Road trippin’ to Belgium: Bruges

We start our last day in Amsterdam fetching our rental car (a very fetching Volvo, if you ask me) and begin the 3-hour road trip to Bruges, Belgium.

Matt was at the helm, with John as his co-pilot. And man, was my husband overjoyed. Not only does he love a road trip, but a road trip in a foreign country with one of his closest friends… I believe the baseball expression of “right in his wheelhouse” could be used somewhere in here! I’m from the south, so “like a pig in mud” feels better to me, but “toMAYto, toMAHto” I guess. Along the way (admittedly) we stopped at McDonald’s for lunch. Let me just say, every worker there was beautiful. Turns out, I liked being asked if I ‘want fries with that’ by models.

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Interesting sign seen en route…something must be lost in translation here.  Can anyone tell us what this means?

Bruges

Bruges is the sixth-largest city in Belgium.  As you may have read in the preceding post, it is home to a plethora of medieval architecture (the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).  The earliest references to Bruges date back to 840 A.D., and the name (Brugge) is derived from the old Dutch world for “bridge.”  Bruges’ location as a central trading post made the city quite wealthy in the late Middle Ages, and the city also enjoyed prosperity due to its textile industry.  The city was considered the economic capital of Europe during the 14th century.  Many of the buildings date back to the late Middle Ages, and its series of canals make Bruges a picturesque destination.

We stayed right outside of the center of Bruges, so it was an easy walk to the city center.  The neighborhood we stayed in was quiet.  And when I say quiet, I mean REALLY quiet.  It looked like a normal town, except one where every single person stayed inside with the shades drawn.  Nobody was eating outside at restaurants.  I’m not sure anyone was even going to restaurants. Until you actually got into Bruges proper, it seemed as if the outskirts were completely abandoned, albeit with nice manicured lawns and tidy brick homes. So we were very quick to hustle over to the city and see what we could find.

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Hmm, could this be the Venice of the North? Or would it be Amsterdam? Or both?

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Hello? Chocolate man? Anyone home?

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Bruges Comes Alive

The city of Bruges is visually beautiful.  The winding canals, the medieval buildings, the weeping willow trees hanging over the canals – it’s quite remarkable.  We did notice, however, that it definitely skews older – the crowd it attracts are mostly the over-50 crowd who have money to spend (as noted by the overall high price for restaurants).  During the early evening, it lacks a certain energy that many other youthful cities possess.  However, as the evening went on, the young people came out of the woodwork and settled in to an area just off the central square that featured late happy hour specials and music.  We were feeling that Bruges was going to be a bit stuffy for our tastes, but after witnessing this transformation, it helped us to relax a bit. What’s more, it seemed like all of the beautiful parts of the city became more beautiful under the view of a setting sun.  We found a good dinner deal and then enjoyed the more youthful vibe as the night went on, taking advantage of nightfall to capture some beautiful photos.

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Exploring one of Belgium’s culinary treats – mussels!

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Another Belgian standard – beer.

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We spent our second day in Belgium in the city of Ghent (separate post, coming later).  The third day, we were all a bit exhausted from our hectic travels, and the weather was awful, so we mostly stayed at home and thus we skipped Antwerp (our original plan…Antwerp has always been on my “bucket list” for being a viewed as fashion forward and trendy… but alas it will have to be covered on another trip.) Once the weather cleared up, we were able to pull ourselves together to trek into Bruges city for something of a pilgrimage: a beer and chocolate pilgrimage. Belgium is known for having perhaps the best beer and chocolate in the world, so we figured that we’d have to try out some local bars and chocolatiers and see what they offered.

We quickly found Dumon Chocolatier, where I very happily accepted this lovely gift of 30 chocolates from my wonderful, one-of-a-kind husband (who had absolutely nothing at all to do with editing this section!)

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We then set off to try some Belgian beer.  We particularly enjoyed relaxing at ‘t Brugs Beertje, which came well-reviewed by the TripAdvisor crowd.  It did not disappoint.  Going in feels like putting on an old shoe; it has a simple, rustic, yet comfortable ambiance.  The servers are extremely knowledgeable about the 350+ types of beers they offer.  Already having sampled traditional Belgian favorites such as Chimay and Duvel, we tried beers such as the Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel and the St. Bernardus 12, which we very much enjoyed.  The Straffe Hendrik, our favorite of the group, was brewed at a local Bruges brewery, adding some local flavor to our tasting.

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The Holy Grail of Beer (and where to find the Westvleteren 12 in Bruges)

One beer that ‘t Brugs Beertje did not have, however, was the Westvleteren 12.  This Belgian beer is considered by many of beer experts (beer-molieres?) to be the holy grail of beers. The Westvleteren 12 is brewed at a Belgian Trappist monastery, and only a very limited amount is made.  It can be challenging to find a bar that serves it, even in Belgium – and you can only buy bottles or cases directly from the monastery (where there is a long waiting list).  It has been named “Best Beer in the World” by RateBeer.com on several occasions, and its elusiveness just added to its appeal.  Matt had brought up the idea of looking for the beer earlier in the trip, but we hadn’t been able to find it up to that point.  The server at ‘t Brugs Beertje told us, however, that it could be acquired in Bruges, and the bar serving it was not far away – the Bierbrasserie Cambrinus.  So excitedly we paid our tab and skipped down the cobble stone. After locating Cambrinus – more noticeably a slightly upscale restaurant than a place that serves 400 beers – we asked about the availability of the beer in question. The server nodded and brought it out. It was a nondescript brown bottle, no label and looked pretty unassuming. And the cost? 15 euro! So it certainly was the most expensive beer we have ever had, but it was well worth it for the one-time experience.  It boasts a complex taste, with layers of caramel, fig, cream – it’s almost like eating a rich piece of cake.  We thought it was definitively superior to the St. Bernardus 12, to which the Westvleteren 12 is often compared.  So for a 15 euro beer, it was an enjoyable, but rare, treat.

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As tasty as the Westvleteren 12 was, I felt the abundantly available local Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel was the tastiest beer we had so far. Yes, right now some beer enthusiast is gasping and clutching his pearls, (clutching his stein?) and calling us heretics, but defending yourself in public is a good exercise in discipline.  John slightly favored the Westvleteren, but agreed that on a taste-to-price ratio, the Straffe Hendrik was the best value overall.

But the glass was empty and mecca had been reached, so it was time to head home. Michelle and Matt had stayed back to cook dinner (mussels, yes!) so we were ready to dine. And what a fantastic job they did!

Next up – join us on our day-trip to Ghent!

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HEY! Travel tip: it was this point in the trip we realized we had forgotten our power strip. It is essential! You just plug the strip into the converter, and then you have plenty of open outlets for your iPad(s), iPhone(s), computer(s), and camera peripherals. Dumb us! Or if you do end up forgetting it, just do what we did: stealthily sneaking back up to the bedroom and secretly go around unplugging each others’ electronics when the other isn’t looking. Oh the games we play…

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