Sunday, February 19, 2012

Adventures in the Arctic Circle

This past weekend we ventured out of our comfort zone and into the sub-zero degree weather of the Finnish part of the Arctic Circle (Lapland) seeking Northern Lights and lots of outdoor time in the ample snow. We had a wonderful, wonderful time and were simply happy to be partaking in so many new experiences! First, we flew from Amsterdam to Helsinki on Finnair. We both loved the airline - admittedly, this awesome performance may have made us like them more - but the friendly service, comfortable economy seats, and tasty snack (curry chicken salad sandwich) in 100% compostable packaging really sealed the deal for us.

We arrived in Ivalo - the Northern-most airport in Finland (see pic below):
...and realized very quickly that despite packing enough clothes to never be wearing less than 7 layers of clothing at any given time, our woolen "winter" coats looked like summer cardigans next to the huge down parkas that everyone else was wearing. The warmth provided by their coats was only bolstered by the copious amounts of champagne that people were purchasing and drinking on our 10 am flight. This aside, we were told repeatedly during the course of the weekend that we chose a very warm weekend to be in Finland - a few days before it was -40 degrees (sidenote: -40 Celsius is the same as -40 Fahrenheit. Crazy, eh?).

Anyways, we made our way to our hotel ~50 km outside of Ivalo:
On the drive to the hotel - we enjoyed watching snow whirl across the road

...and were blown away by scenes like this.
At this hotel we would be staying in a glass igloo in the hopes of catching the Northern Lights in the laziest [and warmest?] way possible AND because we were pretty sure that we wouldn't hold up so well in the ice igloos which stay between -3 and -6 degrees Celsius. It was incredibly amusing to us when we arrived at the hotel and the person who worked there pronounced our last name perfectly, without any hesitation but stumbled over the names of the other couples that had arrived with us whose names had far less letters and syllables. We also realized this is why airport personnel always ask whether David is from Finland when they see his last name. While Finnish words seem lengthy to our unaccustomed eyes, the spoken language is incredibly beautiful and we really enjoyed just listening to people speak (it's not eavesdropping if you can't understand, right?).

snow igloos!

After enjoying the view from our glass igloo, we headed out for our first sauna experience in Finland. Saunas are a pretty integral part of life there - apparently there are ~2 million saunas in Finland and the population of the country is 5 million! The saunas at the hotel were divided by gender and mine was completely empty; while David's sauna had several people (including one female and a guy reading Lolita). After the saunas we ate dinner and headed back to our glass igloo to take in views of the night sky.

In order to try to see the Northern Lights, we set our phone alarms to go off every 45 minutes or so - and despite my best intentions, I was not quite as great at waking up when the alarms went off as David. The times I did wake up I was still half asleep and kept thinking I was seeing the Lights. Sadly, we did not see them - probably because the light from the full moon almost directly overhead drowned out any other lights. However, we woke up in the morning extremely excited and enthusiastic to go on a little trip with these guys:
Husky pups - the fence was only there to protect them from being kidnapped and taken home by  me!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Leiden in the snow

Looking out my office window
It's thawing now, but for awhile there much of Europe was a winter wonderland, our corner of the Netherlands most certainly included. We had at least a week below zero, and little by little the canals began to freeze. It started at first with areas sheltered from the wind, then the icy bits slowly crept towards each other, and finally made their way under the bridges, which insulate the water below and keep it relatively warm.

Snowfall was pretty light at first, but still lovely, especially as we'd started to give up hope that we'd ever get to see Leiden under a blanket.

While the snowfall was wonderful for us, many Dutch people were disappointed by the snow, as it posed a potential barrier to Elfstedentocht, an ice skating race through the Eleven Cities of Friesland. The race can only run when it freezes for long enough that the canal ice reaches 15 cm throughout the entire 200 km course, at which point thousands of would-be national heroes make their way to Friesland to compete in this rare event. As the "Eleven Cities Tour" only takes place once ever 10 years or so, the entire country went wild with speculation about whether the race would occur, and politicians curried favor by publicly proclaiming that race day should become a spontaneous national holiday. Aside from the excitement generated by its inherent unpredictability, the race has an aura of myth owing in strong part to the Hell of 1963, when only 69 out of 10,000 contestants completed the race, with the winner clocking in at just under 11 hours! Keep in mind that at this time, people still tried to stay warm by stuffing newspaper in their clothes as insulation. (And yes, I'm of course getting all my facts from Wikipedia)

It's not obvious from the pictures here, but Nisha was fearless on the ice,
whereas I just walked out a few feet.
Sadly, that beautiful snow literally did blanket the canals, insulating the water below against the freezing air. While some people went out for an unofficial Elfstedentocht, the pictures above are as close as we came to any canal skating.

We may have missed out on the drama of the big race, but the entire experience was new to us - the mysterious whorls in the forming ice, kids learning to skate by pushing chairs around in front of their houses, the realization that EVERY Dutch family has a sled and skates tucked hopefully away, just in case.

Aside from going out to snap a few pictures, I guess it's pretty obvious how we enjoyed our snow days...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Did we visit the best beer bar in the world?

Not to be dramatic, but yeah, I kinda think we did. The third weekend in January, fresh off a quick trip to Rome (sure to come up in another post), we took the train to Antwerp, Belgium. Train tickets are 30 euros round-trip, it takes only 2 hours from Leiden, awesome! Well, at least it seems awesome until you wake up early on Saturrday morning, get to Den Haag for your connection, and then hear an announcement that your train has been canceled, just sit tight and take the next one... an hour later. So much for Dutch precision.

