Sunday, January 31, 2010

On a mission...from God

So, ha ha! Funny story... Last week we decided to re-visit Brugge for the weekend, since it was possibly our number one favorite place we traveled to when we were living in London. (If you've been there, you know. It's heaven.) On Friday, I booked our hotel online.

Well, for whatever reason, I was compelled to open our confirmation email on Friday evening and was all "Huh. Why does this say January 30? That's weird. Because tomorrow is the 23rd. Right? Oh shit."

Honey, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Well, the good news is that I've already got our excursion for next weekend booked! Yes yes, I'm quite the planner, I know! The bad news is that we currently have absolutely nothing planned for tomorrow and Sunday. Yes yes, I'm an idiot, I know.

But, not being one to concede defeat so easily, I scramble to throw something together. And I think I did pretty well considering I planned this entire thing in about an hour and a half. (With no small amount of help from these guys.) Because I am The Greatest Wife in the World, I planned a tour of Trappist ale producing monasteries.

A little background... I think it's been well established on here that the Belgians take their beer very seriously. But none, I believe, more seriously than the Trappist monks. There are only five remaining Trappist breweries in Belgium and three of them are concentrated in the south of the country - Chimay, Rochefort and Orval.

The last of which is where our journey begins. About two hours south of Brussels, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the French border, is Orval. The countryside around here is breathtaking.

As is the situation with some of the other monasteries, Orval doesn't permit visitors into the area where the monks live and worship or into the brewery area. But you can walk around the medieval ruins (dated 1100's-ish) that sit next to the newer facilities.

There's a great little legend about this spring well. The Countess Mathilde de Toscane visited Orval on a hunting party after her husband died. As she was sitting next to the well, her ring fell off her finger and into the water. She went to pray at the nearby chapel and then returned to the well. All the sudden a fish jumped out of the water with the ring in its mouth and the Countess said "This truly is a val d'or (golden valley)!"

It's one of the most peaceful places you can imagine. It's almost completely silent, except for the occasional bells calling the monks to prayer.

It's hard to imagine it was once a massive cathedral...

Since you aren't able to taste the beers at the monasteries, most all have affiliated cafes which they recommend for sampling. So sample, we did. Orval also makes a delicious cheese which we had as well.

The fish logo obviously comes from the legend of the well.

Next on our list was Rochefort. We got incredibly lucky here. Just as we were walking up into the courtyard (in the photo below), one of the monks came out and asked if he could help. We told him we hoped to just have a look around if possible and he told us that he had a group tour arriving in just a few minutes and it was in French but we were welcome to join. Typically, we're not ones for group tours. But when it gains you access to otherwise off limit areas, well sign us up.

And little did we know, but we were in for a very special treat indeed. After the tour of the abbey, he walked the group back outdoors and led us into a cluster of buildings to the side. Then he comes over and says to us, "Now, we visit the brewery if you like?" After Jason regained use of speech, he assured the monk that yes, we like very much.

I don't know why, but there's just something charming about a cross hanging in the room with all the copper brewing tanks. Maybe it's because I was raised in a southern baptist church where BEER = DEVIL JUICE HISS HISS! (We didn't even use wine for communion. Welch's grape juice. Dead serious.)

I felt like Laverne and Shirley in the bottling area. Jason asked me if I was dying to put one of my gloves on one of the bottlenecks. He knows me so well.

After leaving the abbey, we went into the town to find a pub where we could sample the product. In this photo, I captured pretty much everything there is to see in the actual town of Rochefort. Its essence, if you will. The town hall, a WWI monument (the Belgian countryside is, after all, essentially the Western Front) and a Belgian flag. I think the flag gives it that little something extra, don't you think?

The Rochefort brewery, unfortunately, does not have a designated cafe in which to try their beers. So we were on our own for this one. We, um, how do you say...chose poorly. Very very poorly. It was not a nice place. There were drunk, belligerent locals yelling at one another and I was a little bit afraid. I had to pee so bad but wouldn't walk to the restroom by myself. I insisted on sitting by the front door and refused to remove my coat and scarf in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat. This is my "This wasn't our best idea, was it?" face:

Fortunately, we made it out alive and headed to Dinant where we had booked ourselves into a bed and breakfast. It was dark and beginning to rain by the time we got there so we just hunkered down for the evening.

On Sunday morning, we set out to explore Dinant a bit before heading to our final stop on this portion of La Tour de Trappiste: Just Like La Tour de France, Except With Beer and Monks. I think it's safe to say Dinant has a pretty dramatic setting, no?

We took a cable car up to the citadel which overlooks the town and surrounding countryside.

