Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Netherlands: Amsterdam and the Keukenhof

[The last of my trip notes.]

April 26, 2011: the Keukenhof

"I'm on a boat!"
After another great breakfast up in our wheelhouse, watching the world go by (on bicycle, mostly), we head to the train station; it's deserted compared to yesterday, and we quickly purchase return tickets to Leiden. Once there, we get our coach tickets for the Keukenhof at the Travelex. [We thought there was no difference between going there via Leiden or Schiphol -- the distances are comparable -- but it turns out that you can get the latter as a single fare, and therefore save money; this isn't clear in any of the documentation.]

This is surely the Disney World of gardens! From the moment I hear, and then lay eyes on, the beautiful street organ near the entrance, I'm grinning from ear to ear. They call the park the most beautiful spring garden in the world, and it isn't hard to see why. Tea (and Kae) are over the moon: "best gardens, hands down," is out of her mouth half an hour in. And while I agree, the Lost Gardens of Heligan still hold a special place in my heart. I think it's the trees; somethin's changed with me since I've come over: I can't get enough of the different trees they have over here, and the cascading blooming you'll see from month to month. Don't get me wrong, though: this park is stunning.

I think the Japanese Garden is my favourite bit. It's so beautifully laid out, with many cherry blossoms, of course. While Tea and Kae really seem to be enjoying the orchid display, I know for Tea, it's all about the tulips -- of which there are many; go figure.

Gotta love the street art
Once back in Amsterdam, we decide to check out the Mexican restaurant, Guadalupe, that Tea spied on our first evening out. The owner is a real kidder, and before we've sat down, he and Kae strike up some Spanish banter. I don't pretend to follow it all, but I think he poked a bit of fun at one point when she used 'gran' to say that she learned some Spanish (or Portuguese?) from her grandfather. I heard something along the lines of, "Do you have a small father too? Oh, pity," around that cheese-eating grin of his. [If I've got this right, you could literally translate what Kae said as "big father," where they would typically say "abuelo"... maybe.] The food was really good too, breaking a long drought for Tea and me. [The Brits do not understand what Mexican is supposed to taste like, as far as I can tell.]

April 27, 2011: Our last day in Amsterdam

One of our many great suppers 'aboard'
A lazy morning. Anne Frank is growing up before my eyes (again). I forgot how heart-wrenching it is, to read about her wishes for the future. I certainly have a lot more context this time, having now walked the view she looked at with such longing.

The Van Gogh Museum is on the agenda this morning, so we buy tram day passes again -- it's well away from the city centre. Long queues seem to be the norm in Amsterdam, but, thanks to Kae, we can bypass the one outside this museum: she points out an English sign in the middle of the sidewalk, claiming that fast passes are available at the Diamond Museum. The funny thing is, you can see the Diamond Museum from the line, just down the road. We are there and back in five minutes -- you don't need to buy any extra admissions; it's just another till -- and then straight in.

Dessert at De Balie
I'm surprised by how much I'm enjoying myself. The layout is great: a good mix of his works and influences at various stages of his life. I'm not familiar with a lot of it. My favourites (on display) include: Crab on its Back, Pink Orchard, and the Sheep Shearer; the latter, a striking example of his influences.

From there, lunch at De Balie. Our waiter is another kidder.
Kae: "I had a teacher..."
Waiter, whip quick: "You did?"

The menu is in Dutch. For every second thing Tea points at:
Waiter: "I can't tell you that."

Handing him our near-sparkling cleaned plates:
Tea: "Oh, that was terrible. Can we see a dessert menu?"
Waiter, hand on chest: "No. You've been rude. On your bike and go."
And, again, the food is amazing; pesto to die for. They have lots of interesting beer on tap too. Enjoying my two glasses of Wieckse (pronounced 'vicks').

