DAN AND GURD'S BELGIUM TRIP - NOVEMBER 2004
I've been to Belgium once before visiting Bruges, Brussels and Ostend, in 1999. This trip was planned as a refresher for me, and a taster for my work colleague Gurdeep, of the main cities and their most famous bars. After a preponderance with German, UK and US beers respectively over the past few years, I felt it was time to return to the beer culture, which I consider my spiritual birthplace. Cramming in 4 cities in five nights seemed like an excellently frenetic way to experience the pulse of continental life, and get a hit of brewing craftsmanship.
Gurd and I caught the surprisingly comfortable Eurostar from Waterloo, and once in Brussels, pressed straight on to Ghent. After ditching our stuff at the Hotel Flandria, we were in need of some food and, having stayed on the wagon for the whole journey, some beer too. After a filling pizza, it was over to the Waterhius, which was pretty busy with a table of Brits, who looked like they were on a business trip. I started with a delicious Drie Fonteinen Kriek and Gurd had a Rodenbach (draught), which he wasn't really prepared for! Then, as we watched Ajax being thrashed by Maccabi Tel Aviv (!), I polished off a hoppy XX Bitter, and a reasonable Jan Van Gent (on tap), and G did likewise with a Straffe Hendrick, which he found a little too smooth (?), and a Pee Klak, which got the thumbs up. The latter two were both draught offerings.
Becoming rather too comfortable at the bar, it seemed like an opportune moment to move on, and after a brief wander through the delightfully quiet nighttime streets, we found Dulle Griet. I liked the breweriana on the walls, but had some difficulty to ascertaining what beers they had, especially on tap. Once seated, and served by the less grumpy than expected (though still formidable looking) waiter, I supped a Westy Blond and Gurd had an Ename Blond - we both preferred mine!
Only one in Dulle Griet, then it was on to Trappistenhuis, which took a little bit of finding, but was worth the effort. This bar was very friendly and comfortable, nicely overcoming the fact that it still looked fairly new and pristine! I decided I'd dallied with too many 5% beers already, so plumped for a Cuvee de Trolls, which seemed very tasty, followed by a Lindemans Cassis, which moved me straight back down the ABV scale, but provided some inoffensive rich fruit and a sugary burst of energy. Gurd however did much better, happening on a delicious Troubadour, followed by a an equally good Alvinne Blond, which was chosen by the bar owner, after Gurd had asked for something similar to his first beer - the mark of a landlord who knows his beer for sure! Very impressed (and a little merry I'm not ashamed to say) we wandered off with the intention of going back to the hotel, but in the event, we found two kicking late night joints, near to our gaff and adjacent to each other. The first place (whose name escapes me) was a lively house music/student type place (we had a Jupiler there). The second, called Kinky Radio (?), was a very convivial, friendly spot, with a nice line in indie rock music, a DJ happy to take requests, and appeared very reluctant to actually shut; so much so that people were still wandering in at 3.30, just as were supping our last Maes and heading back to the hotel…. where we encountered a slight problem. Even with key in hand, the ability to handle a complicated sequence of turn, click, hold, push, open escaped us both and for a full 15 minutes I really believed it was a management conspiracy to keep up out, and that we'd be sleeping in the station. Even though they had our luggage (and credit card details, I swore I would not be paying! After a bit of shouting and swearing we figured the lock out and were tucked up pretty sharpish/sheepish.
After a daytime wander around Ghent (equally nice by day), and a look inside the cathedrals, it was on the train and off to Bruges.
Having checked in at the hostel Bauhaus, we got straight into town and had a good, brisk wander, which mysteriously seemed to bypass all the canals! After suitably lapping up the quaint, chocolate box surroundings, it was off for tea - a nice flame grilled steak and pepper sauce (or seven-meat grill if you were Gurd), just off the main square at Los a Moelle. The food took an age, as we had to wait for the grill to heat up, but it was worth the wait, and a Brugs Blond took the edge off my hunger.
Having scoffed to a level of satisfaction, I was keen to head to our first bar, de Zolder, which we'd scoped out earlier. On our way into this cellar location, we couldn't resist getting a photo for work, of me standing next to a De Koninck 'Bolleke' sign, little knowing that as I pranced and preened, I was standing in front of mirror glass… once inside, the owner quickly told us how amused he was to spy on us unawares - serves us right I suppose! In this nice, roomy bar (with a large classroom map of the UK on the wall) I had a Passendale, which I was informed, is now defunct, and an irresistibly well kept Watous Wit on draught. The owner at de Zolder was very friendly and welcoming, and I hope his bar is successful, and that the quietness we encountered was merely because it was early on a Thursday evening.
