Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Last day

Today, our last full day, was a "rest day," as in, no cycling. Tomorrow morning, we pack up everything, including our backpacks, which we had left at the B&B, and ride the bikes one last time, just a short jaunt of 20 km to the Brussels airport. 

Today, we took the train into Brussels and wandered around. It's another big city, so nothing super thrilling, but it is quite nice, and it was a nice surprise that most people seem to speak French there. Throughout Flanders, Belgians seemed far more comfortable in English than in French, which we thought a little strange, Belgian supposedly being a "bilingual country." That said, perhaps French-speakers coming to Canada might be somewhat dismayed at how little French is spoken outside of Quebec. 

Pretty much the first thing I did off the train was find a Belgian waffle place. We hadn't had a chance to try one yet, and it being our last day...


The one other thing on my to-do list was to visit the Cantillon brewery. This was worth the trip into town as far as I was concerned. The self-guided tour was very interesting and included two samples of beer, and then you could buy bottles of other offerings, many of which you can only buy at the brewery, and not to take away. You have to drink it there. And most are 750 ml. Luckily, Sonia and I befriended a young American guy backpacking around Europe, who was willing to share a few bottles with us. So I got to try a few interesting geuzes. The brewery itself is a little like stepping back in time. Very little modern stainless steel brewery gear here. For instance, here is the wooden mash tun. 


After Cantillon, we wandered around some more, and then Sonia and I went our separate ways for an hour or so, she to do some shopping, me to seek out one of the better beer bars in town (Moeder Lambic). Then it was off to find a bite to eat and hop on the train home to get packing. We'll be on the bikes tomorrow by 8 am. Next stop: home! 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Changes

I don't think we could have asked for a nicer day for our last day of bike touring on this trip. The weather was fairly mild, the winds were mostly light, and we got some nice sun and no rain. The morning part of the ride, the 30 km from Buggenhout up to the Schelde river and eastward, before we turned south down the Rupel toward Mechelen, was as beautiful as any part of our trip: lovely farm fields, gorgeous gardens, hilarious sheep, castles, and beautiful river vistas.



The whole 57 or so km, I was acutely aware that this was our last full day of cycling, and it made me wistful. Usually, when we get to the end of a vacation, I am more than ready to come home. But  this trip has been different. It took us a week to get in to the swing of things, but once we did, it seemed that more than on any other holiday we were able to leave our normal lives behind, "décrocher" as Quebecers say. I think I could have done another week like this. The morning rides, especially, have been wonderful. Getting on your bike and setting out to explore a new countryside is a wonderful way to start the day. 

As we turned onto the LF2, heading south on the same path we took north 2-and-a-half weeks ago, it was interesting to see the same country from the perspective of what had changed over that time. Poppies were blooming everywhere, for one thing; they hadn't yet started to come out by mid-May. But we had changed more than the countryside. Going north, it was all new and strange. Cominng south, it was familiar and beautiful. The deja-vu was even more acute as we rolled into Mechelen. Our first day here, we were jetlagged, stressed from our everyday lives, and wound up with anticipation; Mechelen seemed exotic and a little frightening. Today, the town seems like an old friend; I felt almost Belgian, cycling the streets confidently and navigating my way around. 

Tomorrow, we'll take the train into Brussels for one last day of sightseeing. The only essential thing on my agenda is the legendary Cantillon brewery.


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rain

I suppose a nasty weather day was bound to happen eventually. Even so, I consider us lucky. 

We left Ghent at about 10 am (are you sensing a pattern here?) to cloudy skies and forecasts of rainy weather all day. So we put on all our rain gear and covers before even starting out. The first few hours of the ride, it was mostly just spitting rain. Just enough to make us glad we had rain gear on, but not enough to soak us. Things seemed to be easing off by lunchtime. 

Around noon, we came to the town of Berlare, where we encountered a little "eetcafe" that seemed quite popular with both locals and cyclists, so we stopped there to eat and warm up. Turned out to be a good choice, since the food was good and they had really excellent beer selection. I feel like I'm running out of time when as far as my Belgian beer education is concerned. There are so many interesting beers to try and only a finite amount of time (and liver). In any case, this afternoon seemed like as good a time as any to try Boon's Mariage Parfaite Geuse. 


What a fine beer this is. I think I'm  finally starting to "get" sour beers. Even so, I prefer it when the beer is well balanced, and this was a very well-rounded beer. But I didn't take the Belgian cyclist's advice of buying a Duvel tripel and putting it in my water bottle for the road!

