Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Consualar Services

I've got to give some credit to the US Consulate in Melbourne. I had good luck with them inserting new pages into my passport, but they really came through for Shannon.

The Consulate here managed to get her a new passport in nine days, including a weekend and an Australian public holiday (Note: the US Consulate observes both US and Australian holidays - sweet gig!). Couple that with the fact that all passports have to be printed in the US, I'd call that pretty impressive.

All for the standard price, too.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

hispanicfiesta

Last weekend was the Johnston St. Hispanic Festival, which has apparently been renamed hispanicfiesta. Like last year, we stopped by since it's just at the end of our street and whatnot.

Again, we were somewhat underwhelmed by the food. Just as before, we had some seriously high hopes, that left us somewhat disappointed. This food should be out of this world. What's the story? Are the vendors bringing flavors down to suit the market? Is it because of the larger scale production? Some of both? They certainly work the prices to suit the local market, which probably didn't help my feelings on the matter. I've simply had better Hispanic food elsewhere.

The weather worked out well though, unlike last year, and gave us an excellent chance to sit on our roof, polish off our tequila (in honor, naturally) and listen to the music.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Photo of the Day


Stained glass window in Melbourne Town Hall.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Au Revoir, Pajero

We sold the truck. It's quite bittersweet. On the one hand, we had a lot of adventures with it, but on the other, we never got to have the big trip that we wanted.

We did ok on the money. We more or less broke even on the metal, leaving us with just the operating and maintenance costs since we've had it. Not so terrible. We sold it to a French couple that's about our age who have a year to drive around Australia. Just once again proving that Americans are doing it wrong in that regard. I hope they have as much fun with it as we have.

So long.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Westvleteren

Funny thing, Westvleteren. It's a brewery that is somewhat of legend in the US. The beer is not available stateside, and is challenging to get in Belgium. From their website:

Please take into account that you may often get a busy signal when you call to make a reservation, due to the fact that our beer lines are overburdened! You're not the only one who is calling at that moment. Due to our small-scale production, the number of telephone calls is much greater than the number of available reservations. That means it's a matter of having a lot of patience as well as a lot of luck.

In order to allow as many customers as possible to make a reservation, there are several limitations built into the reservation process:

  • Automobiles: reservations are made by license plate number, and the automobile bearing that license plate can pick up an order only once during any calendar month.

  • Telephones:
    - Each specific telephone number can reach the beer phone only once during any calendar month to make a reservation. If that telephone number attempts to call a second time within the same calendar month, the call will be automatically interrupted. There's no sense in calling back if you've already made a reservation within the same calendar month.
    - Anonymous telephone numbers are not accepted.
    - Land phones and cell phones have an equal chance. All telephone zones are treated equally.

There's no sense in trying to contact our beer sales outlet or the brewery - in any way at all - if you don't succeeds in placing a reservation. Any such attempts will receive no response.

Thanks in advance for your understanding and your patience!


I was quite keen to put my hands on some while we were there, but depending on who you talk to, there seems to be some cultural nuance about getting it as a tourist.

My first attempt was at a bar where I saw old bottle crates and asked if it was available. Bartender #1 gave me this confused look and told me how hard it was to get. Bartender #2 said that it might be available but there were things to understand. First, it was important to understand that if they were to have some, it would be old, having come from the brewery a while ago. Second, he wouldn't be able to charge a customer for this beer because he would be taking money away from the Abbey. Simply, he could give a friend at the bar a beer, and if that friend chose to leave a donation for the Abbey, it would be much appreciated. Third, if one were to want a beer, it would need a 20 minute lead time so it could reach an appropriate temperature. And fourth, he asked that if one was to be ordered, that the bar wouldn't be mentioned to friends or written about on the Internet. This to me was something akin to "the first rule of Westvleteren is that you don't talk about Westvleteren. The second rule..."

