In a year that’s been filled with short trips, last week was kind of the big one for us: a week in Brussels and Amsterdam. We’d never seen either city, and were in the mood for a relatively simple and very relaxing trip to beervana. This fit the bill pretty well.
First order of business: getting there. Unlike a few years ago when we prepped for our trip to France by adjusting our body clocks a week in advance, this time we — now veterans of a more epic journey to Australia — just jumped on the plane and went. We actually broke up the flight somewhat by hopping from the island airport to Montreal, where Air Canada originates direct flights to Brussels. We marveled at the expense management system of the couple sitting next to us and scarfed down greasy food — smoked meat sandwich for me, poutine for Nellie; it was Montreal, after all — since we didn’t trust we’d get decent food on the flight. (Note: we trusted correctly.)
I wasn’t able to sleep for more than half an hour or so, but with a couple of movies and magazines the 7-hour flight whizzed by. Getting out of the Brussels airport was a chore — we seem to have a knack for getting into terrible lines — and we somehow got hosed when taking a cab to Brussels Midi train station…not sure if it costs more when getting a cab from the airport, or whether the cabbie had messed with his meter. Anyway, there was nothing to be done; we had a coffee to stay awake and waited for our Thalys train to Amsterdam. Our fare included free wifi (which was helpful) and free lunch (which was horrible) and got us to Amsterdam Centraal in under two hours, so our journey was finally done. A quick stroll from the train station and we were at our Amsterdam digs, a very cool old canal house called Mauro Mansion (tripadvisor).
We knew we had to stay awake, so we dropped our stuff, brushed our teeth and headed back out. We walked down the Geldersekade canal to the Nieuwmarkt, getting a contact high just by dint of being outside in that part of Amsterdam, stopping for a beer (Me: Barbar Honingbier | Nellie: Hopus Blond) and some much-needed grub at De Beerkerde Suster. It was when we looked at the menu that we realized we didn’t understand a damned word of Dutch. So we ordered something random, which turned out to be croquettes of some kind and pretty tasty. It also turned out that every single person we encountered in Amsterdam spoke English, which made things easy…though I did feel like an inconsiderate tourist.
We began exploring more of the city, walking through the infamous Red Light District. Just…so tacky. Also, the whole area was full of drunken yobs and sleazy dudes, so we didn’t exactly linger, though we did see plenty of classic Amsterdam architecture.
We got back up to Centraal and considered taking a canal cruise, but they all looked cheesy. We decided to keep wandering around, checking out the city, and maybe have another drink instead. We walked down the very crowded Damrak, and the even more crowded (like, somewhere between Bourbon Street and downtown Halifax on a weekend) Nieuwendijk to In De Wildeman, but it was closed. We walked a little further to Café Belgique instead where we sat at the bar and drank more semi-unfamiliar beers (Dan: Blanche de Bruxelles, Kwak, Brouwerij ‘t IJ wit | Nellie: Chouffe du Soleil, La Chouffre, Karmaliet Tripel) and listened to French pop like Francoise Cactus.
At this point, even though it was still light out, we were beginning to fade. We walked back toward our hotel, through the red light district, stopping for some snacks (note to self: one can probably become very wealthy selling snack food in the touristy section of Amsterdam) and finally, after ~32 hours with little/no sleep, crashed on our still-made bed. Fully clothed, lights still on, curtains still open, stuff strewn everywhere…just crashed.
Twelve hours (!) later we stirred from our slumber, but only because we were cooking in the sun streaming through our ginormous window. Our hosts Marcel & Berry had prepared a fantastic breakfast downstairs, a serious upgrade on the traditional Euro breakfast fare of meats, cheeses, and coffee, adding fresh bread and a special treat each day — today’s was chocolate-filled crêpes. This breakfast plays a not insignificant part in their #1 rating on Tripadvisor. Anyhoo, their free wifi helped us plan our day out seeing the city through non-sleep-deprived eyes.
We had two objectives for the day: go to the Museum District, and take a canal tour. We walked to Centraal to catch a tram to the museums, but noticed a sign for a canal tour that stopped at all the major museums in the city. Two birds! One stone! Better yet, when buying the ferry tickets we could pre-buy our tickets to the Van Gogh museum, which we did. We tried to buy tickets for the Anne Frank House as well, but the pre-sale tickets for the following day were already gone.
