Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What can I say. My father visited me in Europe and all we did was drink beer, wander through trenches from WWI, cheer on Tom Boonen in bike races, and, did I mention drinking beer? BORING! One can only take so much walking through the picturesque streets of Flanders, eating at the best restaurants (like legendary Tom's Dinner), and perfectly sunny 70 degree weather! It is just too much for two people to bear.

I arrived, by train, and met my father in Bruges, Belgium, which became our headquarters for the next week and a bit. Our hotel was located on a quiet street across from one of the main churches in Bruges. For anyone who has never had the opportunity to visit this city, allow me to paint a picture... all of the three storey buildings are either brick or pastel plaster with one unique feature - the attic window is framed by a stepped pyramid faux-front that gives the illusion of another floor. The streets are all cobbled and the churches are crowned by tall towers with "wooden" roofs. Throngs of British tourists window shopping and hundreds of people crowding the outdoor cafes which overlook the Bell Tower (which rests at a wonky-angle) complete the picture. Honestly, one of my favorite places in the world.

The Spring Classics are the BEST day races. Why, do you ask? It is a bit hard to explain really...They are some of the earliest in the season, a place where riders can test their stuff. They twist and curve their way through beautiful fields and meadows. Did I mention they have hundreds of riders flying at break-neck speeds through narrow cobble streets and curvy ascents lined with crazy European fans who crowd the riders? Translation: there is a good chance you are going to see a spectacular crash. We picked some great spots to watch them coming, but no crashes. Although we were almost on television, twice.

My favorite, non bike day, was spent doing something I usually don't like: tour group. This one, however, was different in every way. Dad and I, along with an Irish mother and son and an elderly Scottish couple, piled into the mini-van for a day-long tour of Flanders's WWI battle fields, museums, and cemeteries. Our guide, a middle-aged Belgium with floppy blond hair, was crazy excited about everything WWI - including the spent artillery that farmers still find in their fields. On a funny aside: the Irish boy, who was around 14 years-old, was obsessed by WWII and moderately excited about WWI. As we were barreling down the one lane dirt roads, our guide was talking about how farmers come across live mustard gas shells and corroded, unexploded hand grenades and pile them along side of the road where army collection personnel will see them on their next pass. Just as he said this, he spotted such a collection in front of a barn and pulled to the side of the road. The Irish boy asked if he could hop out and get something and the guide enthusiastically allowed him. He was picking up a grenade when the mother cautiously asked, "Is that grenade still live?" "Oh yeah," responded the unconcerned guide. The mother jumped out of the van yelling, "Son! Put the grenade DOWN!" In the back of the van, where the Scottish couple sat, one said to the other, "Its just like the Irish, they like blowing up things." Ah! Culture. One of my favorite parts of the day was the In Flanders Fields Museum, in Ieper. It is a new museum, built in the rebuilt market of a small town. Ieper, in my opinion, became the unfortunate example of what modern war could do to a civilian city - the first town to be destroyed by bombs, air raids, and machine guns. It is here the Belgians made their last stand against the invading German army. They were able to hold their position until the British, American, and Canadian soldiers could arrive and entrench themselves. Anyway, the museum is very interactive and allows the visitor to explore many different facets of the war - poetry, individual lives, quotes from soldiers, actual effects from the war, etc. Very informative overall, enabling me to get a better understanding of the Belgium front. The whole day we drove through the fields, piecing together troop movement and gaining an understanding the role a "ridge" (a mere 20 feet above sea level) played in this first modern war.

Later in the week we journeyed to the coast, to Oostand, to see a preserved WWII bunker and trenches that were built to keep the British out. This Atlantikwall was interesting to compare to the first trenches built. These were more solid, more entrenched, and had bigger guns; however, the general theory was the same as the originals... dig a hole and hope no one comes.

One part that I realized I have neglected are the breweries and beer museums. I thought I would save the best for last, of course. We visited the Brugse Zot brewery which is the last remaining one in Bruges proper. During the tour, we got to see the old cooling rooms and old equipment as well as the new and improved techniques. What surprised me the most was the fact that what used to take five floors to do now is contained in one room not much larger than my college apartment. The beer itself was a nice malty beer, amber in color, with a light wheat fog. Later, in Brussels, we went to the old brewer's guild which now houses a small museum and tasting room. What is interesting here is that you don't know what you are tasting. They ask if you want light or special (dark). The special was AMAZING and we think that it was the Westmalle Tripel ("Tripel" meaning it was made in an actually Abby, only 7 of which still exist, vs. Abby beer which isn't). Our last real beer trip was to the Hops Museum which was one of the best museums we went to the whole week. It was "interactive" meaning Heather can touch everything. The museum explained the history of hops and then followed it from planting to processing to shipping. Too bad there wasn't any tasting here though.

