With the summer holidays of beloved 2020 behind us, I found myself in a bit of a writing lull. New restrictions were making it more difficult to travel from Belgium to Germany, so I recently had to bail out on a planned weekend in Munich, which was originally reserved for Oktoberfest. I was hopeful to at least spend a fun but subdued few days touring Munich on my own, concocting new blog post ideas. But instead of hopping from beer hall to beer hall in a surgical mask, I was forced to try and rally myself with a substitute. I wanted something to bloody write about and I turned my attention to an old faithful… Bruges. I was pretty certain after my last visit to Bruges in February that I had covered all of the great beer drinking establishments in Bruges once and for all. So without a clear blog topic on tap, a hint of trepidation crept into my mind as I booked a hotel at the last minute. But Bruges was not going to let me get the upper-hand on this emotional manipulation. Bruges seemed to roll her eyes like a scorned mistress, oh, so Munich wasn’t available and NOW you want to come see me.
My enthusiasm was as grey as the Belgian sky as I sat looking out the train windows pondering my options. I fiddled with my mask every time it crept up my cheekbones bringing an irritating blur over the lower part of my vision. Had this trip finally tipped me over the edge of Bruges indulgence or could I muster some inspiration to make this trip memorable? I had one glimmer of positivity. I had selected a room in a canalside hotel overlooking the historic Dijver canal. When you visit Bruges, part of the experience should be to stay in a room with old Europe character, someplace with exposed wood beams, brickwork, crazy angles, toilets with strange flushing mechanisms… to say medieval charm is to sound trite, but that is exactly the best way to describe it. With rooms abundantly available and prices slashed to almost Eastern European levels, this shouldn’t have been a roll of the dice.
After arriving, doubt continued to dig into my brain the way my duffel bag strap was digging into my left trapezius as I marched from the train station towards the center of town. However, even under bleak skies, Bruges is enchanting. The Minnewater greeted me first, then the Sashuis. A massive flock of swans decorated the grass in front of the bridge crossing over to the Groot Begijnhof, apparently thriving without the hordes of tourists. I walked across the quaint Bonifaciusbrug, rarely empty but this time so, and then followed along the Dijver where the Sunday antique market would usually be.
With each step, I was getting more and more excited to just curl up in my room, in total medieval squalor, and wile away the weekend isolated from the troubles of the world by say… 600 years. I didn’t bother looking at my hotel app for directions. I have been wanting to stay at this particular hotel I reserved for many years and knew exactly where it was. It was called Burgundy something… something like the Brasserie Bourgogne des Flandres I was passing by along the Dijver. By the time I reached the Huidenvettersplein, you could say I was prancing. There it was. Hotel Duc de Bourgogne. I pulled out my phone to get my reservation handy.
Hotel Bourgoensch Hof. I had walked to the wrong place. Actually worse than that… I had reserved the wrong Burgundy something.
It’s ok, I told myself. The other hotel was right across the Dijver. No need to worry. My prancing came down a notch but in just a couple hundred yards, I was finally at my hotel. Medieval paradise here I come. Then I sacheted into my room, sat my duffel bag down on the bed and looked around. The hotel interior was about as medieval as your average hospital room. Plain, flat white walls and lacking any character whatsoever. Not even a hint of Baroque. Pure, antiseptic, white in every direction. But at least there was the breakfast room, for that 30-minute medieval morning inspiration with a great view of… the Hotel Duc de Bourgogne. Somewhere, mistress Bruges was snickering.
All was not lost. I now had an excuse to go out rather than stay in my hospital… er, hotel room. And out in Bruges is just another way of saying pub crawl.
There are certain traditions I have when visiting Bruges. One is always taking the route by the Minnewater on the way to the city center from the train station. The other is that every pub crawl must start with Cafe Vlissinghe and it’s delicious house beer, brewed locally by the Fort Lapin Brewery.
After Cafe Vlissinghe, I went out in search for new drinking establishments. My expectations were not very high. Since my last visit in February, I was highly doubtful that any new beer bars would have opened up. However, right across the bridge from Cafe Vlissinghe was a place that has caught my eye in the past. It sits on a corner set back from the canal as if medieval craftsmen realized halfway thru construction that they misread the plans. This establishment is easily worthy of being added to the Brewtiful Bruges map. It is simply called Terrastje or Little Terrace. A free table on the little terrace beckoned so I gratefully de-masked and untapped a Bar Belge pale ale.