We hopped on our tour boat, wishing we’d brought sweaters with us, and got underway. We looped out into the North Sea Canal before entering the Prinsengracht. We began noticing how all the houses have pulleys at the top of the their peaked roofs (staircases are too narrow to carry large objects to the top floor, I guess) and figuring out that you can get pretty much anywhere in the city’s core via a canal. We stopped at the Anne Frank House, and saw the lines we’d later have to contend with, in the shadow of the Westerkerke (literally, the western church).
We continued down the Prinsengracht, ducking under bridges and brushing through willow trees, before turning into an outer canal which went past the Hard Rock Cafe (note to Amsterdam visitors: if you’re drinking Corona at the Hard Rock Cafe, you’re doing it wrong) and eventually jumped off near the Rijksmuseum. Turns out that stop is also near where you go for the Heineken brewery tour, so as we disembarked our tour captain told us ” don’t get drunk on Heineken”. Not an issue for us.
We actually skipped the Rijksmuseum entirely and went straight to the Van Gogh museum, feeling pretty smart about buying our tickets in advance as we were able to skip a line about 100 people deep. It was a great museum: attractive modern building, a nicely varied collection, informative about Van Gogh, not so long that you go numb but not so short you feel ripped off. All in all, a very worthwhile stop.
We walked back toward the Jordaan neighbourhood to find De Zotte, another beer place on our list, but alas it was closed. Nearby wine bar Vyne was also closed, so we figured we’d better just stop in whatever place we could see serving food. As it turned out, we did pretty well at this place called Mokka: a chicken sandwich for me and pizza bruschetta for Nellie, all prepared fresh and in-house. Afterward we had coffee and fresh apple pie (it was my birthday, after all) on the patio and absorbed the warmth.
We walked back up the Prinsengracht to the Anne Frank House to see if the line had gotten any shorter; it hadn’t. We jumped back on our canal tour boat and decided to let it loop us back around the city. We continued along the canal, turning into the Amstel river, emptying into the North Sea canal once again and returning to Centraal. It really was a great way to see Amsterdam, and amazing to see how much of Amsterdam lives on the canals themselves. The only place they seem to spend more time is on their bikes. Seriously, North Americans just can’t conceive of a place this bike-centric until they’ve learned to look both ways when crossing a bike path.
We weren’t done yet though. We walked down the Singel, past the Poezenboot, to t’Arendsnest, the top-rated beer place in Amsterdam. It’s unique in that it serves only Dutch beer, not Belgian beer which dominates in the region. After inspecting the list and realizing all the beers we’d assumed were Belgian but weren’t, and trying half a dozen we’d never even heard of before (Dan: Texels Skuumkoppe, Venloosch Alt; Jopen extra stout | Nellie: Snab pale ale, Hop Met de Gijt, Texels tripel) it occurred to us that we might like Dutch beer better than Belgian beer. Also, it was here that we figured out bars in Amsterdam (and Brussels, as we’d learn) don’t really carry food, beyond some cheese and some sausage, and maybe some nuts or bread.
After leaving t’Arendsnest we decided to re-try In De Wildeman, the second-highest-rated beer place in the city, which had been closed the day before. This time it was open and we took a little table inside. It was far more rustic than t’Arendsnest (which was very clean and quiet and was bartended by people in crisp shirts and little vests) but was a ton of fun. We had fantastic beers (Dan: Maisels Weisse, Jandrain IV Saison, De Molen Mout & Mocca, Emelisse Imperial Russian Stout | Nellie: Witte Klavervier Blond Hoppenbier, Cristoffel Weiss, In De Wildeman Farmhouse, Duvel triple-hopped), watched the barman (who was awesome) shush loud Americans and Dutchies by yelling “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!“, ate Trappist cheese and raw beef sausage (okay, the sausage was mostly me) and talked for an hour with a former Iowa state senator (seriously, we confirmed it) who seems to be crazy now. Or least decidedly eccentric. He’s starting a new science magazine. We have some of his writing. It’s FAN FUCKING TASTIC, no joke.
It should also be noted that beer in Amsterdam is frigging cheap. Granted, we were drinking 250ml glasses most of the time, but it was ~3€ for a glass that would cost us $9 in Canada. Anyway, Nellie’s refusal to eat raw cow meant she was hungry, so she did the very typical touristy Amsterdam thing of getting takeaway fries piled in a cone and doused with mayo. It was pretty tasty, I have to say. We walked home through the red light district, which was in full swing now now that we were seeing it at night, and felt sorry for the sleepy-looking prostitutes sitting in the windows of the house on our quiet deserted little street.
Quite a birthday.
