Belgium, part 2

Steven graciously ceded part of the weekend travel to me (because he was too tired to write about the whole thing — yes, I was too tired to write the rest, but I will certainly take the compliment), so I finally get to tell you about something more interesting than a trip to the grocery store. So, where did he leave off? Oh yes, Brussels.

I like this statue better than mannaken pis and she’s just on a Brussels street we happened to walk down.

We did not have a great desire to go to Brussels, it was just closer to our next destination: Chimay Brewery at Scourmont Abbey, a Trappist monastery. I have to say that it started out as a comedy of errors. Once again, we were driving on streets that seemed perhaps as if they were not intended for cars. I thought I had asked about parking, but didn’t get a reply so we passed by the B and B and followed parking signs. Alas, all they meant was that there was potential parking on the street (and when we found a parking lot on Google, it turned out not to be a public lot). To compound the problem, there was a parade. Streets were closed. Traffic was stopped. Then traffic was terrible. No street parking. I called the B and B and he directed us to parking around the corner, but we had already passed the corner and couldn’t easily get back. One-way streets! With all I just mentioned, it took about 40 minutes to find the lot and then, and THEN. Well, he did ask how big the car was before he told us about the garage.

The spiral was tight, the ceiling was low (the scrape marks on the ceiling and sides were a wee bit worrisome) and we had a man who worked at the hotel that owned the lot running behind us yelling, “Slow. Slow! SLOW!!” and pointing. Then he would run ahead and gesture us forward into what maybe was a spot? Well. Luckily, Steven is a great and patient driver. (Two compliments! I wonder what she wants.) We finally parked and got to the Art de Séjour bed and breakfast. We temporarily breathed a sigh of relief. And then, and THEN, the host told us that Sunday was “no driving at all in the cities of Europe including Brussels” day. All the streets would be closed from 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. and wouldn’t that be great! Well … it would have been great except we had reservations at Chimay at 12:30, so we scheduled an early breakfast and headed out the door to see some of Brussels.

Happiness is beer amid the skeletons.

I think I am spoiled because Brussels was just … fine. We walked up to the best view of the city and it was … nice. I did get to have a waffle for a snack, so there’s that.

The best part of Brussels was the two bars that Yves (remember him from the last blog?) recommended. The first, Le Cercueil (The Coffin) looks like a great Halloween house. The tables are coffins complete with skeletons. There’s blacklight and creepy-sounding drinks. Steven was in heaven (no pun intended) when he realized they had Orval, which continues to ferment in the bottle. The bartender came over with the bottle to show Steven that it had truly been sitting around since 2013. (It had a fabulous, deep rich flavor.)

From there we wandered some more looking for food that wasn’t Flemish (read: heavy and meaty). In keeping with the theme of Asian food in Belgium, we ended up eating some baos. (Here’s a tip: always ask how big things are. I assumed they were small like the ones in the States so we each ordered two and they were not small.) Oh, and frites (NO MAYO! Mayo on frites is just plan wrong, curry sauce in an English or Irish pub is fine, Ketchup anywhere is fine. Mayo – no. Just. No … What about sriracha?). Because you have to. I don’t think you are allowed out of Belgium without having eaten frites. After a fruitless search for a bar recommended by the B and B owner (it was closed), we headed to another of Yves recommendations: Poechenellekelder, which has a huge beer menu and is across the street from the puzzlingly popular manneken pis.

Back at Art de Séjour, we watched Ocean’s 8, because sometimes you just need an American movie. In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast at the B and B. I don’t know what it is, but the fruit in Belgium is DELICIOUS! So flavorful and juicy. (I know I mentioned this before, but it was really good!) Plus, homemade croissants and excellent coffee!

And then, and THEN, we had to get out of the parking garage. I’ll just put up the video and you can see for yourself. Watch it full screen to get the true effect (although sorry for the poor video quality). The white at the top is the very low concrete ceiling.I think Steven had the steering wheel pulled all the way right around the curves.

Phew. And then we were off to Chimay. You may have remembered that we had 12:30 reservations, but we had to leave town by 8:45 for a drive that was less than 2 hours. Well, here’s where a mistake I made came in handy. I accidentally bought 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. tickets. Voila! We made the 10:30 appointment time. They kindly realized my mistake and gave us two extra beer tokens, because we both needed to drink two beers before noon. (I could have had a third to lighten your load.) Chimay is run by monks, and there are no tours of the actual brewery. They brew in peace! They do have a nice little museum-like exhibit that explains the history and process, so we did that. They also make cheese, (well, they don’t really make it at the abbey any more, but it’s still Chimay cheese) so we learned about that process too. Right outside sit some forest paths that lead to the church, garden and cemetery (yes, another cemetery, but no one famous), so we did a little walking before our beer tasting.

After a couple of hours, a couple of beers (and a couple of souvenirs and some beer to take home), we hit the road for the 4-hour drive back to Clamecy. As you know, there are no border controls between EU nations. Heading into Belgium on the A6, we passed a sign that reminded me of crossing state borders in the U.S. On the way back, on a smaller road (the N964 in case you care), we passed a border control booth. We couldn’t resist the photo op, so I quickly (Steven would say too quickly) pulled a U-y so we could get these:

Note the fake guards. We’ve seen them in a few spots, including at a winery. Give them props; they look as bored as real guards.

Finally, it was home sweet home and a moratorium on beer drinking for awhile — at least for me. (I guess the ones we took home will last a bit longer than expected.)

