(My travel plans have been put on hold for the next few months so I've been revisiting some work I did a few years back with a view to writing a book, this is another excerpt from it.)
We got the train without any fuss and we - me and my travelling companions Pete and Nige - were soon whizzing our way into Brussels main station where we would change for Bruges. The ubiquitous suburban rail line graffiti was plastered on every available wall but it somehow felt fresher and more colourful than usual and helped to brighten the drab building on our short hop into the city. We had a little time to wait here so we decided to get a bite to eat as Nige was getting hungry and I needed my morning coffee to stave of my irritability. He went mooching around the pannini in a café, asking in English about Italian food in a place ran by French speaking Chinese people. It was an accident waiting to happen and sure enough when we sat down, vegetarian Nige took a bite from his sandwich and exposed a nice layer of ham. Instead of bringing it back, he threw it disgustedly back down on his plate and grumble about it while drinking his coffee, which wasn't very good either he thought.
We caught the train to Bruges without further mishap and we were soon heading northwest toward Bruges on a eerily near-empty train, over the flat, pretty-but-boringish landscape of Flanders through showers of rain, just ourselves and a few other tourists for company. A large, wheezy, middle-aged lady had got on with us in Brussels and had plonked her ample frame opposite me for some reason. 5 seconds later I got the unmistakable stench of stale perspiration. Let's face it, we can all overheat and have bad days but the smell of week old sweat is not something that's even remotely acceptable. It seemed to have a life of its own - you could almost see the aura around her - like the heat shimmer you get from a tarmacadam road in summer. I feigned near sightedness, burying my head in my guidebook and notes - looking at some of the bars and sights we needed to visit - to try and block my nose from the odour. As luck would have it, she got out in Ghent. Unfortunately her BO loitered in the carriage until Aalter
In Bruges I knew we would have the usual time-wasteful argument about whether to take a taxi, bus or walk, but this time I had a plan. As soon as we exited the doors of the station I walked straight and purposely towards the pedestrian crossing that leads into the town.
'Where are you going?' Nige asked.
'We're walking,' I said, as I kept moving.
'But it could be a long walk. Perhaps we should get a bus?'
'No, we're walking.'
'How far is it?' Pete chimed in.
'About fifteen minutes. We're walking,' I said again, not stopping or giving them a chance to argue with me to any great degree. We were near the crossing by now.
'We got the bus last time,' Nige whined as Pete shrugged and kept pace with me.
'Well were walking this time. I know the way.' The rain had cleared off and it was a nice morning.
Secretly, I was only half sure of the way and hoped my sense of direction wouldn't desert me. I was also unsure of how long it would actually take but I felt that the only way to deal with the usual faffing we tended to do when we reached a train station was to seize the day, keep my head down and keep walking.
We walked along a canal and past the Minnewater, all the while listening to the constant grumbles of the doubting, untrusting and irritable Nige, as he trailed after Pete and myself. Luckily, after a few more twists and turns we arrived at our hotel. It had taken twenty minutes but it had saved half an hour of discussion and waiting at the station. As usual, we quickly cleaned up and changed, eager for our first beer of the trip.
And I knew just the place.
De Garre is not the sort of place you would stumble upon by accident, it's more of a destination you need you seek out. Even though I possessed directions on where to find the place we still nearly missed the narrow side street on which it sits. We had left the hotel and walked up to the Belfort, the bell tower that sits on the Markt, the main square of the city, and headed towards the Burg, which is the other square in the very centre of the city. We were eager to reach our first watering hole so we just glanced at the many fine buildings we passed, promising to return later for a proper look around. Halfway along the street that connects these two squares and just visible up the narrowest of alleys, we glimpsed the sign and a small flight of worn steps leading up to a door.
To say we were anxious to get our first drink was an understatement. We had done a lot more research for this trip than any of the others. There are load of bars in Bruges selling hundreds of different beers so we didn't want to be wasting time looking at maps and menus deciding where to go and what to drink when we got here. We had only two nights in the city and then one in Brussels, and with a good degree of sight-seeing also on the agenda time was a precious commodity. I had narrowed down the bars to a wish-list of around ten or so and hoped to visit at least five depending on how we got on in the various places. It's all well and good making list and planning ahead but until you actually enter the bar, sit down and take in the atmosphere you’re really not sure if it's your kind of place.
But De Garre (best pronounced while clearing your throat and sounding like a pirate I think) was our kind of place. As soon as we passed through the doorway we knew it would be somewhere we would have at least one or two beers. It is an agreeably old-fashioned place with a tiled floor, age-darkened timbers and brick walls. Old paintings hang on the walls and apart from the very full room we were now in, a stairs led up to another level that was just being opened up as we entered. Eager to soak in the atmosphere we sat down at the only free table and had a better look around. Good humour seemed to fill the room and there was no question of us being looked on as interlopers or trespassers here. From the language and accents there seemed to be a mix of locals and tourists, I caught American and English voices mingling with the lilting guttural language of the locals. It felt more like the front room of someone's house than a pub, apart from the long bar against the far wall behind which stood a happy looking barman, polishing glasses.