During breakfast (delicious, again) it began to rain, so we hung out in our room and waited for it to pass. I watched the Olympics; Nellie made a mimosa from the room’s minibar. Eventually we couldn’t wait anymore and headed out. The Voorburgwal had a different feel on a wet Tuesday morning, but the cheesy men in their frayed suits still stood outside their sex clubs, looking to entice in the stoned tourists. We didn’t mind; the rain made it less crowded. We did a little shopping, then stopped at a place called Lust. Now, before you jump to any conclusions about what we were doing in an establishment in Amsterdam with that name, it was just a café. Quite a good one though. We managed to get a seat outside, which was nice. But there were girls next to us smoking Camels and Lucky Strikes, so that wasn’t nice. But there was a puppy on the other side of us, so that put things back in the nice category. Our food was good, even if it was preceded by our server dropping joppiesaus on the sidewalk which then flew up and all over our table (and, to some degree, us). No matter; she made up for it by re-filling Nellie’s wine gratis.
We did a wee bit more shopping, and then checked into the final top-tier beer joint in Amsterdam: BeerTemple. As good as In De Wildeman and t’Arendsnest had been the day before, this place was our favourite. It’s meant to be an American beer bar, but we stuck to the tap list and had lots of great Dutch and Belgian and Danish (who knew?) beers. We just had so much fun at this place. I sang along to Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, and the Danish guy at the next table over sang with me. We watched Canada in the finals of the women’s Olympic gymnastics with a group of Americans. We traded suggestions with a group of Brits on a beer holiday like we were, but in reverse order. We got along great with our bartender, who actually knew about Bar Volo, our favourite Toronto beer place. We had great beer (Dan: Hertog Jan weizener, Mikkeller Jackie Brown, Mikkeller Barbie coffee stout, Kujo Coffee stout, Jopen Holy Smoke | Nellie: Templebier Dutch IPA, Flying Dog Raging Bitch IPA, Mikkeller Nineteen IPA, Mikkeller Not Another Wit, Mikkeller Funky Easter | Shared: Westvleteren 12), obviously. We even split a bottle of Westvleteren 12, rated the best beer in the world. Pricey, but it was worth it. We stayed there later than we’d planned, but the idea was to get to the Anne Frank House late anyway in order to avoid the lines. Besides, we’d loved it so.
Our plan nearly backfired on us though; even at 9PM the Anne Frank House lines are not to be reckoned with. We got in around 9:05, with the guide warning us that we’d have less than an hour. We figured that would be enough.
So I, like every other kid in Canada who went through junior high, read The Diary of Anne Frank. I know the story and I know what ultimately happened to Anne Frank, so I thought this experience would move me the way Vimy, or Juno Beach, or the 9/11 Memorial moved me. I was wrong. It was much, much tougher. I got increasingly emotional as we moved from room to room. It was little, personal things: the marks on the wall where Edith marked the height of her growing daughters, just like my mother did on her door frame; the pictures Anne had used to try to liven up their cramped bedroom. But what finally broke me was walking down the hallway outside the bathroom; looking out that hallway window, you could see the the Westerkerk…this towering symbol of human accomplishment and religious sanctuary and artistic beauty, right outside their window, and they probably never saw it. They would have had to keep their blinds closed the entire time for fear of being seen. For whatever reason, the idea that they couldn’t see the Westerkerk, but that they knew it was right outside, just tore me up. I walked into the next room, turned to face the wall so my back was to the crowds of people all around me, and cried. I haven’t cried since I was twelve and my kitten died, so it felt pretty weird. I forgot that you kind of can’t stop once you start. I pulled it together long enough to finish the tour, and broke down again once we got outside. It was weird. But, not really, I guess. We walked home through some increasingly heavy rain, stopping at the very pretty Homomonument and the beautifully-lit Dam Square.
We couldn’t find any place that would serve us food that late, so we chugged one last beer and walked home. Thank goodness for our hotel’s honor bar. We were to leave Amsterdam the next morning, so we packed and began to think about Brussels.
After having the last of our fantastic Mauro Mansion breakfasts we walked to Centraal to catch our train back to Brussels. Apart from seeing what I’m pretty sure was some kind of newly-purchased-former-Eastern-Bloc-bride situation, it was an uneventful ride. We took a (much more reasonable) cab ride to our hotel, the Hotel Café Pacific (tripadvisor) near the Bourse. This was not the #1-rated hotel in Brussels, but it had a very solid rating, and was close to the action, and looked cool, and I got a killer rate. Anyway, it was good, but I could only recommend it to a few people…you’d have to consider “stark” a plus in terms of design, and be very comfortable in close proximity to your travel companion’s bathroom activities. ‘Nuff said.
