Saturday, September 30, 2017

On the BEER BEAT, and back in Poperinge for hop festival Saturday, 2017.

On Friday evening, as Diana and I artfully deployed the magnificence of the Grote Markt in Mechelen as a backdrop for eating mussels and drinking ale, our friends Karen and Jeff Gillenwater, with Roy Hardy, were drinking, too.

They were a scant 15 miles away in Antwerp. Jeff captured a comfy pub scene. Indoors and outdoors; we cover it all.

On Saturday, the plan was to meet them at Antwerpen-Centraal Station and ride the train together to Poperinge for our first of two hop festival days. Seeing as it was a beautiful morning in Mechelen, we walked from the hotel to the train station. It took less than 20 minutes.

Sadly, the station's döner kebab stand was closed, but the bakery was open. I believe this passenger was admiring our scones.

Upon arrival in Antwerp, I was rendered dumbstruck, as well as embarrassingly aware of advancing age. A detailed explanation is merited.

The first time I passed through Antwerp by train was 1987, and the last came during the early 2000s. My recollection of the station matched this view, rapidly fading to sepia, which I photographed when Ronald Reagan was the American president.

I'd previously mentioned to Diana that the train station in Antwerp was a classic old-school design, which it was, and still remains, apart from the fact that it has undergone a mind-boggling "airport-ization" and renovation, now boasting four levels of rail platforms, through tracks, transit connections and a complete restoration of the original 19th-century terminus building.

In fact, I was so stunned by the modernity that it never occurred to me to take a companion "after" photo to match the "before" shot from so long ago. To compensate, here are two views swiped from the internet.

Yes, I understand that 1987 was 30 years ago.

Still, I was stunned to the point of debilitation, and didn't even make it into the terminus building, or outside onto the front plaza. Bizarrely amid the updating, a sideways glance at the street running on the west side of the station revealed archaic storefronts that seemingly hadn't changed at all.

I'll pause here and count the ways I love Europe.

We were to have departed from Track 2, which as yet corresponds to the historic street-level station layout. Unfortunately, there was a bit of an unexpected issue, namely a fender bender -- something else I hadn't seen in a train station for a while, perhaps never.

Not only this inconvenience, but it was a First Class rail car. That's no way to treat the high rollers. Our track was changed, and there was no delay.

Soon enough we were on our way.

The rail route leads southwest, through Ghent and Kortrijk, before making a final western push toward the sea through territory that comprised a vast battlefield in World War I. Poperinge is another 10 km from Ypres (Ieper), as shown on this map.

We'd been forewarned that weekend repair work on the tracks between Menen and Poperinge would necessitate boarding a bus for the final leg. It worked out acceptably, although at one point a passenger could be seen giving the bus driver directions from the Google Map on his iPhone.

It was one of Roy's first experiences with a European bus driver guiding big vehicles through impossibly narrow and twisting streets. Our driver may not have been completely sure of the route, but he was entirely adept at maneuvering around it.

By 3:00 p.m. we had debarked at Poperinge's tiny rail station. The inimitable Luc Dequidt had spearheaded housing arrangements at the familiar apartment above the travel office on Ieperstraat, just a few minutes from the station on foot.

With the agency closed for the afternoon, the keys were waiting at a jeweler's shop a few blocks away, and quickly we were situated. The apartment has three bedrooms, two toilets and two showers, a large living room/common area, and a full kitchen. The apartment is affordable and ideally located, and 2017 was the third time I've brought Americans to use it during the hop festival.

There was barely time to unpack before the fire brigade rolled past and a marching band came promenading down Ieperstraat beneath our windows. The parade is on Sunday, not Saturday, but band music has become a bigger part of the weekend program.

Poperinge's hop festival runs from Friday through Sunday every three years. I first attended in 1999, and have missed only 2011 in all the years since. Next up is 2020, and I intend to be there.

In my opinion, the festival steadily has improved from one to the next. It remains almost entirely organized and operated for the benefit of the city and immediate proximity; outsiders are welcome, and yet it's very local in nature.

My favorite recent innovation is a "Taste of Westhoek" (this being Poperinge's region) held in the center of the Grote Markt on Saturday and Sunday.

Translated, it's roughly $3.60 for the tasting glass, which you can keep, and about $3.00 for healthy 5- to 6-ounce samples. The only beers allowed to be included are those certified as using Belgian hops. There were easily 50 of them.

There wasn't a draft line in sight; all pouring was being done from bottles.

There were food trucks, and regional farm vendors.

The triennial hop queen competition features three young ladies from Poperinge. The contest has close ties to the scouting movement, which in Belgium includes males and females alike.

For the hop fest, a large pre-fab beer hall is erected atop a central parking area, and on Saturday night the queen competition takes place there. It usually sells out well in advance. The 2017 contestants are pictured at the De Plukker organic hop farm.

I'm still confused about the "Team Aurora" designation apart from Aurora being a hop variety. Maybe it refers to each girl's team, or to the three as a team of friendly competitors.