After lunch, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we were getting rained on more than at any other time on our trip. Even so, it wasn't a soaking. And we realized that we didn't have all that far to go to get to our hotel in Buggenhout. But just as we arrived in town, we saw that there was a kreik and lambic beer tasting put on by the local beer club. Such serendipity is the stuff that great vacations are made of. After inquiring, we went inside and had some very nice samples of lambics and I chatted with the president of the club (whose name was also Peter... or Pieter, I assume). 

Since we still had a few kilometres to ride, I couldn't stay there all afternoon, so we left in search of our hotel, which turned out to be only 4 or 5 km away. We don't normally splurge for 4-star hotels, but this was basically the only place in between Ghent and Mechelen, and it looked nice, so what the heck. We are almost the only people here, it being a Sunday, so we had the bar and pool table to ourselves. 

So even though the riding weather wasn't quite as kind as it has been, we still managed to have quite a nice day. Certainly, arriving to a luxury hotel makes things a lot easier. Tomorrow is our last long ride. Kind of hard to believe this amazing trip is coming to an end.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The road home

In a sense, today marked the beginning of our journey home. We left Bruges this morning shortly after 10 am, with some light showers that got us just wet enough to stop and put the covers on the paniers. Of course, as soon as we did so, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Such is the way of the world.

Our direction: Ghent, about 45 km away. With various detours and wrong turns, we ended up cycling 52. A good chunk of the ride today was along a canal running between the two cities, and it was certainly among the prettier rides we have done. Very buccolic. When we started our trip two weeks ago, the poppies were just starting to bloom. Now, as we ride through Flanders, you can see them everywhere. 


The poppies are just one more reminder of the battlefields this area saw 75 years ago. I'm not quite sure why I find it so moving to cycle through this landscape. I think the horrors that these lands have seen must be part of it. But it's not at all macabre and sad. It's just touching. There's so much beauty here. It's quite hard to imagine it being a battlefiled. 


We're staying at the Astoria Gent, right beside the train station, which doesn't sound that appealing, but it's actually quite a nice hotel room. We got here about 3, had a little rest then took the tram into town to see what Ghent is all about. It being Saturday afternoon, things were quite lively, as can be expected in a universtiy town. It's not really quite as charming as Bruges, but it is pretty all the same, with its many tall towers crowded downtown. 

Tomorrow, we're aiming for a town south of the LF 5 called Buggenhout (home of two breweries, by sheer coincidence, I swear) and then Monday we'll make it back to Mechelen. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Can I say "beer heaven" again?

Today was a lazy day. We had originally thought to go for a ride in the morning and then spend the afternoon walking around Bruges, but cold, cloudy weather and accumulated fatigue made us decide to take it easy. In any case, we had laundry to do, which took up a good part of the morning. But let's face it, it was well after lunch before we got any real touristy things done. 

Luckily, the one main thing we wanted to see, the lace museum, was only a 10-minute walk from the B&B. Bruges is one of the world's most important centres for bobbin lace, a craft that I hold dear since my grandmother did it. The museum is modest but interesting, but the most interesting part is watching the people in the demonstration room. It was a strangely emotional experience watching these women working on their lace. One older woman, was mind-bogglingly fast. 


Then we looked into a few of Bruges' old churches, most of which seemed to be being renovated. Since it was a bit of a cold and blustery day, it soon became clear that we should retire to a pub in short order. Luckily, I had done some research and knew that a well known place was just around the corner: 't Brugs Beertje. We arrived early enough to get a table, but since Sonia wanted to shop, I just sat down at the bar and tried not to be overwhelmed by it all. 

To cut a long story short, my three beers there (all outstanding) ended with something that will be pretty hard to beat. Coincidentally, it's from a brewery in a town where we stopped early on on this trip, Esen, called De Dolle Brouwerij. The beer is called Oerbier Special Reserva (2013). At 13% alcohol and aged in oak barrels, it's pretty much a barley wine. But rarely have I experienced such complexity in a beer. Luckily, the bar was willing to sell me another one, so I'm bringing back yet another souvenir. 


Tomorrow, we say farewell to Bruges and start our journey back east. Our first stop is Ghent. 



Thursday, May 28, 2015

Can I stay here?

