This year, for something different, Mrs Timbo and I decided that part of our Xmas present to each other should be a short break away, and where better to visit than the old historic Belgian city of Bruges. This is what we found.
After an early morning start to London, and a swift half at the 'Sir John Betjeman' at St Pancras station, we loaded ourselves on to the Eurostar for the journey to Brussels. Out of the train window it was obvious to see that France had suffered snow like us in the past few weeks and evidence of it was still around in the fields at the track side. We seemed to be in Belgium fairly quickly and found our connection to Bruges. Here, at the station I encountered the first problem of our journey. I do not speak Flemish, or Walloon, or whatever language the station announcer was using so we had to rely on the signs to navigate to the platform. Again, they were in a foreign language that I did not understand, but with a bit of working out we managed to safely board the train and in no time were in Bruges.
A quick taxi to the hotel, and checking in and then out to sample what the city had to offer. It was mid afternoon, cold but pleasant, and with a map and directions supplied by the desk clerk at the hotel, we set off in the right direction.
A word of warning to visitors new to the city, especially if you are intending to visit the local bars. It is best to go prepared with information, as some close on different days, and it saves a long walk to some only to find they are closed. We navigated from Camra's 'Belgian Beer Guide' (an essential, for as well as the bars it gives beer listings as well with tasting notes) and 'Around Belgium in 80 Beers' (which lists many smaller bars not listed in the beer guide).
As luck would have it, our first port of call, opened on Monday at 4pm, and around that time we managed to find 'Brugs Beertje', one of the must visit bars in the city.
We were not disappointed. My first beer choice here was the draught 'Bruges Zot' whilst Mrs T started on the fruit beers. We were both impressed, both by the beer and the knowledgeable bar staff who did speak English and pointed us in the direction of the right beers to try. All the beer we tried on the trip were around 3 euros, but we did not go looking for the specials which were more expensive.
It took a bit of getting used to being served at the table instead of tripping off to the bar but once we had the system sorted it came as second nature, but I still amazed that the staff do not get the orders confused.
After a sampling session here we decided that food was next on the agenda and off we went. (Belgian bars do serve basic food, and some do a full menu but we thought we would combine more sightseeing with more bars as well).
At it happens we managed to get lost but on our way back to the hotel managed a couple of smaller bars and eventually made it back to finish off with a nightcap at the hotel, whose prices were about 25% more expensive than the bars incidentally.
Tuesday dawned, and the plan we had was thrown into confusion by the steady rain and biting wind, so the morning was spent sightseeing, with a drying out period at lunchtime before we hit some more bars.
First on the list this time was the unmissable 'Garre', not easy to find but worth the effort and close to the main city square. Here I started with De Ranke 'xx Bitter' which was superb, and we continued to sample several beers from their considerable list, until we decided that there may be others bars to look at. The guide suggested 'Cambrinus', a large bar on the city square, easy to find with a decent beer range, and we followed up with another visit to the 'Beertje'.
Wednesday was another morning of sightseeing, but dry this time,and followed with a trip to 'Garre' and a wander round the streets we had previously managed to miss before turning up at 5pm at 'Portersgat'. This is another bar easy to miss, being hidden away under a church crypt but well worth hunting out with a great beer list, and a unique atmosphere. Again, the bar staff pointed us in the right direction for the beers we wanted.
The trip was meant to finish with a visit to 'Kelk', (beer guide listed) but this was closed for refurbishment so we tried 'Bacchus' further down the road. This is a bar which seems to cater for a younger crowd, with pop rather than classical music, and seemed more lively than other places we had visited.
Too soon it was time to leave, and Thursday saw us back on the train to Blighty.
All in all, a wonderful city, easy to see on foot, but do take decent walking shoes, everywhere is cobbled. It helps to have a sixth sense for cyclists too, who appear from all sorts of unexpected directions. A map is helpful till you work out a decent route between bars, and as I mentioned, the beer guides are invaluable to locate bars and select beers you are unfamiliar with. It was strange to see smoking allowed in some bars as well, and you learn to appreciate how much different the smoking ban has made pubs at home.
My favourite bars and beers have already been mentioned, but we sampled beers of all styles, both draught and bottled, and was impressed by, although did not like, all I drank. Likewise with the bars. All that remains now is to work out when to return !!