So anyway, we were starving. We went around the corner to Place Sainte-Catherine where there are loads of restaurants, and had a proper Belgian lunch: moules et frites for Nellie, a big pile of duck for me. I found it hard to switch back to French here; I’d become so accustomed to a) not knowing the language and b) everyone speaking English that it was a struggle to remember that I spoke the language here. After lunch we decided to visit the top-rated beer place in Brussels: Moeder Lambic, just a few blocks from the hotel. We sat on the terrasse, drank a few (Dan: Jandrain IV Saison, Geuze Tilquin, Mont Saleve Bitter Sorachi Ace | Nellie: De Ranke Guldenberg, Brasserie de la Senne Band of Brothers S01E01, Thiriez Etoile du Nord) and noticed that most people would come to the patio, sit by themselves, have a beer, and just read. The bars here were much like cafés anywhere else — indeed, we saw people come to this world-class beer bar and order only tea and coffee — and it was nice to see. Also, this was where I had my first geuze, a very Belgian-style beer…very sour, but somehow tasty. Also also, notice the name of Nellie’s second beer: someone had named the beer after the bittorrented file of episode one of Band of Brothers. Bizarre et awesome.
We got back to the hotel, got cleaned up, went for a little walkabout and then hit a little place across the street called Bonsoir Clara for dinner. It had been a while since we’d had a proper dinner, so we were ready to go. I had scallops and lamb; Nellie had an enormous salad and an enormous pasta dish. We split a fantastic bottle of Pinot from the Cote de Beaune, and moelleux de chocolate for dessert, followed by coffee. That hit the spot. It took the servers a little while to warm up to us, but that always happens. By the end we were full and they were happy, and we were ready to fall asleep any minute. Luckily we could throw a frisbee from the restaurant to our hotel, so fall asleep any minute we did.
It turns out that Brussels’ main historic area is really small. As in, you can walk across it in fifteen minutes. So we knocked out all kinds of sightseeing in the first few hours: Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste-au-Béguinage, Jeanneke Pis, Rue des Bouchers, the gorgeous Grand Place, the giant mob around Manneken Pis, Church of Notre Dame de la Chappelle, trendy Place du Grand Sablon, Place Royale, the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, and the Magritte Museum (during which it started to rain). That was about 90% of our to-do list not involving beer, so it was then that we realized that we did not need three full days in Brussels.
We went slightly off-target for lunch: an Italian place called Toscana 21. No faux Italian place this; my squid-ink pasta came wrapped in paper, and our servers were straight outta Tuscany. Our server was also very interested to find out that we were Canadian; he’d been camping in Alberta and BC with his family in recent years and wanted to know more about the east coast for his next visit.
Happily the rain stopped while we at our lunch, so we enjoyed the sunshine as we walked back to the Place du Grand Sablon and raided Pierre Marcolini. Then we made that sunshine our bitch down the hill at Poechenellekelder, where we sat on the patio and drank awesome beer (Dan: Geuze Girardin 1882, Caracole Nostradamus | Nellie: Brussels Calling blond bitter, Goliath tripel) and watched the throngs of tourists take ridiculous pictures of Manneken Pis. Note: don’t go to Poechenellekelder if you fear giant puppets. They’re everywhere in the place. Fair warning.
We decided to have a couple more at the Delirium Cafe before it got too late. Apparently it turns into drunk kid alley after dark, so we ducked in and headed down to the basement where they had a real bottle list. We had some very good beer (Dan: Ellezelloise Hercule stout, De Struise Black Albert Imperial Stout | Nellie: Urthel Siasonniere, Witkap-Pater Tripel) but also some mishaps: I spilled half of my first beer all over Nellie, and my second was a 13% stout which turned her stomach just by smelling it. Yeah. So my stouts killed my wife. Also, by this time we were falling prey to the Belgian beer curse: we hadn’t had many, but they were a) preceded by a bottle of Chianti at lunch, and b) all incredibly strong. We didn’t want another big dinner, so we just grabbed a delicious Ellis Burger and scooted home.
