Confessions of a non-beer drinker in Belgium

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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The benefits of my husband’s and my adult-only Easter vacation are still felt two weeks after our return. Since we got back we realize how blessed we are and the stresses of family life have yet to knock us down

Even when we learned the Flanavan needs a new transmission, we didn’t get upset.

At this rate it might be September until we feel like lynching each other.

This is the second column in a series extolling the benefits of getting away from it all without your children. And what better place to go for a break than to Bruges, a walled, medieval, egg-shaped city in the Belgian province of West Flanders.

Bruges, which is connected to the North Sea by a canal system, is a fairy tale place that everyone on this Earth should see before they die.

This is a sentiment I share with Ralph Fiennes’ character, Harry, in the black comedy “In Bruges.”

It is because of this 2008 movie directed by Martin McDonagh starring Ralph Fiennes, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, that my husband and I rented a VW Up in Paris and drove through Beaumont Hamel to the most charming city I have ever seen. It’s like Quebec City except that every single building inside the walls could be on a postcard.

My husband and I had both travelled extensively through Europe back in the day of framed backpacks and reasonably-priced Eurail passes. But neither of us had visited Bruges, known as the Venice of The North for its canals and medieval beauty.

The Bruges you see in the movie is so stunning that I couldn’t wait to see where Colin Farrell and his caterpillar eyebrows jumped out a hotel window into the canal and the clock tower in the market square where Brendan Gleeson… well, I shouldn’t say what Brendan Gleeson’s character does in the clock tower.

But I will say that the tourism office next to the clock tower offers a four-page glossy brochure in your language of choice showing a map marking 13 movie set locations with small black pistols.

You can find most of the sets on your own just by wandering around, although I would have been turning in circles if not for my husband navigator. It is beyond me how he can take a two-minute look at a map of the city plastered on a street sign and then proceed to lead us past Clydesdale caleches, gold-gilded churches and a maze of canals lined with white swans to our ancient B&B with its 20-foot ceilings and 69 steps to our room.

Although we arrived tired, hungry and cold (it was decidedly nippy outside that first day), we couldn’t help but be awed by the gobsmacking beauty of the place.

The walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s by far the most enchanting place I have ever set foot in.

Everywhere you look you can see spires from the 24 major churches and cathedrals within the walls — the most famous of which, The Basilica of the Holy Blood, is featured in the movie (although Jerusalem Church was used to film the interior scenes).

The famous 83-metre bell tower, whose 366 steps are featured several times in the movie, is pretty prominent as well.

Besides stunning architecture and canals, Bruges is famous for its lace, waffles and chocolate. Lace shops with everything from table cloths to Christmas decorations line the cobbled streets. Tourists stand around on bridges eating huge waffles topped with ice cream, strawberries and chocolate. Chocolate is everywhere. It cannot be avoided.

Literature states the Belgians produce 220,000 tonnes of chocolate per year. Praline; chocolate espresso; chocolate curled on breakfast cereal; chocolate lipstick and chocolate brewed into the beer.

Ah yes, the beer.  

Belgium is home to hundreds and hundreds of beers. Some put the number in the thousands, but that includes seasonal and one-off beers.

Regardless, my lovely husband did his best to taste as many as possible within our limited time frame and not tip over from the drink.

The one still-functioning family brewery within the Bruges city walls, Die Halve Maan (The Half Moon), has been staffed by the Maes family for six generations. The tour was a highlight for Chris and me but for different reasons. (Note: separate tours are offered in English, French and Dutch but sell out quickly. You should purchase your tickets first thing in the morning to choose when you want to go in. Don’t expect to walk up at 12:50 like we did and join in the 1 p.m. tour.)

Die Halve Maan’s most famous beers are the Brugse Zot, a six per cent golden blond fruity beer with a jester on the label; and Straffe Hendrik, a nine per cent bitter triple ale, developed in 1981 to celebrate Sint-Arnoldus, the patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers.

The tour was fun and educational. I had no idea about t. Arnold, of Soissons in France, who is often depicted with a mashing rake in hand. His feast day is July 8 and he is feted with a parade in Belgium on Beer Day.

We also learned that all beer brewed by monks, for example the Westmalle Trappist beers, are served in chalice-like glasses. Every Belgian beer is served in its own custom glass. While waiting for the next available brewery tour, my husband found a hole-in-the-wall pub where he could taste three beers for eight euros.

He was happy indeed but quickly lost track of what he had ordered. So he asked the barmaid what it was he was drinking and she looked at him incredulously and said, “It’s on the glass.”

We learned a quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

My favourite part of the brewery tour was the trip out on to the roof where we could see 360 degrees of Bruges. You can, of course, have a similar view from the even higher Bell Tower, but access to the roof of the brewery is free with the tour and you don’t have to line up for several hours to get to the top.

If it hadn’t been for the movie, we probably wouldn’t have taken a ride on a canal boat, but as it turned out we enjoyed it immensely. Bruges is not a big city.

You can whip through it via canal boat or walk from one side to the other in no time.

My husband and I ran around the perimeter of the walls, which feature four large windmills, in a little more than half an hour.

He would have been swifter, but he had consumed several beers and a large plate of lasagna over the course of the afternoon that slowed down his run (remember, he had to drink my beer that came with the tour, as well as his own).

To quote Brendan Gleeson from “In Bruges” — “It’s a nice town, Harry. I’m glad I got to see it.”

And I hope every one of you will get to see it, too. You can catch glimpses in the movie, but remember “In Bruges” is not a movie to watch with your children… unless of course, you have adult children like we do, who have seen more movies in the past year than I’ve seen in a lifetime.

No. 2 knows more about movies past and present than most people four times his age. It was he who recommended “In Bruges,” and despite the swearing, violence and political incorrectness, it is the funniest film I have seen and probably ever will.

And if you watch it, you will never be able to say the word alcove again without thinking of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in Bruges.

If “In Bruges” is not your mug of beer, you can also watch the TV mini-series “The White Queen,” based on “The Cousin’s War,” a series of historical novels set in the 1400s by Philippa Gregory.

Susan Flanagan is a journalist who is very happy Bruges was not bombed during the World Wars. She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.

Organizations: The North, UNESCO, Jerusalem Church Half Moon World Wars

Geographic location: Bruges, Belgium, West Flanders North Sea Paris Quebec City Europe Venice France

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