Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Abbey Roads

Tapping into a history of monks, beer, and free spirits in flanders, Belgium.

Executive summary by darmansjah

Turning down the winding monastery road near Westmalle in Flanders, Belgium’s Flemish-speaking north, I suddenly doubt my desire to sleep among Trappist monks, the largely silent Catholic order founded more than three centuries ago. A knock on the hulking wooden door brings two eyes to the viewing grille: “Retreat?” barks the voice. “I don’t know anything about it. The brothers are in church.”

My friend Wendy Littlefield and I had long promised ourselves a quiet interlude here at Westmalle Abbey, since a decade ago when Wendy-a chichago beer importer and the first America woman inducted into the 500-year-old Begian brewer’s guild-had brought me to the monastery’s brewery next door. Peeking through the abbey gates then we had envied those monks biking across the bucolic grounds with time to ponder life’s eternal questions.

“Everybody who considers peace and quiet as beneficial is welcome,” notes the Westmalle website of its guest policy, but the stern voice on the other side of the door has jolted us from our midlife fantasy. Will two females be an intrusion on an all-male, celibate domain? Can extended silence, like a brain deprived of REM sleep, conjure demons, as I’d once been warned? Do the monks know we’re not Cahtolic? And just why are these men following a medieval lifestyle-six prayer vigils a day starting at 4.a.m.-less than an hour from the Brussels airport?

“Didn’t we pass a nice inn down the road? I whisper to Wendy. A few days earlier Wendy and I had begun our journey taking a 10-minute trip on the “Devil’s Train,” so dubbed by locals for its unholy speed, from Brussels Airport to Mechelen. To avoid a case of the spiritual bends before our monastery stay, we had decided to first road-trip to the region’s historic begunages-districts (often walled) resembling convents where unmarried women (beguines) lived together, no vows of chastity or poverty required. With so many men off fighting the Crusades, in the 13th century the surplus of single ladies formed these self-governed towns within town humming with bakeries, breweries, and churches. Many are now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Upon arrival in Mechelen, we learn that the beguines were not particularly popular. “People thought: Who are these women who refuse to take vows? Explains Leona de Graef, the wonderfully irreverent guide we’ve hired to shed some historical perspective on these narrow streets. “Many of them were rich girls,” she says educated, worldly, and maybe a bit spoiled. The women were labeled heretics and conveniently exiled outside city walls. “Problem solved.” De Graef declares. “Bye-bye, beguines.” As she talks, I can’t help but think about Wendy. Determined to attend Yale in the 1970’s, when few women had studied there, she kept knocking on the university’s door until she was accepted.

In the morning drizzle, houses on the beguinage’s spindly lanes seem to huddle for protection. Peering through the windows reveals a taste for relative luxury-hefty beams, decorative staircases, even ledges atop ornate keyholes (perhaps to guide hands unsteadied by drink?). Wendy spots Het Anker, a brewery founded by the women of Mechelen’s beguinage in 1471. Before we can justify a malty Gouden Carolus, though, we’ve planned what appears to be a sampling diving loop to the nearby beguinages of Lier and Leuven.

We’re high on female empowerment from our tour, but that doesn’t help us with our next task: cracking the code of the Flemish speaking GPS in our rental car. Inexplicably, the device seems intent on pointing us towards Brussels-the wrong way-so we hastily punch in korte (short). That sends us down what can only be described as a cow path. Finally, after 90 ego-bruising minutes of shuffling paper maps, we spot Lier’s multifaced Zimmertoren clock tower and arrive at the entrance to its beguinage.

As we stand alone at the baroque entry gate, it’s as if only the two of us-and UNESCO-know about this walled city that celebrated its 800th birthday in 2012. Uneven cobblestones slow us to a feudal pace past dwelling that appear built for elves. Elves who bake pastries, we hope? Our stomachs growling, we hightail it to a tea shop, Brood-Banket de Vocht, to try the cinnamon spiced Lierse vlaaike, a pucklike bread tart with a centuries-old recipe. On the way, a quirky metal sculpture of sheep is a nod to an old tale of how, in the Middle Ages, Lier’s townspeople were offered the choice of hosting a livestock market or building a university-and decided sheep seemed a safer bet than rollicking students. Scholarship thus became thecalling card of the nearby town of Leuven, our next stop, along the riverbanks of the Dijle. Students rush and scooters buzz in the city center by the Great Beguinage, with its tiny windows and high courtyard walls. We get the point-the beguines liked their privacy-and move on, back to Mechelen where the beer menu at Het Anker is calling our names.

The next morning in Mechelen, a heart-thumping blaze of yellow, blue, and red awakens me. Much to my relief it’s not the radiant gates of heaven but sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows in my room under the church steeple at Matin’s Patershof hotel. Following an evening spent assiduously “researching” beer, my eyes are blearly but my resolve is clear: if beguines could achieve a measure of independence amid the medieval patriarchy, we can surely best our GPS. We type in towns along our route, and, happily, the N17 delivers us to the bohemian town of Gent without tears.

After ogling graffiti art and vintage naughty postcards at a shop called the Fallen Angels, we find one of Gent’s three beguinages, the Old St.Elisabeth, or the Holy Corner, tucked away in a forgotten square. Not too far away in the town center at the small Beguinage, aka Our Lady ter Hoyen, I’m happy to see the women who lived there get some respect: A plague proclaims the movement “mystical” and their enclaves “cities of peace.” Finally, we find the 19th-century Great Beguinage in the immigrant neighborhood St.Amandsberg, where afternoon light casts long shadows on Gothic Revival facades.

Again in the car, our GPS work-around does the trick until Brugge, its entire city center a UNESCO World Heritage site and, it turns out, a confusing maze of one-way streets. So we ditch the car and follow our noses to the Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde, “the vine yard,” now home to a Beneditine convent at the edge of town, across a bridge-laced canal nearly clogged by flotillas of swans. Inside the gate, a tiny museum offers a glimpse into everyday beguine life, including the elaborate Valenciennes lacework the women made to support their communities. A few doors down a church’s organ moans, as if paying tribute to the women buried below.

As we head east on the 80-mile drive to Wesmalle, through sweet tableaux of pastoral Flanders, I recount to Wendy my melancholy meeting days earlier with 92-year-old Marcella Patten, likely the last surviving beguine. The beguinage was her second choice, Pattern admitted, after being rejected from every convent she tried due to poor eyesight. Defiant even in her frailty, she still insists on being called “Sister,” though beguines were typically known as “Mrs.” This is a woman who, like Wendy at Yale, would not accept “No.”
Back at the Wesmalle Abbey entrance, before Wendy can respond to my proposal to retreat to the inn down the road, the arched doorway swings open. “You can wait here if you like,” allows the gruff workman. We wrangle our decidedly un-monastic luggage into the sparsely furnished anteroom. Long-legged Wendy lopes off to explore the surrounding farm roads, while I open my laptop to attempt, unsuccessfully, to circumvent the monastery’s Wi-Fi security code. Soon after Wendy’s return half an hour later, finally we see black-and-white tunics gliding across the churchyard. Brother Benedict, his cassock tied with a rough leather belt, accompanies us to our gracefully modest, high-ceilinged rooms. “The 4 a.m. service is open to retreatants,” he explains, “but not to outsiders.” What I really want to know is the Wi-Fi password. I bite my tongue instead.

The website’s promise of food that is “simple but enough” had sent me into a gastronomic rapture a I imagined abbey-made aged cheese and warm, nutty wholemeal loaves. Here in the dining room, with massive portraits of devout abbots lining the walls, I pick at my plate of supermarket bread and cheese of the single-slice, cello-wrap persuasion. At lunch I gladly reach for a sample of the patersbier, a beer served to monks and pilgrims on retreat, which Wendy explains is made with whole flower hops, not pellets. Earthy yeast clings to the glass bottom. I wonder what the monks would think if I scraped the residue with my finger.

Or what reaction I’d get from my dining companions, for that matter. The eclectic group, we learn over whispered conversations, includes a disenchanted eastern European journalist, a Belgian theology scholar, and a Dutch-born Colorado woman whose brother is a monk here: Brother Samuel, a tall spare man in his late 40s, who has an open smile and friendly handshake and wears a sweatshirt pulled over his robe. I ask what led him to the monk’s life. “At 21, I was working in a bakery. I began to wonder: will this be my life for the next 50 years? There had to be more.” An hour later, during the service, his white habit billows as he chants and sings, brimming with a rare sense of joyful surrender.

If we arrived with visions of unraveling the tangle of life, by day two we’re starting to fidget. Between services I chase down rumors of an Ethernet plug, and Wendy sets off on the 27-mile “Trappisten Route” through nearby villages on a bike cajoled from Brother Benedict. And instead of filing into the 5:15 p.m. service, we slip out to Cafe Trappisten at the top of the monastery road. Here at last we find Westmalle’s higher alcohol cult beers, a few other recalcitrants, and salvation in the form of Wi-Fi.

We aren’t the best “followers,” Wendy and I agree as we gorge hungrily on hunks of silky Westmale cheese. But playing hooky from church to sip a 9.5-percent Wesmalle Tripel. I feel a kinship to Belgium’s gutsy beer-brewing beguines. “Do not go where the path may lead.” Says Wendy, referencing her favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson quote and lifting her glass in a toast. “Go instead where there is no path, and”-Wendy smiles mischieveously-“leave and ale.”

Flavors of Flanders

Het Anker This Mechelen bewery founded by 15th-century beguines now produces the renowned Gouden Carolus beer. Try the brasseries’s signature Mechele kockock (cuckoo), fleshly  local bird.

Restaurant Avalon On the menu at this Gent hot spot: classic vegetarian staples, a well-selected organic beer list (order the Leireken buckwheat brown), and coffee that comes with a side of rich chocolate pudding.

T Brugs Beertje Belgian students share tables with 70-somethings and North American beer geeks at this rootsy cult pub in the middle of Brugge. Ask owner Daisy Claeys for the latest favorites, such as the Caracter Rouge, a sour red developed by a Michelin-starred Antwerp chef.

De Halve Maan Brewery Around the corner from Brugge’s berguinages, this craft brewery offers tours and pours beer made on-site, served in the café or on the shaded outdoor terrace. Order the Straffe Hendrik, a strong blod Tripel brewed using a family recipe.

Restaurant Pomperlut in a homey Brugge neighborhood along a park, this newcomer lures diners to a few tables set before a roaring fire, a tiny but thought-out menu, and baskets of fresh brown bread.

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