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.