Writing as catharsis

Beers in Bruges: Part 2 of Lachlan’s Exhilarating European adventure

Posted in Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on September 19, 2010

25/06/10 – Bruges, Belgium.

So typically BelgiumWe left Paris early on our first leg of the Busabout tour. The bus was quite comfortable. It only took 4 hours to get to Bruges, and I was delighted to find it a very relaxed, quiet town. Our accommodation was pretty impressive for the price. Once we had checked in and offloaded our luggage we resolved to wander the streets, sampling a large array of exotic Belgium beers along the way.

Everything in Bruges seems to be quite cheap – a very generous portion of tasty Spaghetti Bolognese cost me a total of 5 Euros at our hostel restaurant. A pint of delicious Leffe Dark costs all of 2.5 Euros (which works out to be about $5 Australian. You’d usually expect to pay around $18 for that beer). A pint of Hoegaarden? A mere one-Euro-fifty.

The word around the town is that most locals do not like tourists. That assessment feels about right. Some of the locals were fairly cold to us – but I’m not sure I blame them once you consider that their idyllic, peaceful little town has been transformed into a tourist-infested boozefest. It must be said that perhaps an equal proportion of locals were actually quite helpful and friendly. In one pub we met a very nice local chap who insisted we must try his favourite beer (‘Roscherfield’ or something similar). A few moments later two pints appeared in front of us – he’d bought us two of them to try it. We chatted to him for a good hour or so.

Beers in BrugesThe night slowly turned hazy – as one would expect when spending countless hours drinking extremely heavy, strong Belgium beers with enough alcohol content in them to stun a moose. It must be said I invariably went for the most adventurous, strangest or strongest beers from whatever menu was thrust in front of me. There was definitely a threshold that was met and surpassed with reckless abandon. At one point we entered another pub in our seemingly endless succession of pubs. I ordered 2 pints while Matt went to the bathroom.

Then, he disappeared.

I found myself entirely alone in a strange Belgium pub, considerably intoxicated and holding two oversized and overproof pints of murky dark beer. I resolved not to let them go to waste and struck up a conversation with two girls who also happened to be from Australia. We were later joined by four Spaniards. We drank, conversed and generally enjoyed the pleasing effects of alcohol together before I decided to make my way back to the hostel. Matt was sound asleep, and treated me to another enthralling round of cacophonous snoring. It was about this time that I thanked Saint Christopher (the patron Saint of travel) for my enclosed headphones. I  drowned out his inebriation with the soothing sound of Bohren & Der Club of Gore. All in all the night was an immense success.

26/06/10 – Bruges, Belguim.

I awoke to white hot flashes of pain driving into my skull like a screwdriver. They seemed to scream at my mind: agony, pain and agony again. I was in the midst of a very severe hangover. Obviously the highly-alcohol content of Belgium beer does your brain absolutely no favours. The majority of the day was spent in various dramatic positions intended to portray my agony on the floor next to my bed. I supplemented the pain with doses of Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show: Great Job and The Venture Bros.

Mussels in BrugesWe eventually worked up the requisite momentum to get some lunch at around 3pm. I had a delicious pot of mussels – which is definitely a local specialty. The pot was enormous, almost comical in size. We were treated to a series of glances registering mild contempt and general distaste from our waiter. The next few hours were spent wandering through the main streets and markets of Bruges as we stopped off occasionally to look inside some of the many medieval chapels and churches. One purported to have an actual drop of the blood of Jesus Christ. I find the claim dubious personally – but why would they lie about such a thing? At the very least I think it could make for a very entertaining world-domination scheme for a rogue super-scientist.

In any case, we spent the last few hours of the afternoon trying to convince ourselves that we did not just waste an entire day in Belgium being hungover – but to little avail. I was not feeling particularly good, and I really don’t think I could absorb any of the sights in any meaningful fashion.

Flowers in BrugesI miss Monika very, very much. I found that whenever I was exposed to an amazing, inspiring or generally impressive sight I couldn’t help but think to myself how greatly improved the situation would be if Monika was here to share it.

