Thursday, September 17, 2009
We began our morning in Rochefort at a local boulangerie, enjoying some rich espresso and croissants and struggling to understand the nice girl behind the counter as she tried to converse with us in French. Our original plan for the day was to drive down to Orval abbey to visit another of the six trappist breweries. But, after having spent a couple solid days in the car, we decided to take it easy and do some local sightseeing.
Our first destination of the day was Dinant. Having already driven through the city at river level, we decided to return by way of the citadel, perched hundreds of feet above the river. It was just a short drive from Rochefort so we got there a few minutes before it opened and had a chance to walk among the gravestones of a local military cemetery.
The citadel itself contained several displays capturing the military history of the region. It was an interesting mix of pre- and post-gunpowder warfare, with howitzers displayed next to spears.
Most of the displays bordered on the cheesy end of the spectrum, especially the WWII bunker walkthrough complete with amplified bomb sound effects. A particularly amusing one (for us at least…) told the story of people who were bound two-by-two and tossed into the river. There was a portion of the citadel that had been hit by a bomb, which subsequently caused the floor to sink and become tilted. That was fun to walk through, and I almost steped in a pond of water.
However the view from the citadel was impressive, and it was enjoyable to walk through such an ancient structure that had seen battles in multiple eras. The aforementioned military graveyard outside helped drive the point home that this was an area truly affected by recent wars, and whose culture bears those scars.
Chateau de Veves
Our next stop was the Chateau de Veves, a nearby fairy-tale-style castle that was (surprise!) undergoing renovation. The castle itself is owned by some member of the Belgian oligarchy, and it was amusing to see pictures of him sprinkled through the chambers.
The castle itself was built in a few phases over several hundred years. These architectural styles were apparent as you walked through the structure; there was a somewhat Frankenstein inconsistency from room to room.
The historical displays with family trees and coats of arms were intriguing, as were the period furniture. I also really liked the rockwork throughout, including the main hall with it’s zen-like rock floor.
We returned to Rochefort hungry for lunch, and decided on the Relais St. Remy restaurant closest to the Rochefort abbey in hopes that it had the freshest Rochefort beer. I tried to order the ostrich but the server informed me that the ostrich man hadn’t delivered yet that day, so I went with the sea bass in lemon sauce. This was paired with Rochefort 10, their strongest beer, because there’s nothing quite like having an 11.3% alcohol beer for lunch.
Amanda started with a beer that was new to us: Brugs Witbier.This was a solid albeit mild beer.
This was followed up by an Orval, in honor of our original destination for the day. Similar to what I had remembered from the states, it was lighter in body, spicier, and a little more sour than the other trappist ales.
One thing that was interesting throughout our trip was the glassware used to serve the beers. Most every brewery has commissioned a special shape of glass meant to perfectly enhance their products. Many have wide mouths to enable you to breathe in the yeasty and spicy aroma. What was equally impressive was how diligently the bars stocked these different glasses. At the restaurant with 500+ beers in Bruges you could see one whole wall where they had several copies of each brewery’s glass. You might call this craziness, but it was also a demonstration of the pride they take in their beer.
Our lunchtime ended with another opportunity to learn about the differences between Belgium and the U.S.. My credit card didn’t work and the proprietor thought it was because the card didn’t have a microchip in it. This is one area where Europe is ahead of the U.S.: credit card security. Few credit card transactions are done there via signature anymore; nearly all are done using a secure chip on the card, which makes it a “smart card.” Pay-at-the-pump gas stations there all operate this way, so I had to go in to sign the receipt the old fashioned way. Anyway, we were able to get Amanda’s credit card to work at this restaurant and headed on out.
On the way back to town we also did a drive-by of the Rochefort abbey St. Remy. Similar to Chimay and Westvleteren, it was simple from the outside and utterly closed to visitors. They are very secretive about their process for making beer, so we resigned ourselves to a quick drive-by and headed back to town.
Upon returning to the hotel we felt mostly lazy, so we headed down to the veranda to read a bit and enjoy the final beers we had puhased at the B2 store in Bruges: Grottenbier and Malheur.
We concluded this relaxing day with another excellent meal at a Rochefort restaurant. I went with the ribeye and peppercorn sauce again, which was a poor pairing with the slightly-sour Rodenbach Grand Cru but tasty nonetheless.
Another strangeness of eating in Belgium was the lack of tipping. Our guidebook said that tipping was not expected but every once in a while the receipt would have the place for you to add a tip, and I’d feel bad not doing it. But for the most part the service was slow and aloof. They really just left you alone to eat until you flagged them down and asked for something else. We got in the habit of ordering our next round of drinks or food whenever we had their attention. We ended up with a lot of beer and food that way, but that’s better than none at all, right?
Refreshed from a fairly relaxing day of local touring, we turned in for the night in preparation for the drive up to Liege the following day.
Today I tasted:
- Brugs Witbier
- Rochefort 10
- Malheur 12
- Westmalle Triple
- Rodenback Grand Cru
- Grimbergen Dubbel
Total to date for the trip: 47 beers