Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Brussels '08 - Part TWO (finally!!!)

Hey, Gumballhead is BACK - with more travelogue from our August 2008 trip to Belgium and Germany. I know it's late, but it's still fun to look at pictures, right? And this provides Deb and Jeff with a photo album with commentary. Sorry for the long absence. Lots of things have been happening in our lives - a new granddaughter (Madeline Ruby, born June 30 - yay - she's beautiful!!!), doctoral candidacy preliminary exams for Deb (yuk!!!), and some gastro issues for Deb (also yuk and still unresolved - more medical tests coming soon!). But we are blessed!!

After our wonderful tour of the Cantillon brewery in Brussels, we walked back to the city center, checked into our hotel, and dropped off our purchases (yes, Cantillon beer!!!). On our way, we passed a fun street carnival.

Below are a few pictures of the Grand Place, which is the old city center - the star attraction of Brussels. Built in the 15th century, it is composed mainly of the town hall and guild houses for the various trades. Lots of gilding and statues - very beautiful by day and by night.

The Hotel de Ville, Brussels' town hall. Built in the 1400s, it has a 315' tower topped with a statue of St. Michael, patron saint of Brussels.

It started to pour rain, but we had to do what we had to do! Beer quest!!! Even though cats hate rain, Deb shoved me into her backpack, and off we went. Our first stop: the Mort Subite (shown here getting a facade facelift). This is a nice little brewpub located only two blocks from the Grand Place - just a quick run through the beautiful Galeries Royale St. Hubert (see below) and then across a street. Our hotel was conveniently located between the Galeries and the Grand Place - we stayed at the Hotel Aris Grand Place - (liked it!) for less than 80 euros.Yay for covered streets! The Mort Subite is actually named after a card game. We enjoyed an omelette there, giant slices of toasted bread (like 15" long!), and of course, we had to try the local delicacy known as "kip kap" - some kind of ground up meat in aspic, cut into little bite-sized cubes and stuck on toothpicks. Deb thought they were pretty, Jeff thought they were disgusting, and I liked them. ;) We found the beer to be mediocre, and because it was early evening, we decided to head out in search of action.

Here's a pic of Jeff and a street sculpture just across from the Mort Subite.

Next, we found the famous Rue de Bouchers, a very colorful, narrow street filled with cafes and neon lights. With its awning-covered outdoor tables on both sides, I must admit it was very pretty. Most tourist guides recommend that you avoid it, and we discovered why. Desperate restaurant owners stand out in the narrow street (Jeff could spread his arms and touch tables on both sides at once) and try to convince you to sit down at their tables! It felt like we were running a gauntlet! And, to make matters worse, the rain was running down the awnings on both sides, dumping directly onto our umbrellas (which barely fit in the narrow space), splashing everywhere and soaking me as I tried to hide in Deb's backpack! However, if you want to go to the Delirium Cafe and the Floris absinthe bar (and see the Janneke Pis - the female version of the Mannekin Pis statue), you have to walk through this street.

We decided to go to the Floris absinthe bar next. It was very interesting. The server brought out a huge binder filled with a list of over 400 brands of absinthe. We were a bit overwhelmed, so she suggested we choose a country to narrow down the choices. We chose French absinthe, since we had been in France that week, and because there isn't a Belgian absinthe, and because we like the way it is served. Mine was a little greener in color than Jeff's, and smelled and tasted strongly of anise. Jeff's looked more like champagne and had a different aroma and flavor. It is served in a small, footed glass along with a cube of sugar, a small crystal water pitcher, and an absinthe spoon, which looks almost like a little tiny pie server, with filigree cutouts in the center. The spoon is placed across the mouth of the glass, and the sugar cube is set on top of the spoon. Then, water is slowly poured over the sugar, which dissolves the sugar into the absinthe. As it drips into the glass, it dilutes the liquor slightly, and it becomes cloudy. Mine turned an interesting "glow-in-the-dark" green, much like the plastic stars kids stick on their bedroom ceilings. It was pretty tasty, but we didn't experience any hallucinations as the old wives' tale would suggest!!

After enjoying our absinthe, we reluctantly headed back into the monsoon-like rains to sneak a peek at the Janneke Pis little tiny bronze statue. She is located high up in a little niche in the wall of a dark little alley (creepy at night actually), and locked behind bars to prevent vandalism. Like the Mannekin Pis, she is peeing - this time squatting, and yes, you get a pretty graphic view. I am reminded that Europeans are far less concerned about nudity than Americans!!

