Thursday, January 6, 2011

In de Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst

One of the things I was looking most forward to in Belgium was revisiting our favorite beer cafe: In de Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst. We first visited Dorst a couple years ago and immediately fell in love with the place and the family who runs it (the Panneels). You can read more from our first trip here.

I wondered if they'd remember us two years later. The place is only open on Sundays and church holidays so we rolled up on Christmas day right when they opened. We were the only ones there so all eyes were on us when we walked in the door. There was a brief silence. I could tell we looked familiar to them, but the cogs were turning as they tried to figure it out. Smiles came to their faces when they remembered and they gave us hugs like old friends had just shown up. It was a great moment.

Ryan, Lydia, Maurice, and Kurt at DorstWe stood at the bar talking with Maurice, Lydia, and Kurt for a little while and Kurt brought out a nice bottle of Giardin Oude Geuze Black Label for us to enjoy. As people started to file in, we grabbed a spot out of the way at a table. The Panneels told some of the cafe regulars that we were working on learning Flemish and they were happy to come over and give us a hard time. My Flemish is nearly non-existent, and Christine's is rudimentary. But it's fun to learn.

Since our last visit, they have started a guest book at the cafe. They had put the Christmas card we sent them last year inside the guest book, and apparently we had been the subject of some discussion in our absence. I don't know what they talked about, but it was probably something to the effect of "those crazy American alcoholics".

Ryan and Christine at DorstThere is no place in Belgium (and probably the world) that carries the selection of Lambics that the Panneels carry. We sampled some really good stuff over the next few hours. We were settling up on our bill as the 1:30 PM closing time approached and Maurice and Lydia asked us if we would come over for dinner. That's not entirely accurate. They insisted we come over.

What an amazing gesture. In all the years they've been running the cafe they've never invited anyone over to their house, so it's pretty cool that they wanted us to come over and talk some more. I originally thought we'd just be going over to have some soup, but we ended up talking and eating for a few hours. It was fun getting to know them and learn more about their family. It's the unexpected moments like this that make a trip memorable.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Euro Christmas Trip 2010 (part 4)

All vacations must come to an end, and this one was winding down. We set the alarm for early-o'clock so we could drive back to Brussels for New Years Eve. First things first, we picked up some pain au chocolat. Seven of them actually.

We left Christine's "dealer" and started back to Brussels with a stop in Blaugies along the way to find some of their beer. Me and Blaguies just weren't to be. They were closed, just like they were closed two years ago when we went. Next we went to Beer Mania in Brussels to pick up some more take home beer and then head to our hotel. We booked a room at the Marriott in downtown Brussels using Christine's Marriott points. We were living large on the "executive" level and we had a sweet room looking out onto the Brussels Stock Exchange.

Brussles Plice ready for NYE actionWe did a little shopping at the Christmas market and then managed to run into our friends from Naples while we were both getting food. We had planned to meet in another hour at a bar, so it was funny to just run into them early. We all went out for a couple drinks at the Delirium Cafe. They have a massive beer list so we took the opportunity to try some new beers. The place was packed, and was filling in more and more as the evening went on. I could have sat there all night and drink, but we had some packing to do. We still needed "dinner" though, so we made a stop at Friteland. Mmmm. frites. A couple police came in and they looked ready for business: shin guards and zip-ties. Later they'd have helmets too.

I actually planned ahead for packing beer this time and I brought a bunch of bubble wrap and tape. It quickly became evident that all our beer and gifts were going to be difficult to pack (safely) in our bags alone. Thankfully the fine people at the Marriott front desk found us a couple boxes to use. I'll have to remember that for next time and maybe bring a couple broken down boxes. With Christine's status on United, we could take a total of 5 pieces of luggage so we had 2 suitcases, a duffel bag, and two boxes.

NYE chaos in BrusselsHaving stuffed just about everything into our luggage, we went back to Delirium to meet Garrett and Sue for one more beer. It was getting close to midnight and the crowd had gotten even crazier. We actually just stood outside with our beers. Instead of heading into the belly of the New Years beast, we all retreated to our hotel where we could watch the mayhem from above and drink some of our own beer. (It's a clear sign we're getting older.) And mayhem there was. The highlight was when one of the Christmas market booths caught on fire.