No matter. This year's queen competition winner was Laura Sambaer, daughter of the fine folks who run the Hotel and Cafe de la Paix on the Grote Markt, where we reserved a table for the traditional Sunday evening post-parade dinner.

Saturday night's meal was taken at Flou's, a relatively new gastropub and cafe adjacent to the train station, occupying a building that's been a drinking spot since Westhoek time began, though surely never with food this good.

My entree is called Hennepot, and it's a traditional Poperinge concoction.

An excerpt from an excellent overview of Poperinge explains:

(Hennepot) dates back to the Maria-Ommegang religious festival of the 16th-century (still going strong), and is a cold meat dish, mixing chicken, rabbit and veal in a gelatin-sauce.

Simple and remarkable. Back at the apartment, we closed the evening with a toast. Luc had procured six bottles of each of Trappist Westvleteren 8 & 12, nectars of the beer world. The Gillenwaters brought stray beers from Karen's gig in Germany. There was sausage from the market square, and plenty of chocolate.

Best of all, friendship was all around. It makes the beer taste even better.


The 2017 ode to Poperinge and Haarlem actually begins in Mechelen.

TRAVEL PRELUDES: Poperinge and a date with Westvleteren.

Flight documentaries: Oasis: Supersonic depicts a time (and music) that won't be repeated.

I finally got around to watching the 2016 documentary Oasis: Supersonic while on the flight home from Amsterdam. This account in Spin offers a solid summary.

The New Oasis Documentary Reminds You Why They Mattered, by Kyle McGovern

 ... The Gallagher brothers themselves—always entertaining interviews—are articulate and speak with self-awareness, reminding you how sneakily sharp they can be, despite regularly behaving like parodies of themselves in public. It really is a small miracle that Liam and Noel—now 44 and 49, respectively—both agreed to be involved with this project, coming aboard to executive produce and be questioned separately. Even more amazing is how warm they are when discussing the band they both anchored for nearly two decades. They each attempt to describe their dynamic—Noel says it’s as simple as the differences between a cat and a dog—but there’s virtually none of the pettiness and ugliness that’s hung over the brothers since Oasis imploded in 2009. No one’s torn down or compared to a potato, and their still-ongoing feud is merely alluded to, never addressed directly. (Of course, when Liam saw the film, he apparently couldn’t help but throw popcorn at the screen every time Noel appeared.)

There's not much to add. The documentary does not attain unflinching honesty, but warts are allowed to appear. The framing device of Oasis' 1996 shows at Knebworth is significant, because if there is any one "moral" to the story, it's that such a phenomenon won't be witnessed again.

Two-and-a-half million people applied for tickets

More than four per cent of the population applied for tickets to see Oasis at Knebworth, the largest ever demand for concert tickets in British history. A whopping 250,000 people got to see the band over two nights - another record - but incredibly, Oasis could have sold out another 18 Knebworth shows.

The conventional wisdom holds that Knebworth was the peak of the Oasis' trajectory; after two timeless classic albums -- Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What's the Story) Morning Glory (1995) -- and loads of hysteria, the band left the rails for good with Be Here Now, its third album, released in 1997, finally disintegrating in 2009 after another four workmanlike but hardly inspired releases.

But there is a worthy exception to this thinking. At the 1:25 mark of the trailer (above), a song can be heard that does not appear on either of the first two Oasis albums. It's the title track from The Masterplan (1998), a collection of B-sides and other songs recorded early in band's career, but not included on the two seminal LP releases.

In essence, The Masterplan functions as the third album of what should be viewed as a career-beginning tryptych. At AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine explains there was even more where The Masterplan came from.

For American audiences, the phenomenal worldwide success of Oasis was a little puzzling. That's because they only had part of the picture -- unless they were hardcore fans, they didn't hear nearly three albums of material released on B-sides and non-LP singles. Critics and fans alike claimed that the best of these B-sides were as strong as the best moments on the albums, and they were right.

None of the albums had a song that rocked as hard as "Fade Away" (cleverly built on a stolen melody from Wham!'s "Freedom"), "Headshrinker," or "Acquiesce." There was nothing as charming as the lite psychedelic pastiche "Underneath the Sky" or the Bacharach tribute "Going Nowhere"; there was nothing as affecting as Noel Gallagher's acoustic plea "Talk Tonight" or the minor-key, McCartney-esque "Rockin' Chair," nothing as epic as "The Masterplan."

Most bands wouldn't throw songs of this caliber away on B-sides, but Noel Gallagher followed the example of his heroes the Jam and the Smiths, who released singles where the B-sides rivaled the A-sides. This meant many American fans missed these songs, so to remedy this situation, Oasis released the B-sides compilation The Masterplan.

Oasis unfortunately chose to opt for a single disc of highlights instead of a complete double-disc set, which means a wealth of great songs -- "Take Me Away," "Whatever," "D'Yer Wanna Be a Spaceman?," "Round Are Way," "It's Better People," "Step Out," a raging cover of "Cum on Feel the Noize" -- are missing. But The Masterplan winds up quite enjoyable anyway. Apart from the sludgy instrumental "The Swamp Song," there isn't a weak track here, and the brilliant moments are essential not only for Oasis fans, but any casual follower of Britpop or post-grunge rock & roll.

