Friday, June 22, 2007

Belgian beercycling 2000: Tournai warm-up, Cave a Bieres and Pays du Collines.

At the Public House, the year 2000 always will be remembered as the time when our informal local cycling group devoted a European excursion to the then novel idea (for us, at least) of hunting beer while riding bicycles – and sometimes briefly parking them. In this installment of the story, the beercycling trip continues in Tournai, Belgium. Here are the previous chapters:

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

Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.


The city of Tournai seldom surfaces as part of prospective Belgian beer-hunting itineraries, and on the surface of it, the omission is perfectly understandable. The city itself no longer possesses working breweries, and there is only one specialty beer café, Cave de Bieres, that is worthy of mention in the British writer Tim Webb’s essential book, “The Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland.”*

In spite of this, we elected to make this city of 70,000 people our home for the first three full days of the biking and beer-hunting Belgian holiday. Our choice reflected Tournai’s relative proximity to good beer and the breweries that make it, and also because our choice of accommodations, the Hotel d’Alcantara, had inexpensive bikes available that we could use to reach the beer.

In the end, our choice proved to be a quite good one. To be sure, Tournai’s tourist infrastructure is scant compared with better known Belgian destinations, but as a bonus beyond the reasons of beer proximity cited above, Tournai is intriguing in its own right. The city was founded as a Roman settlement, and like most comparably sized urban areas, it was ceded, swapped and passed around to various feudal and imperial powers for much of its history. There is a relaxed and pleasing mixture of new and old Europe.

Tournai suffered damage in both of the 20th-century’s European conflagrations, but in WWII it had the distinction of being the first Belgian city to be liberated from the Nazis. Tournai’s trademark postcard photo is of the imposing, five-towered Cathedrale de Notre-Dame; there is a squat but massive 13th-century bridge across the Escaut River; and the Grand Place (or central square), which otherwise functions as a huge car park, boasts a strange on-again, off-again sidewalk fountain made possible by EU developmental funds. The square is ringed by respectable, if not spectacular, pubs and cafes where the thirsty beer traveler can reliably find mid-range selections as well as predictably good espresso and snacks.

Roughly ten miles west of Tournai is the French city of Lille. We didn’t have time to visit Lille, but it is considered a center of northern French brewing, with many beer bars in the city center and breweries in its outskirts. The Brunehaut brewery is located ten miles south; it dates from 1992 and makes several fine ales available for sampling in Tournai. One beer that stood out from the rest was a specialty Brunehaut ale spiked with genever, Belgium’s distilled counterpart to gin.

Twenty miles northeast of Tournai is the region known as the Pays du Collines, which is a rural area of low hills, towns, patches of woods, farms, and a recently renewed focus on eco-tourism. With the invaluable assistance of a Hotel d’Alcantara staffer, we booked a guided mountain bike tour of the Pays du Collines for our second day in town.

Ten miles east of Tournai there is perhaps the best concentration of small breweries that you’ll find in Belgium, all of them situated in perhaps a two-square mile area: Dubuisson, maker of the incredible Bush strong ale (known as Scaldis in the USA); Dupont, brewer of classic Saison ales; and Vapeur, the archaic steam-powered museum/brewery that we scheduled for a visit on Day Three.

Before mountain biking Friday and brewery schmoozing Saturday, there was an open biking day Thursday. We had plenty of raw adrenalin, but not much of a plan. Having examined the four bikes and found them to be rickety but serviceable, we chatted with the friendly hotel manager, who suggested charting a course for Mont St. Aubert, a few miles north of Tournai. This choice was as good as any, so we followed the manager’s directions.

Along the way, our quartet received an introduction to the joys of biking and bruising over dry cobblestoned streets; wet cobblestones were yet to come and provide thrills of an even greater magnitude. These gave way to smoother paved roads as we left the inner city area and entered the more modern districts on the outskirts. We followed the signs into the countryside, where we could clearly see the hill ahead looming of us. Climbing it was a challenge, with each of us having only a handful of gears in operating condition, but we made it to the top and were rewarded with a spectacular view of Tournai and the surrounding region.

Actually, some of us made it in better condition than others. When you see Buddy Sandbach at the Public House, ask him the French pronunciation of “Ralph.” Curiously, it’s almost the same as the American.

Bob Reed had thoughtfully procured a map of the area, and using it we rode off on country lanes, through the surrounding farmlands and their reassuring aromas of fodder and dung, eventually coming to the town of Pecq. From there we took immaculately groomed bike paths along the river back into Tournai.

It was unlikely that we rode more than 15 miles all day, but the historical significance of this inaugural bicycling foray simply cannot be exaggerated. It didn’t matter at all that the bicycles were inferior. During the course of European travels dating back to 1985, I’d traveled by rail, bus, boat, automobile, and on foot. All of the previous experiences were special in their own way, but in 2000 – for the first time in years –I felt exhilaration and the pure joy of discovery – perhaps rediscovery is a better word. Kevin Richards and I had talked about it for months, and now we’d done it, and I immediately understood that I was hooked. Puffing up Mont St. Aubert, I knew that Europe would never again be the same for me.

