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Cheers! Salud! Prost!

Grapes and hops … plums and pears … lemons and corn. For travelers, the local drink – culled, crushed, liquefied, and fermented from these pearls of the land – is as vital to a place’s culture as a plate of Puglia orecchiette pasta or a Slovenian struklji pastry. So we thought it would be fun to raise our glasses to some of the fine vintages, brews, and concoctions that VBT travelers have the pleasure of tasting during our vacations. Bottoms up!

Italy

Italy has been producing wine for 3,000 years. Today, hundreds of indigenous grapes are grown throughout the country. Here are some traveler favorites:

Chiantis, Vino Nobiles, and Morellinos of Tuscany. These world-renowned vintages are most closely associated with the Sangiovese grape, known for its spicy and strawberry flavors. The grape is also used to make bold “Super Tuscan” wines. Tuscan Hill Towns by Bike, The Tuscan Coast, Tuscany by the Sea

Gewurztraminer and Blauburgunder. These floral-noted wines are produced in the cooler climes of South Tyrol – an unsung wine region amidst the Dolomites. They are, if not easy to say, then easy to sip. Italy: Cycling the Dolomite Valleys

Malvasia. The Po River Valley in northwestern Italy has brought new life to a vine imported from Greece – it makes a sweet wine with a nice finish. Italy: Po River Valley and Lake Garda

As dessert in Italy goes, perhaps nothing compares to this famed post-meal digestivo.

Limoncello. The truest version of this potent liqueur (it averages 35% alcohol) is made from the Sorrento lemon peel and served in small ceramic glasses. The Amalfi Coast & Capri

France

Centuries ago, a group of devout monks in Burgundy “invented” red wine. All it took, they discovered, was macerating the skins of grapes during the wine-making process and – voila! – their wine resembled the blood of Christ. France still produces divine vintages.

Cabernet Franc. In Bordeaux along the Dordogne River, this grape is grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but is vinified on its own in the castle-dotted Loire Valley. Bicycling Bordeaux & the River Dordogne

Chenin Blanc. This white grape is also grown in the Loire, where it is valued for its malleability in making everything from sparkling wines to sweet dessert wines. Loire Valley

Spain

Sangria. This refreshing drink, perfect for warm Mediterranean days, is typically served in a pitcher for sharing and made with red wine, chopped fruit, sugar or honey, and a small amount of brandy or triple sec. Spain: Under the Andalusian Sky

Pedro-Ximenez. The climate, soil, and sunshine of Andalusia give rise to sweet, fortified sherries. Among these, the Pedro-Ximenez grape (PX for short) is believed to have Moorish origins and been brought to Spain from the Canary Islands. Spain: Under the Andalusian Sky

Portugal

Port. Portugal’s port has been shipped to England since the 1670s. It wasn’t until the 1800s that shippers fortified it with brandy to preserve it for the long trip. Walking Portugal’s Douro River Valley

Vinho Verde. Its name translates into “green wine” for its green-ish tint, is often grown off the ground – up trees or fences – so that vegetables can be grown below the vines. Walking Portugal’s Douro River Valley

Croatia

Plavac. An ancestor of the Zinfandel grape, Plavac yields rich flavors of blackberries, dark cherries, and pepper. Croatia: The Dalmatian Islands, Walking Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands

Prosek. Plavac’s white counterpart is more expensive since it requires seven times more grapes to produce. Its sweet dessert wine is made throughout the Balkans. Croatia: The Dalmatian Islands, Walking Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands

Holland & Belgium

Beers and Ales. Amstel. Heineken. Grolsch. While pale lagers like these make up 95% of production in Holland, many brewers also make special brews like witbier, or white beer. Belgium has been brewing beer since the Middle Ages. Today, 125 breweries dot the landscape of this small country. From Trappist and Abbey beers to brown and blonde ales, it seems there’s no beer that Belgians can’t brew. Holland and Belgium Bike & Barge, Netherlands Bike & Barge

Ireland

Stout Porter. Arthur Guinness founded a brewing company in Ireland 250 years ago. His enterprise remains, producing more than 10 million glasses each day, for pubs around the corner and around the world. Ireland: Galway & Connemara Coast, Ireland: Walking the West Country

Hungary

Palinka. Don’t be alarmed in Hungary if someone wishes you “Palinkas jo reggelt!” They’re merely wishing you “Good morning with palinka,” which goes to show you the importance of this fruit brandy in their culture. The cordial can be made with plums, pears, peaches, and apricots. Hungary & Slovakia: The Best of the Danube

Peru

Chicha. The Inca used this corn-based brew in rituals and drank it in large amounts during religious festivals. In today’s Peru, it is usually prepared with purple corn, resulting in a sweet, unfermented drink. Peru: Machu Picchu & the Sacred Valley

 

Gregg’s Journal: Holland and Belgium Bike & Barge Trip

Gregg’s Journal

Holland and Belgium Bike & Barge 40th Anniversary Vacation April 18-24, 2011

After an eternity of little tasks that need attention before a week out of the office, I leave Bristol at mid morning for my flight departing from Montreal for Amsterdam, a familiar city after all these years. My first memory of Amsterdam is a post 9-11 meeting and re-negotiation with Jossie where we needed to negotiate new costs in order for both companies to survive. We have maintained our partnership with Jossie these many years later, with pleasure.