Next, the main event - onto Brugs Beertje, with fingers crossed that we could get a seat.
Success! A seat was procured next to the window, and I supped an Ultramour which I loved, a Babbelaar (likewise), while G had a Brugs witbier which he turned his nose up at, and a Kapel Van Viven Blond, which hit the spot, like Troubadour the night before. Beertje was buzzing throughout our stay, but there seemed to be a regular turnover of the tourist clientele, which allowed the bar staff to find room for a whole party of Japanese tourist who were very lucky indeed to find a long table at the back of the bar!
Having had the full BB experience we headed off to Erasmus, but unfortunately they shut up shop, just as we approached (this was about 11.00!!), so we turned back and, after a little bit of street name clarification found de Garre, which luckily had a table going. This seemed like a neat friendly café/bar, and I supped a Helleketellbier, whilst G took a chance with a draught Gulden Draak, which the waitress reassured him was only "fairly strong"! After the drinks and complimentary cheese, we decided, once more that to prolong the night, we needed to find palate cleansing refreshment via Pils, and something to focus the mind - pool. I had spotted Charlie Rockets hostel on our way into town and knew it would be open and able to supply some friendly baize-based competition, which it duly did, although I was on the wrong end of a comprehensive 7-0 thrashing…
After coughing for the pool, we managed to squeeze one more drink out of the evening, back at the Bauhaus; where we were treated to the unusual scene of a fancy dress party, descending into fisticuffs - it was enough to make me pine for Broad Street!! Just the one was more than enough, and we went to bed as the Police and hostel staff dealt with the debris of the dormitory window kicked in during the ruckus.
With very little ado we were on the train to Antwerp, which I was eagerly anticipating, and before long (Belgian trains are efficient and the journeys are so short), we pulled up at the imposing Centraal station.
After dumping our stuff at the Cammepoorte Hotel (recommended by Joris), we had a very tiring, but thorough stroll round the city, and got our bearings.
No messing around, as we started the pub crawling early, with a seafront detoured journey to Waagstuk, which I have to say was one of my favourite bars of the holiday - comfortable, spacious, and airy. I savoured a Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze (superb) and a Boon Oude Kriek (also good). Gurd had a Jack Op and a Witkap Stimulo and loved both. After a well earned sit down, it was back on our travels, happening rather fortuitously on Oud Arsenaal, where we stopped off for a De Koninck Arsenaaltje. This was a slightly odd place - full of character(s) yes, but also a bit cramped and with a more restricted beer list than some of the places we'd already been. In addition, a local dog was setting of one of Gurd's allergies, so we beat a comparatively hasty retreat and ambled over to Den Engel, whilst beginning to feel like we had forgotten something important - food.
Delaying the eating for a short while, I had a St Louis Gueuze (so so) in this famous, bustling and bright café on Grotemarkt, and G necked a De Koninck, before we shot over to the Garden of India for a UK style 10.30 meal. The meal was nice, but our cultural differences were made apparent at this restaurant - as the owner was thinking about shutting up shop, and we thought it would be packed out with a lateish-night crowd. After umming and ahhing about what to do next, we decided to postpone the quality beer hunting and decamp instead to the Irish pub next to our hotel for the rest of the night, to swig more Pils and watch with amusement, as a UK expat spent the next two hours walking round the pub trying (unsuccessfully) to ingratiate himself with the locals.
The first lie-in of the holiday - thank the maker! Pottered away the afternoon doing a bit of shopping for girlfriends and work colleagues, before getting football withdrawal symptoms which caused us to head for a large Irish pub off Grotemarkt to watch some Premiership matches and check the incoming scores. Leicester were not playing till Monday so I was fairly relaxed, but Gurd had a few kittens over Blackburn's successful attempt at getting a draw. After 4 hours, in which I saw Belgian Arsenal fans going ballistic at their team's inability to beat Crystal Palace, it was back to the outside world, a kebab, then onto Kulminator.
Once inside this beer cathedral, I struggled to take in the large menu, before eventually choosing a Westy red cap, which was rather tasty, while Gurd had a Leeuwse Wit I think. Also present, purely by chance, was legendary UK scooper Gazza Prescott, also sampling the Westy 6, and after the shock of realisation, I had a bit of a chat with him, and received some of his wisdom and advice about possible venue to hit in Brussels. As the pub filled up to the rafters and a clarinet/guitar combo began entertaining the throng, I tried unsuccessfully to get a Rodenbach Alexander (and something else), before eventually getting my hands on a Tongerlo Dubbel, which was good.
