This is Saturday — it must be Belgium(*)

This weekend we went to Belgium. We left “early” Friday morning – about 9:30 – and headed to Brugge. It was about a five-and-a-half-hour drive.  For those who do not know, Belgium has two parts (here is brief primer on the divide). The southern part of the country is occupied by the Walloons. They call this area Walloonia and they speak French (Yay, French!)The northern portion of the country is occupied by Flemish people. This area is called Flanders and they speak Dutch and Flemish. Brugge is part of Flanders and so the people naturally speak Dutch. Dutch is related to German and has, to our ears, a very guttural and unnatural sound. (I thought it sounded really funny. Like, laughter funny and very foreign after six weeks of French.) Luckily virtually everyone speaks English as a second language.

We had booked ourselves into the Hotel Academie, and Sue wisely arranged for parking. The drive into the center of town where the hotel was located, was, to say the least, interesting. Small cobblestone streets, which may or may not have been pedestrian only. (Google says they weren’t – the pedestrians all seem to think they were.) Either way, we arrived at the hotel at about 3:30 and pulled into their covered entrance way and then drove straight down into the tightest smallest parking underground parking lot imaginable. To get into our spot, we had to do what seemed like fifty multi-point turns. After a few minutes of playing avoid the concrete post, I got the car parked in a space that was only slightly smaller than a postage stamp. I only wish I had thought to take photos of the garage. (Stay tuned for more on Steven’s excellent driving under scary circumstances.)

Once we had parked, we dumped our stuff in the room and headed right out into the tourist fray. It was madness. We didn’t realize that there was some sort of bicycle race/convention going on. The place was packed and to be pretty honest we were a bit overwhelmed. (Maybe I am becoming a country mouse or maybe I have never liked throngs of tourists.) We did our usual couple of hours of wandering and then reached our limit. We found a nice brasserie off the main market square, ordered some beer and spent the next hour or two watching people and the sun set. It was a great counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the tourist crowds.

We passed a Thai place on the walk back to the hotel and decided we wanted that for dinner. (In case we haven’t mentioned it, food around here is BLAND.) We looked at some reviews and found Sivalai, about a 10 minute walk and, very importantly, in the opposite direction from the maddening crowds. It is run by a husband (waiter/host) and wife (chef) team and it was wonderful. We arrived without a reservation and when we asked for a table the husband/host looked absolutely pained that there were no tables. He asked for 5 minutes and would seat us. We were in no rush so we went for a little stroll and when we returned he had a table waiting for us. The host was fabulous, taking time to talk to us, in parts of English/Dutch, French (and tried to teach us a bit of Thai), running here there an everywhere taking orders, getting the food and keeping everyone smiling. His good nature was infectious. We asked him to make our food fairly spicy as we have been finding the food in France, tasty but mild. He did not disappoint and our food came out spicy, flavorful and delicious.

After dinner we had a wander through the now nearly deserted town and it was wonderful. The canals are gorgeous, the buildings and architecture great. It was such a different experience than only a few hours earlier. (When we arrived, I fear both of us were thinking that Brugge was a bust. We liked it much better when it didn’t resemble Time Square.)

In the morning, we decided to have a breakfast bagel and a place called Sanseveria. We generally avoid bagel places as many do not boil the bagels, they just bake them. This leads to round bread rolls, which are good, but they are just not bagels. However, this place has great reviews, and so we figured we would give it a shot. It was well worth it. We both ordered bagel and egg sandwiches and shared a bowl of fruit. The fruit bowl was exceptional; it had pear, banana, apple, mango, blueberry, strawberry and pineapple in it. (The fruit in Belguim overall was fantastic.)The bagels were good, not great, but overall the sandwiches were delicious and hit the spot.

After breakfast, we went for another wander; it was still relatively early and the streets were still pretty empty. When the crowds started to appear, we headed for our car and drove to a town called Buggenhout, and Browerij Boostels.

The carriage they lent me to carry the beer we bought.

Browerij Boostels is the maker of two of my favorite beers (Tripel Karmeliet and Kwak). When we were planning this trip, we purchased tickets to a brewery tour at 14:00. However, the only tours they do on Saturdays are in Dutch, but we figured what the hell, we did a tour of prehistoric caves in French, how much would be lost doing a beer tour in Dutch? Besides, you get free beer at the end of the tour and beer tastes the same in any language.

We arrived somewhat early (about 45 minutes) and found our way to the tasting room/starting point of the tour. When we introduced ourselves, the tour guide said “Oh yes! I remember you have booked the tour in Dutch, but do not speak it.”  We nodded our heads foolishly and then he informed us that one of his colleagues – Yves, had volunteered to give us the tour in English.

This turned out to be a huge and happy surprise. First, Yves is great. His English is impeccable, he has a great sense of humor and was patient with our (many many) questions. The tour information was really quite interesting – Did you know that hops were added to make the beer last longer? That the yeast is used multiple times? That for a long time beer was safer to drink than water because the water is boiled? So many interesting facts that we would have missed in Dutch! We heard about the history of the Boostel family who have brewed beer on that location for seven generations and earned most of their income in the ’50s and ’60s selling lemonade as Belgian style beer was out of fashion. And of course…the beer tasting.

Once we finished at the brewery, we headed for Brussels which is about a 40-minute drive. Sue is going to finish telling of the weekend’s hijinks on Wednesday’s blog post. But before we go, if anyone is looking for a private tour of anywhere in Belgium, Yves does them under the banner of Beardbarian Entertainment (he is also a musician and plays Celtic music) and I would highly recommend you use him.

(*) Click here for the title reference