Monday, October 27, 2008

Pink, or Blue?????

Late-breaking news!!! Deb and Jeff are expecting a new grandchild!!!

Yup, Lindsay and Derrick just shared the news today, so we're wondering if there will be a grandson this time, or a third little princess!

Either way, it's good stuff. July 07, 2009 is the ETA at this point - and that's right around my first birthday!!!! Pretty exciting stuff!!!!

Will be back soon with more travel and beer hangouts!!!


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Westvleteren, Belgium

Oh, my gosh! I can't believe we actually made it to Westvleteren (a tiny town in West Flanders, just a few km north of Poperinge) to see Sint-Sixtus Abbey!!!

One of my life goals (you realize I, Gumballhead, was just born in July of 2008, right???). To beer enthusiasts, this is something akin to making a pilgrimage to a holy site. For a cat like me, it's a really cool place to just hang out.

It all started at a friend's apartment in Chicago, actually ....... long before I was born. Jeff and Deb were having dinner with friends, and Kevin? Dave? (sorry - too long ago to get the facts straight) - pulls out this beer and says something like: "you've gotta try this - it's got a reputation for being one of the best beers in the world." They got to have a little taste, since there was only one bottle for the whole group to share. Gotta tell ya, Jeff and Deb were mighty impressed and vowed to get more of this stuff someday. It is not available for sale in the USA, and generally hard to get in Europe as well.

Well - after a year of trying to figure out how to pronounce it [vest VLAY ter ehn], and probably a month of trying to find the place on a Google map (thanks to, ....... and then Lindsay suggesting we take this trip to Germany to meet them on vacation, ....... and then Jeff and Deb deciding that, as long as they were going to Germany, why not add a few days in Belgium - and then the whole story about the Belbus reservation (see the Poperinge post!). . . . we finally made it there on a cool, rainy, August day. Here's a picture of the main entrance. The shrubs are planted in the shape of a heart. Can you feel the love???????????????
I love this cool, dark, mossy alley. It's so...............monk like! The Sint-Sixtus Abbey is a popular place among beer enthusiasts - all over the world. It should be. These monks have been making the same beer for hundreds of years. After a while, you can imagine that they would get it right! The problem is, they really don't want to step up their production to meet the growing demand. They just want to keep doing what they do well, for the glory of God, and to make just enough money to support their ministry. They now have to put up with tourists wandering around, probably knocking on the doors (that probably explains the fence, below), ........taking photos............ and asking if they can buy cases of the wonderful Westvleteren beers (currently they make a blonde ale and two bruins (which are high-alcohol browns, aka Trappist ales - the 8 and the 12). The 12 is rated one of the best beers in the world, if not the best. Because of the limited supply, I am sure the demand has also gone up, whether the beer deserves the title or not. (But it is a very wonderful beer, I assure you!). It is dark brown, lightly sweet, and has a pretty high alcohol content.

With the demand so high, and production being held constant, obviously not everyone can have access to the wonderful stuff. The Abbey has put some strange restrictions on the sale of their beers:

* they may not be resold - especially to the American market (though we did see some in a liquor store in Brugge)

* to purchase a case of beer, you must call in advance to make a reservation

* but - you must call at a particular hour, and hope you get through

* at the time you make your reservation, you must give your car's plate number

* you must be driving a car with Belgian plates to pick up your reserved beer

* you must be willing to take whatever is available that day (no guarantee you're going to get the much-coveted 12).

* you drive up this driveway at the appointed time, while American tourists stand and watch in awe:Needless to say, we didn't buy a case! Who needs all that stress????? Note the sign is written in both Dutch AND French!!! That's helpful for all the American tourists in their Belgian rental cars!!! ;)

Below are some pictures of the In de Vrede cafe (run by the Abbey, I think), across the street. It is actually a relatively new facility, designed to meet the growing tourist demand. It serves as a tap room for the Westvleteren beers, a restaurant, and has a gift shop (where they sell small quantities of packaged ales).

There, you can sit down in a noisy, but attractive dining room (see above), or a pleasant outdoor patio (which we chose, despite the fact that it was raining - see below), and enjoy some fine food and a nice big goblet of Westvleteren (the name given to the beer brand, even though it is produced by the Sint-SixtusAbbey).
We actually enjoyed the 8 AND the 12!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (this is why you DON'T want to rent a car when you go to Belgium).

