Time for a History Lesson

We just returned from a weekend road trip to southern Belgium which took us to Waterloo, the site of Napoleon’s last stand, Rochefort, to watch soccer on an outdoor big screen, and Bastogne, to see the site of the Battle of the Bulge. But really that isn’t a complete list of all that we saw on our way through small villages like St. Hubert, Tenneville, and Foy to name a few. More to come on that adventure, but first it’s worth noting that we passed another week in Brussels, seeing more of the city despite some heavy traffic thanks to the NATO summit, and plenty of driving to and from Ghent for me for client work.

I know I mentioned the city driving and traffic in my previous post, but I don’t think I fully understood what people meant when they said the traffic can be very bad, until my experience on Wednesday morning this week. I feel compelled to share this story because it’s pretty funny in hindsight… it was far from that in the moment, but I hope to look back on this memory in a few years and laugh really hard. Apologies in advance for the rambling, feel free to skip ahead if you’re sick of hearing about traffic.

I’ve been commuting to Ghent for client work recently, which is normally about a 50 minute drive during the summer months when traffic in the morning is lighter. Well you maybe heard that the NATO summit was in Brussels this week, which means world leaders need to get around town and the rest of us just have to deal with it.  I’ve gotten used to taking a few side streets to get on the Ring of Brussels (basically their belt-line highway that circles the city), which then puts me on my way to the local office or on to Ghent. So on Wednesday morning, I left for Ghent at my normal time, not knowing at the time that mine and everyone else’s commute would be severely disrupted by closed highway on-ramps.  I attempted to take my normal route, but realized that wasn’t possible when I saw the police blocking the on-ramp.  I thought that wasn’t a good sign considering I only knew of that on-ramp, but decided to follow the line of cars ahead of me since my map wasn’t recalculating a new route.  After a few circles, I ended heading back in the same direction, but to a different ramp- no luck.

I realized I now had to pull-over and consult all my resources at my disposal – Apple, Google, and Waze maps. NONE, I REPEAT NONE OF THEM had a different route suggestion to get my anywhere outside the city, so I decided I had nothing to lose and was going to just try to find the nearest main thoroughfare and hope for the best.  As I was driving around, Waze finally picked up a new route, so I once again gave that a try… the on-ramp was closed and now after about an hour of driving around the city aimlessly, I was getting very close to needing a bathroom break. At this point, I had no choice other than to line up bumper to bumper with everyone else in the city who seemed to finally find the one way out of here that was still open.  There was hardly any movement on that road for another 30 minutes and I was beginning to think of alternatives to making it to a bathroom (there were no gas stations in site!!!) but Waze must have sensed my desperation and told me that I could make a left turn and wind down some side streets to avoid the congestion and get on an on-ramp a few miles away. I was doing mental math to figure out how much longer I would have to drive once I was on the Ring in order to find a gas station when I spotted the small café on my left and decided this was my chance.  I realized I’d have to order a coffee to go before I would be permitted to use their restroom, but she was nice enough not to give me that weird of a look.  Back on the road, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had now bypassed the worst of the traffic and was on my way to Ghent again. I was feeling better despite it taking me over an hour and a half to just get outside the city, that was until I spilled my coffee on myself.  It was a solid 2.5 hour start to a day when I was meeting some team members for the first time.

With the weekend approaching and Dan and I talking about a short road trip through southern Belgium, I was on-board as long as long as I wasn’t the driver. We booked a Bed & Breakfast last minute Friday, and on Saturday morning, we headed out of town with our first stop in Waterloo to check out the site of Napolean’s last stand during the famed 100 Days. We’ve been listening to an audio book on the French revolution (as told by a UW-Madison professor actually), so it was especially cool to see history in real-life, even if we were too cheap to pay the 17 euros to go into the museum and take in the view from a top the Lion’s Mound.  Honestly, we thought the view from the ground was pretty spectacular as this huge man-made hill rose from the farm-fields as an emblem to the Allied victory over the “little man” Napolean’s imperial troops. Dan provided color commentary for historical context on Napolean’s rise in France following the revolution to his escape from Elba and march thru France which culminated in his defeat and banishment to St. Helena (who needs a tour guide anyways??).

