Beer & Bike: Aalst Carnaval and Affligem

February 1 is to Winter what Wednesday is to the week.  Which makes January more or less Monday with a severe hangover or caffeine crash.  January is the time when this Pilgrim generally hibernates and recharges for the upcoming year.  But something happens when February 1 rolls around.   A rebirth in my enthusiasm as the Spring suddenly doesn’t feel so far away.  The calendar beckons to be filled up with flights, train rides, road trips, and bike rides.  The most important thing though is that the days start to noticeably grow longer.

This enthusiasm around February time is something that has infected Europeans for ages.  Believe me, the dark damp northern European winters can test even the most positive thinking person’s sanity.  In the middle ages, food was running low by February.  Ironically, this happened right before the Christian fasting period of Lent.  So the Christians would take the rest of the food (and lots of beer) and make a huge party of it.  The Pagan neighbors of the Christians also saw this time as a chance to please the fertility Gods before the arrival of Spring, and they had their own celebrations.  Over time, the traditions began to blend.  Naturally this upset the Catholic leadership in Rome and they tried to interfere.  How did the people respond?  By mocking authority and social norms during the celebrations.  Today we know these celebrations as Carnaval.  And if you don’t mind, I will continue to use the Dutch spelling rather than the English version, Carnival.

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Aalst Grote Markt

Rio and New Orleans have well known carnavals, but the Belgians have also made a nice UNESCO-certified tradition out of them, albeit with less scantily clad women.  There are, however, plenty of Belgian men dressed as women.  Attend a Belgian carnaval and you will be inundated with prosthetic breasts and elaborate floats mocking Belgian politicians and celebrities.

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Float of Charles Michel, Belgian Prime Minister

One of the best carnavals in Belgium takes place in the town of Aalst.  While some form of the carnaval celebration goes back to the middle ages, the modern organized incarnation is in its 89th year in Aalst.  Details of this year’s Aalst Carnaval can be found here.  But if you cannot make it to Aalst at Carnaval time, make sure to visit the Aalst Stedelijk Museum for a good overview of the tradition.

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If you are lucky with the late Winter weather, Aalst is a good starting and ending point for a Beer & Bike ride to the Affligem Abbey, the namesake abbey of Affligem beer.  The route I followed is a short 39,1km which is perfectly suited for a sunny 8-degree Celcius late February day.  In the middle of the ride is also a great fiets and beer cafe in the village center of Denderleeuw called De Vrede.

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If you follow the route counter-clockwise, De Vrede will be reached first (point 80).  It is a great place for my traditional Beer & Bike lunch, an Uitsmijter – basically a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top – and the selection of unique beers to satisfy my Untappd habit was quite good.

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Normally two beers in the middle of a bike ride is as good as a death bell to the legs, but I couldn’t resist having two new ones, a Draeckenier and a Jan Van Oudenaarde.  Draeckenier does not have a direct English translation.  It was called the first real Aalst beer by the Belgian newspaper De Standaard, and it seems to be the term used for a certain participant in the Aalst Carnaval.  Comments regarding the origin of the word are quite welcome.

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The latter was a 13th century squire from Oudenaarde.  Given his short Wikipedia entry, I think the guy must be pretty damn fortunate to have a beer named after him.  There are many more famous Belgians who have no beer named after them.  Next thing you know there will be a Joe From the Bronx beer.

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The highlight of the Beer & Bike ride is the Affligem Abbey.  As with most namesake Belgian beer abbeys, there is a great cafe and a gift shop for those into religious paraphernalia like rosary beads and candles.  But I prefer them for the beer related items and honey (yes, abbey gift shops are always good sources of locally made honey).  The Affligem beer name itself is more about licensing than carrying on an old tradition.  I have no doubt that brewing probably took place in Affligem; however, Affligem beer is not brewed from a 500 year old recipe discovered on illuminated parchment in a dusty archive.  Affligem beer is one of the more commercial Belgian abbey beers (owned by Heineken) but all of them are high quality much like Leffe and Maredsous.  No doubt, it is worthy of a beer pilgrimage.  The abbey itself was started in 1074, if you believe the beer label.  And like most abbeys, it fell victim to the Napoleon invasion in 1796.  Ruins of the original abbey are still visible.  The new abbey was reformed in the mid 19th century.

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Abbey ruins

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During my stop, I enjoyed an Affligem 950 Cuvee which was named to mark the 950th anniversary of the abbey.  Since this beer was released in 2012, the makers of Affligem refer to 1062 as the foundation of the abbey.  After the beer, I purchased the newly re-designed Affligem beer glass (with 1074 on the label).  Rather than the wine goblet shape of the Affligem beer glass I already owned, the stem was removed and the “bolleke” was replaced with a V-shaped receptacle.  Quite unique for a Belgian beer glass.

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With the sun beginning to set, I made my way back to Aalst where the Carnaval parade had already ended and only the littered streets gave evidence of the earlier festivities.  Beer & Bike, February style, ended with 39km, three (3) new beers, a visit to one of Belgium’s most famous abbeys, and a close-up look at part of Belgium’s cultural heritage in Aalst.  You could do a lot worse on a cold midwinter day.

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