As we left, our seats were gratefully taken up by standing devotees - goodbye Kulminator.
For the rest of the evening, our quality beer quota fulfilled, it was once again onto the light, friendly Pils that kept us sustained through a gruelling two hours of cue-based conflict, in a quirky local bar, where, at different points in the evening we shared our space with techno heads, old men, Goths and eventually a party of Dutch students, wearing orange trousers, and out on a weekend jolly-up. At 2.30 we handed over custody of the pool table to the jaffa-panted drinking society, and tried to go back to the hotel, although we were waylaid for a period at Paters Vaetje, where I had an Oerbier which I can almost recall, and which I certainly didn't need. Gurd had a Troubadour Obscura which was very good, and the bar seemed very nice - I must go back when I can see properly! Even now, there was time for a quick one in the same Irish pub as last night, with the same expat (Shane from Hammersmith) still bothering the locals, and us - until he discovered we were English and saw us as competition…
At 4.00 I jumped ship and left Gurd with a pint in his hand, although he must have drank it so fast that I still had to suffer the indignity of having my photograph taken as I wrestled to actually take my trousers off (these things suddenly become very challenging do they not?)
I wasn't really alive in the conventional sense of the word as we boarded the noon train to Brussels, but we made it anyway, and hotfooted it rather efficiently to our hotel (Beau Site) a short walk from Place Stephanie on Avenue Louise.
Sensibly we had a good Italian meal on the thronged 'kebab' street where the proprietors try to get you onto their premises most enthusiastically, and before wandering to Mort Subite. I really enjoyed the atmosphere of this place and the delicious lambic/blanche house beer which Gurd ordered. My Faro was alright too. In an ideal world I would have sampled more beers at this place, but aware of a potentially heavy schedule, it was onwards, ever onwards.
After a customary trek round the city centre, we strolled to the Mannekin Pis, we became embroiled in a boy scout's quest for a 'collecting foreigners' badge, involving us getting photographed with a bloke from Kazakhstan! We then had a quick drink in the nearly Poechenellekelder (sp?), and played the apparently well-known game of watching the looks of disappointment on tourists' faces, as they realise how small the mannekin actually is. After an average Vieux Temps, and a fitting Blanche de Bruxelles, it was off to the Delirium café, having been given suitable directions by the helpful waitress.
Wow! We both really enjoyed the Delirium Café, although it's a minor miracle we found it at all. With the phonebook sized beer menu, live band (coupled with price increase L), Drie Fonteinen on hand pumps, and lots of very friendly locals and tourists, we couldn't tear ourselves away and ended up staying the whole night and running up a hefty tab. In all, I had Drie Fonteinen Faro (amazing), Hanssens Gueuze (likewise), Floris Apple (not too bad), Framboise Boon (nice), Boon Faro (pretty good), Rader Blond (extremely tasty), St Louis Faro (rich and sweet). Gurd had Rader Blonde, St Idesbald Blonde, Saison Silly, Caves, and a draught Delirium Tremens (which he didn't really need), amongst others. We enjoyed the company of a nice couple from Colchester, and Gurd found a groups of lads and lasses from Blackburn/Accrington who attended his old school - it's a small world.
We eventually left in pursuit of yet more pool, but despite directions from Delirium's cool barman, perhaps fortunately we did not find anywhere to fit the bill at 2.00 on a Sunday night, and instead made the longish walk home, which allowed for some vital fresh air and time to compose oneself.
Almost time to go home, but just long enough to have a visit to Cantillon brewery, sample their wares, and get a couple of bottles - Lou Pepe Kriek and Framboise. After a further visit to Beer Tempel, it was onto the Eurostar and back to Brum, with the journey only being punctuated by a couple of hours in the Head of Steam at Euston station, watching Leicester City on Sky.
By 1.00 am the travelling was over and I was back in my own bed in Stirchley.
I like to make the most of my time off work, and in that respect the Belgian trip was an unqualified success, although when people ask what I did apart from drinking, I do have to stop and think!
Of all the bars visited, the Delirium was my favourite with Waagstuk, BB, Trappistenhuis and Kulminator coming close. Of the cities we went to I really liked Ghent, possibly more than Bruges, enjoyed Antwerp, and was impressed again with the style and size of Brussels. Belgium is such a superb, friendly and efficient country. If they ever have a European parliament, I think it would be an ideal place to locate it…
Dan Brown, Birmingham, UK