We left London at 0715 on a chilly and snowy Saturday morning. After a leisurely drive through Kent, we put the car on the train and into the tunnel for the first time, and got to France at 11am local time (10am UK).

The tunnel train only takes 35 minutes and is a great way of getting across especially for those of us who live in the South East. In the winter especially its good to know you don't have to run the risk of ferry cancellations or wild boat crossings in a force 10 gale!! If you're ever in London and want to go to Belgium, I'd definitely recommend putting a car on the train or getting the train the whole way over if you don't have a car.

We sped up the motorway to Veurne, and headed for Diksmuide for our first stop: De Dolle Brouwers in Esen, just outside Diksmuide. It took under an hour from Calais, including a stop for petrol. This was our second time at De Dolle, so it was mainly a quick beer pick up. Interesting to note that they do 20 of any of the beers that they have available for the same price: it does not cost more if you want 20 Stille Nacht, for example, its still 810 BEF. Considering this, its strange that you nearly always pay a lot more for Stille in a bar or shop. With the 20 empties we were returning, I paid 700 BEF for a crate of 20 mixed, including 8 Stille's. Also got a full crate of the 20th anniversary ale, which has 8 x 75cl bottles, for 1140 BEF. You also get to keep the wooden crate, which is neat and has the Oerbier symbol on it. Anyway, more on the Stille Nacht later...

Next it was over to Westvleteren, again just to pick up fresh supplies and drop off empties. The abbey had stopped selling by the time we arrived, so we used De Vrede pub, which is still excellent value. Picked up 42 bottles, had to try hard to remember not to buy 6 times that and keep some room in the car! Saw inside an open gate at the abbey and spotted some monks, but apart from it was all quiet as usual at Westvleteren.

Then it was on to Boezinge, just north of Ieper. We only went there to pick up some Van Eecke beers as their brewery in Watou is closed at the weekends. The brewery in Boezinge. Br Leroy, was pretty disappointing and I wouldn't recommend going out of your way for a visit. They also don't seem very commercially geared up for strange people like me calling and actually wanting to buy some beer, but we got there in the end. The best thing we got there were some nice packs: one had 2 x75cl bottles of Hommel plus a glass, and the other had 3 x 75cl bottles of Het Kappitel - lovely! Boezinge itself is a bit bigger than Westvleteren (that would not be hard) but is still a small village - however it has got lovely cobblestones all through the village, and was very pretty as everything was frozen and it was snowing when we were there.

By 3pm we'd reached Ieper. What a fascinating place! Everywhere you look there are war memorials and the whole place is quite moving. Saw the Menen gate, with all the names of the dead on it, also saw several fields with hundreds of simple graves. The town centre is incredible especially when you realize it was completely wiped out in the war - the rebuilding has been done superbly. We'll definitely return for a full weekend there and see more of the memorials and drive round the Salient.

We then went over to Watou, which was where we were spending the night. We'd booked up a room in the Brouwershuis, an excellent B & B in the grounds of the St Bernardus Brewery. Its run by the brewer and his wife, both of whom are charming and helpful hosts. The house is great, full of wood paneling and comfortable furniture. You get the run of the house too, not just a room. They provided a free welcome beer (all part of the service, but what other B & B has ever given you a St Bernardus 8 on arrival?!) and then we discussed dining.

We wanted to go to the Hommelhof, where the renowned chef Stefaan Couttenye plies his trade. Just as well we wanted to go there, because Mrs Brewer recommended it and offered us a lift over! Even better, she said ask the staff to give us a lift back when we've finished our meal!!!!

Now, as the B & B is about 2km outside Watou, in the middle of nowhere, no street lights, no taxis, nothing, and as I didn't fancy a non drinking evening, nor did I fancy putting my car over the ditch on the way back, this was a very welcome offer. Anyway, after our remarkable meal we did ask for a lift, and none other than Stefaan himself came out of the kitchen, jumped in the car and drove us back to the B & B!! Now that's what I call service. He was a charming guy, too, so down to earth and friendly. He says that they have an arrangement with the brewery, and it obviously works well for both. Now I don't know if they do this every time, but I'd say you'd be unlucky to have to walk both ways. All this for 3200 BEF for a double. Oh, and breakfast was at whatever time we wanted it...

The meal itself was superb. Everything is done in beer - I had rabbit in what Stefaan said was 'Kapitel blonde' (Watou Wit?), which was definitely the biggest and best rabbit ever!!

Also in Watou before the meal we went out to the De Bie brewery and bar, the Hellakapelle. Now this is definitely the most remote brewery I've ever seen!! We found it easily because we'd picked up a handy map of the area while in Br Leroy, who have close links with Watou via Van Eecke. However, unfortunately when we eventually got there it was closed for annual holidays, which is a shame because it looked great. A real tiny micro brewery in a barn, with a one room bar which really is up a farm track just when you think there's no way it could be way out there!!! Definitely will go back though to see what its like inside.

Totally stuffed, we crashed out exhausted at the end of a great first day.

The next morning we were heading for Brugge, but first stop was Noel Cuvelier's shop, just inside the border, which is another excellent place (thanks for the tip, Steve H). What a super selection of beers!! - again, could have bought the lot, but this would have involved leaving the wife behind to make room in the car, which I don't think would have gone down too well!!

However, we did buy a load of De Bie and other lovelies, including 3 x 75cl bottles from Br Blaugies: one Darbyste, one Moneuse, and one Saison D'Epeautre. Wonder how long I'll be able to resist those?!!

The big regret was not buying a 3000ml bottle of Mighty Duvel, which he was virtually giving away for 900 BEF (yes Mark, I know I should have bought all of those!!) - but I'm fortunate enough to live close enough for there to be a next time...

Steve H: Noel did not have any 'Avec les Bons Voeux'. I asked him if he could get some for 'my mate on the Wirral called Steve'. Worryingly, he seemed to know you very well (how much time do you spend there?!!!) and he said he would try to find 6 bottles for your next visit!

It was snowing heavily by now and Noel's shop was dramatic and windswept, love the pig and cow (models) outside - what an unlikely place to find such a treasure trove!!!

Stopped for lunch in Dadizele, half way to Brugge, a nice little town with a massive church. Not much there apart from a café which I wanted to have a look at for a mate! (suffice to say that if it was not for Mark I would not have gone to Dadizele, but I'm very glad I did!). If you ever end up there head for Spaans Dak, which has a decent range of beers and a good menu.

Part II - Bursting into Brugge!!! Find out who shows up at a pub in a horse and carriage!

Click here for Part 2


Around Bruges in 80 Beers: 2nd Edition

Around London in 80 Beers

Around Brussels in 80 Beers

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