After an evening enjoying the beer delights that Belgium specialises in and a good night’s sleep in my very pleasant hotel it was the morning of the 15th and, frankly, far too early in it for my liking. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere in this journal that I suffer from a sleep disorder and my body had decided it was time for wakey wakey at about 0500. I know there is no point in trying to fight it so it was time to get up. I went outside for a smoke in the early morning with the sun doing it’s best to break through a pretty overcast sky. Actually, I do quite like that time of morning when it is still peaceful so it was no great chore although the temperatures were not so much to my liking. The previously mentioned overcast sky did not look like clearing which did not bode well for a sunny Spring day and so it was to prove.
I decided that a bit of internet work was the best bet and did that for a few hours before Morpheus kindly came calling again and I managed another couple of hours kip, rising at about 1400. Before I get to the events of the day, I promised you a review of the Hotel Iris Aubepine and here it is.
If you have come upon this hotel review by way of the previous journal entry then you will know that I arrived in Beauraing a full 24 hours late having been done up like a kipper by Belgian railways and stranded in Namur the previous night. I made very sure that I got there in good time the next day and walked the short distance from the station to the hotel in about ten minutes. The location was convenient although Beauraing is not a particularly large town.
I was checked in by a pleasant receptionist with decent English and who told me that they would not charge me for my “no show” the previous night which I thought was decent of them. I don’t think they would have had a problem as I did not see another soul in the hotel during the three days I was there and it felt a bit like the Marie Celeste at times but they did not have to waive the fee.
I made my way to my room as I fancied a quick doze and noted that I had been given a double for the price of a single which was another bonus as a look at the website shows that the singles are, shall we say somewhat “compact and bijou” i.e. tiny. The bed was comfy, the room warm enough to keep out the fairly chilly weather and there was always plenty of hot water at a good pressure in the shower. The bed and the shower are really my two major requirements for a hotel as I can always layer on a few clothes if it is chilly. Everything was very clean and tidy.
If I stood by the window I could see the lovely old church which stands adjacent although the rest of the vista consisting of a carpark and some fairly dilapidated old sheds was less inspiring but I wasn’t there for the view and at about £40 per night I thought it represented good value.
Right, let’s go and have a look round. Unfortunately the church I mentioned above was not open and so I had to content myself with a few images of the exterior, which was a shame really. I thought churches were always open as places of refuge and sanctuary but it appears that the modern world with all it’s ills has put an end to that idea.
A quick walk round the town indicated that, nirvana having been achieved (see previous entries for an explanation of this), it was not all it was cracked up to be. Certainly it was a clean, tidy and pleasant little place but there was not really a whole pile to see there. What to do? People who know me personally and those who have read my submissions both here and on the late Virtual Tourist will know that this is a rhetorical question. For those that do not know me the answer, as always, is retire to a bar which is what I did.
I know I have mentioned it before but I do seem to have an innate knack of seeking out the craziest places and for no particular reason other than it was there I headed into the Taverne “La Belle Rose” and again my craziness radar was fully locked on. It was a lovely little bar / restaurant with a goodly amount of Easter decorations on display, it being that season, and apparently the only other patrons were three “ladies of a certain age” i.e. not in the first flush of youth (I am not being unkind here).
When I went in it struck me as being more like a small restaurant rather than a bar in the traditional sense but that is not uncommon in this region. It was certainly very homely and comfortable and it appeared to me as if it may have had a recent refurbishment as everything looked quite freshly “scrubbed and painted”. Juxtaposed with this was the furniture which was obviously intended to look old-fashioned although whether it was reproduction or genuine I really couldn’t say. Obviously in a Belgian bar there were also various beer themed knick-knacks on the walls as well.
A menu on the wall suggested that my initial impression of it being a restaurant / bar was correct although I did not see any food served and as it was approaching Easter the entire establishment was literally groaning under the weight of decorations appropriate to that festival. Perhaps overall in terms of interior design it should not have worked but it did.
I was greeted by a very friendly barman who had some English and I even had a tentative go at some schoolboy French which he seemed to appreciate.
I settled myself down at a small table as I do not like to hog big tables when I am by myself as I think it is rude to do so and this table happened to be near the ladies mentioned. One of them appeared to be asleep under the hood of a parka jacket, one did not seem to be overly talkative but the third one most certainly was.
The conversation was entirely in French which I don’t really speak and so something may well have got lost in translation but I’ll swear that I was being offered the opportunity to sleep with them all either collectively or one after the other. I really don’t know if this was a commercial proposition or just for kicks but it did rather stun me. Of course, I may just have misunderstood the whole scene but somehow I don’t think so. Despite the early hour they all appeared to have “drink taken” as the old expression is and I suppose anything is possible even for an ugly old brute like me! I declined their kind offer, if indeed that is what it was, but the lunacy did not end there.
Belgium has adopted the no smoking nonsense so common in Europe now and so it is a matter of going outside for a cigarette. On my first trip out into the cold I spotted a “gang” of young ladies many of whom were dressed in uniform hoodies and it was explained to me that they were collecting money for a hen night (bridal shower in the US?) for one of their number. Apparently this is the custom here and so when they surrounded me amidst much general hilarity I donated a few € to the drink fund. It was a small price to pay for being surrounded by “pretty young things” as let’s be honest it doesn’t happen to me too often.