As we fly high above the Netherlands, I see so much water. Like a sponge. Canals everywhere. Major container ship highway heading into Amsterdam. Reflection of the early morning sun off the Ijsselmeer Lake in the distance. Everything is geometric.

Railway to Antwerpen. Smooth. Quick. Flat. Geometric fields. Rows tilled with precision. Straight rows. Green outside. Random patches of vibrant tulips. A lonely tractor in a vast sea garden of dirt.

Antique Antwerpen rail station. Seventy five degrees. Gorgeous. Sunny sidewalk cafes. Little kids filled with excitement. Deserted buildings. Renovated buildings. Town square and massive Cathedral filled with original Rubens. Fun rendezvous with my daughter Sarah, who arrived from France, at 2:25 PM sharp. Coffee in a cafe, then we hail a cab for a ride to the Willemdok where we meet the barge Iris. After greeting Jossie, Lenny, Gertie and Phyllis (able and passionate Iris team) we walk into the city square to greet the enthusiastic group for a beer at a sidewalk cafe, then dinner at a traditional and authentic restaurant, once home to a successful merchant.  As a group we walk the kilometer back to the vessel underneath a remarkably clear and star-laden sky. Then to bed for welcome night’s rest.

Theo, our veteran 10 year trip leader, leads the group out of the city through a tunnel 90 feet underneath the River Scheldt, to the other side. This tunnel was built in 1933 and, some say, was bombed in WWII only to be rebuilt in 1948. It is a key pathway to civilization for many. Soon the awakening city bustle succumbs to quiet neighborhoods and bike paths, through quaint and tranquil villages, farmland and nature preserves, and along the River Scheldt. By mid morning we are in a small village named Kruibeke where a folk market is set up. Local farmers, butchers, fishermen, and merchants come to sell their wares and produce every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This is a hearty and traditional European event that I look forward to every time I visit. Sarah bought some Gouda Oud (strong, aged Gouda cheese, preserved with a fine, barely-noticeable, layer of salt) to share with the group for a snack. Soon after, with my interest in maps and navigation, I was delighted to visit Rupelmonde (mouth of the river Rupel) where the inventor of the modern scale map, Gerhardus Mercator was born and raised.

After a day meandering through the countryside, we arrived in Temse for a picnic lunch on the river bank.   Some folks embark the barge at this point to enjoy an afternoon cruising the river, relaxing with a book, or taking a nap. I was tempted…!!

We cruised into Dendermonde in time for a beer and a shower before we hustle off for an excellent 40th anniversary wine tasting. Then back to the barge for a wonderful dinner of duck and other traditional Dutch/Belgian specialties.

On Thursday we ride 25 miles (the long option-there is a shorter option as well) along the river, through local farmlands and along bike paths and tow paths, until 12:30 PM when we get onboard for lunch and an afternoon cruise to Ghent. It is a wonderful transition at this time of the tour to get off the bike and watch the world go by while dining on Gertie’s fine cuisine. Shortly after we arrive, we are greeted by Astrid, skipper of a little canal boat, who will take us into Ghent center and offer a tour through the historic canals. This provides an excellent overview of this amazing, historic and vibrant medieval city (67,000 students in the city of 250,000). Afterwards we have a few hours to explore the churches and castles, or shop, or drink beer at a local cafe with everyone else on this lovely spring afternoon. We then have a wonderful dinner at Brasserie Pakhuis, a super restaurant in a renovated traditional warehouse.

Our last day of riding was one of my favorites. The weather was supreme: light breeze, clear skies, bike paths, farmland, spring blossoms of fragrant trees, bushes and flowers. Although there were 14 and 24 mile options, I chose the 37 mile option, I could have gone forever. The churches and chapels along the way, the villages, the Flemish countryside, and the panoramas…..all offering me a yearning to, once again, return to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Arriving in Bruges was simple and, again, on sidewalks and bike paths. The distinction between riding in the countryside, empty and peaceful, to the lively city, bustling and alive, was enlightening.  After a quick visit to the city center I returned to the barge for a fabulous farewell dinner prepared by Gertie and the crew. I had salmon while others had the filet. They entertained us with five different wines and port, and an amazing array of Belgian chocolates and cakes. Very, very well done for this 40th anniversary tour with old friends and new friends.

 

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