Good directions are one thing - two people will never hear the same thing. Lut having misheard one of my directions, she turns wrong on some crossroads. I correct her, which she takes rather badly, David keeping wisely out of the conversation. I set us on the right track again, and just as I will get vindicated, fate just has my *ss on a platter again, in the form of a detour. We are sent again onto the wrong side of the canal, and after finding Emelgem at last, I haven’t the foggiest idea anymore where exactly the pub is to be found. I have to get out (it’s freezing) to ask directions – in a village so small it is missing on near all roadmaps! At last, we find the famous roundabout, and park the car right outside the pub.
Seen from the outside, no two pubs could be more different than <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=3835>‘t Kroegske and De Gans. I have described the latter above; the former is an ugly house in a row, in an even uglier factoryworkers’ quarter. Hardly inviting, and it’s only upon entering one is struck by the thought there might be more here than meets the eye. It also gets clear fast enough that there is a lot that links the two pubs. Both are run by a couple, working elsewhere, only to be opened in weekends (though ‘t Kroegske adds an extra Thursday evening). They are small, multiroomed bars, filled up to the brim with paraphernalia, in the case of ‘t Kroegske virtually exclusively beery ones – De Gans being somewhat more eclectic. We are greeted as long lost friends, and Danny might have a point: last time I was here, nearly a year ago, I promised him a little item. Thank God, I have it on me.
The menu of ‘t Kroegske is arguably the most beautiful to be found anywhere. I can hardly imagine the hundreds hours of work that must have gone into computerising the Celtic ornamentation around each page, only a few beers per page, so as to set them off properly. For once, I don’t need it, as Danny has suggested my first one upon entry: the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Alvinne-Balthazar/42272/>Balthazar, Christmas ale from <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Picobrouwerij-Alvinne/4062/>Alvinne brewery, sadly missing on the Essen festival. Only finished two days before – but Ingelmunster being the next town to Emelgem, Danny has had the advantage on the OBER people. I’m glad it’s there, but not exactly over the moon with the beer itself. After a short time in the pub, Filip and Katrien Geerts enter: somebody has been having similar ideas. Guess what was his first beer? Whilst deciding on the next one, we browse through the menu. Whereas De Gans specialises in desserts, here Nadine cooks only a choice of hearty meals, in beery sauces. We all opt for the rack of spare-ribs, which are usually quite tasty here.
Once more we turn to the road to Ursel, and end the evening around the kitchen table, with a <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Moriau-Gueuze/31917/>Gueuze Moriau to celebrate another good day. But nobody stays up late. The real test has to follow: tomorrow our train leaves at 6.50 AM, and Lut is going to drive us there. That’s EARLY!
Part 6: Monday
I have no idea HOW early, really. On waking up, I absolutely feel abysmal. None of us slept alright, but I’m having the worst of it, it seems. I feel like death warmed over (well, not that warm, it’s FREEZING!), and I sure do look the part, they inform me. Exactly what I wanted to hear. I can hardly swallow my cup of tea, and when I see David delve into a filling breakfast, I wanna throw up. I cannot imagine eating anything today (which proves, as you will read, I suck at fortune-telling), and I despair at the big chunks of fresh breadpudding Lut presses into our backpacks. I take a bottle of water, and a couple of mandarins. That’s about all I can trust, now.
It’s early, but the first train is there quickly. For once, that doesn’t lift my spirits, as it means that we will have to wait virtually 50 mins in the Brussels Midi station. There, it proves worse than expected. If you board the Eurostar, you have some right on regards. Here, you’re in a subterranean hallway, ice-cold drafts coming from any imaginable direction, and then some, whilst the platform is just another ordinary platform – less drafts, even colder. The train arrives minutes before depart. I wonder where the need was to abolish all ordinary trains abroad for this Thalys. It takes forever to arrive, is way more expensive, and as it will prove on our journey, has to go as slowly as any antediluvian stopping train. David is very disappointed by the feel. And I even don’t manage a little sleep aboard.
