An easy hour and a half cycle ride (each way) out of busy Bruges and over the bucolic, flat as a pancake Belgian border into the Netherlands proved a welcome respite from summer season masses during a few days stay in the picturesque medieval city.
After three or four miles of comfortable peddling on a bike route alongside the Napoleancanal that connects a string of Flemish port towns, windmills and cafes of 15th Century Damme called for a first pit-stop for coffee and water and a walk around its lovely little town center.
Damme was an important town in the medieval period, serving as the outer harbor for Bruges in its trading heyday as the New York of its era, ships loaded and unloaded their cargo until 1520, at which point its inlet silted over.
Sluis, the last harbor for Bruges, is also cut off from the sea, nowadays. It was established as a town in 1290. In 1382, the Count of Flanders, Louis Van Male fortified the town with a castle that survived until 1820. Walls that encircled the entire town have long since crumbled, but there remains a strong sense of historical identity when approaching this Flemish community from surrounding countryside, today.
In the late 18th century, Damme had various waterways and canals running alongside each other, but navigation was practically impossible. The Bruges-Damme-Sluis route was been non-navigable for many years.
French warlord Napoléon Bonaparte, unable to travel in the North Sea, was determined to link Dunkirk and Antwerp, his two naval ports.
It was Napoleon's idea to construct a canal to connect Bruges with Damme and Sluis. Spanish prisoners-of-war began initial digging in 1812.
One of the most refreshing aspects of my family's group cycle ride was moments of complete solitude in this quiet countryside. Cycle routes sometimes extended into regular roadways. Mostly, it was other family groups and people of all ages peddling along in each direction, many for practical transportation and in everyday clothes, hardly a tour-de-France cycling kit in sight.
After a Flemish lunch in Sluis and a wander through its flower basket bedecked town center, there wasn't an awful lot to keep us from heading back along the scenic canal (where we spotted several wild water long distance swimmers) for evening time in beautiful Bruges.
"Who is staring at the sea is already sailing a little."
First port-of-call after passing uneventfully over the border from France into Belgium was the West Flanders seaside town of De Panne. Home to the longest tramline in the world, The Belgium Coast Tram, running since 1885, runs from the De Panne on the French Border to Knokke-Heist, said to be the San Tropez of the region, on the Dutch border.
For six Euros a person, tram riders merrily hop on and off over a 38 mile route that packs in Dutch and Germans in summertime, but apparently not too many British or American travelers. Imagine that — one charming young waiter in a beach-front restaurant we stopped in at for lunch declared us his very first from the U.S.
Having spent my childhood summers squashed into my parents' station wagon (estate car in Brit speak) alongside my three siblings directly en-route to sun-drenched, fondly remembered camping holidays by the beaches of the South of France, a left turn at Calais from the Eurotunnel, along the North Sea was a first for me.
My British/Italian/American family of five and our oldest son's girlfriend were reuniting in the Flemish medieval city of Bruges for a five-night vacation-within-a-vacation. My youngest, London-based sister and her two daughters were joining us for two of those days.
Seeings as we weren't necessarily in search of elusive sunshine on our travels, coming from 100 degree heat at home, we'd quite fancied the more typically moderate North European summertime climate for a few days respite. As it turned out, it was hot and humid the entire time, except for one spectacular evening thunderstorm with lightening and rain.
We walked the wide and pleasant promenade of De Panne, taking in rows of neat little beach huts in various hues, following a light lunch of croquettes, croque monsieur, frites and the first of oh, maybe quite a few samplings of the roughly 800 Belgian beers on the market today.
An hour later we'd navigated (with the help of a GPS system in the rental car) a maze of medieval streets to find our temporary home-from-home, a beautiful second-floor 15th Century, beamed apartment in the center of Bruges.
Meandering canals, cobbled streets and immaculately preserved Flemish architecture provide a picture-perfect city break made for walking and/or cycling.
Summertime crowds aside, to stand in the heart of the city in the Markt, or market place, dominated by the towering Belfort, a medieval brick belfry made famous in recent years by the film In Bruges, is a bucket-list moment for international art, history, chocolate, beer and culture lovers alike.
Belgium produces over 220,000 tons of chocolates a year, I wondered how many tons it produces of its national dish, moules frites — briny mussels served in a large saucepan with a bowl of comforting salty fries with homemade mayo. Flemish beef stew's every bit as popular, both a staple of every menu in the city's hundreds of restaurants, the best of which, are the neighborhood eateries, on a myriad of streets off the central plazas and beyond.
My favorite backstreet find was this delectable little (and provenly delicious) Transylvanian-style "Chimney Cake" pastry shop.
Sorry to say we're not much of a chocoholic family, so the top-notch chocolate shops, though eye candy enough, failed to entice in the same way as the tempting Trappist ales, mussels, stews and another Belgian speciality — waffles.
Wednesday morning is market day in Bruges. The three most popular varieties of Belgian waffles are: Liege waffles, Brussels waffles, larger, lighter, rectangular and enjoyed with chocolate, whipped cream, strawberries or ice cream and slimmer, softer, breakfast Galettes.