That was slightly odd but the next smoke break brought an even stranger experience when I was accosted by two chickens. Yes, you read that correctly, two chickens both standing at least six feet tall as I hope the image shows. They gave me a handful of tiny little chocolate eggs which were delicious as Belgium is rightly renowned for it’s chocolate. I thought they were collecting for charity or something and offered some money which was waved away. It seems this is merely a Belgian Easter tradition. Much as I was enjoying La Belle Rose I thought it was time to move before something really weird happened so I bade my farewells and went on along the Rue de Bouillon .
I didn’t have to go far until I came upon the Taverne le Beaulieu which looked quite smart from the outside and so I went in to find a bar that is quite sizeable for the region where they tend to be pretty compact on the whole. As is the way in these parts it appeared to be bar and restaurant in equal measure although nobody seemed to be dining on this Saturday early evening.
The decor was fairly minimalist but certainly comfortable enough and immaculately clean and tidy. I sat at the bar as is my habit although there is invariably waiter service in this part of the world. It is just something I like to do and was certainly no problem. What was a problem was to choose what to drink. I know Belgium is renowned for beer and most bars have a decent selection but I found myself confronted by a very impressive offering here.
I had been emboldened by the couple of earlier beers and so ventured some of my pretty appalling French and ordered myself up a fruit Witbier (sp?) which was delightful. After that things went a bit downhill. I do not mean the quality of the beer which was consistently excellent nor the standard of the service (ditto) but when I get going in a Belgian beer bar, especially one of this quality, I just don’t have an off switch and I am sure the reader can guess where that all led to. If hunger had not driven me out I could well have been sitting there yet.
Although it was nowhere nearly full, even on a Saturday evening, I did notice that it seemed to be about the best patronised bar of the several I visited in my three days in Beauraing so it appears that the locals know the score. I always find it a good bet anywhere in the world to follow the local crowd.
I mentioned the increasing hunger and so it was time to sort out a bite to eat. I know I always espouse the concept of eating local but local here really wasn’t on offer except at obscene prices. In the same way that chicken tikka masala (invented in the UK some decades ago, look it up) is now the most popular dish where I live so foreign food seems to be the most popular type of restaurant in this region. I had seen a decent looking “Chinese” restaurant called Song He restaurant although I guessed it was probably run by Vietnamese. Again, the parallels are obvious. In London you go to an “Indian” restaurant and the chances are it is owned, staffed and cheffed by Bangladeshis. This does not bother me at all and short of hitting the one ruinously expensive “local” restaurant I reckoned this was the place.
When I entered it was so typical of what I would term a European Chinese restaurant it verged on being a cariacature. There were the obligatory stylised prints of waterfalls, a few large fans on the walls and even a Lord Buddha image or two, beautifully presented tables with the nicely folded napkins, the whole shebang but none the worse for that.
It was a large place which made it all the more noticeable that I was the sole patron there. OK, it was fairly chilly weather but it was a Saturday evening and I would have expected there to be at least a few people. I was promptly attended to by a server that I would bet my next pension cheque was of Vietnamese rather than Chinese extraction which tended to confirm my earlier surmise.
Obviously a beer first and then a perusal of the menu which was extensive to say the least with all the “usual suspects” and a few little oddities to add a bit of interest. What prompted me to do it I do not know but I opted for a set meal which was not at all expensive by regional standards. I should have known better! I know what “Chinese” set meals can be like and this was to prove to be no exception, I suspect that chefs think they are feeding a platoon of soldiers on the Long March and it can often turn into “ordeal by food”.
For the benefit of those who may read this and do not know me, of whom I there will be many, I should explain that for such a tall man I have the appetite of a sparrow and will often go several days without eating. Strange I know but it does not seem to do me any harm. This will become relevant shortly.
I say ordeal “ordeal by food” but this really wasn’t except for the sheer volume. First up was a hot and sour soup, which I love, and which was done to perfection. It took just long enough to arrive to suggest it had been freshly made rather than merely banged in a microwave and it was beautiful but so thick and served in such a portion that it would have sufficed as a meal on it’s own.
Next up was a spring roll and I was hoping for one of the little ones like you buy in the supermarket but not a chance. This was the size of a housebrick although so gorgeous that I stupidly devoured the lot, along with the accompaniments and not one but two dipping sauces which were both sublime. I would suggest that they were all home-made.
By this stage, I was more than replete but we still had not come to the “main event”. First of all the little burner was produced to keep the food warm and I knew I was in trouble. If they produce that thing you just know it is going to be a huge portion and so it turned out. A sweet and sour dish which is another favourite of mine and served with as much rice as would have sufficed for four normal meals for me. I hope the images give some idea. I tried, believe me, I tried but eventually it defeated me and I had the plates cleared amidst much trying to explain to the server that it had been excellent but just too much. A lot of miming of rubbing my stomach and a bit of broken schoolboy and French the message apparently got through.
Then came the killer punch. Would I like dessert? Pardon my French (yes, I know I just did that) but not a bloody chance. I could not even risk a “wafer thin mint” (for the Monty Python fans amongst you). I was absolutely full to bursting and thankfully they didn’t hassle me to get out, well they wouldn’t do as it was empty and so I sat for a while and digested what had been a very fine meal.
Song He is a great restaurant but do remember to bring your appetite!
When the dinner had settled a little it was time for another beer or two by way of a digestif and so I took off to yet another bar although the rigours of the day, coupled with my stupid failure to take an identifying image means I have no idea which bar it was. What I do know is that I took into some more kriek (cherry beer) with the brand name Mystic with a lot of associated marketing as you can see.
After that it was a short walk home and off to my comfy bed. The projected four-day trip had concluded it’s fifteenth day and did not look like stopping any time soon.
There will be a tale of a pretty spooky experience in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.