Monday, May 5, 2014

Ramble On! Beertrip Days 3-4

Continuing the tale of our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium:

The third day of our trip to Amsterdam started with a bright sun shining happily into the Hotel Fita's breakfast nook as we partook of wonderful pancakes and other sundries.  As a seasoned librarian, Sj had planned far in advance to book us entry to the Anne Frank House that morning.  It has been a long time since I read the book, but I have certainly learned more about WW2 and all the associated monstrosities of Nazi Germany since reading this in junior high.  We walked on a circuitous route over nearly abandoned (for once) canals and past just-opening store fronts.  We arrived at the Anne Frank Huis to find incredible lines of people twisting around the block, but we were quickly buzzed in an alternative entrance for those who had booked ahead.  Word to the wise with any of the museums in Amsterdam: book ahead or get there crazy early that time of year.

Our visit to the museum was a mixed bag.  The place was very small and included three levels of a restored old spice store.  Various quotes from the book were on the walls, as well as pictures of the family members and helpers.  Glass cases with items from the home/office were on display, but difficult to get close enough to look at.  They had us crammed in like sardines and the place was HOT!  It took over an hour to move through the small home, perhaps took too long for comfort.  Our experience was also marred to some extent by a terribly disrespectful group of school kids (about 10-13 years old) who were laughing and fighting with each other while standing right in front of a TV playing clips from Auschwitz.  Not cool.  Despite all that, seeing the reality of a young girl forced to hide in an attic suite with her whole family while trying to find solace in writing about it was heart wrenching and somewhat chilling to me. 

After decompressing from our museum visit, we met our friends Chris and Hassan for a wonderful lunch at a cafe right next to a park.  Sipping on Belgian ales while watching bikers and pedestrians wander past on paths was quite nice.  Next up was checking out of our hotel and dragging all our luggage aboard a tram to the central train station.  There, we heard an announcement about a train to Bruges being canceled, which put us into high alert since that was our destination!  We found a conductor located in front of the info desk who was incredibly rude to us and wouldn't answer our questions about the train.  We eventually discovered a fellow traveler who had been scheduled for the previous train (which was indeed canceled) who helped us figure everything out.

We had about an hour before our train, and the station didn't really have any place for sitting.  To kill time we took a free ferry across the river and ended up hanging out in front of a strange industrial looking art school coffee shop/bar/rave venue.  They had tons of Mexican beers in bottle, and had several craft beers on the list, but apparently were out of all of them.  Eventually the bartender found a few room temperature bottles of Brouerij 't IJ Dubbel for us and we were happy once again!  The beer struck me as dry and pleasant with a light nutty aftertaste.  The young lady behind me ordered coffee and apparently he didn't really know how to make that and I saw her come out after us with two bottles of dubbel as well.  We discovered later that the place wasn't even supposed to be open and our bartender/barrista  was really just watching the place.  Still a fun little way to spend an hour before heading out for Bruges!

We took the fast train to Brussels with comfortable seating and room for our luggage, taking about 1.5 hours or so, coming in late due to some sort of delay.  At the Brussels station we found that all the trains were running late and struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler on his way back to his home town of Ghent.  He gave us some great ideas for local Ghent beer bars that we later used for evil.

The train ride to Ghent was a terrible experience!  Every seat was already taken when the train pulled up at the stop and only a couple of people got off in Brussels.  Sj and I ended up standing in the tiny enclosure between cars (right by the bathroom) with 11 other people, luggage, and some one's baby stroller.  There was nothing to hold onto in that area and every time the train would slow or brake all of us would end up in a sweaty human pig-pile trying not to end up on the floor.  On lady was crammed up against the outer door and it cracked open at one point like it was going to jettison her onto the swiftly passing tracks--freaking all of us out in the process!  During this hellish trip several people with large bags from other cars kept barging their way through, trying unsuccessfully to find better seating.  About half way through the hellish trip a little girl needed to use the restroom and literally had to climb over and under people to get to it.  Luckily she was very small!  We made one stop and finally several people left the train.  Chris and Hassan, who had been able to make it into the car in front of us tried to get a group of four seats for us but a teen with a skateboard snaked one and wouldn't give it up for another across the aisle.  When the conductor came by later, said teen tried to act like he was with us and was eventually found to be traveling with an expired or invalid student pass.  When  the conductor walked back toward the front of the car, the teen tried to make a run for it toward the front of the moving train, but the conductor was no dummy and spotted this.  When we arrived at Bruges there were some very official looking train authorities waiting to question our surly friend.  At least the free entertainment made the time go by quicker. 

We were able to catch a minivan cab from the train station to our hotel.  Nestled in a few blocks from the heart of the city this hotel is wonderful!  They were featured in the bizarre crime film In Bruges and are right on the canal as well.  With the long travel day we were too tired to go explore much, so had dinner at Erasmus, the restaurant attached to our hotel.  The food was excellent.  I had a Flemish beef stew made with Westmalle Dubbel and frites that really hit the spot!  We shared some beers including Westmalle Dubbel, 3 Fonteinen Kriek, and others.  Last time we stayed here they actually organized a beer pairing dinner for us that was amazing.  Their beer menu is extensive with 4 on tap and at least 30-40 in bottles.  The look of the place is more French fine dining than beer restaurant, but I highly recommend it.