Being caught off guard by this, I opted to not order. I didn't want to be offensive, or have my motives misconstrued. Simply, I don't believe I understand the ins and outs of what might have been going on. Our counterpart down the bar from New York did opt to order one. We had chatted with him, and from my impression, he wasn't trying to bend any rules or take advantage of anything. I think he was just curious.

But like I said, I wasn't sure, so I opted out.

Up in Brugge, I had been told that I'd find it on the menu at Cambrinus. We did. Three varieties, in fact. I feel that since this establishment has it on the menu with a price (and a high one, at that) I can advertise them. We had the blonde and the dubbel brune 8. According to Wikipedia, this was grey market beer.


They were very good. In retrospect, neither fell into our top two beers, but they were damn good. What drives this international demand? The quality is tops, but this may be one of those instances where reputation grows by lack of supply. Of course, there is no accounting for taste.

Looking back, I'm not sure where I stand on the fact that we had these beers. The brewery opposes the sale outside the Abbey, and we paid a mint for them, so some middle man other than the official cause is making a killing. I can't exactly say that I regret the choice, as I'll most likely not get to have another for a very long time, but I can't exactly say that I feel great about it either.

I certainly feel that The Bar That Shall Remain Nameless honors the intent in a more noble way, even if they have slight ethical flaws, too.

Beer Wrap Up

Saying that Belgium has good beer is like saying that Versailles has some gold on it. We drank some really amazing stuff while we were there. Forty two unique beers, in all, by our count. Here's the list. Breweries are in Bold. Mistakes may be present - input wanted.

InBev Leffe Brune
Westmalle Tripel Blonde
Westmalle Double Brune
't Hofbrouwerijke Bosprotter
Achel Brune
De Dochter Van de Korenaar Bravoure
Orval Trappist
Valier Divers
Bink Bloesem (1)
Cantillion Gueuze
Cantillion Lambic
Cantillion Kriek
Val-Dieu Grand Cru (2)
Zona Cesarini (3)
Delirium Nocturnum
Delirium Tremens
Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet
Bosteels Pauwel Kwak
Bosteels DeuS Brut des Flandres
A la Mort Subite Gueuze Sur Lie
Grimbergen Brune
De Halve Mann Brugse Zot Blond
De Halve Mann Brugse Zot Dubbel (Brune)
Westvleteren Blonde (4)
Westvleteren Dubble Brune 8% (4)
Brouwerij Palm Rodenbach Grand Cru
Brouwerij Van Steenberge Gulden Draak (5)
InBev Leffe Tripel
Brouwerij Palm Brugge Tripel
Brouwerij Van Steenberge Tripel Van de Garre
Brouwerij Van Steenberge de Witte Van Celis
InBev Hoegaarden Wheat
Duvel Blonde
Brasserie de Rochefort Rochefort Trappiste 8 (5)
De Ranke Saison de Dottignies
Chimay Blanche
Van Steenberge Augustijn Bruin
Brasserie Ellezelloise La Biere des Collines Hercule Stout
Brasserie Lefebvre Barbar (5)
InBev Leffe Blonde
Malheur Blonde 10 (6)
Malheur Brune 12 (6)

Notes:
(1) Top rated blonde of the trip
(2) Top rated brune of the trip
(3) From Italy. Purchased because of the 5 hop blend from different countries. A tasty excursion from Belgium.
(4) See subsequent post regarding Westvleteren
(5) Honorable Mention
(6) Purchased in Brugge and consumed in Melbourne. Still counts.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Trip Home

Because we are fools and have next to no vacation time, our trip from Brussels to Melbourne was completed in one day. The long way, via Chicago, San Francisco, and Sydney. Thank goodness we had lounge access...

And were in business the whole way...


On the leg from Chicago to San Francisco, I looked out the window just in time to see Yosemite. We were just a tick too far north to see all of Mono Lake, but seeing part of it was my clue.


I was on the wrong side to see the valley, but I did see Hetch Hetchey, and all of it's bathtub ring glory.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brugge

Continuing the much delayed Belgium experience...