A bit before 11.00 (that’s not fast, is it?), we are under the imposing twin towers of the Gothic Dom. It was Ground Zero 60 years ago too… I am in the proud possession of a vital piece of info. A bit outside the city centre, there’s a brand-new brewpub (<a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Gasthaus-Brauerei-Braustelle/5537/>Braustelle,<a href=http://www.braustelle.com/>http://www.braustelle.com) that is so new it isn’t even in the official Kölner list of “Hausbrauereien”, which I’ve copied entirely (excellent idea, as it proves, but I should have READ it too…). In order to waste as little time as possible, not to have to figure out the indigenous U-Bahn system (the underground, that is) I follow a sign to a cab lot. We take a taxi – the guy’s OK, and drives us straight to our destination – in uninviting surroundings, pretty much like little Turkey. Finally I spot the place, we get out, but my spirits, not too high already, have plunged to unknown depths. Never have seen a place that looks THAT closed before demolition. One window is not shuttered, which enables me to view a beercoaster. On this dismal thing, I discover what should have been on the website: the place opens every evening from 18.00h onwards! For shame! Our train leaves at 18.16 – they don’t WANT custom, or what? There’s 10 Euros spent on air.
We walk back to the next U-Bahn station. It demands some deciphering, but at least, 2 Euro’s each is not that bad. We dismount at Friesenplatz, as that sounds reasonably close to Friesenstrasse (I hope – but the map seems to support my view). After some orientation problems (why can’t they never align the exits on the natural directions?) we find the right direction, and my memory proves better than deserved by decennia of beermarination: we aim straight for the first of the Old Ones, <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Hausbrauerei-Päffgen/4905/>Päffgen. The décor, even at this hour is sumptuous and the beer proves truly great. David, himself brewer, marvels at the grip: he claims this style as probably the most difficult of them all, as it allows not the slightest mistake. We keep to the one glass, which will prove rather a pity.
It does make sense, though, and my spirits are lifted, for in a short while, I’m going to be able to compare it directly to the <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Pfaffen/36338/>Pfaffen Bier. If you spot some likeness to the former name, that is NOT by luck. This place (the name means something like the Monks’ pub) on the Heumarkt used to be the Altstadt display of Päffgen, run by a brother. But as it happened, they got internally angered, and the Altstadt place refused to take the beer any longer, and sought themselves a new supplier. This brewery, in Rösrath, is outside the sacrosanct Köln area, hence the beer cannot be called Kölsch officially. But it is completely in the style. At least, that is what I am told. Because when we arrive, it looks exactly as a very closed pub. Granted, that seems to be the case all Mondays. Mieser Schwein odersoetwas! This time, I only have to blame myself. It happens to be mentioned on my printed list…
Ever been on Köln Heumarkt? If you have, you’ll know that it is 500m across at best. Yet, I remember it taking all day to cross, and indeed, this proves still the case. 5 mins to get to the other side, following a path that even a pathological drunkard would look down upon. But there is good reason to do it all the same. At exactly the diagonal corner from <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=777>zum Pfaffen, there’s the <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Malzmühle-Brauerei-Schwartz/1313/>Malzmühle, the second great one of the olds. In fact, in my memory it’s their beer I always liked best. We aboard one of the whiteshrubbed tables in this immense place, and if David expresses some hunger, I must confess, disbelieving myself, that I could do with some solid food too! What a glass of good <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Mühlen-Kölsch/7778/>Kölsch and a walk into the brisk cold Mid-European air can do for one (it actually will start to snow for an infinitesimal moment, later that afternoon)! I feel revigorated, though the beer has to bow slightly to the Päffgen, as well to my memory. It certainly lives up to its name, a light, but maltier beer would be hard to imagine. Nothing sweet-watery as some British milds, however.
With the dinner coming up, we can do with a second glass, here. David gets some noodles with chopped pork stew, whilst I have spotted venison filet on the suggestions. I even like the Knödel; I must be really ill. The food is quite good, and I don’t let the Kobes, who asks sarcastically for a tip at the end (I thought that happened only at the other side of the Atlantic!) spoil my good mood. Again we start off in Köln, which looks as bad as Brussels for roadworks. We’re nearly glad to be walking. We get into a better neighbourhood, here, and the beggars have gone. BTW, did you know that in order to obtain money in Köln, you have to be begging in the company of a, preferably larger, animal? Every beggar seemed to be standing next to a donkey. A probably progressive beggar sported a llama (the four-legged Andes kind, not the two-legged Himalayan), whilst an obviously capitalistic beggar had TWO donkeys. Yogi, Joss, what is this madness?
