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.

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