilscheibe removed the sliding doors from the front of the HAS, no small feat. Then they built and attached a gasthaus on the front of the HAS. Shooters fire their guns toward the back of the HAS. Last Saturday day Jeff and I were there and found gun enthusiasts from Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, all participating in Gunsmoke 8, Westernschießen (Western Shoot). See the second story windows? That's where the owners of the gasthaus live.

Well, here's the beer part. Jeff and I had a Bischoff in the gasthaus and watched the shooting through the rear, soundproof windows. Even though the walls and windows were soundproofed, when the shooting started the windows reverberated and muffled booms could be heard.

Here's the gun part. Can't see the shooters all that well. There were actually two, parallel identical ranges. This is looking back into the old HAS. Most of the shooters were wearing western style clothing; cowboy hats, chaps, vests, a couple with sheriff badges. The music in the gasthaus and piped into the shooting range was country western but with German singers and lyrics. They were shooting all sorts of western rifles and pistols; muzzleloaders, winchesters etc.

Shooting clubs are very popular in Germany. In fact, at Oktoberfest two of the tents are specifically named after the German love of shooting; Armbrustschützen and the Schützen-Festzelt. Not surprisingly, you have a love of beer and a love of shooting, a beer establishment linked to a shooting range. Germans are so smart.