Dinant kind of sits in a valley with massive walls of rock on either side. This bizzare formation is called the Bayard Rock. There's some crazy legend about it being split by the hoof of the giant Bayard horse as it jumped over the Meuse river and landed here. But the more widely-accepted version of events says it was separated with an explosion to provide passage for the troops of Louis XIV after they had taken Dinant. So, not so much a giant horse as it was a bunch of invading Frenchmen playing with firecrackers.

And now we get the pleasure of driving through it! (I'm very easy to entertain.)

And finally, the last stop on this leg of the 2010 Drinkin' for Jesus Tour...Chimay. At the risk of sounding cliche and a bit over the top, the monastery was magical. Right as we pulled up it began to snow. Outside in the courtyard, it was so still you could hear a pin drop.

It was like a Robert Frost poem come to life...

And then of course we headed to the restaurant recommended to us by the monk at the abbey.

And brought ourselves home some beer and cheese. Nomnomnom.

Jason likes to pretend that the black leather gloves I bought him are driving gloves. Go Speed Racer, go!

And for our last trick, we popped by Mons to see a house that Vincent Van Gogh lived in for a while. His time here was not terribly happy. Maybe because the house sits in a swamp and was basically sinking into the ground? Seriously, you can't tell so much from this angle but this thing is leaning like the Tower of Pisa. It would probably be a pile of rubble by now had it not been for the efforts of some very enthusiastic restoration experts.

Two more Trappist breweries to check of the list in the coming weeks... Stick around for the exciting conclusion of the Lord, I Give My Liver to Thee show!

Friday, January 29, 2010

While the gettin' is good

For reasons known only to them, my Hurricanes are enjoying a bit of success as of late. They've won their last three games by margins of four and three goals. And hey, whaddaya know...winning is kind of fun. I had pretty much forgotten what it felt like.

I'm still very certain there's no chance whatsoever we'll make the playoffs. But I'm liking our current role of The Spoilers. You know what they say... "If you can't make the playoffs, just beat your biggest rivals out of their own playoff spot." (Or something like that.)

Though their offensive game has been stepped up significantly as of late - and certainly that's a major contributor since you sure as shit can't win a hockey game without putting a puck or two in the net - one of the biggest factors is that Cam Ward has allowed only one goal in each of the past three games. And it appears as though he may be getting some assistance from The Force:

Whatever it is, be it Jedi mind tricks or pure skillz, I'll take it.

I figured I'd better get this posted before Saturday's game when we go up against the Blackhawks who are currently second in the league. We are currently second to last in the league. I guess crazier things have happened but let's just say I'm enjoying this current three game winning streak to the fullest - while it lasts.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Meals on wheels

This is probably better suited to a Facebook status update but what the hell. Let's get crazy.

The mobile escargots/oyster stand on Boulevard Anspach does not sit well with me. And not just because of the super-awesome smell it creates around Place de la Bourse. Maybe it's just me, but I feel as though some things should only be served in a proper restaurant (under very strict health code regulations). Escargots and oysters are two such things.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The risques et perils of Luxembourg

Something like a week and a half ago, we jumped in the Audi and headed to Luxembourg. Nothing like ticking a new country on the "traveled to" list to make one feel extra cultured. Never mind the fact that it's only about 2 hours away and roughly the size of Rhode Island. We crossed a border. That's culture, people.

We arrived Friday evening at the Sofitel Grand Ducal and without even trying, somehow got ourselves upgraded to a room with a view. Of course, since it was dark out, there wasn't much of an immediate benefit but imagine our delight when we woke up the next morning to this:

While a very lovely view, indeed, you may notice that half of the city sits in sort of a valley. Sofitel Grand Ducal = up high. Old town = down low. New town = up high. Which left us no choice but to navigate the Path of Icy Death. As Jason soon found out...they were not kidding around with this sign, which reads: NOT SALTED // ACCESS AT YOUR OWN RISK.

A nice halfway point on the Path of Icy Death...

...and a perfect spot for our gratuitous self portrait.

To illustrate how high up the Path of Icy Death is, I took this photo from the bottom. That wall and turret at the top there is where we took the two above pics. And let's not forget, that's the halfway point.

The city was so beautiful in the leftover snow. I didn't even mind the perpetually grey skies. Even nicer was the fact that, despite the gorgeousness you see here, Luxembourg is more of a business city...and virtually empty on the weekends, especially this time of year. We were two of the very few people out and about. It was sort of like a smaller version of Prague, without all the tourists. In other words, heaven!

After exploring the old town (down low), we started making the ascent up the other side to get to the new town (up high). Luckily, it was much more gradual and did not involve another Path of Icy Death. In fact, you don't really even notice you're doing it. And since the journey takes you around all sides of the hill, there's tons of places to stop and just take in the views. And so...we did.

Finally, we reach the new town. Of course, when I say "new", what I mean is some buildings have dates in the 1600's on them. (Considering the old town dates back to the Romans, I'll let it slide.)

