On now swiftly to the 21st and this was now becoming more than a little crazy even by my lunatic standards. A putative four day trip, with appropriate kit for that duration had now gone over two weeks and I still had no desire to go home, I just wanted to keep going. I was starting to question my own sanity by this point but pourqoui non (why not?) as they say in these parts? I am not married, have no children and no responsibilities at home so I can effectively travel as much as I like. I have an annual travel insurance policy, my flat will look after itself as all the bills are paid directly from the bank. I have a modest income from a pension which is enough to keep me on the road if I keep the costs down (this was turning out to be a very expensive run) and I could just keep going until I don’t feel like it any more.
Liege is a beautiful city and I had a bit of a wander round including several very good bars. However, in the way my mind (if indeed I have one) was working then, I had decided that Luxembourg was close. I wanted to visit there for no better reason than I had never been so why not? I’d had a shower so I didn’t smell too bad, I had a few (very few) clothes, a debit card and a few €€€ in my pocket, so let’s go.
I scored a cheap hotel online in Luxembourg city, jumped on a train and just kept on running. Again, the train was my friend and deposited me bang on time in the beautiful Luxembourg station in very comfortable fashion. I have to say that what passes for a British railway system has much to learn.
Arrival in Luxembourg.
It was a short walk to my hotel which, being in the station district, was in what I would call a fairly edgy area. I saw gangs of black youths on street corners and had to front out a couple (nothing major), there were obvious prostitutes standing about and the street my hotel was on “boasted” one pole dancing club and two sex shops. However, I have lived in London for a long time, know how to look after myself and am not worried by the sex trade nor silly little boys strutting. I have seen far too much of both before. Frankly, and completely off topic, I would prefer to sit and have a drink with a few prostitutes than a few lawyers. At least the prostitutes are honest about taking your money!
I digress, as always and I shall tell you all about the Hotel Yasha in the next instalment.
So, I had arrived in Luxembourg and obviously I was going to have to investigate the local area. I did not fancy going too far that first evening as it had been a long day but a few minutes walk through a slightly seedy area which offered even more strip clubs and sex shops brought me to what looked like a half decent little bar called the Cafe – Brasserie Garer Stuff. It was unpretentious, although clean and tidy, quite busy with local people and just exactly my sort of place. I called for a beer which was one of the local brews (Bofferding if memory serves) which is a fine beer albeit I had been somewhat spoiled by the myriad offerings of Belgium.
Cafe Garer Stuff, Luxembourg City.
The lady behind the bar was terribly friendly and we managed to get by in my pretty abysmal French in which I was getting probably too confident for my ability and her English which was of about the same level so I did not feel so bad. There were a few fairly raucous outbursts from several tables of middle aged men but she assured me it was nothing to worry about and so it proved, merely a bit of boisterous behaviour and nothing intimidating. Although the Garer Stuff had a certain edge to it which I love and actively seek out, I certainly never felt in the slightest threatened there on the several visits I made.
Unusually for me I was a little hungry and this being a Friday night it was Panzerotti night. What in the name of all that is holy is a panzerotti, I had never heard of one? It sounded to me vaguely like a WWII German main battle tank built by the Ferrari factory. If you know what one is I do apologise and if not then please allow me to explain. A panzerotti is basically like a small calzone which is deep fried rather than oven baked, simple as that. I had seen several other people having them and they looked delicious so I ordered up one and it was utterly gorgeous and very good value at about €4 in what is not a cheap city.
This is a panzerotti.
Hopefully on the principle that a picture paints a thousand words my images here will give some idea. With my miniscule appetite it was more than enough for an evening meal and the perfect bar snack to accompany the excellently served beer. I should mention that this is not the only food on offer and there is a full menu of much more substantial food available throughout the day. Nothing overly fancy, just good “beer soakers” as we used to call them.
Yes, this place is in one of the rougher quarters of town. Yes, it can get a little lively although never worryingly so. Yes, it is fairly basic and yes, I love the place. This is effectively me in my element. Garer Stuff is hugely recommended if you think like I do but well worth a look even if you are a little more genteel as you will certainly come to no harm.
