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Requiem for the Front Garden

22 Jun

What are you doing people? Everywhere I look I see the same thing –  the demise of the front garden. These are sorry times. The craze of all things paved is slowly creeping across our entire island. Soon there will be just houses and double driveways with not an inch of space left for a green shoot to pop out for some light relief. Tarmac, Paving, even Concrete allowing more cars and less water to drain down into the water tables and so on to our reservoirs.

Houses in the suburbs were built to have gardens, little fences, gates and above all, a little slice of vegetation. Houses in the suburbs now have rock-hard open driveways and exposed house fronts revealing ugly lines, and, where there is no car, a skip.

 

Het Velootje Pilgrimage Quashed

6 May

Pilgrimages are all well and good if you’re  religiously insane but what about the rest of us?

A recent beer pilgrimage of mine was a funky little trip to Ghent to visit the legendary Het Velootje bar or pub or whatever they call their drinking establishments over yonder. I’d looked forward to this for some time because, like the religiously insane, I too enjoy long trips of hope and expectation. Only in my beer pilgrimage, I was to actually get to meet a slightly disturbed man with long hair, a beard and dirty fingernails! Better still, I would be able to have a beer with him or at least have a beer served by him. See, we’re all a bit mental!!

Sadly, while the arduous journey through some of the hardest terrain known to humanity (Belgium on the Eurostar) taught me to love myself and to respect other people (allowing other people off the train first), it did not prepare me for the crushing disappointment that was to await me when I found the place.

Het Velootje is situated in the Patershol district of Ghent, a very pretty historical area and the building must be quite old. It is in all the guidebooks as a weird bar with a weird owner and the latter is certainly true.  It’s a bar crammed with bicycles and junk with a roaring fire (by all accounts). I arrived there early in the day just so that I knew where to come later in the day and found a small but lively little street. The place was closed but I was happy that I would be back there later on in the day.

Het Velootje

Great bin location. What looked like a bunch of Romanian cleaners
had just shut themselves inside before I took the photo.

I went back. I dragged the Profesorette. We rocked up and were pleased to find a bevy of lunatics outside. I was beside myself with joy until I found out from the horse’s mouth that, because of problems with the electrics, the fire department had decided to close them down for the time being. What? Seriously? Well, I can’t tell if they were having me on to this moment. “It ish alsho political, oh yes and the neighboursh” is what I was told.

She holding the veggie box, He holding my hopes and dreams in his tool box

Well, I was happy to have met the madman and his friend, who seemed lovely, like a Belgian Pam Ayres. There was another particularly mad fellow who was trying manfully to translate what the creator was trying to explain. Unfortunately, he had to disappear on his bike either for a trip to the dentist or to get his grey roots dyed so I never had the chance for a photograph.

The bar

When all was said and done, I wasn’t really disappointed. I came away content because I’d had quite the most bizarre conversation outside the place of pilgrimage with the legend himself. I didn’t get in for a beer but it just sets me up for the next time. Assuming it is still there that is*. And after all, it’s not every pilgrim who gets to meet the man with the beard!!!

*Apparently, people should write on his website about how much they want to visit, and how disappointed they were that their visit was in vain because the comments are being compiled into some sort of book that will be delivered in front of the powers that be, or something like that, I didn’t understand every cryptic remark that was shot my way!

A Tale of Two Cities – U Fleku and Birreria Peroni

6 Apr

Two beautiful cities. Two historical cities. Two tourist destinations. On the surface, the two cities seemed well-matched and I had high hopes of enjoying them both equally. Actually, they are very, very different in culture, style and what is becoming increasingly important to me, atmosphere. Atmosphere is a personal thing when I visit places, be they a village 20 miles from my house or a city on the other side of the world. Sometimes preconceived ideas of what to expect ruin an atmosphere unfairly and it takes you a little time to shift your mindset around this.

Stained Glass

I visited both cities within a short space of time and only for long weekends. In Prague, the weather was spectacular and the buildings were very beautiful and the tourists bled from every church, museum and statue there was. In Rome, the weather was spectacular, the sheer volume of history was overwhelming and the tourists cascaded down every dome, column and  balustrade in sight. I enjoyed the Rome experience and was slightly underwhelmed by the Prague experience. Why? How could I be so underwhelmed by such a beautiful place? On paper, it ticked all the boxes for me architecture, history and one of few countries with a bona fide beer culture.

It all came down to atmosphere I suppose. Italy is ‘literally’ bursting with historically important towns and cities but each one that I have visited still has a lively, life-goes-on-despite-what-we-have feeling. People go about their business and the tourists go about theirs. Rome had this feeling but Prague did not, for me at least. In Prague, I felt like a lot of the life had been squeezed out of the centre of the city turning it into a place with a splash of the Disneylands about it. There may be economic and historical factors for this, taking into account the Czech Republic’s communist history and the fact that people have been touring Italy since the Renaissance for example but that was my impression.

Prague

Now, I mentioned the Czech Republic’s beer culture and the Czechs are very proud of their beer, rightly so, and they do drink an awful lot of it. The Italians are less well-known for their beer but have recently begun to make some very nice brews themselves. In Prague, one beer seems to dominate, the famous Pilsner Urquell, which is a classic, but there are others around. On my visit, I was also able to try a number of other types which were all of a quality, if not always to my taste. Rome tended to have three beers per menu, two typical lagers and a bock or a ‘Rosso’, just enough to get by on.