If you're an Oasis fan and haven't viewed the documentary, or if you're indifferent to Brit Pop but have a taste for what now must be regarded as ancient history, consider watching it.

For better or worse, rock and roll simply isn't going to see another Oasis.

The 2017 ode to Poperinge and Haarlem actually begins in Mechelen.

It's a process, but the Baylors are improving at packing light. The objective for one's baggage is to carry all of it onto the plane, not check items. Upon arrival, you can start moving.

An uneventful arrival in Brussels came early on Friday morning. After clearing passport control and customs, we proceeded to the airport's underground train station, bought tickets and made the brief 10-minute ride to Mechelen.

Mechelen is located north of Brussels, situated roughly equidistant between the capital and Antwerp. It is an interesting, historic city of 82,000 occupying flat ground astride the Dijle River.

Our room at the St. Martin's Patershof Hotel, a former church, wouldn't be ready until 15.00, leaving us more than five hours to wander. Hotel reception placed our bags in a lock-up, and strolled over to the Vismarkt (fish market) in hope of coffee.

The Vismarkt is a small square by the river, where the fishmongers once congregated. One remains in business, but otherwise the storefronts now are filled with bars and restaurants.

One of them is Ronda, a Moroccan restaurant where we enjoyed transcendent tagines and couscous on our previous visit in 2014. History was repeated for lunch in 2017, because by the time we'd finished coffee, the doors were being unlocked at the eatery.

It took a while to finish. There's an outpost of the Mercure hotel chain just steps away on the Vismarkt. We may have to make it our base of operations next time.

Just across the Dijle from the Vismarkt is an interesting example of adaptive reuse and modern construction, a former brewery (Lamot) transformed into a conference center and offices.

After lunch, it was time to walk off the Couscous Royale. We set northeasterly course for the Grote Markt (main market square).

The striking 320-feet tall cathedral tower of St. Rumbold's is central Mechelen's omnipresent landmark.

After another coffee, the walk resumed, this time to the west of center. There was delightful sculpture along the way through residential neighborhoods bordered by the remnants of a vast beguinage.

The reward for this 15-minute hike was being tapped at the Het Anker brewery's brasserie. As the lunch crowd thinned, we sipped some of my favorite Belgian ales, including Gouden Carolus and Ambrio.

A semi-modern, almost suburban shopping estate is situated across the road from Het Anker. After a couple of belts, we found this toddler supply vendor's interface a tad amusing.

At this juncture, we could return to the hotel and check in. Once the formalities were finished, a nap was in order.

Literally for decades, I refused to consider the value of such a break on European arrival day. I'd rely on adrenaline and what I imagined was heroic fortitude. Then I got old, and finally I listened to Diana's patient explanations about the merits of one or two hours of sleep.

By 17.30, we were refreshed and ready to find a dinner spot, prefaced by another enjoyable walk in crisp autumn weather.

Back finally at the Grote Markt, we were enchanted by the scene, and decided to dine somewhere on the perimeter. There was a larger, younger crowd at an Irish pub; most seemed to be drinking, not eating.

However, next to the pub was a restaurant filled with older locals sedately dining and chatting ... and a chalkboard sign touting the mussels. Brasserie De Keizerin proved to be an excellent choice with a perfect view.

My plump, fresh mussels were served in a Scotch whisky cream sauce. The first time I ever ate a pot of mussels 22 years ago in Antwerp, the server instructed me to use a shell as a fork. Right or wrong, I've done it this way ever since.

The beers were yummy, too. It wasn't an extensive list, but Dubbels and Tripels work fine with mussels.

As dusk arrived, the views kept getting better. By night, the Grote Markt was rendered positively magical.

Mechelen was the ideal start to the trip. We've enjoyed the city so much these past two times that I'd love to spend more than an evening there. Let's hope this is possible some day soon.


TRAVEL PRELUDES: Mechelen, with a side of Gouden Carolus.

2014 Euro Reunion Tour, Day 13: A final Belgian evening in Mechelen, with Opsinjoorke.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Here's another idea for Deaf Gahan to steal: "Cemetery of Anchors."

We have plenty enough anchors, and sufficient dead weight in City Hall -- but is there space left next to the luxury dog park?

Santa Luzia, Portugal: Cemetery of Anchors (Atlas Obscura)

Dead weights honor the dead of Portugal's fishing industry.

The anchors once weighed down the nets for catching tuna. They’re lined up in rows and exist without any real pomp or officiality. The bustling fishing port is home to archaeological sites of 13 of the lost boats, and people continue to search for the many other wrecks. The regional government established the area as the Parque Arqueológico Subaquático da Baía de Angra (Archeological Subaquatic Park of the Bay of Angra) in 2005 to preserve its historical and cultural significance ...