Ah, Brugge! Ah, biking! Ah, beer! Ah, the barge! Ah, Belgium! All of these figured prominently in my visit to the lovely medieval city of Brugge. The entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, featuring rich history, enchanting canals, picturesque streets, and stunning architecture. It is also a dream place for bicycling enthusiasts and beer lovers. Our home away from home, the historic barge De 4 Vaargetijden moored near the center and was our base of explorations into the city and countryside.
Beginning with Bikes
We started off the visit at ExcellerBikes, a unique beer and bike cafe located in the city center that combines two of Brugge’s most popular activities – biking and beer. The cafe sells bike stuff and offers rentals, but my attention turned to starting off the visit in proper form with a fine craft beer. Others went for coffee. Either way, it is a cool place to browse interesting vintage photos and artifacts.
Brugge is a city that seems to take its beer seriously. The local brewing history dates back at least to the Middle Ages. There are five breweries in the immediate vicinity as I counted it and we biked or walked to three of them. Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan in the city center is the oldest family-run brewery in Brugge, dating back to 1856 and they looked to be the biggest of these. The brewery is known for its Brugse Zot beers – there is both a blonde ale and a darker dubbel version. De Halve Maan is also famous for its underground beer pipeline, which transports beer from the brewery to a bottling plant outside the city. It was fairly jammed with tourists when we went, but we enjoyed the tour and tasting nonetheless.
Brewery Bourgogne des Flandres is also in the center alongside one of the scenic canals. Their flagship Bourgogne des Flandres beer is a traditional Flemish red-brown beer – a blend of fresh brown ale and barrel-aged lambic. Brewery tours and tastings are offered in their historic building in the heart of Brugge and if you beat the crowd their pub opens onto a pleasant outdoor terrace.
Our major bicycle excursion while visiting Brugge was to the Bruges Bryggja Brewery in a nearby rural area called Damme. Damn, they make some fine beers! Franky Van Brabandt & Nele Dalle were hospitable hosts for a tour and tasting in the artisanal brewery and this was a visit we probably never would have made without Bob’s guidance (don’t know who Bob is? Find out here in the series overview). Bryggia makes an impressive range of beers from traditional to more experimental and they pride themselves on sustainable brewing practices. This family business has been brewing great beers for over a decade now. Franky and Nelle guided us through the small brewery and their processes and then treated us to a tasting of an array of their beers. Their passion for their craft was unmistakable.
Other Brugge breweries that I didn’t get to visit but that I did come across at cafes are Brouwerij Tzawezien, an artisanal brewery with beers named “Wakko” “Maniac” & Fakker”, and Brouwerij Fort Lapin – maker of signature Fort Lapin beers.
Beer Cafe Life
Breweries are by no means the only way to sample beer culture in Brugge. Beer Cafés are spotted all around and offer up a plethora of beer choices from near and far. Vlissinghe is said to be the oldest beer cafe in Brugge – their sign says 1515. The enclosed courtyard in the back is nicely shaded and a perfect spot to taste traditional Flemish cuisine, which pairs perfectly with a cold beer. De Garre is tucked away in a narrow alley near the center. They carry an extensive beer list and offer Tripel Van De Garre, a house beer they have made for them. ‘t Brugs Beertje is a cozy, welcoming beer café that oozes character. The beer list there includes some rare and hard-to-find choices. The Beerwall cafe and shop is a unique place with thousands of Belgian beers and proper glassware on display. You can buy not only the beer, but it comes with the proper glassware for serving it.
My wife Kris’ pointed out more than once the man does not live by beer alone, and conveniently, Brugge is loaded with sites to see and cultural attractions. The Grote Markt is the central square of Brugge and is a big, open space surrounded by beautiful buildings and the medieval Belfort Tower. Visitors can climb 366 steps to the top of the tower and take in the panoramic views of Brugge. We stopped on one of the bike rides at Sint-Janshuismolen — a well-preserved, working windmill that dates back to 1770. The windmills of Brugge are a historic landmark that dates back to the Middle Ages. I’m glad that there weren’t any OSHA inspectors with us because I suspect they would have been freaking out at our self-guided journey through the operating mill.
In the Great Outdoors
The big bike ride on this leg of the trip was a ride through the countryside out to the Bryggia brewery. Much of the route out and back was on a paved pathway alongside a canal called the Damse Vaart. After the brewery visit, we pedaled a bit further out to the Netherland’s border town of Sluis … just to say we did and to take in a bit more of the countryside. As is often the case during my travels in Europe, part of the route must have been a feeder into the Camino Santiago (Jacobsroute) as we encountered the friendly and familiar scallop shell logo for the pilgrimage route along our ride.
From the De 4 Vaargetijden’s mooring on a quiet stretch of the Kanal Ghent-Bruges there was some interesting bird spotting and boat watching each morning with a slow cup of coffee or two. It provided a nice little sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The pathway along the Kanal Ghent-Bruges is a scenic bike ride that takes visitors through the picturesque countryside between Brugge and Ghent — about 45 km (25 miles) to the east. That is where this installment ends and the next installment will begin. Stay tuned.
Another interesting, calming, and inspiring activity we stumbled across in Brugge was a daily performance by Luc Vanlaere, a talented harpist, harp maker, and harp historian who offers free concerts at Sint-Janshospitaal, an art museum in the heart of Brugge. Luc plays and sings beautifully and he has a number of harps he has crafted or acquired on display.
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!