This is Saturday — it must be Belgium(*)

This weekend we went to Belgium. We left “early” Friday morning – about 9:30 – and headed to Brugge. It was about a five-and-a-half-hour drive.  For those who do not know, Belgium has two parts (here is brief primer on the divide). The southern part of the country is occupied by the Walloons. They call this area Walloonia and they speak French (Yay, French!)The northern portion of the country is occupied by Flemish people. This area is called Flanders and they speak Dutch and Flemish. Brugge is part of Flanders and so the people naturally speak Dutch. Dutch is related to German and has, to our ears, a very guttural and unnatural sound. (I thought it sounded really funny. Like, laughter funny and very foreign after six weeks of French.) Luckily virtually everyone speaks English as a second language.

We had booked ourselves into the Hotel Academie, and Sue wisely arranged for parking. The drive into the center of town where the hotel was located, was, to say the least, interesting. Small cobblestone streets, which may or may not have been pedestrian only. (Google says they weren’t – the pedestrians all seem to think they were.) Either way, we arrived at the hotel at about 3:30 and pulled into their covered entrance way and then drove straight down into the tightest smallest parking underground parking lot imaginable. To get into our spot, we had to do what seemed like fifty multi-point turns. After a few minutes of playing avoid the concrete post, I got the car parked in a space that was only slightly smaller than a postage stamp. I only wish I had thought to take photos of the garage. (Stay tuned for more on Steven’s excellent driving under scary circumstances.)

Once we had parked, we dumped our stuff in the room and headed right out into the tourist fray. It was madness. We didn’t realize that there was some sort of bicycle race/convention going on. The place was packed and to be pretty honest we were a bit overwhelmed. (Maybe I am becoming a country mouse or maybe I have never liked throngs of tourists.) We did our usual couple of hours of wandering and then reached our limit. We found a nice brasserie off the main market square, ordered some beer and spent the next hour or two watching people and the sun set. It was a great counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the tourist crowds.

We passed a Thai place on the walk back to the hotel and decided we wanted that for dinner. (In case we haven’t mentioned it, food around here is BLAND.) We looked at some reviews and found Sivalai, about a 10 minute walk and, very importantly, in the opposite direction from the maddening crowds. It is run by a husband (waiter/host) and wife (chef) team and it was wonderful. We arrived without a reservation and when we asked for a table the husband/host looked absolutely pained that there were no tables. He asked for 5 minutes and would seat us. We were in no rush so we went for a little stroll and when we returned he had a table waiting for us. The host was fabulous, taking time to talk to us, in parts of English/Dutch, French (and tried to teach us a bit of Thai), running here there an everywhere taking orders, getting the food and keeping everyone smiling. His good nature was infectious. We asked him to make our food fairly spicy as we have been finding the food in France, tasty but mild. He did not disappoint and our food came out spicy, flavorful and delicious.

After dinner we had a wander through the now nearly deserted town and it was wonderful. The canals are gorgeous, the buildings and architecture great. It was such a different experience than only a few hours earlier. (When we arrived, I fear both of us were thinking that Brugge was a bust. We liked it much better when it didn’t resemble Time Square.)

In the morning, we decided to have a breakfast bagel and a place called Sanseveria. We generally avoid bagel places as many do not boil the bagels, they just bake them. This leads to round bread rolls, which are good, but they are just not bagels. However, this place has great reviews, and so we figured we would give it a shot. It was well worth it. We both ordered bagel and egg sandwiches and shared a bowl of fruit. The fruit bowl was exceptional; it had pear, banana, apple, mango, blueberry, strawberry and pineapple in it. (The fruit in Belguim overall was fantastic.)The bagels were good, not great, but overall the sandwiches were delicious and hit the spot.

After breakfast, we went for another wander; it was still relatively early and the streets were still pretty empty. When the crowds started to appear, we headed for our car and drove to a town called Buggenhout, and Browerij Boostels.

The carriage they lent me to carry the beer we bought.

Browerij Boostels is the maker of two of my favorite beers (Tripel Karmeliet and Kwak). When we were planning this trip, we purchased tickets to a brewery tour at 14:00. However, the only tours they do on Saturdays are in Dutch, but we figured what the hell, we did a tour of prehistoric caves in French, how much would be lost doing a beer tour in Dutch? Besides, you get free beer at the end of the tour and beer tastes the same in any language.

We arrived somewhat early (about 45 minutes) and found our way to the tasting room/starting point of the tour. When we introduced ourselves, the tour guide said “Oh yes! I remember you have booked the tour in Dutch, but do not speak it.”  We nodded our heads foolishly and then he informed us that one of his colleagues – Yves, had volunteered to give us the tour in English.

This turned out to be a huge and happy surprise. First, Yves is great. His English is impeccable, he has a great sense of humor and was patient with our (many many) questions. The tour information was really quite interesting – Did you know that hops were added to make the beer last longer? That the yeast is used multiple times? That for a long time beer was safer to drink than water because the water is boiled? So many interesting facts that we would have missed in Dutch! We heard about the history of the Boostel family who have brewed beer on that location for seven generations and earned most of their income in the ’50s and ’60s selling lemonade as Belgian style beer was out of fashion. And of course…the beer tasting.

Once we finished at the brewery, we headed for Brussels which is about a 40-minute drive. Sue is going to finish telling of the weekend’s hijinks on Wednesday’s blog post. But before we go, if anyone is looking for a private tour of anywhere in Belgium, Yves does them under the banner of Beardbarian Entertainment (he is also a musician and plays Celtic music) and I would highly recommend you use him.

(*) Click here for the title reference