Below is a picture of me, hanging out with a glass of 8 (or 12?????), Jeff's "man bag," (necessary for haulin' beer and glassware home, of course), and the famous (now mysteriously missing) TV Guide umbrella (Deb swears she didn't accidentally throw the hideous thing out, lol.....................)

Here's an artsy-fartsy photo (below) for people like Lindsay, Jen, and Dave! Those are empty Westvleteren goblets, and by then, we didn't care if it was raining anymore. Just a peacefuly, easy feelin'.................. and a pretty, pastoral view.

Maybe we rested a little too long, though. After lunch, we went inside to buy some take-out beer in the gift shop. Sometimes you can buy a six pack, but today they were selling a gift pack, containing two blondes, a 12 and an 8, and a goblet. There was a limit of one per person. We had to stand in line, and by the time we got up there, they ran out. Oh, NOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!! Deb (this won't suprise most of you, I'm sure) whined, "but we came all the way here from the US!!!! How disappointing!!!!" ............ and the nice young lady told us to hold on, disappeared into the kitchen, and came back out with a box. We were only able to purchase one, but it's better than none!!!!!)

Westvleteren is along a well-traveled hiking and biking route. If you're into either, this region of Belgium is great. The weather is cool and I swear - we never ran into mosquitoes!!!!! The terrain is relatively flat, with an incredible number of breweries and great pubs (often serving up over 100 different local brews). Great art scene, pretty, quiet scenery, and easy accessibility all make Belgium a great vacation destination that most Americans seem to overlook (well - yeah, the dollar was pretty worthless against the euro this summer, but we still had a great time). You can get just about anywhere in Belgium by train (except probably Westvleteren and a few other small towns around Poperinge - but you can ride the train into Poperinge and take the Belbus anywhere you'd want to go). Trains are cheap and efficient, and bicycle rentals are available at or near most stations!

Here I am, waitin' for the Belbus to take us back to Poperinge so we could catch the train to Brugge:
We spent a couple of days in Brugge, so maybe that will end up being a couple of posts ............................ until then, may the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, and may it rain Belgian beer until the sun shines again! (yeah, I made that up - but it works, so go with it!).
Until we meet again,

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Poperinge, Belgium

Hey, It's me, Gumballhead, leaning on a glass of Rodenbach in the Palace Hotel bar in Poperinge. I know, it's been a while since I've checked in. Deb's been kind of preoccupied with her school work lately. Anyhow, the Palace was a great local pub, where we met some really nice people.

Wow! Did I love Poperinge! I think Deb & Jeff liked it there, too. Deb said if she could ever get a writing grant for a few months, and go anywhere she wanted to write, this might be her town. I'll explain why.

First of all, to get to Poperinge, we made a short hop by train from Lille, stopping to change trains in Kortrijk. We were amazed at how close this town is to everything else in Belgium (and, we were told, only two hours from Paris by high-speed train).

And - you wouldn't believe the beer menus - even in walk-up food counters in train stations. For example, I think it was our stop in Kortrijk where we had a Rodenbach for a mid-morning snack!

Here's a picture taken from the train window somewhere between Lille and Poperinge:Generally, as we traveled around Europe by train, we have learned that you can't take many photos out the window, because you're moving too fast, or the windows are dirty, or the glass reflections get in the way. But, I really liked the way that the rowhouses fit together (like little monopoly-game houses) in most of the small towns we passed in West Flanders. So, excuse the quality of my photos, but I hope that they still convey some of what excited me on the trip.
You have to understand the other main reason Deb likes Poperinge so much: Poperinge is the self-proclaimed "hop capital" of Belgium, and she is a bit of a "hop head." (That would be a person who really likes beers with a pronounced emphasis on the hop flavor and aroma.)

"Hoppy" beers are often more bitter, but not always! People in Poperinge "think" they are hop heads, but I assure you they are not! We shared a little Three Floyds Alpha King and Dark Lord with them, and I think they were surprised at the amount of hops in that Alpha King! Belgians just don't understand the American microbrew enthusiasts' appreciation for (or maybe obsession with) hops!

