Thursday, December 19, 2013

Belgium and Beer Redux

I decided to take a quick little trip back to Belgium for more beer, specifically at the Kerstbierfest. I managed to book award flights to and from Paris, a relatively short 2 hour train trip from Brussels. So off I went!

Day One
I arrived on Thursday an surprisingly, was not too tired. I checked in to my hotel, had a very short nap, and set off for the Grand Place to check out the Christmas market. The market was fine; I wandered the stalls with a cup of Gluhwein for a while and got a sandwich. I discovered that the market extended far past the Grand Place to St. Catherine's church and beyond. It was pretty big. Two carousels, a Ferris wheel, and an ice rink.

After I had enough of that, I made my way to Moeder Lambic and spent a couple of pleasant hours there. By the time I was done with my beer, it was perfect timing to head back to the hotel and rest up for the next day.

Day Two
Friday morning was spent at Cantillon, where I had a lambic (delightfully fresh and young), a Rose de Gambrinus (gorgeous rose color, mildly tart), and a glass of the new Iris (oddly pickled rye nose, more bitter than sour). I also bought a Lou Pepe Kriek and a Lou Pepe Framboise to take home. There was a light flow of traffic in and out, but one guy was there the entire time I was - we had a little conversation about our drinks from time to time. But eventually it was time to move on to lunch at Restobieres (as suggested by my friend, Chuck Cook). I had an amazing lunch - pate, farm chicken Waterzooïe with Blanche de Watou, and speculooos ice cream.

With a pleased smile on my face, I headed to the train station and off to Antwerp, where I hurriedly checked in to my hotel and met a friend for dinner at a lovely restaurant on the river. It was soo embarrassing when I couldn't finish the delicious fish entree due to being full from lunch! I managed to soldier through dessert though, a selection of 4 chocolate sweets. We then pulled an all-nighter, first at a private club then at a Cuban-themed club, until the wee hours of the morning! My goodness Antwerp knows how to have a good time!!!

Day Three
As a result, I got a late start to Essen the next day and we arrived around 3:30 pm. I was pretty drained so got a slow start, but by 6 pm was back in full swing. Amazingly even in a large festival, I was able to find my friends from the U.S. It's always nice to be in a larger group to share samples. There were a few beers I didn't care for, but overall the beers were very good. There were a few guezes, surprisingly, and a nice range of other beers - not all dark and spicy as I had envisioned. One of my favorites was Tjeezes Reserva, but I pretty much knew that before tasting it. Another was a Mikkeler aged in tequila barrels.

One friend had managed to meet and befriend a couple from Chicago (!), who were very cool. And, amazingly - or not - the guy from Cantillon was there and said hello to me. I saw him at the end of the night again and he gave me his card... from his business in Madrid, where I'll be in February. Awesome!!! Anyway - the party continued on the bus and the train back to Antwerp, courtesy of a few bottles. Back in Antwerp I got some dinner and, exhausted, headed for bed.

Day Four
I made it down to breakfast and then left out for the Plantin-Moretus Museum, recommended by my friend on Friday. All I can say is - wow. Social history, printing history, political history, architectural and art history - all in one museum. I spent far longer there than I had planned as there was so much to take in. 

After leaving the museum, I did some shopping then checked out the Christmas market. Not impressed. And sadly did not find any food that I wanted at the market. I ended up getting lunch at a restaurant on the Grand Place - really delicious meatballs and of course frites. (Have I mentioned that frites made up pretty much every meal so far???) I dawdled on the way to the station after lunch and missed the train to Essen by this much so wandered around for an hour until the next train. 

When I got to Essen, I found out the fest ended at 8 pm that night - I had just under 3 hours to enjoy! Worse, my friend Mark turned up an hour later (so no big deal that I missed a train) and had only 2 hours! Then we found out the bus was at 7:30! We did our best to work through as many beers as possible, tricky as many of our top choices were gone. As we headed out, we got caught in conversation and missed the bus by this much. We started walking, then ducked in a bar to ask about taxis, and were told we were better off walking so off we went again. Fortunately, a woman stopped to pick us up and drove us to the station where we made the train by minutes. Whew!!!