After a few more beers of the gargantuan size shown in the image above I headed back to the hotel to get my head down and had a great nights sleep.
I return to an earlier theme here. I hadn’t set foot in a museum, art gallery or place of worship nor indulged in any other tourist activity so was it a wasted day? Never. I had arrived in a new country (remarkably I’d never been to Luxembourg before ), hung out with the locals, rediscovered that I could actually speak basic French, had a very enjoyable time all round and I was still on the road. How bad can that be? I have a great life which I appreciate fully and I still had no idea where this little jaunt was going to end up.
More of the Duchy in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.
The dawn of the 20th April arrived and, remarkably, I was up with it. I am generally just thinking about going to bed at that hour of the day as I am a fairly nocturnal creature, but here I was wide awake at about 0500 so nothing to do but head out to the back yard for a smoke. In truth, this was no hardship as the wonderful hostel I was staying in had the most gorgeous courtyard. Let me tell you all about this excellent place.
I have mentioned on various other sites about the way that Youth Hostels have changed over the decades since I started using them in the 1970’s and this is a prime example.
Way back when, Youth Hostels were basic to say the least and run along regimental lines that I would have later recognised from my military service with the minimum of facilities. Chores in the morning were the order of the day and you were strictly forbidden to be indoors during the day no matter how inclement the weather. Yes, they had a certain charm, especially the one I stayed in with no electricity and the toilets outside but things have moved on.
The Hostel George Simenon stands on the road of the same name, both of which are called after the author who created the fictional detective Maigret. It is a modern and comfortable building although obviously built on a much older structure, many of the architectural features of which have been cleverly retained. I have discovered whilst researching this entry that it was previously a convent. The courtyard mentioned above is, to my mind, the most striking feature and really is a thing of joy. They obviously treasure it as well as using it to the full with a lovely display of plants even at that time of year and what looked like a small market garden operation.
The hostel is located fairly centrally and even with my bad back I dragged my small suitcase from the station with no problem. On arrival I was greeted by a young hostel worker with perfect English (the norm here much to my shame) and allocated a bunk. All the staff were consistently pleasant throughout my stay. OK, the room was upstairs and to the rear but that had the twin advantages of no road noise at night (not that there was much anyway) and a beautiful view of the adjacent church. In the room there was even a small “attic” double bed up a step ladder which looked extremely cosy.
So what of the rest of the facilities then? Well, faultless is the word I would use. The reception is 24 hours a day so none of the rigidly enforced curfews of my youth, they have a table football (soccer) machine should you be so inclined, a pool table and best of all a bar that is also open non-stop. Basically the receptionist doubles as the bar server and with prices marginally cheaper than in town there would be little need to go out the front door if you just wanted to drink good Belgian beer and socialise.
The bunk bed was comfy enough and with sufficient length to accommodate my rather lanky frame, the communal bathroom adjacent was kept spotless with lashings of hot water at a good pressure and I really was well content at the price. I fully appreciate that this style of living is not to everyone’s taste but it suited me fine and kept the costs down allowing me to keep on the road.
A kitchen fit for a Michelin chef.
I do like to cook occasionally and I have to say that the kitchen would have done credit to a small sized restaurant. Whilst I was only knocking up simple things I reckon that any decent cook could have had a field day in there. It was kept immaculate and was a pleasure to cook in.
Downsides? I was there over the Easter school holidays and there was a group of young schoolchildren there who did make a bit of a racket as they went about their communal activities in the day but that was no great hardship.
I am now approaching 60 and still like hanging out in Youth Hostels, I suppose when I stop enjoying it then I may well stop travelling. Hostels have changed out of all recognition since my childhood and the George Simenon is an excellent example of what can be achieved.
Again, I apologise for the quality of some of the photos here but I have a natural aversion to using flash as I think it draws attention to myself although looking like me that is a pretty normal state of being. Small children continually stare at me which is no problem, they must think I am Santa Claus or some mad pirate or whatever it is that small children think. I include the images merely to give an indication of how good the hostel was albeit I would not normally publish images of this poor quality.
