Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Brugge, Belgium, Part Two!!!

Wow! Is this town cute or what?! Day two of Brugge, we had a blast. After a somewhat mediocre breakfast in our hotel, we hit the streets, bound and determined to tour a brewery and take a canal cruise. You saw the pictures from the canal cruise on my previous post. Obviously, I hid during the whole thing, but Deb and Jeff said the cruise was great. Whatever.

I begin here with a photo of the view from the rooftop of De Halve Maan Brewery (the Half Moon, in English). Why was I there? Because during the brewery tour, they led us up to the roof so we could take in this fabulous view. Weird, but very nice. As you can see, Brugge is very medieval, churches are the biggest objects on the horizon (anywhere in Belgium), and ALL buildings are made of brick. Everywhere. A wood building is considered a slum.

Here's the sign at the entrance to the brewery. It is a nice tour and well worth doing. It's also a great spot for lunch. We did both. Do you see me in this photo?????

Below you can see the outdoor dining patio, in front of the brewery. It was nice, but we were unable to find an open table, so we ate inside. One thing I really loved was the glass awning, with the circles designed into the ironwork supports.

Below are some shots from the brewery tour. Deb was just having fun with her cheap camera - so nothing extraordinary here, but you could tell there were some art-minded people working here. The first picture shows different kinds of barley, a main ingredient in beer. Two-row barley, so called because the grain grows in two rows, pictured closest to the playing cards, produces a fatter kernel, which is going to give you more fermentable sugar than a six-row barley, which looks prettier on the stem but produces less sugar. Sugar converts to alcohol when the yeasties are introduced during the fermentation process. Therefore, if you see beer made with two-row barley, it's probably a better beer. Or so goes the theory.
Hops are, of course, important to the brewing process, too. The display below shows where most of the Belgian hops come from. As you can see, Poperinge (where we were before we came to Brugge) is an important hops producer. The jar contains some dried hop cones.

Below is the attic space where the beer goes to chill after the barley, water and hops are boiled. For some beers produced in this region, spontaneous fermentation occurs when the beer is exposed to the natural yeast spores found floating in the air around the brewery. This is controlled by opening the slats in the walls to varying degrees. Note the brick roof - not made of wood. Seriously.
Here, you can get a sense of the scale of this giant cooling tank, which Jeff is standing in!!!! You have to walk through it to get to the roof deck. I hope they clean it well between uses!!! :)
A homebrewer's dream: a huge pile of flip tops!!!!! I thought it was just a nice texture shot. You never know when you're gonna need a photo of a texture, right?
The brew kettles were huge. I thought they were kind of interesting, so here's a couple of pictures of a brew kettle. The second one shows beer "wort" boiling. This is the process where the malted barley, water, and hops are cooked to make a "tea," which is then strained and fermented with the addition of yeast. Beer making is a lot of work!
This is a batch of Zot(a beer they make here at De Halve Maan), boiling away.

Near the end of the tour, they walk you through this room where they have set up old stuff that they no longer use, such as this old bottle filler. Annoyingly cutesy.

Finally, the good part - the restaurant. This is where we discovered Flemish stew! Loved that! The beers available on draft after the tour were a dark (dubbel) and a light (trippel) - both called the Zot. Available bottled in the U.S., it's a pretty good beer. However, you can only get the unfiltered version on tap in the brewery, which we enjoyed. The restaurant was light and airy, with really cool architecture: high ceilings, lots of brick (of course), dried hop vines hanging everywhere, and huge murals. Very fun.

View out window from brewery: I just loved the colors of the tile roofs throughout Belgium. Sometimes red, sometimes pink, sometimes orange, sometimes blue-violet, and when moss grows on them, green. I imagine a watercolor painting of Belgian roofs in my future.
The last thing we enjoyed in Brugge may very well have been the best beer bar we've ever visited (though it is arguable that t'Brugge Beertje has an amazing selection, this place also exudes atmopshere). It is called t'Poatersgat, or Peter's Gate. Located in the basement of an old church near the heart of the Old City, it was recommended by the locals, even the guy behind the bar in t'Brugge Beertje. We only had two nights in Brugge. The first night, we obviously had to spend at t'Brugge Beertje. But the second night was the night they were closed. So, we asked the folks there where we should go for our second night. This is the place they recommended. After our tour of De Halve Maan and our obligatory canal cruise, we sought this place, which wasn't easy to find. One of the people we met here was the person who had conducted our brewery tour - a sure sign that we were in a great beer bar!