Our next stop was the famous Delirium Cafe, in the same alley as the statue and absinthe bar. This place is well known for its selection of over 2000 beers, and is accordingly noisy and smoky. If you ever go there, go during the day to avoid the noise and snag an outdoor table to avoid the smoke! We were fortunate enough to get the ONE table that was outdoors and located under an overhang. We enjoyed a vantage point there from which we were able to watch the long lines of tourists, walking up the dead-end alley to glimpse the Janneke Pis, and then back out the way they came. They looked dog-tired and bored (and soaking wet).

When we were quite done there, we decided it was time to bestow a bottle of coveted Dark Lord beer on someone (something we did pretty much daily while in Belgium - to be good beer ambassadors for the USA). Our choice du jour was the young lady in the absinthe bar who had so patiently helped us, even though we didn't speak French. She was stunned, and it made our day.

Then, we headed over to the Grand Place, which was beautifully lit up in blue, green, and purple lights. If you've ever been to Disney World and seen Cinderella's Castle lit up at night, it is reminiscent of that). Hundreds of people were just standing there, silently in awe of the spectacle, which continuously changed colors.
On our way back to our hotel (only a block away - yeah!!!), we stumbled across another brewpub, and despite our exhaustion, we decided we just HAD to go in. It was called Le Brasseurs de la Grande Place. It had some pretty awful (watered down????) beer. They had live music, which was fun, and we decided to stay and enjoy some pomme frites (in "USA speak" - French fries - but don't ever call them that in Belgium; it offends them!). They are usually served with mayo (Jeff likes; Deb doesn't like, Gumballhead is ambivalent), but our server, who seemed to hate Americans, threw some ketchup packets at us with much disdain. We tried it, but it didn't taste tangy like American ketchup. More like tomato paste. No wonder Belgians don't like ketchup on their fries.This beer quote was painted on the wall in the brewpub. Can anyone translate???

After about two hours of packing and repacking (why did we buy so much beer???) for our flight to Munich the next day, we fell asleep, hoping and dreaming that our luggage wasn't going to be over the weight limits, but very content that we had seen some of the best that Belgium had to offer.

We WILL be back someday!!!

Well, that's enough for today! Will update with other local brewery adventures soon!

~ Gumballhead

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Okay.... a COUPLE of little, tiny detours.......

Gumballhead is vacationing in some imaginary "la la land," so Deb is filling in today.

Well, the dissertation proposal defense didn't go as well as I would have liked, but I have a verbal contract with my committee to sign off on the proposal if I revise and resubmit. The revisions are not really so major. I am still not feeling well, went to a specialist today, and will be having more medical tests mid-July. The timing is great, however, since I am on a research grant for summer, and can go be with Lindsay, Derrick, and our granddaughters Val and Ellie, while waiting for the arrival of their new baby sister. I need a break from the stress of school, and am really looking forward to playtime with the little ones. Hope to get the brewpubs and travels back up soon.
~ Deb

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Little, Tiny Detour.....

Ack! Deb still hasn't taken the oral exam, which was scheduled for the morning of May 26. Instead, she ended up in the hospital with what we will now call "dissertation stomach." Oy vey. Feeling a little better now, but unfortunately when you go to the ER with heartburn and dizziness, they put you up for 24 hours with a heart monitor and don't take any chances. That ended up being May 25-26.

So - the oral exam will have to wait till mid-June, at least. She also is not allowed to drink any carbonated beverages, so Gumballhead is not going to get to visit many brewpubs for a while. (Honestly, these humans just need to learn a lesson about stress from us cats: nap all day long in the sun, go outside and run around the house, play, and sleep some more, right?)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I'm BAaaaacck!

Gumballhead's first Absinthe experience

Hey - Sorry I've been gone for so long. Deb had a few panicky months with the dissertation proposal and exams. She's nearly done with all that stuff - just finished her written exams on May 18, and now faces an oral defense of the proposal and written exams on May 26. After that, we'll be back on line.

Since my last post, I've been photographed at a few places, which we hope to get up here soon - as well as to continue on with sharing info and photos about our trip last summer to Belgium and Germany.

Jeff and Deb are excitedly starting to make plans to lead a group on a trip to Belgium in August of 2011 - it will be a beer-oriented tour, with stops planned at major Belgian breweries and beer bars, a few of our favorite spots, and a few (but very few) touristy stops - such as a canal ride in Brugge, and a chance to see the Mannekin Pis and Grand Place in Brussels. If you think you might be interested, let us know. We're hoping to put together a fixed-price package deal that will include pretty much everything but airfare and food/beverages. We'll plan an itinerary, book hotels, make reservations for tours, and arrange for transportation while in Belgium. We will probably plan to meet at a hotel in Brussels as a starting point, with an early evening introduction meeting in their breakfast room. If you're a beer afficianado (or willing to try new things), consider joining us!.

Will have pics up soon!

~ Gumballhead

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cantillon Brewery: Brussels

Brussels - a party city if there ever was one, I'll tell ya! Especially if you like beer (or Absinthe - which I'll tell you about next time). We arrived by train and were able to walk from the station the few blocks to our hotel (we recommend the Aris Grand Place - fabulous location just steps from La Morte Subite, the Grand Place, Delirium Cafe, and most things that tourists want to see. Not expensive, clean, modern, has air conditioning (rare in Europe!), and big elevators (you laugh - but sometimes, Jeff & Deb and I couldn't all fit in an elevator with our luggage! - and my bags are tiny!!!!!!!!). As soon as we got settled, we headed to the south end of town to tour the Cantillon brewery - surely the highlight of any visit to Belgium!!!

On the way, we stopped for a Belgian waffle - they sell them at walk-up stands, and you carry it around in a napkin. Yum! After locating the must-see Mannekin Pis statue, we hiked through the city to the cantillon brewery. Next time, we'll take the train, I think!
The Mannequin Pis is one of Brussels' most celebrated attractions. This little guy is probably no more than two feet tall! Often visiting dignitaries bring little outfits for him, and apparently he wears them occasionally. This particular week, in August, when it was hot, he was naked:

Below is a view of the "new" part of the city from the "old" neighborhood - a couple of blocks from the brewery. Not a good neighborhood to be in after dark, by the way.
Somehow, even though we knew this brewery was in a rough neighborhood, we still can't shake the romanticized notion we had of it being out in the country, surrounded by pastoral scenery. After all, the brewery is very, very old and has been fermenting with whatever yeast is naturally hanging around in the air all these years. Somehow, I didn't picture it with car and truck exhaust!
Because of the need to not disturb the yeast, Cantillon does not use chemicals till do away with pests. This is one of their pest control specialists - my little brother (he wouldn't tell me his name). The place is musty and dusty, and they don't mess around with that too much. So it all adds to the atmosphere!
How does that yeast get into the beer? Through these slats in the side of the building's eaves:
Here's Deb, doing the self-guided tour. It's cool, cuz geeks like us get lots of information on these kind of tours. We like that! You can move through it at your own pace and actually stop and read everything. They give you a nice little booklet which explains what you're looking at. Although most of the brewing equipment is old and made of copper, we did find a few newer, shiny pieces, as you see here.

Don't fall in, Gumballhead!!!!!!!!!!!!! :0

All the beers are barrel-aged for at least three years before bottling. They pick up the wonderful, musty aroma of the place. The aroma just smacks you in the face when you walk into the brewery. Nothing like it - you either love it, or you hate it!

This old bottling machine is no longer in use. But it's cool lookin', huh? I can just imagine how noisy it was to use!
At the end of the tour, of course we sampled a couple of beers: the Kriek (cherry lambic), and a gueuze - a blended lambic. Both were really good. Lambics are naturally fermented beers (the yeast adds a unique sour flavor), produced largely in a small area (actually the Lambic region) roughly ten square miles on the southwest side of the city. Seriously. We bought three bottles while we were here, including one we'd never seen before: Iris -- a dry-hopped lambic. Usually, the lambics tend to only use dried, aged hops for their preservative qualities. They don't really have much flavor left at that stage. Dry hopping is a process of adding hops to the beer after the boil for the purpose of adding hop aroma. We didn't really find anything here that you can't buy in Chicago - although I think it's a lot more expensive in the US.

Here's a cool beer bar and street scene in the old city center, near the Mannequin Pis. We wanted to eat lunch there, but the kitchen was closed. It is fairly common for European restaurants and bars to close their kitchens right after lunch, so we often had to skip the food because we would be traveling when things were open. This can be very frustrating. I recommend packing your own lunch, and then you don't have to go hungry.

Next time, I'll show some more of Brussels and tell you all about my first Absinthe experience!


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