Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Back to Belge

Me in English cycling hooligan mode trying to steal Tom Boonen's bike. Thanks Jo for the pic!

John and I had been talking about this weekend for months, but I still couldn't believe it when we left our Friday afternoon meeting at 3pm to go to Gent. John had never been to Belgium, so why not coincide our visit with the Omloop Het Volk? The fact that we could claim it as work expenses did not influence our decision in the slightest.

Getting out of England was a pain, because everything is slow. By the time we got to the Eurotunnel, we were already half an hour behind, but as soon as we got into France, things at least ran on time. We got off at Lille Europe and walked an extremely long way in the rain to get to Lille Flandres, which should have been only 400m according to the sign. That meant we just missed the train to Gent, and didn't end up arriving until 11pm.

Reinhard - Mr Great Australian Bite - picked us up from the station and we went straight to the Marimain, via the Gouden Sate frituur. Armed with enough frites and mayonnaise to ward off Jamie's school dinners, we (re)familiarised ourselves with a number of local trappisten until approx. 2:30, Gent time. It was good to be back.

It was still raining and blowing a gale come Saturday morning, and I felt some sympathy for the riders who were doing Het Volk. I was amazed at the number of people who came out to watch the start in such appalling weather, but it's in the blood here. We bumped into Gerard and Brecht from CN too, and it was good to catch up with them again.

We didn't have a particularly busy day planned, and wandered around Gent in the rain after the start. The AGFA® Het Lam Gods in Sint Baaf's cathedral had to be seen (we were too cheap to pay to see the real one).

Eventually we decided to go to the finish of Het Volk in Lokeren. It wasn't part of the initial plan, but our friend Els said she could drive us back to Gent at 6:30, so it was perfect. Her boyfriend lives 200m from the finish line, but they didn't take advantage of that fact and watch the end of the race. It was even sunny. Of course, it helps if you are a bike racing fan.

Work done, we headed back to the Marimain in Gent at a civilised hour, and had a few bollekes while we waited for Reiny to finish up. To everyone who wasn't there: too bad, you missed a good night! Somehow, a silly plan was hatched to visit seven cafes this evening. But Els had another engagement at 9pm, so didn't join us for the rest.

We decided we'd better eat something, and tried a pizza place called San Marino in the Vlaanderenstraat. It was busy and slow, but the pizzas weren't bad and the desserts and coffee were bloody awesome. So much chocolate, so little time. We counted this as our second cafe. Technically it isn't one, but we did have a drink there.

From there, we hit In Den Turk, Gent's oldest cafe (anno 1228). You can't really tell by looking it, but I'll believe anything I read. The menus are quite fun, too. It can best be described as a smoky jazz cafe. We asked the barman, who, like everyone is one of Reiny's regulars, what he recommended. "Beer" was the response, and I liked what I heard.

We had an idea to go to 't Galgenhuisje, Gent's smallest cafe, next, but got sidetracked on the way and ended up in Mosquito Coast. This is an interesting establishment and has a diverse mix of customers. Mostly travellers, but some locals. It's smoke-free, which suited us fine. We asked the barmaid, who wasn't a customer of Reiny's, what she recommended. "Cocktails?" was not the response we were looking for, so we enjoyed another bolleke and soaked up the ambience.

Onto 't Galgenhuisje, where they used to hang people, for our fifth cafe stop. This is quite a cool little cafe but I think we picked Gay Night to visit. The clientele were generally of the male persuasion, including one of the three women. There was a bloke dancing to Celebrate Good Times and Lady Marmalade and being eyed off by other blokes. And speaking of being eyed off, Reiny kept getting meaningful glances from a guy at the bar with a plaited pigtail and earrings dressed in leathers. Reiny explained that he wasn't a customer, but he does walk past the shop every day wearing a white leather jacket.

We only stayed for one beer and left before I started singing Electric Six's Gay Bar. Fortunately, the next cafe wasn't far away.

I've never been to the Druepelkot, because I'm a bit wary of a bar that serves jenever and very little else. The two old gents running it basically had a licence to print money; not that that's a bad thing. We went in via the back door and I thought that we'd discovered this hidden drinking hole in Gent. In fact, it fronts onto the water and is right next to the Bierhuis aan de Waterkant. Still, it is an excellent little place, comfortably fitting about 20-30.

