When I told you that I recently went boating, I wasn’t totally honest; because, although ‘La Péniche’ used to be a working barge, it hasn’t seen a river for at least two decades. The barge is part of a restaurant in the town of Wavre, some 40 km south of Brussels. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the owner of the restaurant, which was originally located in a house and specializes in fish and shellfish, had asked the town for a building permit. The aim was to add an extra dining room to accommodate the fast increasing number of patrons.
The permit was never granted, but the landlady refused to look for new and larger premises. Without the required building permit, erecting an edifice on the land adjoining the restaurant was impossible though. However, she found a loophole in the Belgian law on urban construction that stipulated that a building permit was not required for constructions that were put into place overnight, between sundown and sunrise. Bringing in a barge and fixing it in concrete proofed to be the solution. It took the stubborn landlady nine months to find the 120 year-old barge and to organize the transport and delivery. A formidable task that was completed successfully. I think the law has been changed since then, especially as it is now possible to put up a wooden pre-fabricated house in a few hours time.
The interior of 'La Péniche'.
Since then the barge sits fixed in a concrete slab around which a shallow pond with reeds and (gold)fish has been created, making it look as if the barge is actually lying anchored in a canal or a river. It is connected to the main house by a covered gangway. The interior has been done up beautifully with respect for some of the original features, like the wheel, the planking and some of the rigging. The food is 90% seafood: fish and lobsters and shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, etc.) when in season.
This was my very first visit to ‘La Péniche’ and I thoroughly enjoyed it; because of the food and the company. I had been invited by my colleague and friend F., who wanted to thank me for my advice on a professional and legal matter.
And here we are, ready to 'attack' our pot of mussels.
We both had mussels, me ‘fisherman’s style (onions, celeriac, parsley, pepper), F. ‘Italian’ style (onions, tomatoes and basil). With it we drank a bottle of ‘Muscadet Sèvres et Maine’, a dry white Loire Valley wine from the area near the city of Nantes. For dessert F. had a generous helping of lemon custard cake and I had an apple tart and vanilla ice cream over which the waiter poured a big splash of calvados that he set on fire, allowing the alcohol to evaporate in a dancing bluish flame.
After lunch, F. suggested we’d drive into Wavre to walk off our lunch and to do some window shopping. The last time I was in Wavre was in the early 80-ties and I therefore took up her offer gladly because I wanted to see how the town had changed since then. It somehow seemed smaller than I remembered and not as lively as it had been 30 years ago. But maybe it was just because it was Saturday afternoon and people were at home or on vacation. Anyway, the shops were great! And before I knew it, I found myself buying two handbags (one - not the red one in the photo - was from last year’s collection and therefore a real bargain, considering the quality of the leather and the design) and a pair of extremely comfortable Mephisto shoes.
Mephisto is a well-known French brand that I favour whenever I find them in a Belgian shop. The shop in Wavre is an all-Mephisto store that only carries the home brand. Although the assortment was amazing, I only had eyes (and feet) for a pair of red suede shoes that worked surprisingly well with the red leather handbag I had bought. By the time we left the shop my credit card was showing signs of exhaustion, so it was time to go home.
F. and I had had a lovely time and we both agreed that we should do this more often. Next time I will show her Leuven, its historic buildings and the Grote Markt (with the longest outdoor bar counter in the world). I’ll take her to d’Artagnan’s, a cosy restaurant that serves delicious food and we’ll go shopping in the pedestrians-only Diestsestraat and the elegant Bondgenotenlaan. But first, we are going to give our credit cards a rest …