The entrance was below street level, down a precarious looking set of worn stone steps. The doorway is so low, even short folks need to duck (maybe "bend over" is a more accurate way of putting it!) . Note the unassuming sign, that's small and easy to miss:
Being in an old church basement, the place has a unique character - including arched vaults, necessary to support the massive building above. It creates a series of small rooms, separated by low archways, perfect for decorating with dried hop vines. The vines create a nice atmosphere, and are very aromatic. However, the guy tending bar told us they are a bit of a pain, because they constantly drip a powdery debris, which has to be swept up daily. Still - charming. It has marble floors, Persian rugs, comfy furniture, marble-clad columns, and an amazing beer selection despite its upscale look. The music was kept at good levels for conversation, and the candles and statuary lend a somewhat dark, but cozy atmosphere. The bartender seemed very knowledgable and friendly. Address: 82 Vlamingstraat, just north of the Grote Markt a few blocks, on the main street that goes through it.
Some of the niches in the walls contain icons - statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, which were used to enhance prayer experiences. Today, they quietly overlook the goings on in the bar, illuminated mostly by candle light.

Jeff and I really enjoyed some great beers here. So did Deb. We especially enjoyed the Rodenbach Grand Cru (in the red glass - this beer is barrel aged in oak), the Rodenbach Vin de Cereal (in white paper - a limited release brewed in 2004, aged at least three years, a wheat wine, about 10% ABV), and the Rochefort Trappiste 10 (in the brown bottle - arguably one of the best beers on the planet, and often available in Chicago!!!!). Thankfully we were able to walk to our hotel from here!!!!

Overall, we loved Brugge/Bruges, and hope to go back someday. It is a beautiful, charming city, with lots of great architecture, beer, food, shopping, and the kind of quiet you only get in Venice.

Our next stop: Brussels!!!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Powells' New House

Another break from our travel blog to share a few interior shots of Lindsay and Derrick's new house! Since they live in Sicily, Jeff and Deb went to look at houses for them, and found this one in northern Illinois. Only two hours away! Closing at end of January! Yay!

Bonus for beer lovers: Mickey Finn's is only about 15 minutes away!! (sorry - Jeff and Deb forgot to bring me, Gumballhead, along for the ride. How dare they! I demand a return to Mickey Finn's to have my portrait taken!!!!!).

This is a beautiful place, and we were very excited to find it. The kitchen, breakfast room, and family room stretch across the back of the house, with its nice, big privacy-fenced back yard and patio. There is also a formal dining room on the other side of the kitchen. As you can see, it also has really high ceilings (9' or more, I forgot to ask).

Plenty of room for kids and doggies to run in the back yard, which backs up to an open field. The patio is big enough for parties.

The interesting staircase opens onto the foyer (shown below) but also has a back stair going from the midway landing down to the family room in back of the house. I can imagine the kids playing "chase" in circles up and down the stairs!

Bonus room above garage. Could be a good exercise room - I'm thinkin' Wii, Guitar Hero, etc. Or a play room for little ones. Or, maybe a bedroom for two little ones, and the bedroom with a "stage" could be a play room! (see below)
Below is an interesting bedroom - light filled with three big windows, and an interesting platform on which to place a princess bed (maybe with curtains around it, like a stage????).

Sorry my pics are so dark - I tried to photoshop them, but apparently didn't get them bright enough. I am not, thankfully, the family photographer! Below is the foyer, with a couple of really interesting details - an arched niche in the wall that you first see when you walk in, and a stepped tray ceiling. As you walk in the front door, to your immediate left is a den with a triple window, and a formal living room off to the right. Beyond the niche on the right is a formal dining room - to the left across from the dining room is a hall to the garage with a half bath, and the stairs. Straight back is the family room, with the kitchen off to the right.

Nice, roomy master bath with good natural lighting.

See you soon, with pictures of Brugge, Belgium, part 2!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Brugge, Belgium - Venice of the North

Sorry for the lapse in travel posts from my trip to Belgium and Germany! I can't seem to keep Deb in line - she's always too busy to spend time with me! Darned dissertation!!!!!!!!!
And - can you believe this: she didn't manage to get any photos of me into this post???? That is ridiculous, and calls for a coup! I'll just take over this blog!!!! (Oh, wait - I just realized, I can't; I don't have fingers. Oh well...... I'll just push her to get going on the next post so you all can see me, Gumballhead, again soon!).

