Aarschot, you ask?
Well it wasn’t the plan. The plan was to do a post on Leuven, but a weekend of post-lockdown bad weather (caused by the increase in car emissions… ok, I have to blame something) led to a last minute decision to salvage something of the first weekend in July.
What started as an eleventh-hour rescue mission turned into a contemplative and brewtiful afternoon. Aarschot is a small-sized city of about 30,000 residents and around a 45-minute train ride from Antwerpen. While there is nothing that should excite an international tourist on their Grand Tour, it does have the typical Flemish charm of most cities in this region that make it worth a visit. A gorgeous church, a main square (Grote Markt), and great places to enjoy beer.
Despite possibly being a settlement as far back as Roman times, Aarschot seems to only have one chapter which stands out on a historical level. Aarschot had the unfortunate geographic coordinates which put it right in the path of the German army’s invasion of Belgium in World War I.
The German machine steamrolled into Aarschot on August 19, 1914. What followed is a mix of tragedy yet myth, horror yet exaggeration. The events of those times have a legacy which resonates in our Age of Fake News.
A book that has sat on my shelf unread for years entitled The German Terror in Belgium by reknowned British historian of the early to mid-20th century, Arnold Toynbee, is devoted to the three-month time period in 1914 when the German army moved from Liege to Leuven, leaving a swath of destruction, most famously the gasoline bonfire that the Germans made out of one of the most important library collections in the world at the time at Leuven University.
Toynbee repeatedly points out the paranoia of the German army regarding civilians with guns. Most burgomeisters were already collecting all of the guns prior to the Germans reaching their towns, trying to avoid just the type of repercussions that would inevitably result. One of the first warnings that the Germans would recite upon their arrival was the penalty of death to any civilian who fires a gun. But they would also threaten to execute family and friends as well. It was war and random shots were common. For sure they could never be accurately accounted for. Were they from the Belgian army, German army, civilians? When a shot was heard, it was up to the descretion of the paranoid Germans who was to blame. More than not, they were blamed on civilians. This resulted in the rounding up of civilians for execution. Aarschot particularly felt the wrath when the German commander of the 8th Infantry Brigade, Colonel Stenger, was killed by a shot as he was standing on the balcony of the town hall. Over the short duration of the German occupation of Aarschot, which lasted about two weeks, 386 houses were burned, 156 civilians executed, more than 1000 homes plundered, and hundreds of civilians forced to evacuate the city.
This was 1914 and the real horrors of the war were just in their infancy or hadn’t even begun yet; ghastly early incarnations of tanks that were more like steel tombs, chemical warfare, suicidal No Man’s Land charges across landmine-littered fields into the teeth of machine gun fire, hand-to-hand bayonet fighting, etc. It was still an awkward blend of outdated 19th century and crude early 20th century warfare. Horses and motorized vehicles on the same battlefields.
By 1917, when Toynbee published his book, the allies of the Western Front were desperate. They were in dire need of the support of re-inforcements, particularly from the stubborn United States, who up until that time remained stedfastly neutral. The United States already had to be aware of the naphtha-happy Germans torching village after village. But in war, these types of accounts are too commonplace to make a country do anything but shrug it’s shoulders. However, when you say “Germans marched into Aarschot on the morning of August 19th, driving before them two girls and four women with babies in their arms as a screen”, then suddenly it becomes harder to turn a blind eye. Toynbee doesn’t present any new evidence in his book, but he collects accounts from other sources and puts them into a chronological order. These accounts are often disputed point / counterpoint between the Belgians and Germans. But the “eyewitness” testimonies from Belgians are riddled with horrific stories of the various uses of a bayonet on women and children which I won’t convey here.
Many historians today believe that this account and others were strategically propagandized, made up or exaggerated by the British to coerce the United States to join the allies. This entire episode is called The Rape of Belgium, and today it is very difficult for historians to decipher what really happened and what was fabricated with respect to these accounts. In April 1917, the Americans ultimately joined the allied cause.
No doubt though, Belgium suffered mightily. That fact should never be reduced in severity by these disputed accounts. But it does make one ponder. What truth do we really know about parts of our history? Every day we watch the news, we have to judge whether what we are told is fact or manipulation. The same goes for every history book written by a person who wasn’t there, but is influenced consciously or subconsciously by an agenda and societal norms of the time they live in.
As I let these thoughts swirl around in my brain like the smoke from a smoldering building, I arrived in Aarschot by train, and I decided to brighten my mood with the thought of some beer pilgrimages.
De Kloostergang is easily worth the trip to Aarschot all by itself. It is a beer bar devoted entirely to Trappist beers and run by two entrepreneurial guys who have devoted themselves to supporting these unique brewing monks. Let their promotional video speak for itself.
I have had all of the Belgian and Dutch Trappist beers, so I enjoyed a Cardeña Triple from Spain and a Tre Fontane Tripel from Italy.
Cafe Den Druppel
This is the brew bar for the local micro-brewery Den Druppel. It is quaintly located along a canal with a summer bar on the opposite side of the canal with more cozy seating. Den Druppel has some quality Belgian style beers with an IPA style thrown in the mix. There is also a food court where you can add some good nibbling to go with your beer choices.
Den Draad is probably the best mix of the traditional Belgian brown bar with a good selection of local and common Belgian beers in Aarschot. Here I savored the Aareberg Tripel.
Het Gasthuis is adjacent to the Aarschotse Stadsbrouwerij which keeps alive the city’s traditional Aarschotse Bruine beer. While the beer may not appeal to all, it is definitely a must-do pilgrimage in Aarschot.
Added here because of their house beer Hamburg Tripel. Most Belgians already know of my loathing of Belgian hamburgers, but this restaurant does ok. They aren’t the juicy American restaurant-style burgers that Americans love, but for Belgium, they’ll do.
Wolf Cafe Langdorp
Located about a 30 minute walk (2.7km) from the city center, Wolf Cafe is a brew bar associated with the nearby Wolf Brewery. Wolf Cafe is perfectly located at a biking and hiking intersection along the Demer river. Beers from Wolf Brewery range from their Wolf 6,7,8, and 9 and include Vliegend Varken (Flying Pig) and two Monkey beers, Triple Monkey and Monkey Business Berry. On a hot summer day, I opted for the Monkey Business.
One of things I have always found amazing about living in Europe is that even in the places which the outside world would consider unremarkable, there is history which still resonates today, and in Belgium, it seems everywhere you turn there is great beer; even if it is just content to cater to bicyclists, locals, or the occasional outsider like me. In a certain way, it is places like Aarschot that make Belgium such an amazing place to live.
While enjoying my Den Druppel Tripel, I snacked on some Vietnamese food and it brought back so many wonderful memories of my journeys in Asia back in November 2019 thru January 2020. Ironically, today those trips would not be possible. These days, we have to appreciate life and small things. Places like Aarschot.