* * *

"In de Wildeman"
I'm sitting "In de Wildeman" now. Probably the best pub in Amsterdam. The ladies are shopping. Tasting notes so far:
  • Blanche de Namur: tasty, with ginger notes.
  • t'Volen Zeebonck: fruity and sweet, full body. (The bartender translates this as "sailor", puffing up his chest; love the way he serves me at the table.)
  • De Prael De Melkman: a milk stout; very tasty, and just a touch sour. According to Beer Advocate, it was brewed for the 25th anniversary of In de Wildeman. Cool! Got that T-shirt too; it's awesome.

If you only have time to visit one bar in Amsterdam, this has to be it. The ladies are back now. We're heading to the last one on my list: 't Arendsnest (or "Eagle's Nest"). It's a lovely little spot. Another friendly barman; runs a tab without my even asking. I have:
  • Texelse Skuumkoppe: I've had their Wit as an imported selection with the (now defunct *sad face*) CAMRA Beer Club; this one has more body. Very nice. Followed by;
  • De Prael Koude André: the same brewery as the milk stout, and just as impressive.

Cinema Paradiso
Italian is the consensus this evening. After striking out a few times, we find ourselves at Cinema Paradiso. As the name suggests, it's a old converted cinema with a lot of charm. The food is very good, and the real mint teas -- lots of mint leaves and hot water; that's it -- are a perfect end to one heck of a good trip.

Check out our Keukenhof and Amsterdam albums for more pictures from the last two days of our trip.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Netherlands: Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans

[More notes from the trip, covering the next two days.]

April 24, 2011: Amsterdam

Inside our houseboat
Waking up in the houseboat is a dream: it's naturally cool; easily five degrees lower than the outside temperature. And it isn't stale either, even though there's no obvious air circulation (with the windows closed). After relaxing for a bit, it's off to the tourist information, across the tram lines from Amsterdam Centraal Station.

The place is packed -- with the ubiquitous "take a number" system in effect; the Dutch don't queue well -- but Tea and Kae manage to wrangle someone stocking shelves; as well as pointing out which tram we'll need to take to the Dutch brewery, Brouwerij ’t IJ (attached to the De Gooyer windmill), she offers some excellent suggestions for both windmill and flower gazing. (The plan for the next two days.)

[Note: you don't need to stand in line at the tourist information unless you're booking something (e.g., tours, hotel rooms, etc.), which isn't immediately obvious when you first enter the madhouse.]

From there, we catch a tram to the flower market on the banks of the Singel. Lunch, at De Beiaard's 'bierencafé' (on Spui), is our first order of business, though; happily, it's another excellent choice: the smoked chicken salad with pineapple, walnuts and raisins that I share with Tea is fantastic, and Kae really enjoys her fried mushroom and pesto sandwich with cheese. They also have De Bekeerde Suster's beer on tap; I enjoy their tripel this time, while the ladies stick with the excellent Witte Ros of the previous evening.

Brouwerij ’t IJ, attached to De Gooyer windmill
(Very cheap) tulips -- and a cheese shop -- rule the next hour or so. Then we take another tram a ways out of the city centre to Brouwerij ’t IJ. Unfortunately, there are no brewery tours today -- a private function, it seems -- but we still enjoy a few glasses of their beer -- both the Natte, and their tripel, Columbus; neither much to write home about, incidentally -- on the banks of the Nieuwe Vaart, watching dozens of boaters go by. The bar is packed as we leave; evidence that they need more breweries in Amsterdam, I'd say.

Kae in Oud Holland
We jump off to see the Anne Frank museum afterwards, but the line goes on for blocks. [This would continue for the rest of our visit, unfortunately. I'll echo Lonely Planet on this point: if you do happen to see a short line out front, drop whatever you're doing and see it, as that's rarely the case.] So it's back on the tram -- day passes are key! -- to the 'Dam', as we'd scoped out the nearby Oud Holland for supper the night before. We then pass a lovely few hours with their excellent 'home cooked' food, served family style, and friendly staff.