When we got in to Brussels, we went straight to a bar. And, with the exception of a brief food stop (awesome falafel!!!!!), bar-hopped until the wee hours of the morning. The last stop was an absinthe bar where we had beautiful, gorgeous absinthe. An awesome night topped off by an excellent drink with great company.

Day Five
So, again, I got barely any sleep! In no time at all I was up and headed to the train station for the train to Paris. I arrived in good time for my flight and had breakfast and a snooze in the lounge, then a long snooze on the flight.

It was a whirlwind and exhausting trip, but well worth it. I saw friends from all over, made new friends and acquaintances, and consumed a lot of fantastic beverages and delicious foods. I can't wait to go back!!!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The End

After 2 hours of sleep (!) I got up for the taxi this morning and was at the Brussels airport by 4:45 am. Checked in my beer bag, it weighed just over 30 kg! The lounge opened 30 minutes late so I had to cool my heels a bit in the hallway, then spent a pleasant 90 minutes drinking coffee and surfing the internet. Then it was off to London; I slept the entire flight.

Once at Heathrow I went through the terminal-transfer shenanigans then parked in the lounge there for a good 2 hours. They had bacon sandwiches so I had a couple, yum! I eyed the bloody marys, but decided my liver needed to detox.

The flight home was uneventful - I watched This is 40, Hyde Park on Hudson and Hitchcock, and while they were fine I was glad I hadn't paid to see them.

New pannier
I did have a few heart-pounding moments as I watched the bags come off the conveyor, and more and more bags came down without mine appearing. I was on the brink of freaking out when it finally popped out, whew! Sadly when I got home, the malty aroma of delicious beer greeted me when I opened my bag. In 14 years of travel, this was my first bottle casualty, and it was a difficult to get beer. I had a moment of sadness as I cleaned up the mess.

But I did still have 13 bottles of great beers, and I have my super fun pannier for the girly bike. Not to mention tons of great memories and some new friends.

This trip by the numbers:

Cities visited: 7
Orders of frites eaten: 4
Beer loot!
Waffles eaten: 1 (WTF???? Not sure what happened there!)
Beer events attended: 3
Beers tasted: 100?
Beers broken in transit: 1
Cheeses purchased: 3
Cheeses donated to beer drinkers: 2
Bell tower steps climbed up: 641
Miles biked: 24
New acquaintances: lots!
Ribald stories heard: 23
Go-arounds: 1

Sunday, April 28, 2013

ZBF Day Two

This morning I slept in a bit. I didn't have to leave for the train until 9:45, so that was nice. I got to Leuven around 11:05, and ZBF around 11:30. I got 2 more tokens  (jetons) and looked for the FTers - they weren't there, but Mary and Craig called out as I walked by so I settled in at their
History geek + beer geek = ROCK STAR

table which was also a wonderful group. I eventually deposited my cheese & bread that I couldn't take home (boohoo) and it seemed to go over well. It was really wonderful to be in a big group again, as you get to taste so many more beers.

Eventually I saw the FTers, they got there a bit late, and actually Win saw me - so I introduced him to the table. It's a little weird sometimes, as my job is connecting people and I find my personal life echoes that, but it is cool to make connections. Eventually Keith came by as well (after I yelled hey HEY HEY! at him!) and met Mary & Craig, and they discussed Milwaukee beer spots.

At some point I was invited to a brewery tour and, while feeling a teensy bit guilty at ditching the FTers, grabbed at the chance.We took a 30 minute bus ride to the brewery and got a personal tour thanks to Chuck Cook. The brewery owners/brewmasters included a gentleman who had been at InBev with Stella Artois; he was a lovely man and a pleasure to chat with.

Last beers!
It was 9 pm before we got back to Leuven due to funky Sunday bus schedules. We contemplated eating, but decided to have a beer instead (shocking!). That turned in to 2 rounds before I had to head to the train, pouting.

Now it's 1 am and my taxi will be here in 3 short hours... ! I've enjoyed do much the acquaintances and strangers who have become friends on this trip. I hope to stay in touch with many, if not all; they are truly wonderful folks.

