One of the primary objectives of our Belgian beer tour was to experience beers not available in the United States, and Westvleteren is at the top of that list. It is one of the six trappist beers in Belgium, but is the only one that is not exported. In fact, unlike the other trappist beers, the monks refuse all requests to increase production and hence the beer is available only at the abbey during certain hours. They only brew enough for sustenance, they claim, and so the world must come to them to sample. Originally we were planning on visiting there later in our trip, but it turned out their café was going to be closed in the second half of the month. So by luck we had one day where we could visit, and we decided to make the 90 mile trip to the western part of Belgium to visit the abbey.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we must first talk about breakfast in Antwerp. This will be a surprise: there were croissants involved, delivered to our door at 8am. Our Bristelei apartment came stocked with various cheeses, jams, butters, margerines, and nutellas. Of course all of these were labeled in Dutch, so we had to open them to figure out what they were. Picture of cow… does that mean cheese or butter?
There was also a very confusing espresso/coffee maker that used coffee ground pods. Anyway, after finishing off our petite dejeuner and calling Westvleteren to confirm their openness, we set off.
The café (Cafe In De Vrede) and brewery are really in the middle of nowhere, but were quite busy with locals and tourists enjoying the excellent beer. This was yet another interesting case of ancient meets modern, with interesting wood & glass architecture in the cafe next to the basic brick construction of the abbey.
We had a couple Croque Monsieur sandwiches to pair with the drinks, and finally got to sample what is allegedly one of the best beers in the world. Westvleteren 12 was everything it is reputed to be: dark, rich, complex, alcoholic, wonderful. Westvleteren 8 had an engaging spiced flavor that was missing from the 12. And the blonde, although lighter, was equally complex in aroma and flavor.
Departing Westvleteren, we drove north to the North Sea, a cold and stormy body of water. We searched without success for some castle ruins that were supposed to be on the beach. Ultimately we retreated to the car and crawled northwards along the coast for a while before returning to the expressway. This appears to be a popular vacation destination, with “to rent” signs on the windows of the beach condos and a good smattering of restaurants and shops.
Our final destination that day was Bruges/Brugge, reputed to be the “Venice of Belgium”. It was difficult to find our way to the center of the city (the original purpose of the fortifications!) but once there we located our hotel among the narrow streets without much difficulty. Bruges was teeming with people wearing costumes, some with horns on their heads, for unknown reasons. These weren’t foreign tourists dressed up in crazy costumes, but true locals doing who-knows-what.
We checked in to our Hotel Salvators, located just a couple blocks away from the Grote Markt. The room was decorated in what I’ll call a funky style: a metal-plastic chandelier dominated the otherwise small room, which also featured a fish aquarium built in to the wall and spotlights for the bed!
We headed out to walk the canals of Bruges. This is a very beautiful city that had boat rides reminiscent of Venice, and wispy trees hanging across the water. The center of the city really struck me as a place where Belgians go to spend a nice weekend away. There are a lot of art shops, restaurants, and other interesting sights. But it didn’t feel anywhere near the same level of “cheap tourism production” as Brussels.
We spent a fair amount of time in the Be2 store, which celebrates everything Belgian. Their collection of Belgian beer for sale was quite impressive, and we picked up several examples to take with us on our travels. They had a whole room of Belgian chocolates as well, although we steered clear of these for the time being.
The original plan was to visit De Halve Mann brewery for dinner, but we discovered it closes at 6pm. So we wandered the streets and happened upon Vivaldi, just a couple blocks away. We had an excellent dinner and I had one of the other famous Belgian dishes: beef carbonnade. This is similar to a bourguignon in that the beef is simmered for a long time in alcohol, except they use beer instead of wine. Of course this paired well with more beer: this time it was Leffe, one of the many Belgian abbey beers.
After dinner we walked around the canals some more, taking pictures of evil swans and scoping out the waffle joints.
When we got back to the hotel we apparently smelled good enough that we attracted the attention of a permanent resident: the hotel cat. He followed us up a flight of stairs, through two doorways, and set about exploring our room. Maybe he is addicted to Belgian beer? Not sure how that could happen.
Today I tasted:
- Westvleteren Blonde
- Westvleteren 8
- Westvleteren 12
- Leffe Brune
- Leffe Blonde
Total to date: 16 beers