The day itself was predominantly spent indoors trying (and failing miserably) to keep this blog up although I did manage a wander round some local bars later in the afternoon. Well, this is Fergy and a day without drink is like a day without sunshine as they say. I had suffered more than enough of those (days without sunshine not drink) on this trip as the weather has been abysmal.
As you would expect in Belgium there is no shortage of bars which appear to be uniformly appealing in various ways and one I did visit that evening was Le Manhattan 2. Don’t ask me where Le Manhattan 1 is as I have no idea but this was a charming place for a beer with decent service although, like most places I visited that evening it was all but empty. There is nothing of note to tell you other than it is worth a visit if you are passing.
Continuing my perambulation I came upon what looked like a bar although, as is the way here, it was rather more a bar / restaurant than purely a drinking establishment. It was called Bibi Afrika and that gave me sort of a clue as to what it’s provenance may have been. Like my country although albeit to a considerably lesser degree, the Belgians had something of an empire, predominantly in the 19th and into the 20th centuries. In the Belgian case it centred very much on central Africa and there is no escaping the number of people from that region in the country. It doesn’t bother me, a bar is a bar and so in I went.
It was pretty small but immaculately clean and as I say I thought it was as much eating house as watering hole although nobody was eating at that time. Truth be told, nobody was eating because there was nobody there! OK, it was getting on a bit on a fairly unpleasant April evening but I had the place completely to myself. Not a problem, I can do that.
I propped myself up in my accustomed position at the bar and ordered a beer which, needless to say in this country of beer lovers, arrived perfectly kept and poured. A bit of conversation with the server in the schoolboy French I was now becoming more and more comfortable with and it was indeed a pleasant time spent.
It was only whilst subsequently researching this piece that I discovered that the premises is actually a not for profit organisation although I can find no further details of the background of that. Whilst I would have been quite prepared to recommend Bibi Afrika as a very decent little bar per se I can only further endorse that recommendation with my new knowledge. If I can have a well-served beer in pleasant surroundings and maybe do a tiny little bit of good along the way whilst doing so then I cannot see any downside to that, can you?
Back to my very comfortable bed and another sound night in great surroundings.
More of Liege tomorrow so stay tuned and spread the word.
The 18th was really an unremarkable day of wandering from bar to bar and doing little else. I even omitted to take many images which is unusual for me as I tend to be a bit of a shutterfly.
One of the bars I found was La Belle Epoque, which was rather good and with a fine selection of beers but by then I had come to expect it in a nation of cerevisaphiles as the Belgians are.
It did, however, end up finishing with a very decent kebab in one of the most architecturally charming kebab shops I have ever been in, I hope the image does it justice.
Due to the lack of anything much of interest I shall publish the day here along with the subsequent one to save you having to keep clicking on links but first I shall tell you about the hotel I had arrived at.
The Hotel De La Basse Sambre was chosen for one reason and one reason only, it was cheap. I had looked online and it appeared a step or two up from a fleapit and whilst I know that internet promo photos are designed to present any premises in the best possible light they were not too far off the mark and I knew exactly what to expect. Basic but it was en-suite which is a bonus even though communal facilities do not bother me overly.
When I had blown into Charleroi on the train I took off for a walk to the hotel which was given on various websites as being about 0.9 km or 1 km. My ear! It is a fair old trek out of town on and sits in a light industrial site as seems to be becoming more common nowadays. I have no problem with this as I am not there for the view, I just need a comfy bed and a shower with hot water at a decent pressure and the Basse Sambre certainly provided both. My room was at the back i.e. facing the industrial area but if I had a slight worry about noise it was unfounded as that was not a problem at all.
When I did eventually slog my way up there, check-in was quick and friendly with good English spoken and I was quickly in my room which was of a decent size for a place in this price range, spotlessly clean and with everything I could have wanted. There are little (for which read nothing) in the way of communal facilities here and those looking for a spa, jacuzzi, sauna etc. will be disappointed but I suspect the Basse Sambre is set up for business travellers and those like me that just want a safe and comfortable place to lay their head which it supplies completely.
Yet another comfy bed in yet another hotel room in yet another town.
The bed turned out to be very comfortable and I had a great sleep there. The shower did indeed provide piping hot water at a good pressure on demand and so my hotel requirements were well met.
My word, it is tomorrow already.
The 19th April came and I was still in Charleroi but with plans to move. I just had this mad urge to keep moving. To hark back to earlier entries in this journal, I had planned for four days away and packed accordingly and here I was, almost three weeks later, still running the wheels off it.
It was a day of doing very little really except visiting a few bars, well more than a few, truth be told. I found Charleroi to be a very pleasant town and, whilst I did not visit many of the “attractions” that day, or indeed any other, I still don’t consider it as wasted time. I found a few of the seedier bars in town (as I usually do and quite on purpose), hung out with the locals and found out to my utter amazement that I could carry my end of a conversation in French. The reason this amazes me is that I was never that good at languages in school and, although I did get my French “O” level (thank you, Miss Miller) I had literally not used it for over 40 years. Had you asked me I would have said that I did not speak it at all but it somewhow just came back to me and I was using vocabulary that must have lodged somewhere all those years before.
Let me tell you about three of the which demonstrate very well the range of options available. First up is the Snooker Club.
I have mentioned in previous entries in this journal, specifically those attached to my Beauraing pages, that the bars in this region of Southern Belgium are uniformly what I would describe as “posh” by my standards and I have also mentioned elsewhere here that I like my bars a little “rough” so when I saw the Snooker Hall I thought it may be my kind of place. It turned out to be exactly my kind of place.
Bar Le Snooker, Charleroi.
I have no idea what thoughts the concept of a snooker hall or even pool hall in the reader’s home country generates but in UK they are generally regarded as being slightly rough establishments and not somewhere to take you maiden aunt should you have such a relative. It was an absolute dead cert I was going to be in there.
What I found was a very clean and tidy bar with a “bar snack” menu and a few pool (not snooker as the name would have suggested) tables to the rear of the premises. Whilst it was certainly a little “edgier” than most of the very tidy bars in town, it was grand for me. A beer was ordered and, almost needless to say in Belgium, it arrived very well kept and presented as they really do know how to do beer here and so another few were called for.
When I say it was “edgy” that is a relative term as the whole establishment was very well run and there was not a hint of trouble. It was a spotlessly clean and tidy bar and I spent a very comfortable couple of hours there watching the sport on the large screen TV, chatting to the staff and drinking some very fine beer. All in all a great place and now onto the complete opposite, Le Luxembourg.
On my meanderings around Charleroi I had noticed a rather posh looking cafe / restaurant called Le Luxembourg which was situated on a large roundabout in the centre of town but I had taken a somewhat cowardly approach as I wasn’t exactly dressed to the nines for reasons as explained elsewhere in this journal. Later on and fortified by a little “Dutch courage” from a few other more down to earth establishments I took the plunge and wandered in. What was the worst they could do to me? Throw me out on my ear I suppose.
When I did eventually go in my impressions of the establishment from the outside, reinforced by a few surreptitious glances in the mullioned windows were entirely confirmed. Purely out of habit I walked up to the bar even though there was waiter service here as is the norm in the region and I suppose it was this that led to the very smartly attired waiter to address me in English before I had even opened my mouth. Am I really that obvious? Apparently so.
I opted for a Maes beer in preference to my usual Jupiler as it appeared to be the “house beer” and with this being Belgium it is almost superfluous to mention that it was kept and presented immaculately. I still marginally prefer the Jupiler but there is not much to choose between them. If you are interested, Maes is the Flemish name for the river that is also known as the Meuse in French and the Maas in Dutch. Although it was not a conscious decision I had been vaguely following hte river and hadn’t realised it. In Dordrecht it had been the Nieuwe Maas, I had followed it on the train from Namur and indeed I was to bump into it again as you shall see if you keep reading this series.
Bar Le Luxembourg, Charleroi.
Choosing a seat I settled down for a look round and there was certainly plenty to see, as indeed there was when I went on a brief exploration later on. The entire bar just oozes that fin de siecle opulence and whilst the prices are a little dearer than other bars locally you certainly do not pay through the nose for the surroundings. I would suggest that the chandelier alone merits a visit as I hope the images convey.
Although I did not eat here the specials blackboard for the day did offer some very interesting suggestions with mains running generally at €18:50 and I was tempted by the asparagus soup as it was right in season and they produce some great asparagus in this region. Next time perhaps. Whilst I cannot vouch for the quality of the food obviously, I can state that this would be a great place to get your gladrags on and go for a special meal.
As they had not asked me to leave even when I was wandering about making free with the camera I decided that another beer was in order and that was duly polished off before I continued on my merry way. Another very fine bar and I have to recommend it highly.
I lived the first 28 years of my life on the island of Ireland and it is no secret that I like a drink or ten so it is hardly surprising that I know a thing or two about Irish. Frankly, outside Ireland you will struggle to find the genuine article. Certainly I have drunk in so-called “Irish pubs” from Phnom Penh to Peterborough and Bratislava to Brisbane and I generally do not like them as they are just so obviously fake. It is as if some Hollywood set designer had been employed to design a template for “Irish Bars” the world over and they have all slavishly followed it. One small example should serve here. I have lost count of the number of so-called Irish bars that have an old bicycle hung upside down from the ceiling. I have NEVER seen that in a pub in Ireland.
OK, that is my rant about faux Irish pubs over so why did I go into the Irish Times in Charleroi? Who knows? A forlorn hope this might somehow be different? A hankering after the “old country”? Not a chance. Most likely it was merely a desire to visit as many bars in Charleroi as possible and eventually report back on them on the website I was currently writing for. Yes, I know that is in itself probably pretty pathetic but there you have it.
Walking in, it was exactly as I expected, or should I say feared? It was verging on a caricature of itself with the fixtures and fittings straight out of the “Buy an Irish pub online” website (no, it doesn’t exist, I just made it up to illustrate the point). Guinness was promoted heavily as expected but if I won’t drink it in a “proper” Irish bar in London (i.e. one where Irishmen drink) why would I drink it in a country renowned for the quality of it’s own beer? I ordered a Belgian beer and very good it was too. I took a seat to watch the re-run sport on one of the numerous big screens that seem to be the raison d’etre for the establishment.
Whilst researching this piece I discovered that this outlet was then the newest of three in the group with the others in Antwerp and Hasselt and this is exactly what bars like this are, commercial chains and not proper pubs. In fairness, they have been going here since 2000 so they must be appealing to some type of clientele, few of whom I would suggest have ever set foot in a proper Irish pub. No, the Irish Times is not my type of place but in the interests of fair reporting I have to say that it was spotlessly clean (including the “facilities”), service was quick and friendly and the beer very well-kept and served as is to be expected in a Belgian bar. No complaints at all.
Certainly, it is not my kind of place for reasons as outlined above but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Irish Times and I can find no fault with it per se. If that is your kind of place then go for it and good luck to you, you will not be disappointed. As we say in Ireland, “Slainte Mhath”.
Time to move on though and it was next stop Liege. I am sure Liege was one of the destinations on the 2015 Virtual Tourist “three countries in three days” Euromeet before that wonderful site was so wantonly destroyed. However, I did not make it then as, in the way of these things, myself and a few friends had made a bit of a night of it the evening before in Aachen and didn’t quite make the trip.
The journey was quick and painless as train journeys in this region tend to be although I saw no more of the city than heading from the station to my next place of residence for the night. Actually, that is not entirely true and the reason will not be surprising to most of you.
I did get waylaid for a while in the rather pleasant Brasserie le Tube where the extremely jovial barman insisted on posing the alcoholic still life you can see here as soon as he saw me at work with the camera.
Eventually I made it to my excellent hostel and after a quick bite to eat and it was off to bed and a good sleep.
This really was turning into something of a trek from what was meant to be a four-day “jolly” in Leiden and I shall tell you about the hostel and Liege itself in the next episode so stay tuned and spread the word.