April 25, 2011: Zaanse Schans

The lady working in the tourist information said Zaanse Schans was the place to see windmills, so we are braving the holiday Monday crowds and buying return tickets to Zaandijk. We're puzzled as we disembark, however, because the scent of chocolate is all around (like when Mom lets you lick the mixing bowl and your whole head is in there), and we don't really know where to go. The former is easily solved -- ADM Cocoa is just down the road -- as is the latter, when the convenience stand man gives us a map in exchange for buying some bottled water. [Turns out the maps are free just outside the train station. You have to admire the man's ingenuity.]

It's a quick walk from the train station to the bridge that connects Zaandijk to Zaanse Schans. Looking out to that flat horizon, broken by so many spinning windmills, is really mesmerizing. According to our guide book, the heyday of the Zaan Region saw 600 such mills in operation, but the tourist attraction before us this day has its roots in the mid twentieth century: in an effort to preserve the region's cultural heritage, a plan was conceived to consolidate the iconic houses and mills in Zaanse Schans. De Zoeker (or "seeker/viewfinder") oil mill was moved to its current spot in 1968, for example.

The mill in De Zoeker
They still make peanut oil there today -- it's an amazing sight, watching the enormous wheels grind those peanuts down -- and, in a brave moment, we climb a steep, narrow ladder to take in the view from its platform. It's hard to grasp just how fast those sails are moving, until you're right next to them, that is, with only a rope and a sign separating you. From there, we continue along the path, past De Os (a mill without sails, preserved as an example of the transition from wind to steam power), to De Bonte Hen (or "the speckled hen"), where a small ferry takes us back to Zaandijk. We slowly walk back to the train station, Tea reading off notes from the ferryman and his wife, telling us all about the region's famed decorative facades as we pass them.

The view from De Zoeker

There's a queue at the locks back in Zaandijk

Walking through Zaandijk, toward the train station

[My notes jump around a bit, with the history of this and that. After we crossed the bridge, but before we got to the mills, we spent some time in the clog workshop and museum.]

The clog workshop is a treat! Kooijman Souvenirs & Gifts combines a wooden shoe workshop, store and museum, and is "one of the largest and best collections of clogs in the Netherlands," according to our guide book. We see them made before our very eyes -- the demonstration of how wet they are prior to the days of drying is my favourite bit: blowing inside, toward the toe, causes an enormous froth to gush forth -- and we spend a good, long while trying to decide which ones to buy.

"Start the car!"
You're supposed to be able to fit a finger in comfortably behind your heel when wearing good wool socks; as a satisfy myself that I've picked a good pair, a worker comments on my "good arches" for clogs -- ha ha! A use for flat feet! We stop for a snack -- Dutch pancakes, which look like crepes made with cheese and salami, and a sandwich for me -- before heading to the mills.

Up next: the Keukenhof, and the best pubs in Amsterdam

Check out our Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans albums for more pictures from the two days.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Netherlands: Day 1: Amsterdam

[Notes from the trip continue.]

April 23, 2011: Amsterdam

Our houseboat
We knew it was a stroke of good fortune to buy the tickets to Amsterdam the day before from the moment we entered Brussels-Central train station: Saturday on a holiday weekend was in full swing, with long queues to both the automated and traditional tellers. [Note that we had difficulty buying tickets from the machines in Brussels and Amsterdam -- even those that said they accepted Maestro didn't; you're better off going to straight to the tellers, we found.] Our congratulatory mood quickly faded as we boarded the train, however: the air-conditioning wasn't working, and each of the six-person cabins we passed were jammed with luggage and sweating bodies (as was the corridor, shortly thereafter). In retrospect, the extra €50 for the high-speed train would've been a much better option.

Tea, modeling it -- it was long
This country is flat. I haven't been to the Prairies, but I'd imagine this is what it's like. My guide to the Dutch includes a famous story about a son who bought his parents their first holiday, to Switzerland, for an important anniversary. When he called them to see they were getting on, his mother replied that they were miserable, and coming home early: "There's no view here; all these mountains get in the way."