But we made it to Antwerp, albeit a bit later than we hoped, and got started on our relaxing weekend trip. Our take away message from the weekend was that Belgium is completely underrated as a vacation spot (we'd also visited Brussels back in September). Like the country itself, the food is somewhere between Dutch and French, with elements of the satisfying, hearty simplicity of the former mixed with what we'll politely call the "somewhat more expansive" flavor profiles of the latter. Oh, and they love to cook things in beer.

Booking through Airbnb, we stayed at a great apartment (definitely worth looking through the pictures in the link) with an awesome host, and we were well set up to wander around Antwerp checking out cool vintage shops and taking advantage of Europe's winter sales.

Not sure what we'd do with them, but we definitely wanted a collection of these
dudes that were hanging out in an art shop window.

Rockin' the new winter style, and enjoying the hell out of some espressos at
Caffenation [winners of the 2011 World Aeropress Championship
- this is the kind of stuff I prioritize when I travel
 (double bracket time: 2012 WAC will be in our future home of Portland!)].
But the focus for this post is meant to be the beer. We spent Saturday night at Kulminator, which is either so old school that it doesn't know about websites, or so awesome that it doesn't need one. I'm actually leaning towards the old school explanation, since this place has been buying and storing great beers longer than anybody I know has been drinking them.

The huge book on the stand is the guest log, but the other two are beer menus!?

Stacks upon stacks of the mythical Trappist-brewed Westvleteren.
True fact: there's no lighting in this picture; God smiles contentedly  on His favorites.
Making the "right" pick in an establishment that offers vertical, vintage year tastings of beers you can't even find most places isn't going to happen. You could even stick to their draft selections, which included a hugely alcoholic (17.5% ABV) Black Mikkeler from 2007. Reviews are mixed on this particular beer, and we didn't try it, but my guess is that some aging will have been great for a beer that powerful and flavorful.

Looking through the menu - second to last column is the year, last one is the price.

Our first drink of the evening. It waited 13 years in that bottle for us.
We started with a gueuze, a very sour, spontaneously-fermented style traditional to Belgium. We actually looked for something from Cantillon, a gueuze brewery we'd visited in Brussels, and were surprised not to find many on the menu. Later in the evening, a guy sitting next to us said that visiting Italians drank it all, because they love sour beers (and Cantillon is some of the best) but don't really go for the more bitter, hoppier styles Belgium is also known for. We were more than happy to try a gueuze from Brouwerij De Troch, dated to 1999. The first reviewer on says "Incredible smell. Old shoes. Stanky cheese. Rotting peaches. Taste is over the top. Cheap Camembert rind, chlorine, a mild acidity, old lemon, tart candy, malodorous socks. Yes :-)"

How do we compete with this type of visceral description? Well, my notes say that it "still packs the sour punch you expect, but less aggressive on the roof of the mouth, not as much of the 'post-vomit' feeling you often get  from a gueuze without the protection afforded by food."

So, yeah, maybe it's not a style for everybody. But we loved it! It makes me a little sad that we haven't been able to resist drinking all of the Cantillons we brought back, as I'm sured they would've aged at least as well, and given us something with which to celebrate when we turn 40!

Our second beer. So thoroughly predates the internet you can't even read about it online.
For our second beer, we knew precisely what we wanted to do. Order a beer from the year we were born. And yes, this is one of the very few bars in the world where you can actually sit down, and look through several options for beers that were released in 1982. We settled on something called "Fine Old London Christmas," which, despite the name, comes from the Belgian Brouwerij Bosteels, makers of award-winning Karmeliet. When you're having the unique experience of drinking a beer this old, describing the taste seems almost anti-climactic. I'll be honest and say that the initial flavors were a bit lacking, as if they'd smoothed out so much that they just dropped out altogether, leaving all the flavor on the back end. The after taste lingered pleasantly, with a mellow, malty sweetness that was still more complex than an Irish stout (at least the imported ones I've had). Brouwerij Bosteels has our sincere thanks for their hard work nearly (gulp!) thirty years ago.

Our nattily attired final beer of the evening.
We finished off the evening with a recommendation from the young guy sitting next to us, who had a journal of beer tasting notes that put our poorly-remembered impressions thoroughly to shame. He advertised the beer as being "completely unique, you can't say it's like any other beer, more like Calvados." A 2005 Special Reserva of Stille Nacht, this was the perfect way to end the night, the beer equivalent of listening to some angry but just can't help being cool jazz in a dim apartment. My initial impression on drinking the beer was of the combination of spicy/herbal and citrus flavors that I first recall experiencing with Avery Brewery's Maharaja Imperial IPA, but in this case the flavors weren't cut short by hops. While it was well balanced, the beer tended towards sweetness, but not in the chocolatey, toasted direction I'd expect from a darker beer. It's hard to tell from this picture, but there was a really nice mid-brown amber tint to the beer.

If you like beer, I give Kulminator my fullest possible recommendation! It's a really cozy space, you get to try all sorts of cool beers, and for all that it's actually not very expensive - which is great, since it turns out to be cash only. I've pasted below a couple more pictures from our experience, including some at the end just to prove that we occasionally check out things other than coffee and beer!

When Nisha imagines that Portland will inspire us to take up hiking, I'm pretty sure she pictures me like this guy
 - traipsing around with a basket full of beer on my back.

What qualifies 1986 as the "year of the beer"?
I have no idea, but I desperately want this as a  T-shirt.

One of the owners.
"How am I supposed to remember where we parked the Delorean?"

Open town square + dramatically lit buildings is a winning combination.

If they were going for authenticity, shouldn't they be open on Sunday afternoon?