Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Belgium Trip, Day 1: Antwerp

It was a steady drizzle when I finally got off the train in Antwerp. That made the walk down the hostel a bit unpleasant but I was too tired to care. Larry the Dirty Hippy™ had decided to lay his seat back in my lap all the way to Brussels so sleep had been rare and sporadic. That coupled with an exceptionally long slow-moving line at Customs, lugging my bags around the airport and then the Brussels Centraal station had left me worn out upon my arrival in Antwerp. Instead of looking for a beer, I was looking for a bed.

I was early but the hostel let me drop off my bags even though my room wasn’t ready yet. This was just before 10:00 so it was expected. The clerk told me my room would be done by noon so I headed out to find something to occupy my time for a couple hours. I didn’t want to go to the old town just yet. I wanted to rest up and do that correctly. Instead, I headed for the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) to stroll around and see if I could find some good Brueghel and such to occupy my time. And I did.

I was hungry though and after an hour and a half decided to try to find t’ Pakhuis, a brewpub a few blocks from the museum. Sleep deprivation torpedoed those plans however as I had completely forgotten my maps at the hostel and my senses were such that I could not remember the address nor get my bearing in that part of town. But it was noon now so I decided to cut bait and head back to the hostel. A two-three hour nap and I would be ready to hit the cafes in earnest.

But upon my return, the room still wasn’t ready! I gave up on the nap and not wanting to make more trips back and forth, I packed up my supplies in the backpack and headed for the old city. I was just going to have to go for as long as I could and then turn in early. Some first night in Antwerp…

As I walked around the old town, I was surprised and disappointed to see no “frietkots” like I had seen on my previous visits. Frites had been my first choice for sustenance but I did not know which of the storefront “frituurs” made the frites in the traditional way. So I passed and went to a restaurant that specialized in “doner”. Imagine a gyro without the pita and a garlic sauce on the meat. It came with a small salad and some fries (not good) so that hit the spot in absence of other foods.

I got down near the Cathedral (beautiful as ever) and found myself in view of the Paters Vaetje. It's a small pub but what it lacks in physical size, it makes up for with an impressive beer list. I sat down and ordered a “bolleke”. I thought that my first beer in Antwerp should be Antwerp’s most popular beer.

In Pennsylvania, there is a phenomenon in bars where customers just ask for “a lager” and are brought a Yuengling without hesitation. In Antwerp, you call for a “bolleke” and you are brought a goblet of De Koninck with a small 25cl pour. It is the beer I drank most when I was here 11 years ago and one that I was looking forward to having when I came back. (I have had the bottled version back in the U.S. and it was extremely disappointing. De Koninck is a beer that needs to be served quite fresh to truly shine.)

De Koninck did not disappoint. It is an amber ale that clocks in at a 5% ABV which by Belgian standards is fairly puny. It is easy to dismiss this beer at first taste because it is quite light and there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on. But if you stick with it, you’ll start to pick up a lot of subtle flavors that battle for supremacy on the tongue. One sip will give you fruitiness, the next is crisp and clean. One sip reveals breadiness and earthy qualities and the next highlights a surprising hop profile. So simple but so complex. I had wondered if my memories had been playing tricks on me but this ale was as good as ever.

As I finished my second beer, (Cuvee de Trolls, a 7% ABV blonde ale seasoned with orange peel, brewed by Dubuisson) I could already feel the waves of sleep starting to come strong over me. I had a fair walk back to the hostel so I headed back, stopping off at a grocery store to pick up some cheap beer glasses, some Timmerman’s lambic and some snacks. I finally got settled into my clean room, had some Chimay cheese and bread with the Timmerman’s and turned in. It was only 19:30. Lame. Outside of a couple highlights, a disappointing first day in Belgium.

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