Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ingelmunster, Belgium

Hey, it's me, Gumballhead, here to tell you about our short daytrip from Lille to Ingelmunster.

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.
Today we learned some interesting tidbits:
* people don't like to smell perfumy in Europe; they like to smell like people. Therefore, trains smell of B.O.
* 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!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lille, France

Our first day in Europe! We left Indiana at about 8am on Saturday, flew from Chicago to Washington, DC in the afternoon, then caught a red-eye to Brussels in the evening. Did I sleep on the plane? Of course not! All that free milk and all those movies - are you kidding???? Besides, people kept steppin' on my tail!

We touched down in Brussels around 7:00 am (that's a little after midnight, Chicago time). After waiting over an hour at passport control in Brussels, we picked up the luggage, and zipped on the metro to the Midi station, where we caught a high-speed train (TGV) to France. Then, we kept going nonstop till late Sunday night! (I have no idea how these 50-year-old people do it. I personally had droopy whiskers long before 10pm!).

The first overnight stop in Europe on this trip was in Lille (the 'i' is pronounced like the 'i' in 'little'; and the 'e' is pronounced like 'uh'). Because Deb's mom's family is believed to have gotten their name from this town, and because it was only a short train ride from the places we wanted to visit in West Flanders, we decided to spend a night here and check it out.

These first pics are taken as we walked from the Lille Europe station to our hotel, which was only 2 or 3 blocks away. It had started to rain, so we didn't take many pics that day. Loved the super contemporary buildings here, and this funky flower sculpture (the building in the background IS the train station):
Above is really our first view of Lille as we walked out of the train station. It is NOT the most touristy city. It's gritty, if anything - but a fascinating mix of medieval, modern glass-and-steel, and even a little art deco.
This was our first destination: The Hotel Chagnot - part of the Balladins chain. We arrived around noon, realized that NOBODY spoke English, and thought, "wow, this is going to be an interesting city!" Since our room was not yet ready, we dumped the luggage and went outside to find lunch.

Immediately we realized, (JOY OF JOYS!) that our hotel was perched on top of a brewery: Les 3 Brasseurs!!! Had we been travelling all day and all night with no sleep? Yup!! Had we eaten a proper breakfast or lunch? Nope!!! Were we going to miss out on an opportunity to drink French beer? NO WAY!!! And so we did! Here's me (and my "pets," Jeff and Deb), trying to stay awake and dry under the awning of Les 3 Brasseurs while they readied our room:

We decided early on in this trip that:

a) beer is cheaper than food here;

b) beer is technically liquid bread and therefore is an acceptable substitute for food;

c) we never had to drive a car on this trip;

d) Europeans seem to like little, yellow kitties who order beer!

(yeah, you figure it out)

Below is a view across the street, taken from our hotel room window in Lille, during a short reprieve from the constant "drizzle weather," which you probably already know, cats hate! Note the mix of old and new architecture.

Next, we headed off to Belgium to visit our first Belgian brewery (which I'll tell ya about in the next blog!!!).

The pictures below were taken from our hotel window (the next day, when it actually didn't rain at all!). In the foreground, you can see the train station Gare du Lille Flandres - the station we used to take the regional train in and out of Belgium. In the background, you can see the Gare du Lille Europe - the big, modern station where the high-speed trains come and go.

After a wonderful night of bar hopping in Ingelmunster, Belgium, we caught a train back to Lille and had a very restful sleep (except for when they came and hosed down the streets and sidewalks at 4am!).

Here's a couple of night shots we took at the Gare Flandres station (inside and outside) and then of our hotel from out in front.

The next morning, after breakfast on the rooftop terrace, we went for a walk to take in some of the old-town sights in Lille, then went back for our luggage and headed out for our next adventure in Belgium. Here's me and Jeff, just chillin' on the rooftop terrace overlooking the Lille Flanders train station and eatin' breakfast.

This big tower/belfry is part of the city hall. Built in 1932, it rises 104 metres above the city, making it strikingly tall. We were drawn to it and had to take a walk to check it out.

These amazing, massive figures support the corners on the Lille town hall belfry. Same belfry, different angle. We were surprised at how close by they built this ugly 1960s mod apartment complex. Below are some street scenes we enjoyed on our walk around Lille.

Big, beautiful church in Lille.

Well, that's enough for one night, eh? Meet me, Gumballhead, back here in a few days, and I'll backtrack a little and tell ya a little about our first-day adventure in Belgium before we returned to Lille for the night (remind me to tell ya the story of the border guards with the big guns)!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Crown Brewery: A Local Hangout Where Everybody Knows Your Name.....And They're Always Glad You Came........

Psst....Gumballhead here. I just gotta tell ya about the place where I hang out the most. It's called Crown Brewery, and it just opened this summer (June 13). It's located in Crown Point, IN - hence the name.

Built in what was once upon a time the boiler room (or trash incinerator - I'm not sure) of the old Lake County jail, a lot of the old-time architectural interest, including a huge smokestack, remains.