On Saturday morning, we took the train to Brugge for a quick two day trip before heading back to Australia. The train was just what you'd expect - prompt, affordable, relatively scenic, and quiet. We made it all the way to our next B&B dry, but the weather was threatening.

We spent most of our time meandering through town stopping to gawk at architecture, have coffee, enjoy a beer (including a Westvleteren), have a snack, but with no specific plan in mind.



Four shots from the Markt.





It's easy to just get yourself lost walking through town. Every time you turn a corner there is some other wonderful building or piece of artwork to look at. It's no wonder that so many people come up for weekends. Inside the ring road, it's like an entirely different world.







There were of course some signs of the modern world inside the fairy tale land. Translation: Blonde - Do Not Blame Me


Brugge at night.



We did manage to have some fairly Belgian food in Brugge. Despite having been caught in a rather heavy downpour, we stopped and had mussels in white wine and carbonade flamande. While probably somewhat touristy (as most things in Brugge are) they were both very good. And, by comparison to a lot of places, I think we got a good deal.

Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day (at least in the morning), but before we could get out in it, we had breakfast with our hostess, Maria. She was absolutely hilarious, and she makes a heck of a good omelet. She had a fantastic story, having lived all over Europe. We talked for nearly an hour, in at least the following languages: English, Flemish, Spanish, Italian, and German. She told us a lot about her life story, and didn't really pull any punches about the low points. But she seemed overall to be very happy, and love having visitors and getting to hear their stories, too. She was a wonderful hostess, and even prepared us a bag of food to take away the next day, as we had an early train.

We spent some time walking around the ring canal and found a number of cool bridges, gates into the city, and even windmills.







There were plenty of little details that are so typically European.





We meandered some more and found a couple more churches and got some nice views of the Belfry from afar.



We made our way to De Garre, as we were told they had an excellent house beer. They did. But finding it was pretty entertaining. We walked by it a couple times before we finally sorted out that it was down this alley.


Good thing we got there when we did, too. As promised, tables were impossible to come by about 10 minutes after we sat down. At 11 am.

After leaving, we were off for lunch. We had a place in mind that we read about that sold pancakes really cheaply. This seemed tasty. On the way, it started raining. Then the lightning started. And then it started to hail.


It came down for the better part of 40 minutes, and by the end, there was a good inch of hail on the road. It was actually really pretty - it looked sort of like snow. This is what was left after we had lunch.

Oh, and about that lunch. Pancakes seem to leave something behind in the translation. It was really a crepe house. But, it was awesome. The prices were fair, and I had a crepe that must have weighed a kilo. Plus, it was made out in the open, so you could watch. If you're in Brugge, make sure to eat at De Bretoen. You will not go away hungry.

Other fun facts. Here's Smedenpoort.


Here's the casting of the traitor who opened the gate to the French in the 15th century and was hung on the spot.

I do have some regrets about this little stop. If one stood at the gate and looked in, you saw the medieval town you'd been walking around. If you looked out, you saw what looked to be the much more modern part of Brugge. I think it would have been interesting to check this out and see what "real life" is like (at least for those that live outside the ring) but, as per normal, it started raining again. Hard.

Our travels took us back to the east part of the city based on a planned dinner stop. We decided to skip it after having a better look at the menu, but did wind up at Nieuw Museum where we had a couple beers and a really interesting conversation with the owner. We had originally been drawn in by what we thought was a fireplace, but was instead a huge open cooking pit. Lots of tasty looking dead animals were coming out. It's a family business (save the grill man - "he came with the place" and one of the young hands - "him? no, he is NOT my brother") and it seemed to be a local scene on a Sunday night. We thought the prices on food were a bit high, but if you were a local, paid in Euros, it would be fairly par, from what I can tell. I have slight regret not having dinner there.