I know that they are a variety of hemp, but am wondering if there is some relationship to catnip?! All I know is, I often see Jeff & Deb pulling hop cones off the vines, crushing them in their fingers, and sniffing them!

A hop is the little flower of the hop vine (usually referred to as a cone, because it looks sort of like a pinecone), generally bright green and very fragrant - an ingredient used to give beer its bitterness, but some hop varieties also add a citrusy flavor and are also used to give beer a nice floral aroma. They also serve as a preservative in the beer.

Vines can be quite long, and are generally grown on vertical trellises than can reach 20' or higher (see picture below of a field near Poperinge, which Jeff took from the window of a moving bus). This region (West Flanders) of Belgium produces a lot of the hops that they use, and so hops are widely celebrated. It is believed that if you place dried hops under your pillow, you'll sleep better!

Walking from the train station to our hotel, which was only a few blocks, we realized immediately the emphasis on hops here. They actually have these little "hop cone"brass markers embedded in the sidewalk to designate the main street through Poperinge as a hop trail - much like the wine trails you'll find in wine-producing regions of the US.

Poperinge is actually home to the national hop museum (more about that in a minute), and there is a even a whole artist community here because the interesting hop trellises make good subject matter.

For example, here is an interesting sculpture: a giant hop cone! The poles around it represent the poles that hold up the hop vines in the fields.Here's another sculpture, of sorts - in the center of town. It's a big rock, on a pedestal, with water coming out the top and dripping onto the ground. No, really!!! It refers to the nickname Poperinge got as "the boulder" - centuries ago, when Poperinge fought tenaciously to keep the cloth trade going, they became known as "Keikoppen" (pig heads), and the boulder in the town center serves as a reminder (don't know why it has water coming out, though). When the cloth trade finally died off, hop plants were brought in and planted, and the rest is, as they say, "history."

If you are a war buff, there are some interesting WWI points of interest in and near the area, especially Flanders' Field.

Poperinge is also just a really charming, peaceful, quiet town, surrounded by quiet countryside (which actually looks a lot like the Midwestern U.S.). It also had probably our favorite hotel of the trip, which is a bit expensive, but we were able to get a half-price room (75 euros!!!). Yay! Locals tell us it was once the home of a real knight. The sculpture is a reference to a restaurant inside (closed during our stay) called the Pegasus. What follow are pics of the outside, and then our room at the Hotel Recour:The pictures don't really do this place justice. This was actually one of the smaller, less luxurisou rooms, if you can believe that! Our room had two chandeliers, a mini fridge, a carafe of brandy, and an assortment of glassware (so you don't have to have your beverage in an "incorrect glass" - very important in Belgium!!) Deb really loved the big claw-foot tub. The decanters on the side table contain beautifully scented bubble bath! As a cat, I had to say, that's where I draw the line. No baths! Below is a portrait taken of me at the elegant breakfast table the next morning.
Breakfast was pretty good. They serve eggs, coffee, juice, rolls, fresh fruit, an assortment of cheeses (yum - kitties like cheeses!), some cold cuts, yogurt, and Belgian chocolate. It was a bit pricey at 14 or 15 euros. However, they let us have it at half price for some reason (no idea why).

Anyhow, I digress. The first order of business on our agenda, after checking into our hotel and dumping the luggage, was to head to the town square (generally called the Grote Markt in Flemish cities in Belgium) to check out the beer and food! We were not disappointed! Here's the Grote markt (it is sad to see their beautiful city center to be filled up with cars, though):
I think one of the most memorable meals of our entire trip was here, at a sidewalk cafe in the center of town: LaPaix (Peace). Because it was too late for lunch, the kitchen was closed. But - they still serve pancakes. Deb had a locally produced gueuze - a lambic style beer that is fairly sour, very carbonated, very pale in color, reminiscent of champagne, and aged in oak barrels. What makes this beer style unique is that they blend the beer from several different barrels - from different years - before bottling. This ensures a consistent quality. Because the yeast for fermentation literally falls from the air into the beer, you never know what you're going to get from one year to the next, so they mix it. Fantastic with a stack of pancakes, sliced bananas, and then drizzled with chocolate sauce. Mmmmmmmmmm!

