(5.0) (2 Votes) |
September 12th, 2003
Pros: They have over 120 different beers
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
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 …