Tragically, that brought our time in Brugge to a close. The next morning, we took the train back to the airport, and were on our way. I found it sort of crazy how many people commuted into Brussels. It's not a really long train ride, but I think it would get old back and forth every day. A number of people went to Gent, too, but that's only about 20 minutes. I'm guessing that outside of tourism, there isn't much work in Brugge.

In summary, I'm really glad we went to Brugge, but two days is probably the perfect amount of time. After that, I think I'd want to check out Gent and Antwerp.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bosteels Brewery

Shannon and I took the train up to Buggenhout for a tour of the Bosteels Brewery (turn off your speakers at work). We had arranged it by email a few weeks prior, as they only do tours for groups of I think 20. We asked to tag on to any tour, and they obliged with a 3pm tour on Friday.


We rocked up, right on time, and went in through a somewhat closing gate. Two guys saw us, and one came over. The conversation went something like this.

Me: Spreekt u Engles?
Him: Ya, sure.
Me: We're here for a three o'clock tour.
Him: Hmm. I think the tour was at two today.
Me: Hmm... Shit.
Him: Well... at least come up and have a drink.

Naturally, we obliged, and were greeted with two Kwaks and invited to sit with some employees. It was Friday afternoon and all. The gentleman spoke with his colleague and came back and said that there had been a change in the tour, but they had forgotten to sent us an email, so we would get a private, but shorter tour instead. Can't argue with this.

We were soon joined by the group, who had finished the tour, and were looking rather thirsty. Unknown to us, the group had been asked if a video discussing the history of the brewery could be shown in English. We were informed, and were somewhat embarrassed, but had little option.

About halfway through the film, the group got restless. We heard some mutterings about "English" and "Americans" and were somewhat more embarrassed. But, we started chatting with some folks at our table and things improved. It turns out that they were a group from a local Phizer office. One guy asked how we knew to come to Bosteels. We simply explained that we were really into the beer, and could only get it occasionally, and thought it proper to see the brewery while in Belgium. This seemed to garner favor with the table.

After our TK, we were taken off for a private tour. Our guide was fantastic, showing us some of the historical artifacts of the grounds, including the collection of old stagecoaches.



It was at this point that we noticed the flags over one of the buildings. When we asked what was going on, we were told "oh, we always hang the flag of our guests." How amazingly classy.


Obviously, the wind got a hold of them all, but that was a very nice gesture.

I didn't have my camera during the tour of the working part of the brewery, and I'm not sure I could have taken pictures anyway (trade secrets and all) but it was a really cool operation. Since it was private, we got a great chance to ask questions specific to the operation, as well as about brewing in general. We saw everything from the mash tuns to the label machine (and a stack of labels destined for the US, by coincidence).

A personal favorite of mine was a piece of stained glass over the mash tuns. I wish I had a photo of it. I believe it said this: Er zijn meer oude dronkaards dan oude dokters, but I know it translated to: "There are more old drunks than old doctors."

We all had a laugh about this.

Remember how I mentioned that people started to warm up to us? We're heading back in for another beer, and some folks from our table are leaving. A nice woman told us that she had left a business card on our bags upstairs, and that one of us should connect with her on Facebook. She invited us to stay with her the next time we were in Belgium. Amazing.

The whole of the staff was fantastic. While we were having our third beer (a lovely DueS), we bought some glasses. There were expressions of shock and delight that we had learned how to say please and thank you in Flemish. We were very glad to have made a good impression.

In summary, if you ever find yourself in the Brussels (or anywhere in Belgium, really - it's not a huge country) and you like beer, take the time to go to Bosteels. The people are really top notch, and so is the beer. It was a great experience, and I wanted to make note of it separately from the Brussels post.

Parting shots - a church on the main drag in town, and the sun going down as our train pulled into the station.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Brussels

Brussels! How fun is that.

We had a very uneventful and short (really, being used to flights to Oz, this was nothing) flight and landed on a Wednesday morning. The weather was mildly Belgian, with showers and clouds, but we managed to stay dry all the way to our B&B (I'd recommend). We had to get the key from the bakery across the street, but once we hashed out the language issue, it worked out really well.