Here are some pictures of some architectural details we saw as we strolled around Poperinge:
I just loved the rainbow of colors in the tiles on this roof:And these flower boxes, which were typical of the region (many places we saw throughout Belgium and Germany had them - it makes me feel guilty about my one little container of petunias by my front door!): Before leaving Poperinge, we wanted to head out to the Sint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, just a few miles (maybe 5km) north of Poperinge. Here, they make what is often lauded as the best beer in the world: Westvleteren 12. It's a bit of work to get there, if you haven't rented a car. You have to either walk (too far), rent a bike, or take a bus. We wanted to take bikes, especially since the countryside is so pretty and serene (and filled with hop fields), but alas, the day we planned to go, it rained. So, we got up in the morning, hoping to make a reservation for the Belbus, the local bus system, which has regular routes. However, you can't just pick up a bus schedule; you have to call at least two hours in advance, and tell them which of their stops you'll be at, and make a reservation. Then, you go to the stop at the appointed time, and they pick you up. When you make the reservation, they also want to know what time you want to be picked up for the return trip!

So here's what happened: we decided to call from our hotel in the morning, make a reservation for two hours later, then go to the hop museum (a few blocks away), and then catch the bus. However, the staff at our hotel (who were very lukewarm toward us, maybe because I'm a yellow cat, I don't know) were pretty reluctant to keep trying when they got a busy signal. So, armed with a cell phone, we tried to call them ourselves. However, we kept getting a recorded message, in Dutch, and didn't know what it said, so we gave up.

Depressed because we could not figure out how to get to Westvleteren, we walked, in the rain, to the hop museum. However, we had met one of the staff members at the Palace the night before (thanks, Luc!!!), and, as I said before, we had shared some of our American beers, and they had bought us a couple of beers, and brought out some really good aged beers (yum). And then this guy had told us that if we went to the hop museum the next day, he would see us there and give us a gift. So - we went - and he wasn't there at first. But the guy working there said, "Hey - are you the Americans?" He not only gave us a tee shirt (advertising the hop festival), but also a gift box with three bottles of Chimay and a Chimay goblet!). And - he dialed the Belbus number for us, and told us that the recorded message was just saying, "all of our operators are busy, please hold the line." Arghhh ----- so, being the nice guy that he is, he said we could just go ahead and tour the museum, and while we did that, he made the Belbus reservation for us! So, we did end up going out there - that's the topic of my NEXT post!

The hop museum is definitely worth your time - it is in an old, historic building, has three levels of interactive exhibits (with a translator that you carry and listen to - which comes in an English version!), and a wonderful little tap room/cafe. (notes that guidebooks won't tell you: admission is now 5 euros, it does not include a beer, and they're closed on Mondays!!). They tell you all about the history of the cultivation and harvesting of hops, in interesting multimedia exhibits. Jeff and Deb really seemed to enjoy the part where you get to stick your hands in big barrels full of hops and smell them! But - they didn't take any photos while inside the museuem. Sorry!

Here's some pics of the front of the museum, though:

After touring the museum, we sat in this lovely courtyard out back and had a beer from their little tavern (see if you can find me in one of these pictures!).

Here's Deb, going through her notes while enjoying a St. Bernardus ale. Most notable beers today: Poperinge Hommelbier (pretty hoppy for a Belgian ale), and St. Bernardus trappist ales, made just a few minutes away from here, but their brewery is not open to the public (nor accessible by train). Those turquoise doors in the background are for the original grain elevator where the hops were once delivered, weighed, and then hauled to the top for processing.

Here are some more pictures of Poperinge from our afternoon stroll (the tall church steeple in the first picture is of the Onze-Lieuve-Vrouw, built between 1290 and about 1750):

Every three years, Poperinge hosts a hop harvest festival , with all kinds of activities, including a big parade. They had some of the outrageous costumes at the Hop Museum. Looks like a fun party. Next one is in September 2011 - we're hoping to come back for it; let me know if you wanna go! (more info about tourism in this area is available at:

Here's another really cool piece of sculpture in a roundabout in Poperinge. It's actually a directional sign, pointing the way to Brugge - a wonderful city to the north, which I'll tell you about another day! Bye-bye, Poperinge! I will miss you! Next stop: Westvleteren!