There were mostly locals there, but also a few tourist locals like us. After fortifying ourselves with double shots of jenever, we got chatting to a number of them - a guy who had been to Australia 12 years ago and driven from Melbourne to Darwin (as you do); a couple of attractive Erasmus students from Brussels who knew The Great Australian Bite; a guy who had three triple shots of jenever in front of him and was being encouraged by the Erasmus girls to drink them all, one after the other. But he would have fallen off his chair had he done so, and the transient kudos probably wouldn't have been worth it.

Reiny gained several new customers there, and could therefore write the whole night off as 'marketing expenses'. Fortunately, we hadn't written ourselves off and we did get out of there by about 2am. Even more fortunately, the seventh and last cafe was next door, the Hot Club de Gand. Now, after our Galgenhuisje foray, we were a little nervous. We were relieved to find that this was a more ... neutral jazz cafe.

Reiny returned to the ground state (beer), John was onto the whiskey, and I decided to try jong jenever, which wasn't the best choice. It was a little raw in a methylated spirit kinda way, and I had difficulties finishing it. I opted for absinthe and a lot of water next. The green glow of the absinthe scared me, though.

We had covered a lot of ground by this stage, both physically, metaphorically and alcoholically. We'd been pacing ourselves well, and technically, we weren't actually over the limit. Much. I mean, two drinks in the first hour, one drink each hour after that, and a couple extra. Eight hours, you do the math.

The crucial thing about this equation is that the standard drink in Belgium is only 250ml, whereas in England it's a pint (about 550ml). So in the UK you have to drink a lot and very quickly, otherwise the beer gets disgustingly warm, instead of merely disgusting. This is part of the reason why the drinking culture in England (and to a lesser extent, Australia) is totally buggered.

The other reason, we theorised, is that it is very cheap to get a liquor licence in Belgium. Reiny has a licence to sell beer in his shop, but it doesn't cost him anything as long as he observes certain conditions. In Australia, it costs billions of dollars to hold a full pub licence, hence many of the drinking establishments there are large and characterless because you have to sell masses to the masses. It's so hard to find nichey places in Oz like you do in Gent, or in other bits of Europe.

This theory sounded so much better on Saturday night, but anyway...

We were fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of two more young ladies, Isabelle and Marike, who generously offered us their candle to relight our own. John had ravaged it during the course of our theorising and it needed re-igniting. I+M were students in law and medicine, but went to different universities. They were in Gent because their boyfriends were in the Ardennes for the weekend, shooting deer or something. Better the deer than us, I thought, and so we spent a rather pleasant few hours chatting to them out of range. I will not attempt to reconstruct it all here, but I did learn that jenever is pronounced like Geneva and Reiny definitely has more customers than he knows what to do with.

Sunday: Lille Europe is a masterpiece of design, yet simultaneously horrible. We had to spend two and a half hours there due to the unconnectivity of trains. Sunday night: Toy Story 2 at Lucy and Pete's.

Monday: a 190 km ride in the name of work. I even get paid extra for writing about it. How good is that?

Tuesday: tired.


Anonymous said...

Got somethin' against gay people have you? Seriously though, we all need to don an Abe Lincoln mask from time to time.

I still don't know how you can drink copious amounts and then go fra long ride. At our age a night on the glasses should leave one lying in bed moaning all morning.



Jeff Jones said...

Well, we would have stayed at that particular bar had we not been on a strict one drink/cafe schedule. Err, we did make an exception at the last cafe. Obviously.

I've also had years of practice riding off a hangover. It's the only way.

Les said...

Arrrgh! Cafe Attack! Good to see Els is still helping out where she can... she's a great woman, eh?

Also good to see you actually have the time and leeway to do as you want – then ride the next day... good work! Bit different from another time and place ;-)

Jeff Jones said...

Els is tops, you're right. Good to catch up with her again.

And yes, it is a bit different now. I'm enjoying the 40 hour weeks. I can now ride and have a life. Also enjoying doing different types of riding (Audax, MTB, etc). It's all two-wheeled fun.