Friday, June 27, 2014

Cows, Hops, and Potatoes

Last weekend, we went to Belgium again. You might be wondering, why would we go to Belgium? I think the relevant question is, why wouldn't we go to Belgium? Even though we have been there twice before at this point, there were still some things we hadn't seen. Since some of the places we wanted to go were a bit out of the way, we planned to rent a car. I wasn't sure if it would be allowed, since I don't have a German driver's license, but I called twice and was told I could rent one with my American license. I was still afraid that once I got there, they would tell me I couldn't take the car, but everything ended up fine. I also was a little scared since I hadn't driven in Europe before, but ultimately, driving is driving, so it wasn't bad. One kinda funny thing happened at the rental car desk: the clerk saw my license was from Alabama and said, "Oh, they are very good at football." That alone would have been weird to me, that a European knew that. Then he said, "They are the Crimson Tide. But I like Oregon Ducks better." Which, I mean, obviously.

We left on Thursday, and the first thing we planned to do was go down to Chimay, which is near the French border. Chimay is a Trappist beer, made in an abbey, which you aren't allowed to visit, but there is a cafe where you can taste the Chimay D'oree, a beer that is only sold there. I liked it much better than the other Chimays, because it's just a style of beer I prefer. We also got to taste a bunch of the Chimay cheese. I would have bought some to take home, but I wasn't really sure how well it would keep. We learned that there is a little bit of the abbey you can walk around in--the gardens and the cemetery, so we did that. It was peaceful and beautiful. I didn't get any pictures because I forgot to bring my camera in, but it probably would have been a little bit frowned upon anyway. We drove back up to Ghent and decided to have fries for dinner, because Belgium. I also got some chicken nuggets, which I would describe as mediocre but I think that would be an insult to mediocrity. Hunter's fries had Stoovlies sauch (I really have no idea how to spell that, but it's like Flemish beef stew) and they were really good. I also learned that I like Belgian Cola Light much better than German Cola Light.

Friday morning we got up to go see the Ghent altarpiece, a pretty famous painting housed in St. Bavo Cathedral. No pictures are allowed, a rule which I followed despite many other visitors' shameless flaunting, but you can Google it to see what it looks like. Parts of it are being restored--I'll talk about that later. The cathedral itself is free to get into, you just have to pay to see the altarpiece. After we saw that, we walked around a little bit.

Sadie and I next to the Cathedral

Li'l further out
Li'l closer in
The middle figures in the statue are the Van Eyck brothers, who painted the altarpiece.

Since we wanted to have a more fun dinner, we figured just a quick/cheap lunch would be good. We grabbed some noodles and took Sadie back to get her fed, changed, etc. before the next activity: a brewery visit! 

We were able to schedule a visit to the Gruut Brewery. This was the only "official" visit we managed. Many of the breweries require either several weeks advance scheduling, groups of at least 10 people, or both. This is a fairly small, new brewery, but the most interesting thing about them is that they don't use hops! They use a mix of herbs to get the same effect as hops. It was very interesting to learn about the process, and the beer was quite tasty. The guide shared my opinion on German beer: it's well-made, but there is very little variation in it. We had a fun time tasting the different beers!

We also had a fun time posing for pictures with Sadie.

We went home to take a bit of a rest, then looked up where to go for dinner. I was thinking Belgian food, because it's good, so we found a restaurant off the main square with pretty reasonable prices. I got an amazing thick steak, which you really can't get in Germany, and Hunter got the stew. In addition to the food being really good, Sadie behaved herself so well, at least until the end of the meal when we were waiting for a dessert we thought would never come. I mean, who doesn't want to cry when that happens? We made it, though.

The next day was one of the most exciting parts of our trip. We were heading to the western side of the country to try a beer that many refer to as the "best in the world." It is made in extremely limited quantities and only available at the abbey where they make it, and the cafe they have there. To buy cases, you have to call a few weeks ahead of time and give them your license plate number, then you can't buy more until 60 days have passed. We had tried calling after we got the rental car, on the off-chance we could reserve some, but weren't able to get through. We figured we could taste it at the cafe, assuming they hadn't run out. When we got there, we were pleasantly surprised! They were selling bottles of the beer, in a set with glasses. So of course Hunter got one! I tasted the beer and I will say, I don't usually like abbey beers, but I would drink that one.

Hunter tastes the beer

Sadie tastes her hand

In the nearest town to this abbey, there is a hops museum, because I think it is where a lot of the hops in Belgium come from? Anyway, we had heard it was cool but it was late afternoon by that point, and we figured it would be better for Sadie if we just headed to Brussels, which is where we'd be spending our last night. We did drive by a giant statue of a hop, though!

Saturday night might have been my favorite meal of the trip. We found a Tunisian restaurant, and it was so good! Plus, they had a high chair for Sadie, so we could eat in peace while she... tried to pick up food and then dropped it on the ground. We were sitting outside, of course, so it didn't worry me too much. Every time people walked by, her little head would follow them and I'm sure she got more than a few smiles. So this trip, we had two meals that weren't just passing Sadie back and forth between bites!

So that's basically it. Renting a car wasn't scary but there is one thing I will keep in mind if we do it again: planning. We didn't use the car at all on Friday; we would have done better to just return the car in Ghent and then get another one on the last day, since we were paying for car and GPS. We also probably could have just returned it Saturday night and that would have cut down on parking charges. Often our travel is kinda spontaneous, but if we get another car, I will try to maximize the efficiency there. Otherwise, it was a great trip! Of course we came back with more chocolate; we had just finished our box of Neuhaus from our last trip to Belgium. Maybe next time we'll go somewhere a bit farther...

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