Anyhow, back to our journey through Belgium:

After our wonderful visit to Westvleteren, we hopped back on the train and headed up to charming, picturesque Brugge, on the northern side of the country. It is very well preserved in its mostly medieval state. The town has a lot of scenic canals, beautiful churches, real antique windmills, and is very walkable and pleasant. It is often criticized as being "Disneyesque," and I must say I could agree with that. However, it's well worth the trip to see it, and there are lots of fun things for tourists to do and see - canal boat tours, horse-drawn carriage tours, shopping, dining, a chocolate museum, a brewery tour, and a few really wonderful places to try a good selection of Belgian beers. The city center is mostly pedestrianized (is that a word, Gumballhead? I don't know, and I don't care. As I've said before, it's my blog and I'll make up words if I want to!). We spent a couple of days there, anyways, and had a wonderful time.

Our hotel (Ensor) was wonderfully located, within a short walk of the train station (though we discovered that pulling wheeled luggage across cobblestone streets leaves something to be desired - you are likely to break a wheel off or injure your wrist! If you go there, take the short bus ride). It was close to a central shopping and dining area (t'Zand) and sits on a quiet, pretty canal. Here's a view from our window:One of the owners was working at the desk, and he was very friendly and helpful, producing maps and writing down addresses of places we wanted to see.

Unfortunately, that is where the charm of this place ended. It was sadly in need of renovation - to the point that we felt our room was actually full of dangers. For example, a slippery shower that was elevated above the bathroom floor, with no grab bars, a glass door, and a showerhead that kept falling off. A bad fall just waiting to happen. Not to mention the twin beds pushed up against the windows, which have no screens. Because there is no air conditioning, we pretty much had to open them, and I could easily imagine a child falling from our third-story window. Ugh!!! Thankfully, we didn't have children with us for this leg of our journey. The old linoleum floor also had big gaps in it. Ah, what we do to have the travel experience!!!!

In short, wouldn't recommend the place unless they do some serious renovation. It looked like there were other places to stay closer to the city center, and even though you couldn't drive to them, you could catch a bus for the short ride very easily from the train station or the large nearby public parking garages, where most everyone must leave their cars. This city reminded me a lot of Venice. Of course, we cats don't take much to water, in general, but Deb and Jeff really liked it. Below is a picture and a detail of the hotel we WISH we'd stayed in:The first night, after checking in at the hotel, we headed to a "must-see" destination: t'Brugge Beerjte. This is a favorite local beer bar that has an amazing selection and very knowledgeable bartenders. We read about it in Tim Webb's book, The Good Beer Guide to Belgium. In fact, there's a photo of the owner, Daisy, in the book, and we had the good fortune to sit at the bar and chat with her all evening. She was warm and friendly, and we ended up staying until well past the posted closing time (it was weird, sneaking back into our hotel late at night, trying not to wak the innkeeper, honestly!!!!). Daisy was well aware of her notoriety among American and British beer tourists, and didn't seem to mind the attention. But can you believe we didn't get a photo with her???? Duh oh!!! Travel guru Rick Steves wrote an article about Brugge not too long ago, and featured this particular bar. In fact, one of us probably sat on the same bar stool he sat on only a few weeks before we were there. Here's a couple of shots of the bar:Did ya notice all the different shapes of beer glasses? Yup - every beer style has its own glass. Many breweries even have their own glasses, with the brewery's name silk screened on them.

While there, we were introduced to what may have been the favorite beer of the entire trip (even when compared to Westvleteren 12 and Cantillon's gueuze!!!!). That was Rodenbach's Vin de Cereal - a wonderful barrel-aged wheat wine. It's an amazing sour, comes wrapped in paper, and sold in Brugge (we found it in a couple of locations) for 7 euros for a single-serving (about 11oz, I'd guess) - which was about 11 US dollars at the time. Therefore, we didn't drink much of it! We were told it will not be exported to the U.S., though we recently have heard rumors to the contrary. We'll have to see what happens on that. My advice, though, is if you see it in a store this winter, jump on it!!!!! :)

Our second day, we visited several places. For now, I'll just post a few pics of what we saw as we walked the city and then took one of those fun, but touristy canal boat rides. The scenery is great from both perspectives (from boat or on foot!).

I'll finish today's posting up with a teaser for my next post! Here's a view from the roof of the De Halve Maan brewery in Brugge:What was Gumballhead doing on the roof of the brewery? Tune in to find out! I promise to have more pictures of myself up here soon!