In Belgium, we were on a mission to find the best beers in the world—with greatest respect to our brewing friends in Ireland, England, Germany, and the Czech Republic. From our hub in Brussels, we caught one of the cheap, fast, convenient commuter trains for which the Continent is famous to the idyllic canal city of Bruges.
Unlike crumbling Venice, this city of water is still a fully-functioning community, with residential and commercial activity beyond the robust tourist trade. From the station, we hustled immediately to the Halve Maan Brewery to enjoy the world famous Bruges Zot family of Belgian dubbel, tripel, and quadrupel beers.Belgian brewers were allowed to experiment for centuries with beers beyond the reach of the German Beer Purity Law of 1516 demanding that all beers contain only barley, hops, and water. They found that adding exotic spices like bay, coriander, and orange peel gave their beers more color and character than the clear, pale lagers of their German cousins. Sipping the modern descendants of those old Belgian experiments, we silently thanked these medieval monks for their efforts and ingenuity all those years ago.
Moving on along the canals, we found our way to the old centers of Belgian commerce: Markt Square and Burg Square. Overlooking the gabled merchants’ houses surrounding this old hub is the famous octagonal Bell Tower. It was a long climb to the top, but the views of the city and the distant sea were worth the sweat—although we wished we could have been somewhere outside the tower when the hourly chime struck. The tourists in the square were treated to a pleasant tune; those of us directly under the great bells were rocked in a very different way.Beyond the busy, narrow lanes of the city center, the crowds thinned and the city opened up to breathe. We walked until we arrived at one of the city’s large Ring Canal, which feeds the central canals of the town center. A green park with a wide walking and cycling track followed the water, and restored windmills reminded us of the close connection of the people here to their close neighbors the Dutch, and that this was Flemish—not French—territory. The sun was setting after our half-loop around the city’s Ring Canal, and we walked back into town for one—or two—more Belgian beers before our return train to Brussels. Most of the other day-trippers had already left; the busy squares were mostly empty as we found our way to a bar with an encyclopaedic beer menu.
With a little bit more Belgian courage in our bellies, we took one more slow stroll through the fairytale city as the night lights came up. Feeling a bit sad that we had to leave such a beautiful city at its most picturesque magic hour, we caught our train, hoping we could return again soon.