For some reason, Shannon and I both had a lot of trouble with jet lag on this trip. We were still somewhat messed up by the time we were heading home. I've done similar Europe trips in the past, with no issues, but something was different with this one. So, our day was spent dodging showers by having beer and coffee between sights in the center of Brussels.

Unlike the last time I was in Brussels, this time, we did manage to locate the Mannequin Pis. I had been told it was a small statue, but I was still fairly surprised.



Two highly enjoyable stops for me were a random working class bar near our B&B where we had a few with the locals, and the stop at Le Bier Circus, where they have a pretty fantastic beer list. It didn't hurt that it was coincidentally located near our B&B.

After a shockingly early night to bed, we awoke to a much nicer day. But, before we could get out, we had breakfast. It had been an option at this place, but since it was two euro/person/day, we opted in, for even if it was just coffee and toast, it was a cheap start to the day. It turned out to be a fantastic spread. We never finished everything on the table. It was a tremendous value.

In keeping with the beer theme of the trip, we opted to take a self guided, mostly back alley, walking tour from town center to Cantillion brewery. The tour had nothing to do with beer, but had a few really interesting stops and tidbits. And since the weather was sunny, albeit cold, it was quite enjoyable.


The brewery tour itself was interesting. Cantillion is the only brewery still operating in Brussels proper, and all they make are Lambic, Kriek, and Gueuze. It's a self guided tour, which was somewhat peculiar, since it's an operating brewery and all, but it was cool to just get to mill around. You can tell that it's still a pretty small batch operation.



After the tour, while we were enjoying our tastings, we chatted with a Canadian who was on some stupid-long holiday from school. He gave us some good info for Brugge, and a little insight into the language in Brussels. He spoke French as well as English, but said that a lot of times when he would speak French, he would be answered in English. I guess he was trained in more classical French, like Parisian, because he said that the French in Brussels was "shit, just like the Quebecois." While I found this hilarious, I also started to notice a difference, especially when we were in Brugge. You could totally hear who was French and who was Belgian.

Post tour, we needed food, as well as beer, so we hit up the recommended Moeder Lambic. We found an outstanding beer list, good food, and friendly, funny, knowledgeable bar staff. Here is where we had our two top beers of the trip. The complete list will be posted soon.

Since it was still sunny, we thought we'd try to locate the EU complex that afternoon. It turns out, we failed miserably, but we did manage to find our way into Jubelpark, which was lovely.

Looked like a nice place to go for an after work run, as well as being home to the auto museum. We heard good things, but opted to give it a pass, instead taking in more architecture.


Scenes from the market at night.



Shannon at the geographical center of Brussels.


Friday turned into another lovely day, and we were determined to find the EU. This was the one day that we had any defined plans - a booked tour at the Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout.

We still wanted to see the EU facilities, so we tried again to find them. We had planned to take a tram, but learned after somehow walking all the way there (which wasn't nearly as far as we thought) that the tram in question was actually a bus. We sort of failed at above ground transit. But, we had a lovely walk through lived in neighborhoods, through some parks, and ultimately to the EU.



One thing that did surprise us was the segment from the Berlin wall that was next to one of the EU buildings. This was totally unexpected, and made the trip down even more worthwhile.


From Luxembourg Square, looking back to the EU, where there were two more segments of the wall.




We had just a bit of time before needing to leave town for our tour, and after a quick stop at the Royal Palace when it wasn't raining...


we went out to the Atomium, which was built for the first Worlds Fair after WWII (1958). The recommendation from one of my colleagues was to go to, but not up, which seemed like good advice. It was a pretty cool structure though and worth the tram ride out.



Plus, we got to walk through the lovely Parc de Laeken while eating marvelous frites, all the way over to the actual residence of the king and queen. You really can't see much, and they certainly don't let you get close. We did see this monument though, which I documented poorly, and can't find the name of on the internet.


Next stop, Buggenhout.