Overall not a bad way to spend a week. I got to spend time with my Dad and enjoy the unique Belgium atmosphere... I believe that a summer home in Bruges would be an amazing idea (**hint**hint** Dad).

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Arriving in Dijon, I fell in love with the city itself tout de suit and during the following week the love spread from the city to the whole region of Burgundy. It is more than mustard and expensive wines, but a je ne sais quoi that rolls in from the countryside. (Too much???)

Day 1: After an interesting train ride involving a not-quite famous actor, I wandered the beautifully Medieval streets of Dijon. I found myself on a pedestrian-only street surrounded by half-timber houses, staring up at my quaint hotel. Three narrow, steep flights of stairs later, I found myself in a comfortable single room with a sink and toilet down the hall.

Day 2: I decided to spend my first full day in Dijion enjoying the atmosphere... although, nothing went quite right all day. I set out at 9am with a stop at a pastry store where I ordered a pain au lait chocolat but got a pain au chocolat instead. I tried to find an open cafe, but all were closed tight. I wondered the maze of perfectly French streets (meaning dirty and poop-filled) of some half-timber homes... many leaning at awkward angles. Then I walked to the old convent, but, to my embarrassment, I couldn't find my way in - so I quickly gave up; however, after some lunch I returned determined. The sad part is that it was quite easy... you open the door that says "Museum." The set of the museums - Musee de la Vie Bourguinonne (Burgundy Life Museum) and Musee d'Art Sacre (Sacred Art Museum) - were surprisingly well done. The first, like all small local museums, had wax statues wearing traditional clothing. The second story was designed to look like Dijon in the 1800's with copies of old store fronts. The Sacred Art Museum had all of the artifacts from the Convent. There was one huge room dedicated to goblets... I tried to guess which one I would choose if I were Indiana Jones and needed the Holy Grail. Finding a place for lunch was a trial. I wondered for an hour, passing some places, going in and leaving others right aways, and, meanwhile, my stomach was speaking its own language. That was until I found a Moules et Frites place that, as its name suggests, serves only mussels and fries. You order the sauce you want, and they serve you a HUGE cast iron pot of mussels in sauce and a plate of french fries. So delicious and a great French option.

Day 3: Cluny!!! Anyone who studied Medieval history can understand my excitement about traveling three hours to see a building that doesn't exist anymore. At one time, Cluny monastery housed the largest structure in Europe and was the seat of religious power that rivaled that of Rome. I wont bore you anymore with my thoughts on the really cool Cluny III church... but the bus ride from Maron to Cluny was beautiful. Burgundy architecture is unique in France. Each manor has a square tower rising above the main part of the home that is topped with an intricate iron weather vane. Some with roosters, but many more have flowers, geometric designs, or clover. The rough, rocky hills are topped with rustic stone castles that are older than any others in France. The original "capital" of the very, very first Kings and Queens of France was in this region. In fact, this is where the concept of "France" came to be.

Day 4: I don't have a car, nor can I rent one. This is fine, until I want to tour the vineyards. So when I visit such wine-rich areas, I pay a lot of money for the ability to ride in a bus with people who are wine illiterate and who ask stupid questions just to see the vines and taste the wines. This tour wasn't so bad. Very small (8 people total) and I sat shot-gun so I was able to talk to the guide in detail about the differences in wine regions and the particular problems with wine making in Burgundy. By far, this was the best wine tour I've ever done! The region is unique because it is very small. Half a mile wide and 15 miles long, to be exact. Also, there have been pinot noir grapes planted on this land for more than 1000 years. Many of the cellars used today were build by monks in the 10th century. The growth of the villages is limited by the vineyards and the vineyard growth is limited by the villages. I was able to see the plot of land (20 ft by 40 ft) that produces the most expensive bottle of wine in the world - bottles start at $4,000 dollars and have been sold for ten times that amount. It looked like every other plot of land to me, but apparently it has the perfect blend of sand, slope, and limestone. I settled for a 59E bottle of Grand Cru and a 58E bottle of Premier Cru. The only problem was I wasn't really in the mood for robust reds at 10 o'clock in the morning, but what can you do? Suffer through.

Day 5: I followed a hiking path 6 k through forests, pastures, and fields to a monastery hidden in a valley. Actually, this monastery is the only intact monastery still in existence from the Medieval period in France. What a peaceful, beautiful place to sequester yourself in? Grow some grapes, eat some cheese and mustard, and walk in the garden. Forgetting, of course, that only one room was heated and the rest were completely open to the elements. I was the only one on the path that day which gave me the opportunity to peacefully and leisurely walk among the wild flowers.