I am still exhausted; lying in bed as I type this and flicking through Ted Hughes’ incredible collection of poems called The Life and Times of Crow. Today I also started reading Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Notes from the Underground, attempted to write a short poem and drew for all of 20 minutes. The latter was pretty much a failure.

We had a fairly cheap dinner at the Bauhaus restaurant just next to our hostel. Matt had a traditional beef stew cooked overnight in a dark lager which was absolutely amazing. We called it an early night and went to sleep.

27/06/10 – Bruges, Belgium.

We awoke early to meet a tour bus that was to take us around various World War 1 battlefields including Ypres, Paeshendaele, the Somme and Flanders Fields. Our tour guide was a very knowledgeable and passionately-animated Belgium man who runs the tour company with his Australian wife. Our tour group comprised of only 17 individuals, and – aside from one young Canadian – we were the only people under 45 years of age who had signed up. That is quite a sad fact upon reflection. I can vividly recall my sense of outrage when we booked the tour from our Busabout bus en route to Belgium; Matt and I were the only two of the forty young Australians onboard who were even mildly interested to see where millions had lost their lives in unimaginable misery. Conversely, a huge amount of people were extremely excited to learn they could do a walking tour based around Colin Farrell’s recent movie “In Bruges”. What a fascinating microcosm for the culture of youth.

One of many WW1 memorials in BelgiumThe day was fairly sombre. I felt as though I was finally going to gain some sense of this monolith of history that had cast a shadow over so many nations. Matt said he’d been waiting to go to where World War 1 was fought for at least eight years. For our first stop we walked over the treacherously flat fields where the Battle of Paeshendaele took place – in which almost half a million people lost their lives. We learnt one particularly astounding fact: since 2.5 billion shells (yes – two-point-five BILLION shells) had been fired in Belgium and France during the Great War the countryside is still littered with live, undetonated shells even to this day. Enough shells were dropped in the Belgium countryside to make three for every square metre of earth. Consider that for a second.

Every year fatalities are still recorded without fail as luckless farmers disturb undetonated shells with their tractors and ploughs. The farmers have been instructed to leave whatever shells they find by the side of the road for the army to pick up and safely detonate nearby – however; amongst these explosive shells are chemical shells, filled with chlorine or mustard gas which are not so easily disposed of. These chemical shells have not been able to be properly detonated and disposed of until very recently. We were also told of locals who have the extremely dangerous – but apparently lucrative – hobby of illegally collecting these shells for profit. Many will try to defuse them on their own. One of the guide’s friends had left two shells to be picked up by the army that very morning. They were stolen a few hours later by an old man on a push-bike who carried off the unstable shells in a flimsy woven basket.

The Belgium countryside during WW1It was remarkable to see how flat the Belgium countryside really is. The ground itself is comprised predominately of clay, so when exposed to constant shelling and rain most of the country is reduced to a vast, sickening black clay mud-pit of misery. Immeasurable numbers of men literally drowned in that mud. Wooden tracks had to be set up for supply lines and troops to march across. It was said that if you had a friend fall off the track and into the quicksand-like mud, you were under orders not to attempt to rescue them. Quite simply, they would not be getting out again unless they were able to jettison their 30kg packs within the first crucial seconds. Upon falling prisoner to the mud, many soldiers begged their friends to shoot them rather than face a slow death by drowning.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was absolutely nothing left of the Belgium countryside during the war apart from mud, debris, and charred trees. Barely a shrub – let alone a patch of grass – remained. It was as if organic life had been expelled. The countryside was transformed into a scene from Dante’s’ Inferno – a grotesque sea of black, formless sludge littered with millions of unburied, decomposing bodies. If that is not an image of hell on earth, then I do not know what is. We listened to the story of how the Germans bitterly introduced gas into the war. The mustard gas used ultimately seeped into the mud to harm those crawling through it months – perhaps even years – later. The ground was literally as poison sludge. The English, Canadian and ANZAC troops were initially without gasmasks; forced to make panicked, rudimentary replacements.

