On our first day in Europe (remember? red-eye flight to Brussels, TGV to Lille, stopped at Les 3 Brasseurs for a beer after we dropped luggage at the hotel) - we went across the street to the Lille Flandres station, and after an exhausting hour with a language barrier (those nifty little electronic language translator thingys are too slow to be helpful when you're trying to ask for complicated directions, and my French is not too good, considering I never took French and only started trying to teach it to myself this summer!); we finally figured out which platform to wait at, and were surprised when five armed guards (3 in camo; 2 in police uniforms) arrived on our platform and stood with their guns pointed at the arriving train (I know what you're thinking, but no - we didn't think it would be a good idea to take pictures!!!). We were a little freaked and weren't sure if we should stay or leave or what. Here's a picture of the train, though: So we kind of walked away and watched from a distance. Nothing happened, and after the train unloaded, new passengers leaving the country started boarding, and the guards left. This was repeated once more without incident, and so we decided that it may have had something to do with the fact that the Belgian government fell apart recently, and maybe the French locals were just worried about those Belgians bringing their anarchy across the border???? Who knows.
We finally got on a train and made our way to Kortrijk, where we had to get off the train, figure out the platforms, buy a ticket to Ingelmunster, and hop another train. This was made difficult by one fact we hadn't anticipated: all signage was in Dutch!!!! Doggone it - why did I spend the summer boning up on my French???? Nobody speaks French in this part of Belgium (at least not to Americans!). My nifty little translator toy has 10 languages, and yep - not a one of them is Dutch! We had French phrasebooks, and German phrasebooks, but no Dutch phrasebooks........Here's a photo of Kortrijk, where we changed trains:
Deb also forgot the map and left it in the hotel room back in France. Doh! So, as she and Jeff wandered aimlessly around Ingelmunster, in the rain, I got pretty sleepy riding around in the backpack - and maybe a little dizzy, too..... since they seemed to walk in circles a lot!Thought this canal was pretty, though.......... there are really a lot of canals in Belgium. Usually they have nice bike paths alongside.
At long last, however, they found their destination: the Van Honsebrouck brewery. Actually, we found the castle first: This is a beautiful place. The brewery was originally in the castle, but they had a fire a few years back and reopened a block or so away. But, their tap room, the Kasteelkelder, is in the basement of the castle, and it is a delightful place. We had learned of this place because their line of beers known as Kasteel are available in the USA, and Jeff had looked up their website to see if it was a place we could visit. Here's their site if you want to see more pictures: http://www.vanhonsebrouck.be/. Here's a few bottles of the beer that were for sale in the Kasteelkelder:The kelder, or taproom, is a lovely space consisting of several rooms with low arched ceilings: They also have an outdoor dining patio, overlooking the moat. Yup! There's a moat! We were sitting at a table in the tap room, enjoying some nice beer and cheese (but not so much enjoying the head cheese - we were starving, so we decided it was edible if dipped in copius amounts of mustard) - when we noticed some ducks swimming in the moat. The weird thing was the water was MOVING in unusual patterns around the ducks. Kind of in a creepy way that reminds you of those movies about the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. We got up to investigate and realized that they were fins sticking up just enough to break the surface - fins of carp!!! Big carp. I bet some of them were three times the size of those ducks. We wondered how many ducks had been sucked under by these huge fish (exciting for cats, but, yes - I know, creepy thought)......I, being a cat, found the whole thing so intriguing, I don't remember much else about the place.Jeff and Deb loved the pretty glassware so much that they bought a couple of goblets. Here in Belgium, every beer has its own unique glass. Usually the style of the beer dictates the shape of the glass, and usually the brewery's logo is screen printed on the glass. But this is a beer glass that is truly unique, because the stem of the glass is molded in the shape of the Van Honsebrouck castle.
After our (tasty?) snack and a couple of beers, we headed out into the rainy night to go for a walk around Ingelmunster. It was a charming town, but we noticed that it seemed to have very few businesses that weren't PUBS!!! I bet there were 6 or more pubs per city block!!! Just amazing!!! (How many pubs can YOU count in this photo?)
We were starting to feel really, really tired - remember - still no sleep yet - but the rain seemed to get heavier and relentless. At one point, we ducked into a tiny pub, called Bacchus, to escape the rain. It was right next door to the actual Van Honsebrouck brewery. (Here's me, checkin' out the brewery itself. Apparently closed on Sundays.......)
Anyway, the pub experience, it was instant culture shock. Not so much for us, but for the locals who were shocked that an American couple would just walk in on a Sunday evening and sit at their bar! This is where we met Dieter and Lorenzo, a very nice gay couple who run the mortuary down the street, and as it turns out, are very involved in the local Catholic parish. Deb found this intriguing, with her interest in sociology of religion and all. We hung out for a while, had a really great time, and they bought us a couple of beers. At some point, we decided we had to leave, or we'd miss the last train back to Lille.
As we walked back toward the train station, we realized we needed to use a bathroom, and ended up in another bar. We hung out there for a little while with a group of women who all had crazy face painting done that day for a birthday party. It turns out, their grandmother had turned 80. After tucking her in for the night, they had decided to take the party down to one of the (probably 20 or 30) pubs in town to keep it going! They were also pretty shocked that American tourists would come to their local hangout, so we chatted with them for a little while, had another beer, and headed to the station just before the last train of the day arrived. (We nearly got hit by the train, because we stood waiting for it on the wrong side of the tracks. We didn't realize our mistake until the train was arriving!!!! Wow - Jeff and Deb can run pretty fast for a couple of 50-year-olds who have been up for 36 hours and then bar hopping!!!!
All in all, it was an amazing first day. I think the only real meal we had that day was on the plane during the wee hours before our arrival in Brussels, but we met a whole bunch of lovely people, saw some pretty sights, and were ready for more! Here's some more pictures of Ingelmunster. Notice the architecture - everything in Belgium appears to be made of brick, and like anything we've seen from the medieval period in Europe, there are narrow streets and a general lack of green space in the cities.
* hotels are generally not air conditioned. This means you have to sleep with windows open to make the room temperature tolerable. There are generally no screens on the windows. Therefore, things can fly into your room during the night. I hid in the back pack at night!
* train stations in Dutch-speaking Flemish areas are usually located on a street called Stationstraat. When you get lost in a town trying to find a train station, this little fact can be helpful. A track is called a spoor. Good beer (like Rodenbach!!!) is available in train stations, and it costs less than a stale sandwich.
* head cheese isn't made from cheese. It's made from a hog's head. Mustard makes anything taste ok.
* when you're tired enough, you'll sleep anywhere and under all sorts of conditions. Even during the last five minutes of a short train ride.
* people really do sweep and hose down streets and sidewalks at night here, and it's very, very noisy, especially if you sleep with the windows open.
Come back soon, and I'll tell you all about Poperinge: the hop capital of Belgium!