Belgium boasts many of Europe's most outstanding collections of visual art. Fifteenth Century artists — Flemish Primitives, Old Masters Hubert, Jan van Eyck, Quentin Matsys, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden were the first to popularize the use of oil paint.
I particularly appreciated learning more about the history of ‘Flemish tapestry’, Belgium being the principal centre for tapestry weaving at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Today, the cities of Bruges, and Ghent are magnets for modern day artists from around the world. Wandering residential areas of Bruges was every bit as captivating, culturally, thanks to the artistic residents of such an enchanting and inspiring place.
"A country like Belgium, or socialist countries in central Europe spend more money on art education than the United States, which is a really puzzling thought".
In May 1624, "Nieu Nederlandt", a ship chartered by the West India Company, arrived in sight of Manhattan Island. The ship carried around 30 Belgian families, no short irony that they founded New York given that the medieval city of Bruges was, in fact, the Manhattan metropolis of its day.
Bruges’ beauty saved this architectural treasure trove from being destroyed in WWII, when German Commander Immo Hopman reportedly refused to carry out orders from his superiors to bomb the city.
Part Two — Cycling From Belgium to Holland, to follow.
First week of my 2015 trip back to the homeland consisted of cramming in as much time as possible with mums and dad, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces and cousins of my family's combined European clans.
No short order. Pit-stops in pubs, cafes and farm shop restaurants made for happy little excursions outside of the various abodes on our family tour.
The Tobie Norris, in historic Stamford, Lincolnshire, located just a few miles from my parents' home, dates back to 1280. Steep staircases, wobbly floors, rustic antiques, velvet covered seating, best of British pub food and real ales made for one of my favorite watering holes in the region.
If you're traveling the UK and headed north from London to York, make Stamford a stop in your itinerary. Frequently named as one of the best places to live in Britain, this beautiful, Georgian market town is well worth an overnight (with time for a visit to Elizabethan era Burghley House).
Following Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, a couple of nights' stay in the capital called for a boat ride on the river with my sister and nieces and a visit to the Tower of London. Not to be confused with London Bridge (photographed from the Tower), tours of the fortress Tower that houses the Crown Jewels never fail to enthrall — highlight this time was my four-year-old niece surprising me with her impromptu recital from memory of the correct order and names of Henry VIII's six wives, as we walked in. My sister is a teacher and a history buff, but still . . .
Yoemen of the Guard and Tower staff live within the compound of this 1,000 year old royal fortress, today. Lovely in summertime, but I'd imagine it a bit spooky as digs on a cold, dark, winters night. The tower is said to be haunted, not surprisingly, Anne Boleyn, for one.
Further south in our family's roadmap of England, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law's home territory takes in sleepy and remote Sussex countryside. Sleepy today, but not in its storied past. Their village home is positioned on a hedgerow-flanked lane between the historic towns of Battle and Hastings. 1066 land.
After a bloody battle lasting over nine hours from dawn until dusk, October 14th, 1066, William of Normandy defeated King Harold of England on a battlefield 8 miles from Hastings — the Battle of Hastings, one of the best-known and most decisive events in England's history, the victory of William, Duke of Normandy and the death of Harold, King of England, were crucial to the success of the Norman Conquest.
The battlefield, devoid of modern development, owes its survival to the founding by King William ‘the Conqueror’ of the Benedictine Battle Abbey on the site as penance for the bloodshed and to commemorate his victory. Much of the battlefield became part of the abbey's great park, which formed the nucleus of a country estate after the suppression of the abbey in 1538.
The seaside town of Hastings itself was popularized recently in the States, as location of World War II detective drama, Foyle's War.
Fresh Fish and Chips on the seashore were order of the day during our brief visit. Hastings is home to a charming old town center, full of independent book shops, cafes, pubs, antique stores and art galleries and is enjoying a regentrification boost as British holiday makers and weekenders look to explore more of the country's rich heritage.
I love a farm shop. English farm shops are especially good at serving up a cream tea or full English breakfast, complete with china cups and saucers.
This was my first visit to Rye, an exquisite old town in East Sussex, home of BBC's Mapp and Lucia a few miles inland from the coast. Its gorgeous, old Mermaid Inn (where we stopped for a glass of Pimms on its tiny terrace) was built for a visit by Queen Elizabeth I and still presides on a cobblestone street in the center of town.
Petaluma Gap Winegrower’s Alliance hosts its inaugural Wind to Wine Festival, celebrating the elegant, wind-driven wines that have put our micro-region on the map.
To kick off this fun and informative festival, join McEvoy Ranch Winemaker, Blake Yarger, for a special dinner at the ranch on Friday, August 7th featuring current releases from McEvoy estate vineyards, along with outstanding, premium wines from fellow Petaluma gap producers including Fogline and De Loach Vineyards.
Prior to dinner, guests will enjoy tastes of McEvoy's current releases, before sitting down to a seasonally-inspired meal inside a spectacular, on-site Chinese Pavilion. The multi-course menu will be paired current releases from Petaluma Gap wineries, highlighting the spectrum of exceptional wines from this unique growing region.