What a lovely day! I woke up this morning still a little bit high from my introduction to Westvleteren yesterday. Still can't believe I'll be bringing two bottles back with me. After researching this beer, I had assumed that if I couldn't get to the abbey myself, I wouldn't be able to get it at all. Turns out that it is widely available in the bottle shops here in Bruges (and presumably elsewhere in Belgium). But it is mostly going for about 12 Euros a bottle, so getting it for 4 Euros is an incredible bargain. Here is me opening my first "Westy." 



Today, we rode out to the coast. We were advised to avoid the Belgian coast because it was mostly urbanized, so we headed north on the LF1 to Sluis, just over the Holland boarder and then on to the Dutch coast. The view of the sea and dunes was lovely, if windy. 

\

By that time, we had ridden 26 km, with the wind mostly at our backs, so we had a rest and some lunch, knowing that the ride back would be harder that the ride there. As it turns out, the wind shifted slightly to the west in the afternoon, so it was more a crosswind and occasionally a tailwind. Not so bad after all.

Before we set out this morning, we dropped our bags at  the new B&B (it being seemingly impossible to find 3 nights in a row at the same place in Bruges). We were a little sad to leave our amazing little B&B of last night, but the new place seems very nice too and is inside the walls, so more convenient for exploring the old city. After returning from our ride, we rested for a bit and then headed out to explore Bruges in a little more detail. For Sonia, that meant browsing the lace shops. For me, it meant exploring the beer scene. I had heard of a famous local bar called De Garre and tried to find it. Let me tell you, Google maps will not help you very much here. It's  in a tiny street just off the main Markt, no wider than a door. 


The house beer, a blond tripel is very tasty and turned out to be the best beer I tried there. But they also had Gulden Draak and Gulden Draak Quad on tap, which I couldn't pass up. Both were good, but the house tripel is outstanding. They also had a really nice menu of bottles, but I would have needed a true Belgian beer geek along with me to make sense of it. 

After perusing a few bottle shops nearby (and a few lace boutiques with Sonia), we continued wandering around the city. Truly, for sheer prettiness, it is the nicest town we've been through on this trip. Weeping willows overhanging canals, gorgeous old cathedrals towering over well-kept and clean cobblestone streets, and not too many tourists (at least not this early in the season). The weather will dictate what we do tomorrow. If  it's not looking too rainy, we'll do a short ride somewhere and do some more wandering around town. 



Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Beer heaven

Today was mostly a travel day. We set off from Amsterdam this morning by train. We had hoped to catch the 11 o'clock train, but by the time I got to the ticket counter there was no chance of that, so the 12 o'clock train it was. That got us into Bruges by about 4:30. All went well, but let's just say that the trains in Holland and Belgium don't hold a candle to the Swiss rail system. 

Yesterday, we took in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We were warned to get there early and to expect lines and crowds. As it happened, we walked right by the entrance because we were looking for a huge lineup where there was none. We arrived at about 9 am and the place was almost deserted for the first hour we were there. We got a very good look at Rembrant's Night Watch before the real crowds started coming in after 10. Even so, I was expecting much worse. 

The Rijks is probably the only museum we'll take in on this trip. Neither of us are real museum people, and I did some reflecting on why that is the other day. It's like my philosophy about recording being "purgatory" for music. It's ok for archival purposes, but recordings are not really music. I thiink I view museums a little the same way. They are like art zoos; fine for educational purposes, but art needs to live in society to be really effective. And like zoos, I find museums a little depressing. It's sad to see all these amazing works of art penned up together in the same place, when really, they should be free and out in the open. 

Ok, enough of my crazy artist BS. We really enjoyed the museum, but after 3 hours, we were footsore and overwhelmed. Time to have a bite to eat and explore. Which we did. We walked along the famous Albert Cuypmarkt, took the tram into the centre and saw the Neiuwmarkt, then headed over to the Brouwerij 't IJ for a few beers from one of Amsterdam's best breweries.

We also stopped to smell the roses along the way 


I write this from our excellent B&B in Bruges, where our hosts offer various beverages for an extra fee. One of those beverages happens to be Westvlerteren, a mythical and very famous Begian abbey beer that I have been wanting to try for years. It's normally only sold at the abbey, though apparently it is available fairly commonly in bottle shops around here. But I didn't expect to find it at the B&B! and for only 4 Euros a bottle! I think I might just be in beer heaven. At any rate, Holland was wonderful, but today's little beer surprise was a nice welcome back to Belgium!