U Fleku

It was in two particular establishments, one in each of the cities, that I could sum up my overall reaction to the two cities. One was the legendary U Fleku, a brewpub/restuarant which dates back to the 15th Century. They have been brewing there for 500 consecutive years and it has a medieval look, with Gothic and Romantic styling. There is one house dark lager called Flekovský ležák 13°.  It is a place of pilgrimage for beer lovers and was high on my list of places to visit, as it happened my hotel was a minute’s walk away so it was one of the first places I went to.  In Rome, there is a similar beerhall, less well-known, and while still a destination for tourists, not a mecca for beer lovers. This was the Antica Birreria Peroni, a beerhall which ‘only’ dates from 1909 and whose Art Deco style dates back to the 1920s. Inside it really looks the part and sitting there you could imagine wax moustachioed Italians with centre partings and white bibs sucking up spaghetti off their plates all those years back.

On entry to U Fleku, a rather grumpy man pointed glumly to a room where we could go in and find a seat. It was a nice room with a lovely beamed ceiling. I loved the fact that there was only one drink on offer and you were expected to drink it. The waiters just brought the dark, frothy brews into the hall and without looking banged them down on the tables. Perhaps this less challenging part of their job contributed to the disinterestedness and lack of charm they were showing to their customers. Next, a waiter came along and barked out that we needed to try this horrible, green, medicine shot because it was traditional, omitting to mention that they were about £100 each. OK, I guessed that they weren’t free and thought why not, but the manner in which it was done was a little forceful. The food was simple Czech fare but definitely not the same quality as the beer. The beer was very nice. I wasn’t raving that it was the best thing I’d ever tasted (which I do do) but it was very nice. I now wonder whether the atmosphere affected my enjoyment of it. Before and since, I had and have enjoyed oompah bands but the musicians in U Fleku were just a bit, well annoying, and in your face, certainly not the endearing ones I had expected. The bill, when it came, was relatively high and looking around the room it was easy to imagine that this place was no longer within financial reach of your average Prague pub-goer.

Pic from their Website

Onwards and upwards, Birreria Peroni, provided quite a different experience. On entry, we were greeted with that most precious of commodities, a smile. It was again lunchtime but this time looking around the room you were not just met with groups or tourists, although these were present, many local workers were also enjoying their lunches there. The hall was equally stylish but less steeped in history than U Fleku and, happily, there was no oompah band and nobody was trying to force Buck Rogers drinks down my neck. There was even a bit of banter with the staff despite the fact it was plainly busier than its Czech counterpart had been. Simple Italian food was available and was very tasty. The prices weren’t too bad. The beer was from Peroni and they had 3 types on sale, Nastro Azzuro, Rosso and Gran Riserva, no real attraction to the beer lover but it was fantastic to drink and eat in a nice atmosphere in a classy, historic beerhall and when I did drink those beers, I wasn’t thinking about how average they were, I was just enjoying every last drop of them, cold an’ all!

I would happily go back to Prague again and re-evaluate my impressions but as revered a beer as U Fleku has around the world, I’d give it a miss if I did.

Not mine either

*I always consider myself among the tourists, wherever I am and whatever form of travelling I'm doing. I don't buy into the idea of having a backpack makes you less of one, despite me being more likely to travel that way.

Prohibition dodging in Whitehaven

7 Mar

Situated on the sea to the west side of the Lake District is a small town called Whitehaven. It has an old harbour, a festival and some nice old buildings in the old town.  However, unless you get a clear, sunny day, you’d probably come to the conclusion that this town has definitely seen better days. It’s a place that you might like a bit more for what it has been or what it could be rather than for what it is.

US servicemen prohibition dodging in Whitehaven

I struggled to find any good food there, but am willing to be set straight on that, and didn’t really find any of the pubs too welcoming or discerning either. However, Whitehaven has three priceless things to offer, to my mind at least. It has a museum entirely dedicated to Rum.  It’s called the Rum Story, I thought it was great. It traces the town’s history with rum, how to make it and recreates various scenarios involved in the whole trade – slave ships, coopers quarters, rainforests – it’s got it all. You even get a free drink of rum at the end, bottles of which could be purchased in the shop there. I happily spent the best part of an afternoon wandering through the different rooms and thought it very well done and then I bought some rum, drank it, got a headache and went to sleep.

The second gem in this town is a damp smelling secondhand bookshop. It was great, books everywhere in every corner, and corridors and rooms and more rooms around the corner ….. you get the idea. I also spent quite a while in this shop, which has curiosity and charm imprinted into its soul. Unfortunately, I forgot the name. It was a few doors down from the Rum Museum and a little bit of internet research suggested that it is called Michael Moon’s Antiquarian Bookshop, but don’t quote me on that. I loved the smell and I loved the weird books, pictures and ‘whatnot’ I found in there. There used to be a bookshop like this in the place where I grew up but the last time I saw it it had been transformed into a rather boring estate agents! Let second hand book sellers trade rent free I say, preposterous as that suggestion is!

Finally, fairly near the waterfront, is our third gem. A greengrocers. This just looks fantastic and I wish it could be preserved this way forever. I saw nothing exciting in the produce being sold but this derelict looking shop just bellowed charm at every passer-by, or maybe it was just at me! Whatever. I loved it. So much so I bought a cabbage. In my view it would grace any high street and it’s certainly more individual than Boots and WHSmiths.

Kinsella & Sons fruit and veg miracle!

I’ll return to Whitehaven at some point. I hope I find more to enjoy.