Beer Festival (ZBF), Day 1


So. On Saturday I got up early and bought groceries (overloaded on Fanta Zero because I love it!), went to Catillon and bought a bottle, then was completely frustrated by public transit trying to get to the train station. Every train/tram/bus had a 10-20 minute wait to get to a station 5-0 minutes away walking. I ended up walking a huge loop, rather than 30 minutes in a straight line, and missed the express train by 30 seconds. Ugh.

Then, the gratis bus to the fest was a scrum - so much pushing and shoving it was shameful. One woman had a panic attack on the bus. Lines to buy tokens (jetons) and glasses were crazy. I nearly walked out. Thank goodness I didn't, as calm ruled when I walked in. I found my fellow FlyerTalkers and spent a wonderful day tasting and sharing beers, chatting, and goofing off. I was the only chick for most of the day,which felt a little weird, but luckily I have a 13-year-old-male sense of humor.  :-) We left around 9 pm as t got too crazy, got dinner, and took the train back to Brussels where I drank a "crap" beer and went to sleep.

Friday, April 26, 2013

I Grew Up On a Farm....

(If you don't recognize the title, it's the beginning of a quote from In Brugge. Yes I think I quoted it the last time I was there; no, I don't care.)

At the top of the bell tower
Today was my day for Brugge. I love Brugge. I can't explain what it is, but it really makes me happy to be there. When I was there in January 2012, the bell tower and the brewery were both closed for renovations, so I didn't get to do either typical tourist activity. So today I got them both in. When yesterday was so gorgeous and rain was predicted today, I guessed that the line for the bell tower would be short today - as it was! No line no waiting. Just up 366 steps. (Whew!)

I made it up and down the tower in time to check out 2 beer shops and get to De Halve Maan, the local brewery, for the 11 am tour. It was a nice little tour with a free beer at the end; while drinking mine, I met a lovely couple from Bellingham, WA who took my picture and vice versa. We had a good chat about travel while downing our beers.

Then I had a few hours to just play around. I bought some beers, went to the De Struise tasting room and chatted with the daughter of the owner for a while as I was the only one there, and got some chocolates. Eventually it was time to grab my (very heavy!) bags from the B&B and head to the train station.

The train ride was very uneventful but it was the first time a train I was on was late. Then, I looked at the metro map and realized I should have gotten off the train at Midi, not Nord, because I now had to backtrack to get on the goofy line to the apartment. Crankypants time! The metro was no big deal once I worked it out (and I have since found a tram/metro combination to avoid backtracking).

The apartment is teeny!!! The bed is up in a loft. But it is cute, and quiet, and in a lovely neighborhood that I like more than last weekend's.

After I settled in, I set off to meet my internet pals at Delirium Cafe. That damn place was SO hard to find! I wandered for quite a while, which meant they were that many more beers ahead of me when I arrived. It was odd, but good, to see them in a different country, and we had a nice chat before heading out to look for food. I'd eaten but figured I would get a drink. In the end, 3 people went back to the hotel and the rest of us got frites, which I shared. And missed the metro closing time, so took a taxi back to the hotel... one less beer for me.  :-(

So, off to bed - tomorrow is the big beer festival in Leuven!

Enjoying my Bruges Zot

Thursday, April 25, 2013

R&R in Brugge

So for the past few days, I've been trying to figure out the logistics for doing everything I want to do. Specifically, I was really trying to cram in a 4 hour roundtrip train ride, plus biking. Lats night at dinner I was talking to Mitch and he said "You can't do everything." Seems pretty obvious but when he said it, I began to let go of this crazy side trip.

This morning, I woke up at 6:45 am. I thought my watch said 8:45 am, though, and was bummed out that it was dark and rainy... until I realized I was far too tired to be qualified to read a watch, and went back to bed.

When I woke up (take 2) at 8:15 am, it was bright and sunny. And with that, the last of my "do everything" mentality slipped away. All I wanted to do was ride a bike. Spending 4 hours on a train in sunny warm weather sounded like hell.

After breakfast, I asked my host about using a bike and she showed me which I could use and gave me a map to the super cool Flanders bike routes, as well as directions out of Brugge. The Flanders bike routes use a number system, so you bike from say 20 to 21 to 13 - and the signs tell you which way to go to the next point. Very simple, no Flemish required! Anyway - I said I would take a walk then be back for the bike.