Seats are limited. To reserve your spot, click here.
For guests interested in attending both the dinner and the Wind To Wine Festival Grand Tasting on the following day, Saturday, August 8th, bundled tickets are available at a discounted rate here.
Winemaker’s Dinner – $95
Location – McEvoy Ranch
Date – Friday, August 7th
Time – 5:30 pm
Mere mention of honey wine (mead) takes me straight back to high school and the Canterbury Tales. My English teacher, Mr. Kineally was so enthralled with Medieval literature this enthusiastic fellow read daily out loud of the 29 pilgrims to Canterbury with zeal, humor and a thoroughly captivating pronunciation of old English.
Chaucer isn't the only literary big-shot to celebrate mead. J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy readers are more than familiar with its honeyed charms.
Though it does rather conjure images of thatched roofs, tankards and trestle tables, mead is making a big come back today in the craft food and wine world.
Nowhere more so in Northern California than at the coastal bee haven of Heidrun Meadery, in rural West Marin.
Heidrun is the first Meadery to make its Mead in the Champagne-style and it's well worth planning a visit to taste and tour.
Mead is meant to be enjoyed after a short (four-month) fermentation and aging process. Heidrun varietals taste like sparkling wine, but with a distinctive honey-tone. Not surprisingly, as it takes 8 ounces of honey to produce one bottle of this delicious bubbly.
The Meadery has been at home on a 16-acre former cattle ranch since 2011, its production facility a renovated milking barn fitted out with state-of-the-art sparkling wine making machinery and equipment. Heidrun meads were first crafted in Arcata in Humboldt County. Bay Area being its primary market made a move to Marin a winning formula and foodies and fermentation fans from around the region now come calling in a bee-line of their own.
A full-time horticulturalist and a bee keeper are on staff. Nine hives supply just enough honey for a limited production highly prized Point Reyes Wildflower Estate Varietal, several other options might not be quite as hyper-local but are just as good. California native flowers are planted on site, particularly those with an optimum blue and purple color scheme that bees love.
Additional hives in Marshall and Bolinas make equally distinctive honey for unique mead. Billions of bees on the Hawaiian islands are to thank for the Meadery's bulk supply of a mind-boggling 55 gallon honey barrel stockpile for the necessary fixings for the majority of Heirdrun's mead.
To make a sparkling mead it's necessary to liquify one part honey with four parts water and give it a quick boil to kill off wild yeast. Pollen and wax are skimmed off and the liquified honey is cooled and inoculated with sparkling wine yeast. This, in turn, eats all the sugar from the honey and creates carbon dioxide.
After initial bubbles are removed over a week long period, soon-to-be-sparkling mead sits in a stainless steel Champagne kettle for a month before the clear part of the liquid is syphoned into a bottling kettle, inoculated with fine cane sugar, bottled and stoppered with beer caps ready for secondary fermentation in wooden casing.
The next process that rids the mead of dead yeast and sediment involves the time-old practice of hand turning bottles a quarter turn daily on an old-fashioned, up-right wooden rack for one week.
Bottles are then placed in a thoroughly more modern machine called a neck freezer for disgorging the sediment. Pressure in the bottles shoots out the sediment when bottle caps are removed and corking comes into play.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the term Honeymoon derives from the drinking of honeyed meade, gifts given during the first month of marriage: "Mid 16th century (originally denoting the period of time following a wedding): from honey + moon. The original reference was to affection waning like the moon, but later the sense became 'the first month after marriage'.
Southern Sonoma County readers interested in tasting these lovely (12.5% alcohol) bubblies may pick up a bottle or two at Vine & Barrel or Wilibees in Petaluma, or look for Heidrun Mead on the wine menus at Lagunitas Brewing Company, Speakeasy and Wild Goat Bistro.
Heidrun Meadery is located at 11925 State Route ,Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
If you'd like to taste and tour, do make a reservation ahead of time.
Picnic tables around back and in front of the tasting barn are reservable too. The Meadery is just a little ways out of Point Reyes Station, traveling north on Highway One. Pick up picnic supplies in town or pack your own.
"I have never seen mead enjoyed more in any hall on earth,"
Seamus Heaney, Beowulf
"They sat at the table with their wooden drinking bowls filled with mead,"
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
"The years have passed like swift draughts of sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the west,"
J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
Mark you calendars for September 12th, 2015 for the South County's glitziest annual fundraising galas — Petaluma Educational Foundation BASH – Cirque du Soiree!
This fun and glamorous event takes place under the PEF Big Top at 901 Lindberg Lane, Petaluma. Always a sell-out evening with exciting live and silent auctions, live music and a Fund the Future paddle raise benefiting all 38 local K-12 schools.
The night begins with cocktails and appetizers before taking to the stage and celebrate our schools, community partners and individual supporters.
Festivities continue with dancing by one of the Bay Area’s top dance bands, The Cheeseballs! Watch for more exciting updates about the 2015 BASH on PEF's Facebook page!
Please contact Maureen Highland at PEF (707) 778-4632 for information on 2015 BASH Event Corporate Partnership opportunities.