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Last updated : Nov 2009
Beer in Bruges
Rating: (5.0) (2 Votes)

Bruges, Belgium,
September 12th, 2003

Pros: They have over 120 different beers
Cons: None

Belgium is world-famous for producing a few things. Beer. Chocolate. Chips. Tennis mixed doubles partners. OK, maybe not that last one so much, but quite frankly we only needed three good reasons. And so that is how the six of us came to be awaiting a train to Brussels for a quick weekend away.

The central theme of the weekend, like so many of our trips, was food and drink. So as the train pulled out we pulled out a veritable smorgasbord of cheeses, dips, breads, olives etc and, after a quick scare that the corkscrew might not make it through security, a few bottles of red. Three hours of offensive card games and jealous stares later we pulled into Brussels. After a quick nightcap in the hotel lobby it was off to bed.

In the morning we headed back to Brussels Midi station and, after figuring out the timetable (and thus explaining our sole occupancy of the platform), left for Bruges. An hour later, and on time to the minute (something we’re not used to in the UK) the train screen told us that “Vee komen aan en” to Bruges.

Bruges has to be one of the prettiest towns going round. Inside the encircling canal, the city is packed with medieval buildings, cobbled streets and leafy squares lined with cosy bars and restaurants spilling onto them. Everything is spotlessly clean and freshly painted which, after London, makes walking through it almost surreal.

Being just inland from Belgium’s northern coast, Bruges was at one time a thriving seaport. The name Bruges actually comes from the Viking for “landing area” or some such. When the only river in from the sea silted up though, the town spent the next five hundred-odd years in neglect and wars. I only touch on the wars because it gives me the opportunity to mention the names of the opposing sides; the silly-sounding Dutch “Flemings” in the north and the even sillier-sounding French “Walloons” in the south. Sound more like good names for indoor cricket teams to me. Even today though, the more southern parts of Belgium, including Brussels, speak Belgium’s official language of French and the north, like Bruges, speaks Flemish (which is essentially Dutch with a different accent).

Last time we were here we realised that the best way to get around Bruges was by bike, and after hiring some we rode around the city’s ring bike trail to near the Donkey’s Gate where we were staying. We dropped our stuff off at the B&B we rode the five minutes back into town seeking refreshment. After a few light beers (light being 6% in Belgium) and a meal we sought out the main reason for our return to Bruges. Tucked down what is supposedly the thinnest alley in Bruges we found “de Garre”.

De Garre is a speciality Belgian beer pub that accounted for much of our previous trip. It is my favourite pub ever. Why? They have over 120 different beers. Every beer is served with cheese. Every beer comes in an appropriate style glass ranging from chalices to goblets to a test tube like long glass.

Most of all though, the owner loves good beer and not much else. When another customer asked if they served food he sternly shook his head and simply replied “No. This is a beer pub”. He lovingly pours each beer for you and is very quick with an (always good) recommendation. If you asked for a Fosters he would probably cry or punch you or both. Belgian beer is simply the best in the world.

We spent the afternoon sampling various beers from the creamy but potent (11.5% potent!) Gulden Draak to our favourite from last time, Chimay. Many of our favourite beers are “trappist” beers meaning they are brewed in monasteries. They’re often fermented a second-time in the bottle - just like fine wine. History has it that monks (whose order originated in la Trappe – hence the name) escaping the French Revolution and other hostilities came to Belgium from France. Given the silence of their strict monastic life they started brewing beer so that they too would know what a headache feels like (okay, I may have made that bit up). Soon, presumably upon realising they were getting bloody good at making it, they started selling it externally. Either way, few better things have come out of the church.

Nowadays there are only six breweries left that are legally allowed to call themselves “trappist”. Apparently the overuse of monk’s names on beer bottles everywhere was causing a big decline in monk enrolments (strange really – it sounds like a great reason to turn to the cloth to me!).

After a few hours of sampling beers we headed in search of food. We settled down to a hearty meal of mussels - another Belgian speciality. I’ve already commented on the strength of Belgian beer so it should come as no surprise that the night concluded with us singing Roxette and Bryan Adams songs at the top of our voice. Enough said.

The next day after an awesome breakfast we rode around the ring bike track some more to take in some of the sights (windmills, church towers, canals etc, etc). I had to pedal furiously to keep up since I had, in one swift downward stroke, converted my rented 18-speed to a 1-speed (why is it I always get the dud mountain bike?). After dropping our bikes off, we revisited de Garre again for one last taste of Belgian beer. Then it was back to the train station allowing for the obligatory stop-off for Belgian chocolate. Belgians make 170,000 tonnes of the stuff each year and it is almost as good as their beer. Having done this we, very wearily, made our way back home to London …