Tuesday, October 25, 2016

1. Belgian Beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in 15 drinks or less.

Buddy Sandbach.

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 stuffing bags into a coin-operated storage locker at the disconcertingly subterranean Brussels Central Station when suddenly Buddy Sandbach popped around the corner, having spotted Kevin Richards strolling through the concourse. Buddy was freshly arrived in Brussels from Amsterdam, where he had spent several days fulfilling his longtime dream of experiencing 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, always a bonus, because down the road it might translate into free time for an extra beer.

And free time for an extra beer almost 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 finally 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 greeted the bustling streets outside the station.

Wayfinding signage and a handy public map determined a course for taking us to the famed Grand Place, an ornate central square pictured on jigsaw puzzles, coffee mugs and boxes of Belgian chocolate shipped worldwide.

One feels giddy enthusiasm when visiting a great city, whether returning like I was, or feeling it for the very first time as with Kevin and Buddy. The adrenaline makes it easier to ignore trifles such as garbage trucks emptying dumpsters filled with yesterday's fish parts, kamikaze taxi drivers and intermittent rain.

We dodged these impediments and rushed headlong 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 an artist really etch a genuine facsimile of the famed Mannekin-Pis-Boy into your virgin rump while you wait, cruelly intoxicated with Stella Artois if not life itself? I wasn’t eager to know, but too cynical to rule it out entirely.

The Grand Place remains the place for aficionados of gilded guild halls, and the ambiance was duly photographed even if it can be only imperfectly captured on film.

Random web pilferage.

When the clicking of shutters had subsided, I broke the news to my friends as gently as I could: From the beer traveler’s rarefied 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.

(Has this reality changed 16 years later? Let's hope so. It's been 11 years since my last visit to Brussels, and I'm all too aware of the lag.)

Nonetheless, there was time to kill before Bob Reed’s arrival at the pre-arranged meeting point at the front door at Maison des Brasseurs (a brewing museum), and the steadily escalating rain suggested that any nearby café would do in a pinch. Accordingly, we entered the café known as the White Rose, which had an above average beer 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 a window open to the square. Through it wafted the echoes of scattered throngs in the square and the steady drumbeat of rain on 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 (a Belgian pale ale), Rodenbach (sour red ale from West Flanders) and Rochfort 8º (heavenly Trappist ale). They're three choices you’d love to have almost anywhere while mulling the meaning of life.

Many soggy tourists quietly crossed the expanse beyond our window, and among them we soon spotted the angular Mr. Reed 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 … 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.

These 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 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 board for the hour-long ride to Tournai, a city located in French-speaking Hainaut province chosen as our base for three days of cycling in the Wallonian countryside.

Blessedly, we were once again early, so there was the chance to have that extra, cherished, final beer -- remember, 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 server.

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 in advance from our fifth wheel, beer salesman Kevin Lowber, who was to meet us in Poperinge later in the trip. The Kevins having conspired, we resolved to drink the Port while still on the train, with only one small problem: There were no available drinking vessels.

But Buddy dug into his bag and produced two souvenir Parisian shot glasses, and with little choice except thumbing our noses at universally accepted decanting protocol, we happily took turns imbibing the sinuous, concentrated nectar from them, watching tidy fields and shuttered small villages fly past as dusk approached.

A taxi waited in front of the queue at the Tournai rail station, and two hundred Belgian francs later (Euros were yet to come), we were deposited at the gate of the Hotel d’Alcantara.

I don't remember it looking this plush.

This momentous first day in Belgium ended without a trace of bicycling, but with Chimay Trappist “blue” ales taken on the pleasant, landscaped terrace of the hotel, our base in Tournai. We drank deeply, toasting ourselves and the surroundings, which included neon blooms in hotel flower boxes and the lovely vista of a floodlit church spire. Then Kevin spotted four ancient bicycles.

They were chained together in the corner of the walled courtyard. In a few hours, these machines 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.

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