Once we passed Antwerp, the train began to thin out; still sweating profusely, I was then able to sit and take in the passing land: perfect rows of lurid tulips broke it up. At one point, a couple on bicycles led a horse. [At the time, I struggled to think of something more Dutch, but, then, I hadn't been to Zaanse Schans yet.]

Bikes near the ferries
The lady we were renting from said the houseboat was very close to Amsterdam Central Station, so we headed for the docks, where hoards of bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and pedestrians were making their way on and off ferries in a deliberate, measured chaos. [I did not witness a single accident of any kind during the visit. I still don't understand how.]

I am sat at the raised table in the kitchen of our houseboat as I write this. A cool cross-breeze brings the lapping water to my ears. There is a slight rocking, no more. Our neighbours are close -- we share a dock on one side -- but everyone is quiet, calm... gezelligheid, as my guide tells me. Each set of keys is on its own little pink buoy. I could get used to this.

My first afternoon is overwhelming, as I try to wrap my head around the Dutch way of life, while avoiding the cycles, scooters, motorcycles, small cars -- which share the lane reserved for those first three -- larger cars and trams. As in Rotterdam, there are many places where you must cross five different lanes of traffic moving at different speeds.

Some early observations:
  • No one wears helmets; no one; not scooter-riders, not young children, not babies (in infant seats on the crossbar, right in front of mom), not girls riding side-saddle behind their boyfriends. (On the latter, my guide tells me that early courtship can be a painful time for these girls, as their boys slowly discover how far their knees stick out. Also, they hop off and stand by them at the lights.)
  • Coffeeshops are to be avoided. We couldn't remember whether it was coffeehouses that sold recreational drugs, but quickly found out as, sitting at a table outside a coffeeshop, we overheard "Hello, do you smoke weed? I'm doing a survey..." from the next table. We immediately stood up, offering an apologetic shrug to the waitress who was already making her way toward us, menus in hand.
  • So much is geared to relaxing: yes, as exemplified by the coffeeshop menus, but also in the decor, with fully reclining chairs for two -- beds, really -- under awnings outside them, and the regular coffeehouses. And in the pace of traffic as well: no one is honking or even pedaling strenuously. Even the tourists seem to grasp this respect for others that is at the heart of gezelligheid (which is so much more than easygoing, or any other English word that comes to mind).
  • The power of human potential is on display. I don't know how else to phrase it. The energy -- like Brussels in some respects, but channeled so differently -- brings me up regularly, wondering why it can't be like this at home. (Is it simply the hills and distances back home, or is it something more fundamental?) So modern and clean. Like a utopian movie set.
  • It's common to see boats that I would say seat six carrying well over a dozen folks, standing, havin' a drink 'n' a chat. (And not a life-jacket in sight, I'm sure you're surprised to learn.)
  • Shirts with banal English sayings seem to be very popular.

"Come to Mama!"
We're tired when we make it back to the houseboat, burdened with groceries that include a wheel of cheese the size of my head. Well into our antipasti-style meal, I notice Kae's brow furrow as she reads an ingredients label I've peeked at earlier. As she's about to voice the question, I say, "Tomatosaurus! ROWRrrr!" She can only nod, collapsing in the laughter of the exhausted, and we soon join her. (I have no idea what the ingredient actually was, but, honestly, Dutch looks that foreign a lot of the time.)

The 'floating playground'
Luckily, the houseboat is a fantastic place to kick back. After a kip, we hang out for a bit, planning our evening. On the agenda: De Bekeerde Suster, where they brew their own beer -- a rarity in Amsterdam, as the Dutch national drink is undoubtedly coffee; very strong coffee -- and the Red Light District. The former turns out to be an excellent choice -- the Blonde Ros and Witte Ros are both very good, as is the food -- which surprises me, as I hadn't had a chance to do much research. (Truth be told, I've been spoiled these last three trips, with Good Beer Guides for each.)

Partway through our meal, a safely-dressed gentleman approaches our table, asking, in perfect English, whether the ladies can help him finish his shirt. Turns out that "Bob the Builder" is a local -- more shocking for us than his outfit -- on his stag do, and needs to get 26 ladies, each with a name beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, to sign the back of his shirt. He was very excited when "Princess Zara" (a.k.a. Kae) told him he only needed a 'Z' to finish. Much congratulations all 'round ensued.

Then it was off to the Red Light District. Some observations:
  • There seemed to be a good variety of all that nature has to offer on display. Ahem.
  • Some seemed keen; others bored.
  • Some men were negotiating just inside some doorways, either for themselves or their stag dos. It's odd, to see such a public transaction, in the sense that it's keenly watched by so many.
  • There were more cameras around than I expected, given the warnings in our guide books. And it was much smaller, and therefore, crowded, than I expected as well.
  • Like many other aspects of Amsterdam, and Dutch life generally, it is very... contained. If you seek it out, it's there; if you don't, you might easily miss it, and certainly won't be bothered by it. (Unlike, for example, the constant flippity-flip of call-girl and escort cards and brochures being handed out on the strip in Las Vegas.)

And with that, we headed home. An exciting hunt for the light switches later -- that boat gets dark -- and we were off to bed.

Up next: Zaanse Schans

Check out our Amsterdam album for more pictures from the day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Belgium: dichotomous Brussels and divine Ghent

As on previous occasions, I've decided to post these notes in the present tense, under the dates when their bulk was penned.

April 19, 2011: Brussels

[I never warmed to Brussels; however, I came to truly appreciate the balance it represents, in Belgium and the rest of Europe.]

Leisure class on the Eurostar from London was very nice; with a full meal, unlimited wine, and only one other group in our whole cabin, it's truly an affordable luxury.

The view from our apt.
While the walk to pick up the keys was a bit far to drag luggage, we found the office, and then our apartment, with little difficulty. Our apartment is amazing: so spacious, and a block from the Grand Place. At night, I simply stare out our corner window on the scene below, sipping gueuze; television can't compete.

There's a nice, big grocery store on the next corner; the only hiccup was milk. They only carry various flavours of UHT. I wonder if this is normal. We picked up some breakfast stuff, meats and cheeses, and some local beer:
  • Cuvée René Grand Cru Oude Gueuze: the Good Beer Guide Belgium gives it four stars. My virgin palette -- yes, this is my first lambic -- found it to be like a witbier, with a tang. Like, oh, the best of the limited champagne I've tried.
  • Mort Subite Gueuze, which I don't believe is made in the traditional way. (The style isn't protected, unlike the German styles, for example, so corners are often cut to save money.) Either way, I enjoyed it; a bit darker than the Cuvee Rene, with ginger notes.

This city has such life. Like Dublin. Maybe more so. The clusters of kids on the cobblestones of Grand Place; so many different conversations and styles of music drift out on the street and up to our windows.

In the Grand Place, with chocolate shops all around, it's Bruges, through and through. At times, staring down a narrow cobblestone alley, it's like Venice. Seafood on the tables enhances this. Near our apartment, with the Asian grocers, Japanese restaurants, and, at night, the lurid neon, one could be forgiven for replaying Blade Runner. The trash helps with this. As do the homeless, laying out on mattresses under scattered canopies.

I thought we arrived on garbage day, but this veritable army of trucks operates continually, including in the wee hours. This dichotomy, the trash and dirt beside the Grand Place and European politics, reminds me of Athens; extremes of excess and beauty, and then whole blocks forgotten, no doubt populated by those same elements each night. I'm of mixed feelings, it must be said. We've met some fantastic folks, but there are certainly areas where you should keep your map out of sight and your head down.

The restaurant area facing St. Catherine's Church reminded me of La Rambla, particularly when Spanish guitar could be heard from a big top tent further down, earlier on. Barcamoule was where we had supper, and my mussels were excellent. Very friendly staff. So many languages around us. A group that seemed to be winding down from a conference included a woman from Lisbon (now living in Sao Paolo), an Irishman and an Englishman. The city is crawling with suits and purpose.