Having taken in the mound, we were back on our way further south towards the Ardennes (Belgium’s miniature version of the Rockies) and the town of Rochefort to find a café/pub to watch the Belgium-England 3rd place match. We weren’t really sure what to expect from Rochefort, but after parking our car were pleasantly surprised to find an outdoor viewing party complete with beer and a big-screen.  We were excited about this since big-screen viewing parties were not permitted in Brussels proper due to security reasons, but the other areas of Belgium had no such stipulations so we pumped that we would be able to experience this in person, albeit to a smaller, but no less enthusiastic extent.  The Belgians pulled off an awesome win over England, which we decided was pretty fun for us to witness, as a couple of newcomers.  Another point of interest in Rochefort is the Rochefort monastery, where one of the six Belgian Trappist beers is made by monks.  You can’t tour the monastery or brewery, but that didn’t stop us from doing a drive-by, or Dan from drinking a Rochefort at dinner later that night.

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Watching the Belgians pull off an awesome win over England

After the game, we were on our way to our third stop of the day, Tenneville, to check in to our B&B and meet our host, Bernard. The drive to the B&B was beautiful- plenty of rolling hills, farmland (hello Wisconsin), and forestry.  Our B&B was in a very quaint town (I mean very, very quaint) with a backyard that looked out on the gorgeous Ardennes.

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In the backyard of the Airbnb that looked out on the forests of the Ardennes

Our host Bernard greeted us in French and we quickly learned that our English wasn’t going to get us very far.  He spoke French, Dutch, and minimal English, and was wonderfully welcoming, suggesting dinner places, and a route for us to run in the morning. We may have used Google translate to get these tips, but he was more than willing to assist us in any way and we were appreciative of his knowledge of the area because Yelp wasn’t going to get us very far there.  We took the long way (accidentally) to the town of St. Hubert for a delicious dinner, and on the way were rewarded with more beautiful views of the woods, a castle, and plenty of cows. We called it an early night at our B&B after dinner and enjoyed falling asleep to the peace and quiet of the Ardennes country-side.

Our Sunday morning started off with a hilly run on the route recommended by Bernard and a delicious breakfast served by our host, during which we were joined by our fellow B&B guests. They were Belgians on holiday who were happy to learn we weren’t Brits and therefore we could talk about the previous day’s match without concern of a feud. After attempting to thank our host in French for a wonderful stay, we were on our way to Bastogne to visit the museum and memorial to the lives lost in the region during the WWII Battle of the Bulge. The drive wasn’t long and again took us through small villages and winding roads with names I struggle to pronounce.

The museum was well-done and appealed to us history nerds without feeling stuffy or over-done. I thought it did a great job of explaining the build-up to the battles in this region and I even learned that the Battle of the Bulge actually occurred after the US and Allies had already liberated much of France and Belgium. The battle at Bastogne was Hitler’s final surge attempt to regain control on the Western front- he was unsuccessful There was a monument outside the museum that was dedicated to the Americans who served in the Battle of the Ardennes. In my opinion, the most impressionable part of our visit to  Bastogne was actually our drive to the Bois de la Paix (Peace Forest) just outside Bastogne near Noville, where the battle was fought in the trenches in December 1944.  The park was created to honor the servicemen and civilians who lost their lives and trees have been planted to honor them.  It was enlightening to see the site where so many American troops lost their lives and the tribute erected by the people of Bastogne to honor them.  We enjoyed a peaceful walk around the park before returning to our car and making our way back to Brussels for another work-week.

We’re looking forward to hopefully moving into our new apartment this week! Hope to have good news to share on this next week.

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