We waited a long time for this place to open. In fact, last spring, while the snow was still flying and they were filming a big, fancy Universal Pictures film about John Dillinger nearby, my people did not care very much about seeing Johnny Depp (although they did sneak just one tiny peek at him) or Christian Bale.

Nope - they snuck through the ropes to peek in the windows of the brewery-to-be!

Jeff & Deb happened to be around the day that the big stainless steel crown was being installed on the top of the smokestack. Love the way the sunshine sparkles on the crown:

And then these letters were added to the smokestack. It has added some real punch to the Crown Point cityscape.
It's a cozy, small brewery/pub with the kind of ambience my maker says ya just gotta love. She says it's so small that you can't help but talk to people you don't even know. The owner/brewer, Jim, is one heck of a nice guy, and so ya can't help but want this place to be successful.

And, as a sidenote, the guy makes really great beer. He learned how to do it at some pretty successful breweries: Goose Island (Chicago), Three Floyds (see my previous post), and Firestone Walker (in California).

He says he wanted to open a small brewery that has that neighborhood-bar kind of intimacy, and I think he has captured it very well. Heck, we were just there today to watch a football game, and I don't even like football!!

(Excuse the raindrops on some of my photos (no, they're not cat pee) - it's been raining like crazy lately and we've been outdoors a lot!)

On the outside is a nice, cozy patio where we have enjoyed hanging out on warm summer evenings. It has a brick paver "floor," wrought iron tables and chairs, cool strings of lights overhead, and potted palm trees (which could, if you think about it, serve nicely as litter boxes).

It has a little bit of European flavor, which I really miss after my journeys overseas.

In the distance, you can see the Old Courthouse clock tower. Pretty at night, too!

It's a pretty quiet place to hang out and enjoy a nice, refreshing beer, perhaps a pizza or a stromboli, and good conversation. Jim makes a supreme effort to get around and talk to customers, and the wait staff for the Carriage House Pizzeria (I'll explain this relationship in a minute) are warm and friendly.

(Above is a snapshot of the pizza side, before it opened. It looks a little better now, with wallpaper and artwork, but I don't have a photo of that! And besides, I just love the purple light in this pic! Jeff took this photo, as well as the exterior shots of the smokestack and crown).

So, you ask ----is it a brewpub or not???? Well - depends on how you define that. Crown Brewery and Carriage House have what I think is a unique relationship. They have separate spaces, to be sure, but the wait staff for the restaurant will take your order, whether you are sitting in the restaurant, out on the patio, or in the tap room of the brewery. You can order food from the restaurant and beer from the brewery, and it will all go on one ticket. Or (preferable in my opinion), you can just walk into the tap room and order a beer from whomever is working the taps.

Inside, the place feels nice and cozy - on the restaurant side, some nice artwork by local artists, a quiet, relaxed atmosphere; on the brewery side, simple furnishings, brick walls, a window looking into the brewery and its shiny brewing tanks (in the evenings, Jim turns off the fluorescent lights in there in favor of more subdued atmospheric-type lighting, which is currently red, and surprisingly doesn't distract at all). And there's a nice flat-screen HDTV. ;)

This here is a funky light fixture in the tap room, made out of beer bottles! Come on! You love it, don't ya????

Jim is currently working on expanding the capacity of the brewery; he only has 4 tanks right now, and is using two for serving, which limits the number of beers available at present to two. But, since they opened in June, they have gone through the first few brews. So far, we've enjoyed a refreshing, crisp Hefeweizen, a nice, basic brown ale, and then a pale ale that had a killer hop aroma (yeah! we loved it!) and a nice summer blonde with a surprisingly floral aroma (a great palate cleanser after drinking something hoppy). The two beers on tap currently are: (1) "Powerderhorn," a really wonderful porter that he's dry hopped like crazy - the first week or two it had a killer hop aroma; that has tamed a bit now, allowing a little chocolate nose to come through and making it seem like an even more complex beer than we originally surmised - it's delightful! Also on right now is (2) "Sarah," a mild blonde ale for those who really enjoy the style, or who aren't into really intense beers. Coming soon: Oktoberfest! And soon after that (I hope): an IPA!!!!

Here's me, chillin' with a nice, hoppy pale ale a few weeks ago.

If you're looking for a quiet, local hangout where you can meet up with some friends to chat or make some new friends; if you're looking for a place to try new beers but big places with tons of options overwhelm you; if you're looking for a nice, European-style outdoor patio; or if you're looking for me, Gumballhead - the doll (not the beer) - this is it!

Open 7 days. To get here from I-65 - exit US 231 (Crown Point exit; mile 247). Left at the light at the end of the ramp. Continue into town. Left onto East St. (one block BEFORE the courthouse square) - then look for Crown Brewery on your right. It's a brick building with black awnings, the smokestack with the crown on top, the patio, and it does have its own parking lot. Their website is: http://www.crownbrewing.com/. Enjoy!