With an abysmal 2/4 I get progressively more interested in the full list of Brauhäuser, I’m carrying around. Mind you, only a couple are real pubbreweries. Most are Brauereiausschanke, what amounts to brewery taps. Even the most famous of them all, <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=774>Früh am Dom, is not a real brewing place. It appears we will pass the tap of Reissdorf. Suits us. We are in doubt, as the quarter seems hardly the place for such venue, but if we spot it late, it is because… it’s closed of course. Opens at 4PM. Well, in the way we’re doing we might have time aplenty to return later. Scant moments later, we find <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Weissbräu-zu-Köln--(Hofbrauhaus-Traunstein)/5518/>Weissbräu zu Köln. Not only this is open (!), but the brewery is in full swing. The air is so heavy with steam and hops, that I find it extremely hard to assess the nose of the beers. Actually there isn’t much. What surprises me most, later, is that I had to add this brewery to the RB database. I’ve been in there some 15 years ago!
We walk to Roonstrasse, all the same, and fate plays another cruel trick on me, as on approach, the windows are brightly lit from the inside. A chance they might be open! Forget it, the place is full of blue collar workers, not boozing, but rebuilding the place! Off we go. A long, cold walk, back to the shopping streets, past several mendicants-cum-donkey, and we find the Gildenhaus, the tap for <a href=http://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Gilden-Kölsch/7779/>Gilden Kölsch. My bladder, with all the beer, and more the cold, has to give in, which makes the stay worthwile. The beer doesn’t. While we walk to the magnificent Dom around the corner, it starts gently to snow. Above the world-famous Christmas market, it breathes joy. But we turn left all the same, and find the Früh main place. Now here’s something strange. To a lot of Germans, this place is fake, a tourist-trap. OK with me, but then why is it filled to the brim (despite its gigantic size) with Köllner, drinking the beer freely? Since the Mühlen, we hadn’t had such good beer – who cares where it is brewed, then?
We drink two, we’ve earned it. And to David’s alarm, I’ve got hungry again. Time to find another memory of me, at the absolutely great <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=776>Gaffel-Haus. Whilst David sticks to the beer (and a visit to the all-marble gents), I dig into a Schollen-platter. It’s a flat fish, not unlike sole, very popular on the coasts of Flanders, Holland and Germany, but little known elsewhere. Here they prepare it rather strangely with fried bacon. The food is just not that great as the building, and the beer is just OK. When we get out (on another Christmas marketplace), it is getting fully dark, and we board the last somewhat longer walk to the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brauhaus-Schreckenskammer/4904/>Schreckenskammer brewery. With the Weissbräu Kölsch, this is the only really new one to me, never had it before. It’s OK, but suffers terribly from a bad way of serving, having all the carbon dioxide knocked out. It reminds me of a southern British bitter served trough a sparkler-swanneck. Pity, really. Time is running out, but we dash off for the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=775>Sion tap, just the other side of the Domplatz.
Another one that isn’t worth the trouble, really. We empty the glasses double-quick, and start out for the Christmasmarket, (in front of the Dom), to search a present for our driver for the week. A smelling candle, a pot of winejam. Whatever, a fleece might have been awkward, not to mention overpriced. Still, in the last half hour, I remind myself of the Rheinufer , where some pubs have different choices. I find the "Soldat Schweijk" and I long for a draught Budvar, but for once this weekend, David rebels. He doesn’t like the look of the place, and urges me forward. 50m further we spot and board the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Peters-und-Bambeck/1316/> Peters Brauhaus . Beautiful, busy, but the beer is not that inviting anymore. I even don’t finish the Stange . The train winks, the beerpubs in Köln open. Shit.
We’re home in Aalter a quarter to ten. Lut has made us a great meal. The Strubbe magnum is opened. Even I have to desist, she’s made for six. We end the evening with a little malt whiskey, which David chases with a <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Westvleteren-Abt-12/4934/>Westvleteren 12. The summit of decadency – Ardbeg (or Higland Park) with Westvleteren? Not for me. Tomorrow the children have to get to school, and in the afternoon, I have to work. I’m less than overenthusiastic.
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The menu of ‘t Kroegske is arguably the most beautiful to be found anywhere. I can hardly imagine the hundreds hours of work that must have gone into computerising the Celtic ornamentation around each page, only a few beers per page