Since we’d all but done Brussels proper the day before, we bent to peer pressure on Friday and bought train tickets to Brugge (aka Bruges). It’s only about an hour away, though that hour feels significantly longer when you’re sitting next to a family of yelling children and tuned-out parents. Grr. But Bruges: it’s pretty, sure, and looks reasonably medieval (until you walk past the H&M and such), but it’s just so enthusiastically touristy…horse-drawn carriage rides, tacky restaurants, and so on. We saw the canals and the market and the burg and the quiet cloisters behind the cathedrals, but it was all a little too much.
We escaped to the quiet little terrasse in back of Café Rose Red (named after a Stephen King miniseries?) and had a bite of cheese and sausage and a couple of pints (Dan: La Trappe bockbier | Nellie: De Struise Rosse) although Nellie’s had a twist: she ordered the wit, and the bottle that arrived was a wit bottle, but it was actually a rosse (amber) that had been mislabeled. Fun!
We tried to hit another beer place, the top-rated Brugs Beertje, but it wasn’t open. We figured that was a signal that we were done with Bruges, and we walked back to the train station. We welcomed ourselves back to Brussels with another drink at Moeder Lambic (Dan: Mont Saleve Bitter Sorachi Ace | Nellie: Thiriez Etoile du Nord) and dinner around the corner from our hotel at a place called Publico. It wasn’t anything spectacular — we’d made a point of keeping meals simple on this trip — but it had a nice mix of decent food, cool atmosphere, good service and proximity to our hotel (important; it was raining). Our server was funny: if we needed anything we just had to yell “Costa!” and he’d arrive. The biggest problem was that they sat us upstairs, where it was hotter than an Olympian’s armpit. I sweated out half my dinner. Thankfully our hotel room was cool with the windows open so we could sleep, though drunken idiots did wake us up at 2:30. Turns out drunk idiots in Brussels are just as annoying in the middle of the night as drunk idiots anywhere.
Our last day of vacation. Sad, usually, but you know when you reach that point where you’re ready to go home? That’s where we were. But we’d screwed up the tail end of some vacations by turning that feeling into a day of doing nothing, and we were determined not to do it this time, so we came up with a minor plan. The objective was not to do nothing, but also not to do too much…to make it a relaxing day, not a busy-tourist day. We walked up to the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, and took a stroll around Brussels Park, and admired the view from Place Royale, and explored the Grand Sablon neighbourhood a little.
We had lunch at Brussels institution La Fleur En Papier Doré: I had sausage and giant pile of spinach stoemp, while Nellie had onion soup, and a couple of beers (Dan: Orval | Nellie: Hoegaarden Rosé) to wash it all down, and it felt like a proper Belgian lunch. We walked back across town and had a drink (Dan: Duvel | Nellie: Karmaliet Tripel) sitting under the trees in Place Sainte-Catherine. We stopped in at a Pain Quotidien for lemon and caramel tarts and coffees. Really, we couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to end our time in Brussels than yet another traditional beer place, so we popped over to Aux Bon Vieux Temps. It was, quite frankly, claustrophobic. So we left and walked over to A La More Subite instead. This place was gigantic by comparison, and quite busy. The house specialties were lambic and geuze; I had one of each (the geuze was room temperature and incredibly sour) while Nellie had an Alken-Maes Judas. It was then, just then, that we realized we were all beer’ed out.
It was time to go. We scarfed some food and packed and watched our last night of Olympics-in-another-language and prepared for the journey home.
Taxi, flight, flight, ferry, taxi, home. I can barely remember the trip (apart from being yelled at by some power-trippy baggage security employee in Montreal…”Sir, look at me…look at me!!“) which means it was an easy one, which means mission accomplished.
Like I said back at the beginning of this epic tale, what we wanted out of this trip was relaxation…and maybe a tiny bit of enlightenment. I mean, we were going to beer heaven, and chocolate heaven, and moules-frites heaven, right? I don’t know if beerchocolatemoulesfrites heaven was really achievable, but we did have some pretty memorable travel experiences. Like finally trying Geuze and Lambics. And meeting John the crazy ex-politician scientist. And having a full on melt-down at the Anne Frank House. And drinking a Westvleteren 12. And giving advice about the Cabot Trail to an Italian waiter in Brussels. And watching hordes of people flock to see a little boy statue pee. And seeing three Unesco World Heritage sites. And trying dozens of new and amazing beers on the way to discovering that we may actually like Dutch brews better than Belgian. So, with all that, I think we were successful.
Unfortunately I fell ill with the flu right after returning home (that happens a lot; I blame the plane) and we can still scarcely get a solid hour’s sleep without one cat or the other waking us up to remind us that they love us and please could they fill their food dishes again. But it’s a pretty small price to pay for beervana.