We heard stories of how General Hague emotionlessly sent wave after wave of troops into various massacres over the war. The average age for a soldier was 20 – and a considerable proportion of those who died were under 16 years of age. More distressing was the fact that at the time, shellshock was not understood as a medical condition; it was viewed as cowardice in the British army, and many of the young boys who suffered from it were executed by their own country. More bitterness spread when news of German soldiers making their bayonets jagged was passed around. The jagged blades create wounds that would not heal; giving those stabbed no chance of survival. If captured enemy soldiers were found to be in possession of jagged bayonets they were not taken prisoner – they were shot on the spot.

The sheer number of unmarked graves representing those forever lost in action is staggering. We visited Hill 60 – one of the highest points in the Belgium countryside at 60m about sea level. Hill 60 was taken from the Germans when the Australian Mining Corp tunnelled under German positions very gradually for 18 months, then exploded a series of extremely powerful mines underneath them. The explosions immediately killed 600 troops and traumatised many others. That day, the Australian troops marched on the hill to find the Germans without fight; they gave themselves up in tears; deafened or blinded from the blast. That manoeuvre is regarded as the most successful military operations from World War 1. We visited Hill 60 in its preserved form, observing firsthand the land deformed with craters from shell blasts and detonated mines.

We visited a number of major memorials for the war as well as a war museum in Ypres (I love that word so much; it is pronounced “Yeep”). We stopped by a farmhouse which boasted a considerable collection of shells as well as some amazingly fresh strawberries. We visited a restored British trench. Shockingly it is the only trench still intact in the entire country. All of the preservation work was done by a group of seven volunteers without any help from the Belgium government. Our tour guide was quite bitter on this point. He explained that even now the government refuses to contribute to the upkeep of the trench, the result being that the dugout is completely filled with water – a relic left to rot away. We also visited the township of Ypres which was completely flattened during the war, only to be rebuilt to the original medieval plans wherever possible.

John McCrae - In Flounders FieldsThe countryside is also still littered with bodies. The government proposed to build a highway out to the sea, but these plans were met with a very vocal protest when it was estimated at least 1,000 buried bodies would be disturbed in the process. That is not exactly a problem that most nations face. The amount of corpses that still litter the countryside – some only buried 50cm beneath the surface – are a sad reminder of that disgraceful failure of humankind. Many bodies are still uncovered each year by farmers and construction workers.

One of the last sites we saw was a preserved British bunker, built on top of a German pillbox at Hill 60. We finished off the tour by visiting the ‘Advanced Medical Dressing Centre’ where the famous medical officer John McCrae wrote his poem ‘In Flounders Fields’. If you’re not familiar allow me to reproduce it here. I quite like it.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Once more we had quite a sobering experience as we walked around the crude “medical centre” where thousands would have died in agony – bleeding to death or suffering amputations without the aid of any painkiller. I was very pleased to find that – in stark contrast to the grim nature of the tour –the Belgium countryside hosted a beautiful range of flowers that dot the flat landscape with vibrant purples, yellows, reds, pinks, oranges and blues.

That night we dined at a fairly fancy restaurant and enjoyed a very nice meal of mussels, shrimp and lobster with a very tasty rosé. After the meal Matt again invited me to sample his snoring prowess. I estimate he literally disturbed me from sleep at least 25 times. I’m starting to wonder when I’m going to get a reasonable night’s sleep again on this trip. One of our neighbours next door is a small child who likes to shriek and cry and scream hysterically at fairly regular intervals, and at extremely loud volumes. Bless his heart the little tyke.

Tomorrow around midday we leave for Amsterdam in The Netherlands – the country of my grandmother’s origin.


Lachlan’s Exhilarating European adventure

 

  1. Picturesque Paris
  2. Beers in Bruges
  3. Drugged and Damned in Amsterdam
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4 Responses

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  1. […] Beers in Bruges Tagged with: Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley, Arc du Triumph, Da Vinci, Eiffel Tower, France, Hotel du Lausanne, Kuala Lumpar, Le Saint, Louvre, Michelangelo, Mona Lisa, Montmartre, Napoleon, Notre Dame, Paris, Picasso, Rembrandt, Salvador Dalí, St. Augustine, The Doors of Perception, Venus de Milo […]

  2. 187 said, on October 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Beautifully written, lovely.

  3. Lachwhip said, on December 12, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Thank you very much.


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