How much beer did we cram into the bags?
Beer Collection

- 23 Westvleteren 12
- 2 Rodenbach cans
- 4 Rodenbach Grand Cru
- 3 Kapittel Prio
- 1 Kapittel Triple
- 1 Dupont Saison Biologique
- 1 Mea Culpa
- 1 Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek
- 1 Blaugie Biere Darbyste
- 1 Hoegaarden Le Fruit Defendu

Monday, January 3, 2011

Euro Christmas Trip 2010 (part 3)

Colmar FranceFrom Luzern, we drove up to the Alsace region of France and check out the Christmas markets and villages around Colmar. It's the kind of town that looks straight out of a story book with its timber framed buildings. It gives Brugge a run for it's money in the cute old city department. We shopped their Christmas Market, bought some cookies, and had some lunch before driving down the a similar (but smaller) village, Eguisheim.

The next morning we got up early and drove to Baden-Baden Germany to check out their thermal baths. What a great idea that turned out to be. They have a large pool with multiple levels (and multiple temperatures). That pools also connects to a large pool outside. There is a cold pool that I guess is supposed to be refreshing. We hopped in that briefly and then back into a nice hot pool. We spent a little time in an aromatic steam room too.

Feeling newly refreshed we drove to Paris to see the city lit up with Christmas lights and feed Christine's croissant addiction. We stayed at a hotel near the Bastille that had a parking garage. That was an interesting experience. I pulled the car into a narrow little car elevator and went down one level into a small 4-space garage. I've never ridden a car in an elevator before. It's kind of unsettling.

We were feeling a little nostalgic and decided to have dinner at the place where we ate before getting engaged, Reflets des Scene. I'm glad we stumbled on that place 5 years ago. It's a nice small restaurant that will forever be etched as part of our history. We walked in and the owner almost immediately recognized Christine. He gave her some friendly cheek kisses and had us wait at the bar until a table opened up. The food, as always, was great. Maybe the best coq au vin I've ever had.

It's amazing how much time you can take enjoying a nice dinner in France. It was getting late when we left but we still wanted to see the Champs Elysees lit up. I'm glad we did, because it looked pretty cool. We skipped the Eiffel Tower because we were so tired.
Champs Elysees
Champs Elysees

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Euro Christmas Trip 2010 (part 2)

One of the good things about visiting places in the winter is that tourist traffic is way down. The downside, though, is that many things aren't open or have weird hours.

On Christmas Eve day, pretty much everything we tried to visit was closed. Families in Europe usually get together for their holiday dinner on 12/24. After driving around for most of the day, we got back to Brugge and had dinner at a Thai restaurant. Nothing too exciting.

Christmas was the day of this trip we were probably looking most forward to. It was the day we'd be going back to our favorite cafe and I'll save that for a separate post.

We got back into Brugge after dinner on Christmas and went out to bar with a huge beer list - Cambrinus. You have to love it when you go to a place in Belgium and the beer menu is an inch thick book. While we were sitting there, the couple from Naples came in too. We found out we were all going to be in Brussels for New Years, so we tentatively planned to meet up.

Westvleteren 12On the 26th, we headed south with the ultimate goal of making it to Luzern Switzerland and visit with a friend from our recent raft trip. Along the way, we decided to swing through Westvletern. Thankfully they were open and we got to enjoy all three of their beers: 12, 8, and blond. So good. While we were still finishing our beers, I went to the gift shop and picked up a couple 6-packs. You're allowed a max of 24 per person, but I thought I'd try to be conservative and same some space in the luggage. Christine talked me into picking up an additional 12. :)

We continued on south to Paris. We decided to try and go to Christine's favorite boulangerie (which ended up being closed) and then stay in Dijon. As you'd expect, we got into Paris and hit traffic. It was my first time driving in Paris though, so that was fun. I love driving in Europe. It's aggressive, and in the city you zig-zag through lanes as you see fit. On the highway, the left lane is used for passing. It's an amazing concept.

We thought about just staying in Paris for the night, but eventually decided to carry on to Dijon. In retrospect, we should have just stayed in Paris. There was an hour long traffic jam on the way to Dijon which meant that we were going to get there too late to go out and grab a nice dinner. We ended up just eating at a pizza joint across from the hotel. It was a bummer to be driving out there in the dark too, because we didn't get to see the countryside. Although, it had been overcast and foggy in Europe since we arrived, so even in the daylight we wouldn't be able to see much.

Our one view of the Swiss mountainsThe next morning in Dijon we went to the bakery near our hotel and they had surprisingly good croissants and pain au chocolate. I wish we would have picked up more. It was another dreary day, so we could even see any of the mountains as we made our way into Switzerland. In Luzern, we set up at a nice hotel downtown. Christine had some work to do, so I walked around town and did some shopping.

