Beer, Biking, Barge, and Belgium are four prime B’s if you ask me. It turns out that they can go together quite nicely if you get introduced to the right people. That’s what happened on my trip last summer in the beautiful countryside of northern Flanders. More than a week of visiting breweries and beer cafes, trying out some excellent beers, and bicycling through both city and country, all based on a floating home away from home was the plan and we did our best to make the most of it This first installment of the story of the trip will hopefully set the stage for stories to come about various stops along the way.
The Route of the Beery Barge Cruise – From Brugge to Oudenaard
We started our adventure in the medieval city of Brugge. It is a fairytale place, particularly if you can avoid the tourist crowds now and then. Being based on a barge along a pretty stretch of canal near the center, but outside of the hustle and bustle helped. Brugge oozes charm and timelessness — the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The beer scene isn’t bad either.
The other ports of call over the eight-day journey were the large city of Ghent and the smaller towns of Deinze and Oudenaarde. The general pattern was that the barge would moor for a couple of days in a convenient location in or near the center of the cities and we would spend the days and evenings exploring on foot or by bicycle. On the days when we would move to the next city, there was the option to stay on the barge to enjoy the cruise (and some cold ones) or to bike to meet the barge at the next mooring place. The bike rides all seemed to be in the twenty to thirty-mile range over mostly flat terrain.
De 4 Vaargetijden – A Great Base for a Beery Adventure
The intrepid barge De 4 Vaargetijden (the 4 Sailing Times) was home-base for the eight days of the cruise on canals and rivers. A restored and converted 1920’s-vintage cargo barge, De 4 Vaargetijden has four compact cabins in the bow each with its own bathroom as well as quarters in the aft for Maurits, Olga, and their dog Noty — the barge’s owners and crew. There is a lounge, dining, and galley area in the middle and a roomy wheelhouse and deck with plenty of shade and seating above. It is a unique vessel and it draws quite a few second looks while plying the waterways.
Basing on the barge meant that there was no luggage or transportation details to deal with as we moved from city-to-city. The bicycles came with the barge so no need to make rental arrangements. A terrific breakfast was provided each morning to fuel the day and we were invited to pack a lunch each day from the barge’s ample larder. A self-service refrigerator was stocked with a nice variety of local beers and we used an honor system to tote up what we consumed and settled on the last day. On-board events included a hearty dinner and a fun session of pairing Belgian chocolates with beers (more on that in a later installment).
The amount of time at each of the cities seemed about right to me, and all of our group decided to spend one of the three travel days on the barge to see what it was like cruising down a river. Maurits and Olga are friendly and knowledgeable both about sailing their barge and about the places we were visiting. Maurits told us to think of him as “skipper, host, waiter, technician, dishwashing help, and cleaner.” Olga described her role as “chef, hostess, tourist office, sailor, and quartermaster.” Both are accomplished photographers and I’m sure some of their photos from the trip are mixed into mine in these stories – Thank you Maurits & Olga!.
Coffee was ready early and a quiet morning on the deck chatting with Maurits about the day before and the day to come was a comfy way to start the day. Eventually, Olga would appear walking toward the barge with their dog Noty and carrying a load of fresh baked breads and supplies for the morning’s breakfast. They were both interesting people to have a conversation with whether over a coffee or a beer and the topics were wide-ranging.
This is a very different experience than I imagine would be had on the larger more commercial cruise ships that travel the canals and rivers of Belgium and Europe. Although it is a comfortable enough base, the “luxury” aspect of the experience was being in a small group (we were just seven people) that we got to know better than we would have a larger group and beginning a friendship with Maurits, Olga, and our guide and trip leader, Bob. So … what about Bob?
Beers and Biking with Bob – A Beer and Bike Specialist
My beery adventures had not included Belgium so far, so when I saw a notice a few years ago for a “beer, bike, and barge” tour offered by a Colorado company called Beer and Bike Tours, it latched on to my interest. I usually travel independently, but Belgian beer culture has always been a bit mysterious to me and I figured that a tour of some kind would help me to get off on the right foot in trying to understand it better. Plus, it seemed like an excellent way to entice my wife to come along on one of my beer adventures – she is not a beer drinker but a barge cruise in Belgium captured her imagination.
Beer and Bike Tours started in 2013 and is owned by Bob and Katy Williams. B&B offers a number of itineraries in the USA and Europe geared toward biking enthusiasts. I gave Bob a call and his passion for beer and biking was unmistakable. I told him what I was up to and with my wife Kris’ blessing signed us up for a July date. Then COVID struck and the trip had to be shelved. We kept in touch, and it finally became viable to offer the trip again last year. We signed right up again and I casually mentioned it to a group of friends. To my surprise, an old friend of mine and his wife also signed right up. It was all a bit of a leap of faith for everyone coming out of the depths of the COVID troubles.
Bob seems like pretty much an ex-pat – he spends some time in Berlin where his wife teaches and the rest on the road leading tours. He has developed relationships with a number of breweries where we were warmly received during the tour and he was starting a relationship with Maurits and Olga to team up on guided beer itineraries. Maurits and Olga already offered a self-guided beer and barge trip and Bob brings another level of brewery connections and support into the mix. He is a serious bicyclist and brings deep experience to the beery aspect of things — he was patient with a less serious bike rider like me and was fun to travel with.
Our small group was made up of six tourists and our organizer and guide, Bob. A fourth couple had signed on, but had to opt out at the last minute due to a positive COVID test. Kris and I already knew Steve and Lisa and Nate & Treasure were easy going and simpatico travelers. Bob had some of the time each day programmed to be on a ride or activity together, but there was also spare time and flexibility for pursuing our various individual interests. Some of the group was more serious about the biking, others about the beer, and others about seeing the sights. The way that Bob, Olga, and Maurits had put the itinerary together worked quite well I think for everyone to do the things they wanted.
You haven’t heard the last about COVID though (ominous foreshadowing). You will just have to read the rest of the series though to find out what happened.
Photo credits: We shared photos pretty freely so I’m pretty certain that there are some photos mixed into the story that were taken by others on the trip. Thank you very much!