This is two door handles on an entrance to a cathedral. I just thought it was kind of funny how the one on the right is all shiny because that's the one most everybody uses.

Clairefontaine Square, centered by the Grand Duchess of Charlotte Memorial.

And we break from the walking tour to fortify ourselves with a delicious hot chocolate. But not any ordinary hot chocolate... Here, you choose a flavor and they bring you a steaming cup of milk and a wooden spoon with a block of chocolate on it and you stir it in till it melts! How clever! They had a HUGE list of flavors and even different levels of cocoa concentration, ranging from milk chocolate to the very darkest chocolate and everything in between. I think I got some sort of hazelnut and almond concoction.

And just in case you don't understand just how this whole crazy thing works, they give you a very handy diagram attached to your spoon wrapper.

After we're warmed back up, we continue the tour for a couple more stops. First for a view of the Adolphe Bridge (or New Bridge as locals call it) that runs over the Petrusse Valley. When it was built in the early 1900's, it had the largest stone arch in the world.

And the last stop of the day was to see the train station which, as you can see, has a beautiful painted ceiling and a gorgeous mosaic window that shows the outline of the city. Not your average train station.

We returned to the hotel for a warming cocktail and a nap before going out for dinner and slept right through a snow shower! Everything was even prettier with a fresh dusting.

Side note - we turned on the tv for some background noise while we napped and I was reminded just how universal Friends is. We watched it in either Dutch or French...can't recall which now...and were able to follow along perfectly. We laughed at all the right times because we've seen the episodes about a hundred times each by now and I really could recite most of them in my sleep I think. No matter where you are in the world, there's always Friends.

Sunday morning, we made our way back down the Path of Icy Death (but via a different route; a route with less risque du morte; a route with stairs; versus a human luge with hairpin turns) for a walk through the Petrusse Valley.

The valley was part of the city's defense system and was set up so that it could be flooded in case of an enemy attack. The Passerelle viaduct was the original bridge over the valley, before the Adolphe Bridge was built. (Which is why the Adolphe is called New Bridge.) The viaduct is often just called Old Bridge. Genius!

So so pretty and peaceful in the snow...

And then of course there's this. Because I married an 8 year old.

Just as we were walking under the viaduct, we caught a bit of blue sky. It was there and then gone in the flashiest of flashes.

On our way out of Luxembourg City, we made a stop in the precious little town of Echternach.

Some eats, some strolling, a giant bronze statue of a young monk-in-training...the usual. Seriously though? Despite some rather extensive Googling, I can't find even one tidbit of information on this thing. Not one! While I was only mildly interested before, now that I can't figure it out, it's kind of killing me.

(Completely off topic here, but I love the fact that the word "Googling" passes spell check now. Ah, the world we live in. Now if I could just get it to recognize all my creative swear words, I'd be truly happy. Because I just hate it when I send an expletive-laden ranting email to someone and all those red squiggly lines show up.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

That's so top five

Last week, I was tagged by Suze to list my top five of 2009. As in, the five best things to happen to me in 2009. And since I have a rather soft spot for this particular Aussie-turned-Northern-Englander, I shall comply.

So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Being presented with yet another opportunity to live abroad. And therefore, another opportunity to travel, travel, travel. I love love love to travel. I love hotels. I love seeing new places. I love being awestruck by the beauty of an old cathedral. I love strolling narrow, unfamiliar streets. I love it all.

2. Taking advantage of being back in Europe to hang out with some of my favorite people on this side of the pond. (To clarify, I'm talking about Phuze and Le Morrisseys.) And I'm not saying that just because they both included seeing me in their top five lists. I mean it. One of the hardest parts of relocating on a temporary basis is that you make great friends (if you're fortunate...and charming, like myself) and then you have to say goodbye. Not knowing when you might see them again. It sucks. So finding out I would have the opportunity to see them again was definitely top five.

3. Glee.

4. The Hurricanes making a rather unexpected playoff run. Yes, it ended abruptly and without the desired result but with a playoff run come some great things. The tailgating, the heart stopping excitement of last second plays, the thrill of an overtime win, the general camaraderie around Raleigh... Ice hockey in May - there's nothing quite like it.

5. Reading some truly amazing and inspiring books. From a few modern classics I'd just never gotten around to until now (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 84 Charing Cross Road) to a heart-breaking yet beautiful memoir (The Invisible Wall). Every book I mention here made me cry. Sometimes because the story was so sad. Sometimes because the words were so beautiful. And I don't care if that makes me sound pretentious.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Prisoner of Belgium Diaries

Day 1 - Spent ages at the Stad de Ville applying for residency card only to be told that I cannot leave the country on the type of visas that we are getting. Husband is free as a bird. Me, not so much. (Since we didn't have regular visas upon entering the country as we only were meant to be here for three months and didn't need them, we are applying for a different type. And apparently, a pretty shitty type.) So here I am. And evidently, here I'll stay.