The house beer and any other draught beer that De Garre stocked were written on paper doilies that were stuck with thumb tacks over the bar. We decided to first order the house brew, Tripel van der Garre (brewed by Brouwerij Van Steenberge), so that we would have time to study the beer menu as we drank. There was some common ground with beers we all appreciated but in general, Nige and I preferred the stronger, more flavoursome beers while Pete liked something a little milder taste-wise. The house beer turned out to be a creamy, mild brew that was not as overpowering as tripels could be. It had a light spicy-fruity aftertaste that hung around on your palate and suited the complimentary cheese that we were also munching. Any pub that gives me food - even just cheese - with my beer goes up automatically one notch in my estimation. The beer was served in a branded glass - naturally as we're in Belgium - on a paper doily and a wooden tray. All of this added to the front room ambience we already felt.
From previous experience I knew that I liked roasty stouts or any beer with a good dose of bittering hops and I had with me a list of some of the beers I had hoped would appear on the beer menus of the bars we wished to visit. Scanning the menu I spotted Brasserie Ellezelloise's Hercule, which appeared on my list with an asterisk beside it. I couldn't remember why I had placed the mark there but presumed it was because it had gotten good reviews somewhere. Although it was a little high in alcohol for this early in the day, especially after the tripel, I decided to go for it anyway, worried about not seeing it elsewhere and unsure about how many more we would drink here.
So as soon as we had finished out tripels and our cheese, we beckoned our barman and proceeded to order our next round. I ordered the Hercule, Nige went for a Hopus and Pete for a Guillotine, as he liked the name.
Our beers arrived, mine served from a swing-top bottle and in a beer tankard. Pete's was served in a standard, branded glass. Nige's came with two glasses, a tall elegant one into which the barman poured almost all of the beer and a small shot glass into which he poured the yeasty sediment that remains in the bottom of bottle conditioned beers. This presentation was a wonderful ceremony in itself, and something we hadn't come across before.
Mine tasted of treacle and burnt toffee with a gorgeous peaty smell that rose from the glass each time I went to take a sip. I stole a sip of Nige's Hopus - brewed by Brasserie Lefèbvre - and discovered that it certainly lived up to its name with a smooth hop taste that was not overpowering. Pete's Guillotine looked good too and the bottle seemed strangely familiar. On closer inspection it was brewed but the Huyghe Brewery in Melle near Ghent, who also brew Delerium Tremens. I asked Pete what he thought of it and he replied that it was good but had 'lost its head quite quickly' to which I was about to respond when I saw his grin appear and the penny dropped.
With the upstairs area now quite busy too, the atmosphere was buzzing as we drank our beers and relaxed into the place. Like making yourself comfortable in an old worn armchair, we felt cosy and content, helped by the alcohol that was now running through our systems. There were two barmen and a barwoman now serving, to cope with the extra people who were arriving. Some had to leave, as there is a no-standing rule here. If you don't get a seat, you don't get a drink.
We decided to get one last drink before we left, I choose a Struise's Pannepot 2007, Pete went for a St Bernardus Pater 6 and Nige a Floreffe Prima Melior. They were served with exaggerated swagger and aplomb by our new waiter who held glass and tray at an angle while he poured the beers and presented them to us with a large amount of theatrics. I can only presume he's an actor and does waitering I his spare time. All the beers were great, as expected, with my own reminding me of the fizzy cola cube sweets of my childhood albeit with a boozy, complex, sherry-like kick.
By now we were getting pretty toasty as the alcohol contents of the beers we had chosen were pretty high so after yet another discussion about how great the place was we drank up, paid our bill and wobbled down the steps to get some fresh air, De Garre having jumped quickly into my top five European bars.
The streets were getting quite busy now as the tour buses had spewed hoards of tourist from all over the globe into the city. Bruges is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe for Asian and American travellers - not to mention those from Europe - who come here to experience a city whose buildings and architecture is seemingly untouched for hundreds of years.
Appearances can be deceptive, as they say, and never more so than here in Bruges. To be sure, the city is as old as it looks but much of it has been heavily restored. Many of the building quite recently. As almost every guidebook will tell you, Bruges became a backwater in the 1520s when a route to the sea silted up and left the once commercial hub lost its access to major trade routes. This and some political upheaval meant that Bruges was pretty much deserted by commercial enterprise of any sort for centuries even though canals and access to the sea was re-established relatively quickly.
There is no doubt that the city owes a lot of its charm to the fact that the buildings were preserved because the owners couldn't afford to pull them down and rebuild them in a modern style as happened in other places in Belgium and indeed Europe. The other reason why there are so many 'old' building is because they were rebuilt to look so by the British - but that's a story for another day I think...