I walked to the bell tower, which I really want to do... but 8 Euro?! And a long line. Bah. I went to 2 bottle shops and got a lot of beer... this cannot all come home with me, I don't have enough clothing to pad it!

Then it was off on the bike. I thought I would bike an easy 5 km from Brugge to Damme. Well, last year's vacation should have told me that 5 km would easily become 7 or more with wrong turns. Then, after lunch in Damme, I thought I would ride a bit more to Ostkerke...until I saw signs to Sluis, Netehrlands. Then I needed to do that.

Sluis was very cute. Nice little city center that I walked around before having a pannekoeken with chocolate and a beer. I bought a ton of cheese, too, at the little fromageries. And I was incredibly pleased with myself for biking to another country! So much so that I meandered on the way back, taking at least twice as long as necessary. But oh, it was nice to bike. And to get a teeny sunburn. And to know I biked at least 20 miles today!

I skipped dinner tonight, opting for some of my cheese instead. I have an action-packed day planned tomorrow, and pretty much through the end of the trip... so I as very, very glad to have had it pointed out to me that you can't do it all. Sometimes you just have to let go of something to make time for the things that make you smile.


When I was originally invited to attend the Great Belgian Beer Dinner on April 24th, it was planned to be in Oostende, a coastal town that's about a 15 minute train ride from Brugge. I figured that's a GREAT excuse to stay in Brugge, and booked a B&B. Well, the restaurant in Oostende closed and the organizers had to scramble for a new location for the dinner. They ended up finding a place in Antwerp, which is about a 1.5 hour train ride from Brugge. The organizers arranged a bus ride back for me, but being on my own to get there I figured I'd spend the day checking out Antwerp.

Antwerp has an amazing train station. I decided to follow the walking tour in to the center that is in my Rick Steve's guidebook. It was a really nice introduction to the city. I stopped at the Rubens House museum and was delighted to learn that entry is free on the last Wednesday of the month! The house was stunning and the art work was just incredible. (But, I am a big Flemish painters fan!)

My next cultural stop was the cathedral, where I was incredibly lucky to see much more art than usual and a Rubens in the place it was intended to be - due to the art museum being renovated.

Other than that I wandered the streets. I didn't want to eat or drink too much and spoil dinner, so those options were out. I really enjoyed Antwerp - I love the vibe of it, and would like to go back for a longer stay.

I did find, in a sporting goods store, exactly the type of pannier I want for my girly bike. I was terribly excited and bought it. Then I found a little boutique a while later with cool, crazy stuff, and they had the same type of pannier - for 20 Euro less. !!! I hemmed and hawed for a bit, then hustled back to store #1 and asked if I could return the pannier. They said yes (no questions; the only odd thing was I got cash back for a credit transaction - free cash advance!) so I then hustled back to store #2 and bought the less expensive version.

It was about time for the dinner, so I wandered over and right away spotted Mary & Craig waving to me through the windows. We had time to chat before everyone was herded outside for starters & apertifs. And then - I ATE A RAW OYSTER. It was pretty damn good! I also ate a piece of herring later. When we were directed inside, we were directed to specific tables; there were 6 persons at ours. The guy next to me introduced himself as Mitch and, taking a leap of faith that he might be the Mitch whose email about packing beer was forwarded to me, I asked if he knew Win (a frequent flyer acquaintance of mine) in the Chicago area? And - he does! Too funny. Mary and Craig were at the table as well, and a couple from Brussels who Mitch is staying with. It turned out to be an interesting mix of people and I enjoyed the conversation over the amazing, 8 course dinner (with beer pairings).It was really a wonderful experience. I also got to meet Chris Lively of Ebenezer's Pub, which was cool.

It was 12:25 am all too soon, and time to find the bus. I was riding back with a tour group from the U.S., who were also a good bunch. I met Dean Rouleau from San Diego, as he was on the tour. The bus was not in theplace we expected it to be, then the driver missed an exit, so all in all it was 3 am before I was back in my bed at Art & Soul, exhausted but incredibly happy with the day.