In the evening, we went out to dinner with our friend, Petra, who we met on our Grand Canyon raft trip. We went out to dinner at a local brew-pub with good beer and Petra gave us the scoop on some things to do around Luzern. After dinner, we walked around and then went for drinks at a bar top floor of a nearby hotel with a nice view of the city.

We were ready to see the sights the next morning, but it was another foggy day. It would have been nice to ride gondolas up to the nearby mountains, but there wouldn't have been much of a view. If we had brought some outdoor attire, we could have played in the snow. Instead we walked around the city some more and decided that we should maybe head out the next morning if it wasn't clear out.

That evening, Petra invited us over for a Swiss dish called raclette. It involves melting cheese under a tabletop grill with some onions and bacon and then pouring it over potatoes. So yeah, it was pretty good.

Euro Christmas Trip 2010 (part 1)

Ready to departChristine and I spent this Christmas in Europe. Originally we had planned to spend most of our time in Belgium, but we made a last minute change when Christine was potentially allergic to beer. If you're going to Belgium in the winter, you're going to be drinking some beer. So here's how it went down.

Europe got hit with some massive snowfalls in the days leading up to our trip, but we were still able to get into Brussels without much trouble. We picked up our car, mentioned that we'd probably be going through Switzerland and Germany, and we found out that it's against the law now to drive there without snow tires. Our car didn't have snow tires. Hmmm. The Hertz guy was super helpful though and found out they were expecting a properly equipped car to be coming back later that afternoon and he'd call us when it came in. That gave us an excuse to hang around Brussels for the afternoon.

AtomiumOur first stop was the Atomium, a structure built for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair that represents a iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. The drive there through a snowy park area was really nice. The structure is impressive as you drive up. You can go up in some of the spheres and there are exhibits inside. I must say, though, that you're better of just looking at it from the outside. The exhibits inside aren't very interesting. On a clear day, it's probably a nice view from inside.

From the Atomium, we drove around the city to the village of Beersel to visit Drie Fonteinen. They make some of the best Geuzes in the world. Aside from the cafe owner and her friend, we were the only two people there and we sat down to enjoy some of their finest. A short while later, the brewer, Armond, came into the cafe with another couple Americans who were visiting and offered to take us to his barrel aging warehouse down the street. It's one of those moments where you happen to be in the right place at the right time I guess.

Pilsner Urquell barrels used for aging Drie FonteinenWe walked to his warehouse and he showed us around the small space. He had just gotten some unfermented wort and his assistant was pumping it into barrels. He mentioned that he doesn't usually do tours, because he prefers to just do the work. But it was the holidays. :) We were thankful that he spent so much time talking with us both at the cafe and at the barrel room. We learned some interesting things about his past and the potential future of the brewery (or lack there of due to a big fire in 2009).

Armond tasting Avery DepuceleuseWe had brought over some beers from the US for just an occasion like this. What better way to say thanks than to give someone the gift of a special brew from the US? We went back to the car, grabbed the bottle, and headed back to the warehouse. We brought him an Avery Depuceleuse - one of their wild fermented barrel aged projects. We were just going to give it to him and leave, but he insisted on opening it up right away and sharing it with his assistant. I was nervous that he wouldn't like it, but he was genuinely surprised that it was good. He said it was "One of the better ones" and went on to say how several other similar beers he's tried from the US were too vinegary.

Armond pouring 10 year old GeuzeAfter he finished the beer, he said "I'm going to open something special." He disappeared to another room and came back with a dusty old unlabeled bottle. Based on the information stamped on the cork, he knew it was something he bottled about 10 years ago. We couldn't believe that he was opening a 10 year old Geuze for us. (Geuze, like many wines, ages really well and finding an old one is a nice treat.) Oh man, it was delicious. So smooth and dry with a slight bitterness. What a special treat. Then he rinsed out our glasses and poured something right out from one of the stainless steel vessels in the room. It was a kriek that still had the cherries seeping in it. Whoa, was it good. They were local wild cherries, and the tart cherry flavor was great. I would love to taste that same beer in a few years.

By the end of that amazing experience, it was time to go pick up our snow-tire'd car and head to our B&B in Brugge. It was a really nice place. Really close to the main square downtown and our room overlooked the street. After we settled in, we went to a beer cafe called Brugs Beertje. It was here, apparently, that the New Belgium founder had his epiphany to create his company. It's a cozy place with a great beer list and a must for any beer fan visiting Brugge.

On our way out, we met a couple other Americans, Garrett and Sue. They live in Naples, Italy where Garrett plays trombone for the Navy band. They were traveling the area drinking beer too, and we'd run into them later.