Bruges Trip, June 2011 Day 1

I, along with some friends of mine have been saying for a number of years that we'd like to visit Bruges. Having watched the film "In Bruges" it certainly looked like a great holiday destination with some sights to see. Also there was the fact it was in Belgium with all those beers! The plan was to travel to Bruges on Thursday and stay there enjoying the beer and sunshine and return to old blighty on Sunday. I'd never been to Belgium before so this was a chance to travel on the Eurostar from London Pancreas to Bruxelles . I'd booked my tickets separately to the other five of my drinking companions and would be travelling in a different coach. We all met up in Crouch End, London the night before and made plans in the Kings Head over pints of Sambrooks Wandle before moving onto the 3 compasses for a rather impressive pint of Redemption Trinity (3%). There was also a tasty lamb and chorizo pie to help wash it all down.  

Our train left for Brussels at 1057 Thursday morning so we were up early and out to door in order to reach King's Cross St Pancreas around 20 minutes early in order to check in. I was dubious about my printed paper ticket, but the QR code on it seemed to work flawlessly at the barrier The security guard by the metal detector was really friendly and was keen to chat about Bruges and the beers we would probably try. My seat reservations were in a different carriage to the other five of my companions to I spent an hour and 50 mins looking out the window at the French and Belgian countrysides. We arrived in Bruxelles and as we were nearby and had some time to kill we decided we'd visit the Cantillon brewery before travelling onwards. This brewery makes beer using age old traditional spontaneous fermentation. This process uses the wild yeast in the atmosphere to produce a sour tasting beer that is sometimes blended with fruits (typically raspberries or cherries ). These lambic beers are aged up to 25 years as the fermentation process is much slower than when using modern "top" or "bottom" fermenting yeasts. We were given information booklets and wandered around the brewery on our own examining the equipment and the fantastic cellar that stored up to 60,000 bottles. On seeing the exquisitely beamed roof space in which the brewery stores its grains and hops I decided that I should have something similar myself one day. Brewing is only active in the winter so the brewery wasn't producing anything during our visit. There were quite a few tour groups that came in whilst we were there and some people looked like they were regulars and had just come in for their regular glass of kriek or framboos. We were given two taster glasses and could choose from the Geuze ( Lambic beers of different ages blended together ), unblended lambic, Kriek ( cherry ), and Framboos ( raspberry ). We all passed these around so I got to try all of these. We also bought a bottle of the Iris which was made with pure barley rather than the usual blend of barley with wheat.

 

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Although we are all supremely happy there and could have stayed all afternoon we all agreed we should try and arrive in Bruges by tea-time. We walked back to the station and on arriving it turned out that I needed to buy a connecting ticket to Bruges as my ticket wasn't valid for the journey. The ticket office in Bruxelles is slightly confusing. On entering you come face to face with a pleasant member of staff who stands next to a touch-screen computer terminal. You are supposed to enter your destination on the screen and then you'll be assigned a ticket number. You then need to queue up and wait for your number in "Argos" style. Luckily my confusion was obvious and the lady on the desk was kind enough to educate me. All people who work in the customer service sector in Belgium seem to be able to speak at least three different languages fluently. 

The journey took just over an hour and cost 6 euros each way. The trains were very comfortable and the whole experience put British Rail to shame somewhat. We were disappointed that we didn't get to travel on one of the double-decker trains as these looked loads of fun. On passing St. Pierre station we noticed a gigantic bike park that probably held over 20,000 bicycles. The bicycle is a MAJOR form of transport in Belgium and there were an equal number of these to the cars we saw during our visit.

Alighting from the train we left the station and strolled onto the huge cobbled area just outside. There was a noticeable difference between Bruges and Bruxelles that was immediately apparent. Bruxelles is definitely a "city" and has a large amount of concrete and traffic. Bruges is also a city but disguises itself as a 12th century cobbled village. These cobbles are a bit misleading as in the UK they normally signify a pedestrian area, but traffic in Bruges seems to be permitted everywhere. We walked to our hotel to drop off our bags and appreciated the canals and shaded woodland paths that exist across the road from the station. There was a relaxed silence in the air and we saw no-one except a couple enthusiastically trying to say goodbye to each other and repeatedly failing. It was soon apparently the Bruges is a beautiful experience and I would be able to relax here without any problems. The hotel Ter Reien is situateed directly next the canal on Langestraat. Once we'd registered our presence at reception we were show past a medieval map of Bruges, down some stairs through a pair of doors with stained glass windows and then into a small courtyard. One of the doors on the courtyard's perimeter opened directly on the canal and you'd be able to step directly into a boat or plunge into the water. The rooms were situated in an adjoining house on two floors. These were clean and suited our needs perfectly. We all agreed to meet up in the brasserie opposite (Punta Est) and once I'd had a quick shower I strolled down and met up with the others.

 

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My first beer in Bruges was a Rodenbach, a sour flanders red ale which is both tart and refreshing. Once we'd all assembled we discussed a plan of action. I'd done some research regarding the places we should go for good beer and had a small list of 6 places that were supposed to be good and this tallied somewhat with the lists and experiences of other members of our beer-drinking taskforce. On leaving the Punta Est brasseries we walked back into central Bruges to visit Cambrinus, a renowned beer haunt boasting a list of over 400 beers. Unfortunately for us it was full so I had a look on my list and suggested another venue. With a bit of exploration we found T'poatersgat - a cellar bar with a vaulted ceiling and hops on the walls and columns. This had a seriously impressive range of beers and we sampled beers such as L'abbayes des rocs and Viven imperial IPA. There was no table service here but the barman was really friendly and was able to decode our stumbling english pleas for quality Belgium ale. On the way back we had another stab at Cambrinus and this time there was a table free. The choice of beer here was staggering and amazingly they had all three Westvleteren beers. These ales are made by a silent order of monks and is notoriously hard to come by. We agreed that at some point this weekend we should try all three bottles and at around 10€ for each bottle it wouldn't break the bank. 

We left Cambrinus in search of food and decided to try t'Brugs Pitahaus. Sitting down at the tables and looking at the menus we quickly discovered that none of us knew any Flemish. Luckily I'd installed a Dutch-English dictionary on my phone and we had help from the waitress who was very friendly. We all ordered chicken or lamb kebabs with chips and pints of t'Brugs Zot blond ( which it turns out is made by the local brewery in Bruges. The meal came with a number of enigmatic sauces which were all tasty and interesting. There was an excellent green sauce which reminded us of Korma and a white cheese sauce. There was also a form of onion and tomato relish that was absolutely delicious. 

We left with our stomachs recharged and visited t'Brugs Beertje. This is another place that beer enthusiasts rave about in Bruges. The building itself is very small and seemed to be frequented by a couple of tables of students. We were only able to sample one beer here as we arrived for last orders at around 1am, but I was pleased with my choice of the De Dolle extra export stout. We moved onto De Kuppe next. This had a good selection of beers but seemed to be having some sort of trance and house night. We stayed for one and made our way back to T'poatersgat. A previous conversation with the barman had suggested that he may be closing at around 3-4am depending on the number of customers. On arriving we found that the bar was closed so ducked into a jazz and blues bar directly opposite. The beer menu in here was also very interesting and a chilled out blues bar is one of my favourite places to spend the early hours of the morning with a high quality 9% belgium ale. A few beers in here and we all decided to call it a night.

 

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My first night in Bruges has been very rewarding and I think I will enjoy my stay here. So far the beer tally is up to 54 different beers tried by our six-man group. I'm hoping to find some of the beers from my 300 beers challenge tomorrow. Let's hope the hangover is manageable.