Who needs sleep? This city surely feasts on them. It's Tuesday night!

My strangest observation, however, and another dichotomy, has to be the amount of pollen you see in the air, against all the concrete. Where does it come from? And yet, strangely, I'm fine; clearly it isn't ragweed. If this turns, I will be miserable.

* * *

April 20, 2011

It's so warm. Unseasonably so -- by ten to fifteen degrees Celsius, according to a gentleman at the train station. We haven't packed for it, but we'll happily make do with the shorts we have.

First, to the Grand Place to witness its transformation to a garden centre; oh, to be here for the flower carpet. Then, to the boot sale/flea market in Vossenplein Square. So many old board games, Tintin books, paintings and records. After a snack on the patio of a bordering cafe, we're off to the Cantillon brewery and museum.

We almost missed the place, it's large, wooden warehouse doors are so unassuming. The front area, for there's no room to speak of, opens to the basement where they clean the barrels, so our first smells are heavily laced with a dampness, and mustiness, just under the expected yeasts. I was immediately a boy, back in the Bussey's basement before they'd finished it. I have good memories of summer explorations there, the coolness welcome after the midday heat. (Little wonder I lose days in secondhand bookshops.)

All are free to wander; the only tour is the pamphlet they provide. Once you've finished exploring, it's back to the 'bar' at the front for samples of their gueuze and kriek (flavoured with cherries or raspberries). The spontaneous fermentation that is at the heart of these lambic beers is a hefty subject, but all can appreciate the "holy" cooling tun, where wild yeasts and bacteria living in the Senne river valley are allowed to blow over its open top; pictures of the resulting foaming barrels really do appear miraculous.

I bought a bottle of their Grand Cru, and a bottle of Gueuze Boon at de Bier Tempel shortly thereafter [before I realized that Favourite Beers, in town, stocks the latter; Leigh has a fantastic selection of Belgian beers].

We walked back such that we'd pass the Manneken Pis, to see the little guy, yes, but also because the GBG Belgium recommends the pub next door: Poechenellekelder. We enjoyed a few lambics -- Girardin Gueuze 1882 for me, and some faros for the ladies (sweetened with sugar and caramel vice fruit, normally) -- as the ebb and flow of Pis lovers washed over the patio area. Make sure you go inside, should you have the chance: the puppetry displays are amazing (and a little unsettling, if I'm honest).

A bit tuckered out from the walking, we elected to have a kip before supper and further exploring. Sushi delivered by train was the consensus later that night, followed by another recommendation: Delirium. I don't know how many different bars they have in that place, but be warned: the menus -- books, really -- are different for each. While the ladies sampled various fruity Floris options, I went for a Rulles Estivale, followed by a Grande. The place was hoppin', and we enjoyed checkin' in periodically with the marine, Paul, and his friends as they attempted to meet every person and beer on offer.

* * *

April 21, 2011: Ghent

Leaving Brussels for Flanders, you quickly realize that the guides aren't exaggerating: it's a different country. I'd never considered that I should've felt many reminders of our trip to Bruges by this time. I hadn't -- other than the Grand Place, as stated -- until we went to Ghent. The French of Brussels gives it a familiar feel to anyone who's spent time in the Outaouais region. Both Bruges and Ghent, however, while very welcoming, are clearly foreign when it comes to communicating. And, much like Czech, I found that the limited Dutch in our guides was useless without pronunciation details.

Our pace to date is beginning to show: in between nodding off on the train, I looked over at Tea and noticed a red fleck on her eyelid. Confused, I made many pawing attempts for it before concluding, "It looks like you have cheese wax on your eyelid." This kicked off many waves of overtired hysterics before we reached our destination.

