Can you get tired of Brugge, delightful though it is? Well yes you can if you are just as much a pub man as you are a beer man. There is a degree of repetitiveness in Brugge pub crawling and once you realise that you can get little by way of ordinary pub culture in the centre at least, you have to travel a little further. The good thing is that is easy to do. Trains are frequent and punctual, though not that cheap, but you can easily get about.
Thus it was that we found ourselves, following advice from assorted drunks, heading to Ostend and the coastal tram. There's two choices. Head towards France and Dunkirk (though it doesn't quite go there) or to the Dutch border at Knokke. Five euros for a day pass and off you go. Now my accomplice Graham has been to De Panne on the Dunkirk side, so off we went towards Knokke. Our inebriated associates had given limited advice; "Get off anywhere - it's all good" kind of summed it up. You can guess though that it ain't all good. If you like a lot of sand dunes it is, but when after forty odd minutes we had seen nothing obvious, we hopped off at Wenduine into what seemed like a ghost town. We concluded this was a summer resort and like most of ours, was kind of closed up for the winter. We could find nothing open other than two deserted looking hotels. And it was bloody freezing too. We hopped on the next tram. So much for "it's all good".
Blankenberge near Zeebrugge is another ten minutes towards Zeebrugge and a world away from Wenduine. Bustling and busy we had no problems finding good cheer. By the main tram stop and on the square we nipped into a likely looking pub. Brasserie Terminus - Koning Leopold III Plein 1 - is highly recommended for its friendliness and the choice of 80 odd beers didn't put us off either. Rodenbach on draught? That'll do nicely and accompanied by free WiFi and croque monsieurs, we were mightily content. Locals came in to eat and have a beer, the news was on the telly. It was comfortable and a world away from touristy Brugge. We finished on La Trappe Isid'or on draught. At 8.6% and smooth as the inside of a maiden's thigh, it warmed the cockles a touch. We walked back through the busy town towards Blankenberge Park and the tram stop where we'd spotted a couple of likely suspects. The earlier sunshine had given way to snow flurries and then snow. By the time we reached the tram stop at Blankenberge Park it was blizzard like. It was so snowy by then, note taking (not that I did any) was out of the question, but there are three or four pubs there. We dashed into the one with the most beer signs, as it seemed a likely spot. If you don't like mixing with the locals, this might not have been the pub for you. In Dutch speaking East Flanders, this was a French outpost. The half dozen customers, at two thirty in the afternoon were, frankly, completely pissed - but jovial - and we chatted away amiably in our broken French. Great fun and though the beer list was limited, putting up with Orval is not exactly a hardship. That's one of the delights of Belgian pubs. There is always something decent to be had.
Our next target was just round the corner and a quick dash took us to a bustling locals bar and back to gutteral, incomprehensible Dutch. Full of corners, nooks and crannies and a central bar, constant comings and going, a good bottled beer selection, plus draught Rodenbach ensured a good couple of hours. As the snow worsened and the light eerily faded, we reluctantly left. This was raw and cheery Belgian pub life and the place was a cosy and friendly haven from the outside world. What more do you want? Well more beer of course. Ostend itself (on the way back) has a few decent pubs, though probably a bit more upmarket, but were warm and cosy on a very snowy night. We did some more Orval in and then hopped back to Brugge, where, to be honest, we had too much beer.
For someone that prefers pubs, it was interesting to note that despite the smoking ban , local pubs were thriving. The prices were good too here in the sticks - think €2.50 Orval and €3.00 Duvel - and though the pubs were rough and ready, welcomes were warm, service was unfailingly polite, cheerful and friendly. Belgium is perhaps not the most picturesque part of the world - at least not the Northern part - but it is genuinely good to be in and, as importantly, if you find the right pubs, they are great to drink in too.
When I wrote my Golden Pint Awards, I said one of my beer drinking aims for 2012 was a Belgian visit. That didn't take me long to sort out did it?
The pub is behind the tram! Next the Bruges Beer Festival
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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