We were judicious in keeping it short the first day, and spent the remainder of the afternoon walking through town, pausing to have a restorative ale in the since-departed street level café of the Hotel Europ (a Bush Blonde, arguably the easiest drinking 10.5% ale that Belgian brewers have conceived), then dining on beefsteak and fries at a nearby restaurant.

One must wait until 5:00 p.m. to enter the aforementioned Cave a Bieres, Tournai’s finest specialty beer café, which is located by the river in a former storage cellar. It’s worth the delay.

Cave a Bieres is a variant of “shotgun” bar filling space below street level in a venerable old European warehouse. The walls and vaulted brick ceiling are painted white, with a small bar, big wooden tables and chairs lining both sides of a central walkway, and Belgian brewing memorabilia nailed everywhere. The café is run by a male head waiter and a female chef, perhaps husband and wife, perhaps not, but with the latter being firmly and fixedly in charge of the proceedings, which in addition to a bottled beer list of 75 to 100 choices includes typical Belgian café snacks, and as we were to discover on Saturday evening, excellent full meals on weekends.

Settling in, I concentrated on regional ales: Brunehaut, Quintine and Dupont. Vapeur was available, but there’d be plenty of that on Saturday at the monthly brewing day in Pipaix.

On Friday morning following an exemplary hotel breakfast, it was time for yet another new adventure. We were met in the lobby by our guide for the day’s pre-arranged mountain biking excursion. Etienne, a teacher, coach and superbly conditioned all-around athlete, loaded us into his pristine van for the trip to the rural Pays du Collines.

At a sparkling new athletic club in a town on the periphery, we were introduced to our bikes and to Etienne’s bubbly aunt, who would be following us in her car and stopping with us to provide periodic commentary in English. Etienne confessed to speaking only French, but as usually is the case in such times, we were able to communicate wonderfully through gestures and snippets. With regard to mountain biking technique, Etienne showed us what to do, and we followed his lead.

Off we pedaled into the beautiful natural area for an unforgettable day. For Bob, Buddy and I, it was a first-time experience on a mountain bike off road in the rough – over steep hills in the mud, across dirt paths in wide, cleared fields, and through old railroad cuts in the woods. Kevin and Etienne bonded immediately, finding in their love of all sporting endeavors a common language. Along the way we stopped at a traditional farmstead to view an ancient mill under restoration and visited a museum of local culture.

Two hours into the ride, Etienne took us to his mother’s rectangular brick farmstead for juice, coffee and pastries, and then later in the village of Ellezelle there was a much appreciated re-hydration sag at the Brasserie Ellezelloise. The isolated country micro/brewpub makes high quality ales familiar for their stopper bottles, including Hercule, an intense, high-gravity sweet stout, and a style rarely seen in Belgium.

The brewery’s beer occasionally is found at other outlets in Ellezelle, including specially scheduled festive appearances at a local waist-high pedestal, upon which a statue of a mythical regional witch squats and glowers. The statue often is compared to the Mannekin-Pis in Brussels by virtue of its plumbing, meaning that on normal days one puts coins in the adjacent slot, and if the person is unlucky, only water comes out from beneath the witch’s skirt … but during those magical times, beer flows instead.

At the end of the afternoon, we retired to the posh local club within the athletic complex and drank a round of Hoegaardens: To Etienne, a superlative guide and true gentleman.

For a second consecutive evening back in Tournai, the consensus choice for dinner was couscous (kews-kews), the North African ethnic delight that is as widely available in Tournai as Chinese or Mexican food is in Louisville.

Perhaps it should be noted at this juncture that my newfound joy in biking was not accompanied by what I viewed as unnecessary restrictions like dieting or moderation in drinking. It struck me that the whole point in hard riding during the day was to justify the pleasure of massive meals and fine ale at night. This acknowledged, couscous proved to be ideally suited for an exercise regimen like ours. The tiny rice-like granules are in fact pasta; grilled sausages and skewered meats accompany the rich vegetable-based sauce, all of it uniquely spiced and smothered with fiery harissa sauce. Chickpeas and pine nuts appear alongside raisins and dates. The red wine is memorable.

At the hotel, sated, with a final round of ales safely beneath our belts, we slept well. Saturday would be the highlight of the Tournai segment of the trip: The ride to and from the monthly brewing day at Brasserie A Vapeur (the steam-operated brewery), followed by televised Eurocup soccer in Tournai, then a special meal of lobster at the Cave de Bieres, and best of all, the delightful company of three of my best European friends, Danes Kim Andersen, Kim Wiesener, and Allan Gamborg. They were in Belgium for the Eurocup, and had booked rooms at the a’Alcantara to meet us for one evening’s dining and drinking.

Would the novice beercycling team survive?


*Editor’s 2007 note: The most recent edition of Webb’s book verifies the worthiness of the Cave de Bieres, and concurs with his decade-old assessment of Tournai as possessing a “boring” beer culture. In short, affairs are much the same now as then.

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