The entrance of Sint-Pieters station is truly beautiful. After a few minutes of gaping and snapping pictures, we eventually found a working vending machine and bought tram tickets to town. Not even half a dozen stops later, we were in the heart of gob-smacking Ghent: the Graslei. Based on yet another recommendation from the GBG Belgium, we made our way straight to the Belga Queen, securing a table on the patio while lunch was still on.

We saw many disappointed groups turned away as we supped on delicious steak and lamb, and, in my case, many glasses of unfiltered Palm. Belga Queen was a footnote in my guide -- with a joke about the communal toilets with translucent doors (prior to locking) -- but I cannot recommend it highly enough: the staff were so friendly and helpful, and the food was the best to date [and of the whole trip, looking back].

Next, we stopped at the tourist information centre in Sint-Baafs, and picked up a recommended walk. Happily, it intersected with another recommendation, Dulle Griet or 'Mad Meg', named after the cannon of the same name in the square known as Friday Market. I witnessed the famous basket being raised to the roof, only later learning that they ransom shoes to ensure tabs are settled. [Correction: Tea has informed me that the shoes are actually collateral for a particular beer that's served in a very expensive glass. Ah, Belgians and their custom glasses.]

A few more stops, for ice cream, and the famous Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard --
"What types of mustard do you have?"
"We have our mustard."
"Ah... I'll take two jars then."
And we were back for sunset on the Graslei, a sight I'll never forget. On the way back to Sint-Pieters, we walked through the beautiful Citadel Park, and the immense Sint-Pietersplein (St. Peter's Square). As it was on the way, and uniquely situated on a moored houseboat, we took in one final recommendation -- De Planck -- and some of their own 'huisbier'.

* * *

April 22, 2011: Brussels again

With the ladies shopping, I find myself with some time at À la Mort Subite, intriguingly referred to as possibly "the best surviving fin de siècle long bar on the planet" by the handy GBG. It means "in sudden death" and is named after a card game, I gather. While reading about all sorts of Belgian beers and breweries -- the outrage at Flemish institution, Hoegaarden, temporarily becoming "a Wallonian lager" is a favourite -- I sampled Lefebvre's Hopus, a beer of the month that was pleasant, with currant notes; the bar's gueuze "sur lie", which was tastier than the stuff I bought in the grocery; and Alken-Maes' Hapkin. (Incidentally, Alken-Maes owns the Mort Subite line, and have been bought out by Heineken.)

After lunch on "kebab street" -- as it's called in Use-It Europe, Tourist Info for Young People, a neat map with commentary that Tea found -- near Grand Place, we spent some time in the comic strip museum before hitting up one last recommendation: Bier Circus. I have another book on beers of the world that includes three tours of beer meccas, one of which happens to be for Brussels; it chooses to end at Bier Circus. I take that to be a (well deserved) compliment. (Although I guess some could say that few would remember it then.)

Oddly enough, it's where my evening ended as well. But before that, with rain threatening, I finally sampled Geuze Boon Mariage Parfait -- and it really was -- with the ladies, wondering whether the nearby film crew would get their shot before the skies opened. When they did, I enjoyed a Rochefort 10 inside.

All was fine 'til, standing, we noted that the rain still had an edge. U2's Rattle and Hum is playing on the television too at this point, and I'm shocked to realize that while I've listened to the album hundreds of times, I've never seen the footage that accompanies the candid interviews between the tracks. It was so obvious that the barman came up behind me, saying, "You don't have to leave."

Another then. And what do I choose? De Dochter van de Korenaar's Embrasse is on special. Oh, so beautiful, but at 9% and 66 cl, not a nightcap. I was fine -- Tea and Kae support... u'm, no, back me up on this -- 'til we hit the stairs of our apartment -- the many, many stairs -- at which point, with the blood a-pumpin' through my veins, I had myself a little sit down. The ladies then went shopping for one of those five-minute hours, returning with pizzas for themselves and a kebab for me. One bite of that wrapped napalm later, I packed it in.

Up next: Amsterdam

If you're interested in more pictures, there are 90 between our Picasa albums of Brussels and Ghent.