After dinner it was now dark, but we were invigorated by food and drink and able to head out for one more destination.  We ended up at Cambrinus, managing to get there just as the late dinner crowd was thinning, and seating was available.  This place is one of the best beer bars in the city and the beer menu is a huge two inch thick beast with wooden covers!  It took us quite some time to narrow down our options while faced with a seemingly endless amount to choose from.  I ended up ordering a tart and wonderful Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, also sharing a Girardin Framboise and Rodenbach Vintage 2011 with our group.  We did not eat there this time, but last trip we found the local Flemish fare to be wonderful and often included beer in the preparation.  We finished by splitting a Pannepot strong ale from nearby brewers De Struise.  Despite our tire bodies and minds we actually closed down the bar and headed back to our hotel for some much needed rest.

Epic tomes of beer at Cambrinus

Upon waking the following morning, no worse for wear, Sj and I sat in the well lit breakfast dining room of our hotel, overlooking the canal.  Having seen most of the museums and climbed the Bell Fort last visit, this time we planned to just wander and take in the sights of the city.  Bruges was one of the few cities that didn't really get invaded in the World Wars and hence still has an amazing amount of unmarred medieval architecture to observe.  Around the outskirts of the old city, it is ringed by bike paths, windmills and an occasional fortified entry gate left over from when the city was walled.  We took this sunny and pleasant morning to view these sights and get some much needed walking in. 

When we tired of the windmills we found ourselves at De Halve Maan Brewery, (The Half Moon), a place we had visited last time we were in Bruges.  This is an old historic brewery that has been updated in the 2000's and re branded to some extent.  They have a great patio area nestled in a small courtyard between the brewery buildings and serve a limited food menu and their own beers out there.  Taking advantage of the weather we sat outside and struck up a conversation with some neighboring tourists from Canada.  I really enjoyed their Brugse Zot Belgian blonde ale that was bright and fresh and somewhat hoppy.  Sj had the tasty Dubbel and I liked that as well.  They have a full service restaurant inside the main building and also offer brewery tours in several languages through out the day.  We went on the tour last visit and it is well worth the time--you get to walk across the old copper coolship to see a remarkable view of the city from the rooftop!  This brewery is under rated as Belgian breweries go, but I think they have a good set of beers and a great vibe.

Next we met up with Chris and Hassan for more wandering and a medieval pub crawl!  They had scoped out a place on their own wanderings named Herberg Vlissinghe, a pub opened in 1515!  Now that is impressive!  The inside was quite small with old and well used woods and a prominently displayed wood stove and iron warmer in the center.  Out back there was another cozy courtyard filled with smoking Europeans.  Their beer list was limited but included some of the Trappist ales.  I tried a newer brewery Fort Lapin's (rabbit) Tripel which was light, fruity and perfect for the environment.  At one point there was a large crash from a neighboring table as a chair catastrophically failed on a poor patron.  No one seemed too injured thank goodness!  This was a fine place to have a drink and catch up on our day, but I wish it had a better beer list to recommend it.

Quite a spread!

So, a beer in a pub from 1515...where to go from there?  We ended up just rambling about the tight cobble stoned streets enjoying the weather and scenery, eventually getting ourselves turned completely around.  About the time we felt the urge for another beer, we stumbled upon one of the other best beer bars in the city: 'T Brugs Beertje.  Named "Bruges' Little Bear" the pub was opened in 1983 and has been a mecca for good beers ever since.  This is another small building with tight, or intimate, seating.  They offer 300 beers in bottle, with about 4 on tap.  Tap beer is just not a big thing in Belgium.  We ended up sitting next to a contingent of friendly folks from Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company) who were nearby for an industry conference in Ghent.  These are some of the folks responsible for R&D and creators of the boundary pushing Barrel Room beers.  We enjoyed discussing American and Belgian beers with those three quite a bit!  Since we had such an outrageous beer list to choose from Sj and I split a Cantillon Kriek and a Boon Mariage Parfait Kriek.  Both were wonderful, but anything next to Cantillon pales...

Beer (Bear) Heaven?

Not to give up on our quest to discover new beer adventures in Bruges, we went searching for Staminee De Garre.  This was in one of Chris' guidebooks as an old pub on the smallest street in Bruges.  They are known for having a special De Garre tripel that is made for them and only available at the pub, which prompted our quest.  We wandered in circles around and around a large block looking for the place with the aid of a paper map and two different mapping apps on our cell phones.  When we were about to give up, Hassan managed to get the directions from a cranky chocolatier (that likely gets this request often) and we were off around the block again!  The opening to the "street" is really a tiny alley that looks like a store front entrance, truly a hidden little place.  Walking into this street, I felt like I had just been transported to Diagon Alley or perhaps Platform 9 3/4 from Harry Potter.  Very strange.  The pub within instantly transported us to a lost time.  The special De Garre beer was served in an enormous bowl glass that looked more suitable to goldfish than a drink!  We initially requested to share one, but that is not allowed, so we were all served a smaller and easier to handle version of the glass.  The beer was 11% ABV, but dry and drinkable with a slightly sharp finish, and was served with a small bowl of cheese cubes.  This place is fun and well worth the effort to find it!

We eventually found a Moroccan restaurant for a late dinner.  The menu outside was intriguing and they made mention of slow food, and sourcing local ingredients.  There, we had the slowest service we had in all of Europe, even worse than De Kaas.  It was 30 minutes (yes I checked) before we even had our drink order taken.  The only server in the place moved like he was walking and talking though thick syrup.  The beer list was very small, but all the beers were Bio (European version of organic).  I ended up ordering a Kriek that the server promised me was not sweet, but ended up tasting like cough syrup.  Blech!  The food eventually came and the Tajines were quite tasty, making up somewhat for the interminable wait.  This place truly lived up to "Slow Food"!  I felt somewhat bad for the couple who just sat down as we were leaving (two and a half hours after arriving), hopefully they were able to eat before midnight. 

Up Next: Bruges to Ghent!

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