One by one I slowly climbed the 366 narrow, dark, and steep steps up the Bruges Belfry. I used a thick, coarse rope railing to help pull myself up, squeezing flat against the cold stone walls to allow room for those heading down. At the top, a reward: each window offered a picture-perfect view of a quarter of Bruges. As I turned to my husband to comment, a massive bell tolled right next to my head. The noon bells rang for about three minutes, rendering conversation useless. With ears ringing, and laughing at our timing, we left slowly to retrace our steps down to the Grote Markt, the commercial heart of the city.
Belgium is a great place to drive. Motorists are polite, GPS is standard in rental cars and you don’t receive the speeding tickets (yes, plural) until you are safely home. Our quest for the Belgian experience took us first to Rochefort, a small town nestled in the green hills in the southern, or Flemish, region. Rochefort (not to be confused with Roquefort, France) is a small, quiet town. By the time we arrived and checked into the half medieval, half modern Hotel La Malle Poste, they had pretty much rolled up the sidewalks for the night. We managed to find the local version of a diner and nibbled on local pâté, gherkins, pickled onions, artisanal cheeses and beer. A quick post dinner stroll quickly highlighted the fact that the two nights we had booked there would be an overly ample amount of time to get to know Rochefort.
The following day we drove to nearby Han-sur-Lesse, a small town whose claim to fame are the caves. After a short trip up the mountain on a tiny vintage train, we arrived at the entrance. The tour is two kilometres of chambers and galleries with sensational stalagmites and stalactites, always at a constant 13 °C. We learned that the caves have been in use since Roman times; they were used as shelter in times of war up to WWII. The tour ended with a breathtaking light show in one of the largest galleries, before and after which they plunge you into complete and stunning darkness.
Upon our return to Rochefort we sampled the local Abbey beer; dark with fruit flavors, raisins and yeasty aromas: a treat. The Rochefort Abbey itself does not encourage the casual visitor but their beers are available throughout the region. As with all other Trappist breweries, of which there are six in Belgium, the beer is sold in order to financially support the monastery.
Our next stop was Chimay, an hour’s drive to the west. Chimay’s Abbey is about eight kilometres out of the town centre and the official tasting room, the Auberge de Poteaupré, is a few klicks from the Abbey. The scenery behind the tasting room was some of the most serene I saw throughout the whole trip. Manicured lawns merged into shaggy green fields with darker green woods in the background. We sipped our Chimay Blue while my husband had the Vitoulet Poteaupré, a large veal and pork meatball wrapped in bacon and stuffed with Chimay cheese. I had one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life, the Trappist Grand Classique cheese toasted sandwich; crispy, sharp, and gooey. And when they say it comes with garnish that means a full-on salad.
Our bed and breakfast in Chimay, Le Petit Chapitre, was awesomely shabby-chic. Located just off the main square and near the local castle (which was unfortunately closed while we were there), it had a comfy, homey vibe. The owner had decorated each room with knick-knacks and colour schemes she loved. We shared “le Chambre des Oiseaux”, The Bird Room. As may be expected it was decorated with many pictures and items of the bird variety. Bright and large, the room was very comfortable.
Before the sun went down we enjoyed another local brew on the small patio out front, played backgammon and hung out with the house cat, Sylvie. In the morning, breakfast was amazing with homemade jams and tangy marmalade, melt-in-your-mouth croissants, sharp local cheeses, yogurt with fruit compote, fresh squeezed juices and coffee or tea. It was a great way to start the day.
A two hour drive north-west brought us to Ypres. Ypres was almost destroyed in WWI but the locals and King Albert of Belgium (ruled 1909-1934) decided to rebuild in the style to which it had become accustomed. It’s a gorgeous old looking cobbled town with a modern vibe. We checked into the Hotel Regina on the huge main square across from the Cloth Hall which houses the In Flanders Fields Museum.
The local Westvleteren Brewery is located about fifteen kilometres away at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren. The beer there is notoriously hard to get as you have to make an appointment on a famously busy phone line to pull up to the back gate to collect a maximum of two cases. Luckily, it was not difficult to get a beer in their crowded tasting room, In de Vrede. We tried each of their beers, three shades of light amber to dark brown, smooth, creamy and refreshing. We also had some Abbey Pâté, which came with the ubiquitous and piquant pickles and onions.
Back in Ypres we did some scouting for a dinner venue. We stopped in at the newly-opened Kaffee Bazaar, which advertised “100 Beers” on the sandwich board outside. I managed two. The proprietor, when asked about dinner options, asked what we were looking for. Upon hearing “local” he immediately offered up de Ruyffelaer, telling us “It’s like your Belgian grandmother’s cooking.” I had the pork shoulder and my husband had the pork knuckle, both were rich, flavourful and falling off the bone tender. The atmosphere and service were friendly and the space tiny. I started longing for a Belgian grandmother.
The next morning we had a somber walk through the In Flanders Fields Museum which presents the story of the First World War in that region. It does not stint on describing the horrors of war in hopes that we can avoid it in the future. We then had an hour’s drive to Bruges.
Bruges is a gorgeous, brick and cobbled, canal city. Thanks to GPS we managed to find our bed and breakfast, The Lady Jane B&B. Our “room” in the 400+ year-old building was the whole second floor. Japanese styled, it was kitschy and cool with samurai swords and kimono on display, with a low Japanese table as the centerpiece; the perfect home base for Bruges.
A 50-metre walk took us to the oldest pub in the city. The Herberge Vlissinghe is 500 years old and has a large walled back yard with several trees and a dog you are not allowed to feed. Local legend says that Rubens dined and dashed after painting a coin on a table. A beer and a plate of nibbles gave us the energy for the 15 minute walk to the Grote Markt Square.
It’s is one of two large squares in Bruges, connected by a short street. Along that short street we had hoped to find a pub we had been told about, De Garre. We must have walked up and down that street four times, becoming more frustrated each time before I ducked my head into what seemed like a door in a building only to discover it was the entrance to the alley that was home to De Garre. A well-deserved house-brewed beer and small bowl of cubed local cheese followed that find. Worth the frustration of looking for the bar as the beer was refreshing and the service quick and friendly. A word of warning though, be careful on the stairs after coming here, the house beer is 11% ABV (alcohol by volume)!
A friend told us that if we had the time we should make our way to Ghent specifically for mustard. There’s a shop called Tierenteyn-Verlent in the old city portion of Ghent that has made mustard the same way since 1790; you can get it smooth or grainy after you pick the specialty container you’d like it in; this shop is the only place you can get it. They serve it out of a large vat right into the custom stoneware or glassware that you have chosen. We picked up several of each and one for our friend who had suggested it.
Our guesthouse in Ghent, the Guesthouse PPP, was nice but a little quirky. We had to buzz for a minute or two before the housekeeper let us in and requested we remove our shoes. We then lugged our bags up 76 steps to our room on the top floor. There were another 15 steps up to the sleeping loft once we were in our room. I suspected the housekeeper must be quite fit as she grabbed my husband’s suitcase from him and trotted up the steps.
Alas, the next day it was time to return to Amsterdam and then home. Don’t get me wrong, Amsterdam is a great and historic city that everyone should visit at least once, but Belgium now has a hold on my heart. It’s not often that you can look back and miss the driving almost as much as the destinations. There’s a serenity to driving though green and rolling countryside, knowing your next stop is not too far down the road. Just keep an eye on the speed limits, they are NOT just a suggestion. Two months after our return to Vancouver, I received speeding tickets in the mail that totaled €350! I quietly paid them through a bank transfer and learned from my experience; just as I learned that I will return to Belgium.