Day 2 - Am terrified. For my shitty visa, I must have a medical exam by a local practice. They will take my blood and xray my thorax. I don't even know where my thorax is. And I plan to steal my blood back when they're not looking. I fear this could be a disguised kidney harvesting outfit. Or potentially a sex trade middleman. Either way, I will not take off my clothes for any reason. Just let them try to pry my Marc Jacobs bag out of my cold, dead kung fu grip. I imagine they are also planning to micro-chip me like the UK did my cats. Husband tells me he doubts they are that technologically sophisticated and will probably tattoo a barcode on my forehead instead. Wonder if I can get botox at the same time since the needles will already be out and poised in the general vicinity of my worst wrinkles. (But I will cut a bitch who tries to take my vital organs.)

Day 3 - My sources on the outside have spoken with Belgian immigration specialists and tell me the situation may not be as dire as once thought. Evidently, though I am technically not supposed to leave the country, if I did technically leave the country I could not be refused re-entry at the border by law. Don't know why this is but I'll not question it. Their loose immigration procedures are not my business. Freedom may very well be mine.

Day 4 - I'm busting out. Husband will pick me up curbside in an unmarked car and head for the border. Luxembourg by nightfall.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It ain't over till it's over

So, here it is. My very last Christmas catch-up post before moving on to the present day. And quite honestly, I'm doing this more for myself than anything else. As I mentioned in the opening to this post about our trip to Dresden, I have always documented our trips and I just can't stop now. I'm OCD like that.

Fortunately for you, this post should be a lot shorter because I was not well during this trip. Remember when I said I got sick in Dublin? I swear it was the bubonic plague. Jason says head cold. (Potato, potahto.) Well, that meant I was less up for bouncing all around Dusseldorf and spent a bit more time cosying up in our very fabulous hotel. (What?! Everything reasonable was sold out! I can't help it!)

And so it begins. Another city, another market, another hot chocolate. Move on.

And for Jason - another city, another market, another gl├╝hwein. Let's roll.

We have no idea how to behave in restaurants. This is how we pass the time waiting on our food. It took us several shots to get it just right.

Right. So we're strolling around Dusseldorf and we're about to head back to the hotel for a break and Jason says "Hey, do you mind if we make one more stop before we go back? I see a pub up here on the left that I've heard about and been wanting to check out." I look up and what do I see but a Hooters. And oh my God, what do they have on the tv but a Carolina Hurricanes game.

So we stayed long enough for one beer and long enough to watch Tim Gleason come back out from having his mug sewn back together in the locker room after taking an Ovechkin slapshot to the face and score a shorthanded goal to tie the game. (FYI - in case you're at work with the sound up on your computer - that's a video link. Can you tell I've been burned by that one before?) That man is as tough as they come.

Prepping to brave the night elements by having my medicinal cocktail. That would be liquid cold medicine and hot water. Europe is not nearly as advanced as the US in the way of over-the-counter meds. All the really good stuff is liquid and foul tasting. They have no idea about liqui-caps. But, for some reason it doesn't taste quite as awful if you drink it like tea.

And because captions really aren't necessary for the stream of photos below, I'll carry on the tradition from my Dresden Christmas Market post and bring you another montage (MONTAGE!). I'll call it "Markets by Night: My lights bring all the boys to the yard. And my lights, they're better than yours. Damn right, they're better than yours. I could teach you, but I'd have to charge."

Isn't this little lady a sight? (I use "lady" loosely.) She was out there skating in what appeared to be a hotpants onesie. Santa, the old perv, wasted no time in going over to say hello.

Wood carved baby Jesus does not approve.

So, we woke up the next morning and decided we'd pretty much done the markets in Dusseldorf and made the decision to head back to Cologne to check theirs out. They were setting them up last time we were there and I'd heard they were pretty beautiful. And as we found out, also pretty crowded.

So, to escape the madness a bit, we ducked into a cosy pub. In honor of Phuze, a Christmas hat for Jason...

When I'm sick, alcohol has absolutely no appeal to me. So I was stuck with a Diet Coke.

On to the Angel Market...

And finally, the Dom Market, which has the most dramatic setting by far - tucked beside the massive cathedral.

Now, I hate to go out on this but it just didn't seem to fit anywhere else in the post... In Cologne, I stopped by a shopping center to use the loo. Imagine my surprise when I noticed the "Lady Bags" were emblazoned with a handgun motif. Why??? What message is this trying to convey? I really want to know. Do they have a serious problem with women not properly disposing of their...things?? So serious that they must threaten them with gunfire? I feel like I need to create a new tag for items like this. I'll call it: "WTF???"

Because, seriously...WTF???