Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Belgian beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.

The year 2000 is remembered as the time of our informal cycling group’s first ever European excursion devoted to the then-novel ideas of hunting beer while riding bicycles -- at least part of the time. In this first installment of the story, the trip begins in Brussels.


Here’s to us.
May we never quarrel or fuss.
But if by chance we should disagree,
#%@* you, and here’s to me.
-- A toast to cycling togetherness, as masterfully articulated by Bob Reed.

I was in the process of stuffing bags into a coin-operated storage locker at the disconcertingly subterranean Centrale Station in Brussels when suddenly Buddy Sandbach popped around the corner, having spotted Kevin Richards strolling out on the concourse. Buddy was freshly arrived in Brussels from Amsterdam, where he had spent several days fulfilling his longtime dream of viewing Holland’s many and varied species of, er, tulips.

Kevin and I had flown together from Louisville, via Atlanta. Buddy’s unexpectedly early debut in Brussels put us squarely ahead of schedule, which loomed large, for it might easily translate at some point down the road into free time for an extra beer.

And besides looming large, free time for an extra beer always is a good omen.

After a pitfall or three in pursuit of a place to store Buddy’s various bags and prized bulbs -- these obstacles being overcome in spite of the best efforts of an obstructionist baggage room bureaucrat named Eric – the transaction finally was arranged, stairs were mounted, and we met the bustling streets outside the station. Signage and a handy public map determined the course that would take us to the famed Grand Place, the ornate central square pictured on boxes of Belgian chocolate shipped worldwide.

The giddy enthusiasm one feels when returning to a great city, as in my case, or visiting it for the very first time like Kevin and Buddy, always makes it easy to ignore trifles like kamikaze taxi drivers and intermittent drizzly rain, and so we dodged these impediments and rushed into a bustling, vibrant urban environment filled with touristy restaurants and their multi-lingual menu offerings, the delivery vans of florists and family butcher firms, tacky souvenir stands, suavely attired Euro-businessmen and even the occasional tattoo parlor.

Would they really etch a genuine facsimile of the famed Mannekin-Pis-Boy into your virgin rump while you wait? I wasn’t eager to know, but too cynical to rule it out.

The Grand Place remains the place for aficionados of gilded guild halls, and the ambience was duly photographed even if it cannot be adequately captured on film. When the clicking of shutters had subsided, I broke the news to my friends as gently as I could: From the beer traveler’s rarified point of view, truly noteworthy cafes from which to view the splendid architectural setting weren’t likely to be found around the square itself, where rents are sky high and cautious sightseers demand predictable pilsners.

However, there was time to kill before Bob Reed’s arrival at the pre-arranged meeting point of the front door at Maison des Brasseurs (a brewing museum), and the steadily escalating rain suggested to us that any nearby café would do in a pinch. Accordingly, we entered the café known as the White Rose, which had an above average list and provided the perfect vantage point to watch for Bob.

The uniformed waiter brought the first of three rounds to our low wooden table by the open window. Through it wafted the echoes of scattered throngs in the square and the steady drumbeat of rain o cobblestones, and while the White Rose isn’t the best beer café in Brussels, it is by no means the worst. My first three beers of the trip were Palm (Belgian pale ale), Rodenbach (sour red ale from West Flanders) and Rochfort 8º (heavenly Trappist ale) -- three choices you’d love to have anywhere while mulling life.

Many soggy tourists crossed the expanse beyond our window, and among them we soon spotted an angular Bob loping across the pavement wrapped in a brilliant reddish-orange rain poncho. We motioned him inside and had another round. Soon the rain dissipated, and we were back on the streets in search of food and drink.

Historically, Brussels and environs are lambic country, and on previous trips to Belgium I’d begun to develop a taste for the funky nectar. The next two cafes we patronized both were located in the warren of streets beyond the Grand Place, and they yielded good examples of Belgium’s indigenous, spontaneously fermented specialty.

At Notredame, there was Timmerman’s Faro; although by definition sweetened, the characteristically tangy lambic character still was present. At Toone, a textbook example of sharp, sour and rigorously authentic lambic, Cantillon Gueuze, was chased afterward with a smooth glass of Antwerp’s signature De Koninck ale. Three hours, six beers, and a veritable cross section of Belgian brewing … and all before dinner.

Our quartet’s quintessentially Belgian evening meal was composed of four pots of mussels, just as many baskets of crusty bread for soaking up the broth, and mounds of fries. After all, one must always eat vegetables for a balanced meal. My delicacies were washed down with famously balanced, deceptively drinkable Duvel, Belgium’s signature golden ale. It followed a draft portion of forgettable Jupiler mass-market lager, allegedly “bought” for us by the restaurant’s street hawker as an enticement to eat there, and which served as a valuable calibration beer in the sense that everything else I drank the entire day represented an improvement on the Jupiler.

Soon the mussels were gone, as was our afternoon in Brussels. It was time to return to the train station to reclaim luggage and embark for the hour-long ride to Tournai, a city located in French-speaking Hainaut province that we had chosen as our base for three days of cycling in the Wallonian countryside. Blessedly, we were early getting back, so there was the chance to have that extra, cherished, final beer -- and free time for an extra beer always is a good omen -- at a café across the street. Mine was Brugs Tarwebier, a citrusy, representative Belgian-style wheat ale. Blessedly, there was no orange slice to throw angrily at the waitress.

Rumbling through the suburbs aboard a nearly deserted train, our bountiful harvest of opening day libations suddenly became even more fruitful as Kevin Magically produced a bottle of 40-year-old Noval port wine, technically a tawny port with indication of average age as pertains to the blending stocks, and not a vintage port as such, but no matter. Kevin Richards had cleverly procured the bottle from our fifth wheel, Kevin Lowber, who would be meeting us in Poperinge later in the trip. Having done so, he resolved to drink it early and often, and dissenting voices could not be found.

With little choice except tom thumb our noses at propriety and accepted decanting protocol, we happily took turns imbibing the sinuous, concentrated nectar from two of Buddy’s souvenir Parisian shot glasses, watching tidy fields and shuttered small villages fly past as dusk approached. A taxi waited in front of the queue at the Tournai station, and two hundred Belgian francs later, we were deposited at the gate of the hotel.

This momentous first day in Belgium ended without bicycling, but with Chimay Trappist “blue” ales on the pleasant, landscaped terrace of the Hotel d’Alcantara, our base in Tournai. As we drank, toasting ourselves and the surroundings, which included bright hotel flowerboxes and the lovely vista of a floodlit church spire, four ancient bicycles were spotted chained together in the corner of the walled courtyard. In a few hours, these would be our introduction to European biking … and my travel world would begin to change.

In the next installment: Tournai, couscous, a beer “cave” and steam-powered beer.


Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.

No comments: