Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nothing Says "Party" Like Balloons!

Okay, let's get right to it. I said that there would be tons of photos in this post, and I am going to try to keep it to a reasonable number. If you still had dial-up, you'd hate me. (But come on, if you still had dial-up, you'd hate everything.)

Somewhere a while back, Morgan and I had seen a flyer for the Sint-Niklaas Vredefeesten, and it showed pictures of hot-air balloons. As a result, I figured "vrede" had something to do with balloons, but that was entirely wrong. Instead, it means "peace." Anyhow, based on spotty Dutch translation and a picture of a balloon, we found ourselves in Sint-Niklaas for the festival. We were there in spite of the fact that we were leaving for Italy the very next day. The timing was terrible, but: balloons!

The balloon launches were divided up by types of balloons - first the gas balloons, then the mini hot-air balloons, then the regular hot-air ones, and finally the "special form" balloons. We arrived just in time to see the gas balloons floating overhead. I guess these are not nearly as common as the hot-air ones, since there were three of these compared to ... well, let's just say lots more of the regular variety. The balloons were being launched from the main square in the town, which seemed awfully small to me for the purpose, and perhaps a little too surrounded by buildings with pointy tops, but obviously I'm no expert on ballooning.

Once the gas balloons were out of sight, the square came alive with people unrolling their mini balloons. Apparently, these are radio-controlled, so they're like RC airplanes. When I heard "mini," I thought they might be about 5 or 6 feet tall, all told.
I was wrong.
 We didn't get to see any of them being remote-controlled, however. I think it was too windy - no one wants to have their giant mini balloon go floating away! Instead, everyone just walked them around the square, holding onto the baskets.
I'm not sure their intentions are benign.
There were a lot of these suckers.
After all that excitement, we were hungry, so we went to investigate the food booths. What we found was that each side of the square had food that consisted of a hamburger stand (and the burgers looked absolutely terrifying; not anything like a self-respecting American burger), a gyro stand, and an Indonesian food stand. Well, then.

At least it was good Indonesian food.
Properly fortified, we made our way back into the crowd for the main event - the hot-air balloons.
Things started out pretty mellow ...

... but quickly got kind of crazy.
From that moment on, it was pretty much non-stop balloons being dragged over, unrolled, secured to a car, filled with air, having their fires lit, final checks made, ties loosed, and finally ending with waving to the crowd as they lifted off. All of those things, in different stages, all over the square at once. It looked like mass confusion, and I was pretty sure someone's balloon was going to be accidentally burnt to a crisp due to proximity to someone else's flame, but nothing dire happened.

This was only about 15 minutes since the first balloon launched. It was
like a balloon assembly line out there.
See? This looks like a bad idea.
Fast on the heels of the last regular balloons getting filled and ready for takeoff, the special-form balloons took over the stage. These are the ones people really want to see, mostly, because they're the ones that are in all sort of fun shapes.
That form is pretty special, all right.

The "Up" balloon pictured at left was actually pretty cleverly done. It's mostly just a basic balloon printed with an all-over pattern of smaller balloons, but some of them are little pockets that fill with air and give it a bumpy texture.

In the distance is the balloon that was being filled in the last picture, a girl in a flight helmet. I think she goes with the guy with the blue hair, but I'm not sure. The bit of yellow you see in the right corner turned into something kind of spectacular.

You can't tell what yet in this photo, but I'm including it anyway
because it cracks me up.

I have to ask, would you be willing to go up in the air in that thing? It doesn't exactly look aerodynamic. And I suspect it needs better conditions than it had for really successful flights. As it was, it barely cleared the apartments on the other side of the square before it started descending. For all I know, it ended up in someone's back yard.

Only one more balloon made it off the ground after our princess here, and that was the lion that had been used on all the advertising for the festival.

It's a lion wearing a crown. I guess that makes him a lion king.
If you can believe it, I didn't post all the pictures I like from this experience. In fact, a couple of my favorites are missing because they didn't fit into the narrative. If you're curious, and you're not 100% sick of balloons (and the word "balloon," which I might be), then you should head over to my Flickr to see what you've missed.

Friday, October 11, 2013

And ... Roll Credits

This is the very last part of the Brussels post. Morgan and I dropped Emily off at the airport, and returned to spend the rest of the day in the city. Don't expect much from this post because it really consists of two things (spoiler!): wandering around, and spending the afternoon in a bar (but not just any bar!).

We got back into the city from the airport around lunchtime, which meant finding a place to eat was our first task. Morgan had read about a place that was supposed to serve real American-style hamburgers, so we made that our destination. It was kind of a gloomy day, which seemed appropriate in a way. We walked around a bit, just looking at the different types of architecture.

Brussels is certainly a lot more of a big city and a lot more modern than Gent is, with just over three times the population and the influence of being the seat of the EU and NATO. But there's a good amount of the old world on display, too.

One kid gets a lion, and then every kid has to have a lion.
Oh, and Tintin. There's also plenty of
Tintin on display.

The restaurant where we had lunch (Ellis Gourmet Burgers) did in fact have burgers mostly like home, if a bit on the fancy side. It's also the only place in this country I've ever been served ketchup with my fries. It's funny, because I have never considered myself really "into" burgers, but it was certainly a nice taste of home. I guess it was something I'd missed without even realizing it.
With lunch over, we made our way to the Delirium Tremens bar. As I mentioned in the last post, Delirium Tremens has been voted the best beer in the world. The bar has a different claim to fame, though. They got into the Guinness book of World Records for having the biggest beer selection. They have an absolutely gigantic menu of all their offerings, complete with pictures and descriptions. Even so, you might as well just open randomly to a page and point, really.

This is the Delirium Tremens Nocturnum, along with the standard
Delirium beer, which he poured for me by mistake.
I was absolutely in love with the Delirium Tremens Nocturnum, the dark beer in the photo above. If you're interested in what it tastes like, check out the comments on Beer Snob Central - I mean, Beer Advocate. I kid; I would like to learn to recognize more tastes in beers, but I'm not very good at it just yet. Anyhow, you can get this one bottled in the rest of the world, so you should go and do that.

Don't let the light color fool you; darker doesn't necessarily mean stronger.
Although the Waterloo is a mere 7.5% abv, the Urthel Hop-It is 9.5%
You may notice that we had different types of glasses for each beer (the two from Delirium used the same glass). Belgians are very serious about their glassware. Often, bars will have branded glasses that are used for each beer. In a pinch, there are some broader types that will suffice.

Like I said, they are serious about glassware.
It would have been easy to kill hours (or days) in the Delirium Cafe, and even if you should happen to get bored there, they have other options for you. On their tiny little street are also a Delirium Pub and Hop Loft (special assortment of hoppy beers), a rum bar, and an absinthe bar. We really wanted to check out the absinthe bar, but it didn't open till later in the evening and it was getting to be time to head back home to Gent. So, onto the "to do" list that went, for the next time we're in Brussels.

The next post here will be all about balloons! Prepare for tons of photos.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Brussels, No Sprouts

Before I get into this post, I have to say that I left a couple of things out of the last post about Gent. I tend to use my photos as a way to remember what we did, so when we go places that don't allow photos, I promptly forget about them. But I do want to mention that we saw Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which is a big altarpiece whose home is Sint-Baafs cathedral here in Gent. We saw most of it in the cathedral itself, but part of it was at the STAM museum being restored, so we viewed those panels there.

This is just one panel of it, but it's the part with the mystic lamb.
It's interesting to see, and worth the 6 Euros admission, standing in a crowded room with a bunch of other people, and the requirement of absolute silence while you view it.

Okay, on to Brussels. This was, sadly, Emily's last day with us. We'd planned to spend this day in Brussels so that we could just wake up and head to the airport from there instead of having to get up even earlier to accommodate the train ride from Gent. It was a good plan, because 6:45 was plenty early enough to be getting up.

The first spot we visited was the Grand Place. When you look around, it seems that "ornate" was the guiding principle for its design. It was full to overflowing with tourists, which made it difficult to get good photos, but easy to find someone to ask to take a photo of the three of us together. As it turns out, though, not everyone knows how to operate a camera all that well, so that photo will remain unseen. Never fear, though, other photos were taken.

Hello, Kitty.
We wandered in the direction of what is probably Brussels' best-known attraction, which is Mannekin Pis. I'm not sure how I'd feel if my city was known for a statue of a little boy peeing, but Brussels seems to have embraced it fully. Replicas of it fill the souvenir shops; variations on the theme abound everywhere you turn in the city.
How ... appetizing?
And as tacky and/or weird as the statue itself may be, we stumbled upon it at a most fortuitous moment which made it even tackier and weirder, but simultaneously more awesome. Some background: the statue gets periodically dressed up in a variety of costumes. There's a schedule, but we didn't bother to consult it because really, who cares? However, I had read that the statue has an extra-special costume that involves an extra-special ceremony, and as we approached the statue, I realized we had arrived at exactly the right moment.

Here is the statue, urinating normally. (I cannot
believe I just typed that sentence.)
He was wearing the colors and pink elephant logo of Delirium Tremens brewery. Delirium Tremens beer was at some point voted the best beer in the world. (And they don't intend to let you forget it.) Anyhow, there was a group of people dressed in the same outfit as the statue, holding forth about something (I don't speak French), and singing.

After that was done, they sprayed the crowd with water.

Yes, seriously.
Then it was time to really get down to business. They disconnected Manneken Pis from his water supply ... and hooked him up to a keg.

Again, seriously.
The cups they filled from the statue were only for the costumed folks involved in the ceremony, but once they'd hooked him back up to the regular water, they filled cups from the keg and passed out free beer.
Now you're talking.
We were pretty sure we weren't going to top that as far as being equal parts strange and cool, but we ventured on anyway.

Arcade of the Galeries Saint-Hubert
We did some chocolate shopping at Corné in the Galeries Saint-Hubert. It was a brand we hadn't seen in Gent, and we enjoyed their offerings very much.

Dinner was at a restaurant near our hotel, and it was an interesting experience. Although Brussels is in theory the only bilingual city in Belgium, in practice this doesn't mean quite what you'd expect. Signs and other notices are in both French and Dutch, in contrast to the rest of the country where only one language is used. However, French is overwhelmingly the language you'll hear in Brussels. So, back to the restaurant: we were greeted by the hostess with "Bon soir, goedenavond." The menu was in Dutch and French. Since we are considerably more comfortable with Dutch than French (which may tell you something about the state of our French!), we attempted to order in Dutch. What we got was a confused look from the waiter, so we attempted English. More baffled expressions. The absolute confusion on his part continued until we mangled our way through the French versions of what we wanted.

One might think, well, perhaps he doesn't speak Dutch very well. Or English. Maybe, but when a group of Chinese tourists came in to be seated, he spoke English to them. With us, however, it was the all-French hour. We made our way awkwardly through ordering, and were feeling a little unwelcome as he continued to speak English to the Chinese people and French to us, and shortly before our dinners arrived, I realized Emily's place setting didn't have a napkin. So I mustered up my courage and my tiny French vocabulary, and when the waiter returned, I said, "S'il vous plait ... une serviette?" After that, the mood seemed to change. He brought the napkin, and when he brought our meals, he also had a dish of potato croquettes we hadn't asked for. We joked that it seemed to be a "sorry I was being a jerk" offering, and indeed, he was much more friendly the rest of our time there. Go figure.

Unfortunately, the night ended all too soon and the next morning we went to the airport and had to say goodbye to Emily. Like all good vacations, it hadn't felt too hurried while we were seeing everything, but all of a sudden, it was over.
Good times, good times.
Next up: probably more Brussels (Morgan and I spent the rest of the day there after Emily headed home), and then hot air balloons in Sint-Niklaas.