Hoping I had started a string of good luck, I went in search of a new pub. I figured my best chance would be to stay outside the main center and focus on the neighborhood brown bars. Neighborhood brown bars in Belgium tend to be of two varieties. Ones that appear welcoming to outsiders and ones that feel like those inns in classic horror movies where the entire bar gets silent and suspicious when you enter. The most interesting that I came upon was just up the canal from Terrastje, called In de Reisduif or In the Travel Pigeon. An unimaginative selection of beers, an unattractive aroma of stale cigarette smoke at the front door, and window curtains which seem to deliberately prevent outsiders from scoping the place changed my mind about entering. I wasn’t in the mood to play Jonathan Harker stopping at an inn to ask directions to Count Dracula’s castle.
For the remainder of the day, I re-visited some old favorites, Cafe Rose Red (a particular blue butterfly favorite), ‘t Brugs Beertje (or The Bruges Little Bear), Volkscafe Sint-Jakobs, and Cambrinus.
But the best of the best in Bruges is De Garre. That is no secret amongst beer lovers. One of the benefits of the current pandemic is that there was plenty of space in the pub, just a few regional tourists. Sitting there enjoying the famous (or infamous) 11% De Garre house beer at the end of the day, feeling more like a local, listening to classical music in the unusually chill Saturday evening atmosphere was the highlight of the weekend. I loved it so much, I did the same on Sunday night, and it was even better.
The town of Bruges itself is more interesting, after all, than almost any one thing in it.Belgium: It’s Cities (1903) by Grant Allen
One thing that doing a pub crawl by yourself affords you is a lot of time to reflect and think. The deepest and most sincere thought that kept rising to the surface was what the hell am I going to write about? I have been to Bruges dozens of times. It is already one of the most over-blogged cities in travel blogdom.
As I left Volkscafe Sint-Jakob’s with this thought lingering, I realized that I probably should have used the men’s room before leaving. However, too stubborn to go back in, I crossed the street to have a look at the Sint Jakobs church. After having a look inside and my bladder pressure growing increasingly urgent, I confronted an additional discomfort that many Americans have in Europe… the annoyance of the public restroom culture. From the first time I waited in line to pay to enter the public men’s room at the Amsterdam train station 16 years ago in total dismay to leaving Sint Jakob’s with a nagging realization that I was completely coinless, several blocks from my hotel or the next pub, the public restroom dilemma has never failed to be a blight on the Europe experience. I reluctantly headed back towards the Volkscafe to do my awkward hey, remember me from several minutes ago entry and beeline to the restroom. That was when I saw it.
At that moment, I remembered that Belgium caters to hard beer-drinking men doing pub crawls. There is a trick, that if you know it, makes you quickly forget your public restroom dilemma. Unfortunately, this trick only benefits half of society. Guys, if you have to take a piss in a Flemish city and don’t know what to do, go to church…
It is very common in Flanders for your local church to provide a safe haven for its male flock who are on their way home from a night of over-doing it but can’t quite make it. These urinoirs are outside the church, sometimes built into the church structure or just nearby. Nothing brings one closer to the Creator than standing in a stinking pool of algae pissing into a cement channel on the ground, while waving at people passing by. Not all of the churches have them, but I set out on a mission to find out which ones do. If this isn’t a blog-worthy topic, then, damn, I don’t know what is…
Thus I set out to visit every church I could find in Bruges… looking for urinoirs.
Bruges, more so than any other city in Belgium it seems, is riddled with religious artifacts. From its soaring cathedrals to its numerous beguinages and convents. From its Virgin Marys decorating corner niches to its curiously placed murals on the sides of houses. Bruges was an untouched haven for Catholicism for centuries. By the time the religious wars of the 17th century happened, Bruges had fallen from a thriving metropolis to a forgotten backwater. But this made it a rather good place for the pious to live peacefully in obscurity. There is hardly a street or street corner where Bruges’ religious heritage isn’t on display.
While I was enjoying my tour of religious symbolism, what I really wanted to find out was how many churches have urinoirs. The answer is no less than four (4). Besides the Sint-Jakobskerk Urinoir, there are the
And finally the more modern
In case the reader is curious, I needed to use three of them. The only one unblemished by my ex-beers was the artificial one at the OLV-Kerk.
That weekend began the long journey of the northern European Autumn and Winter. The early darkness, perpetual cloudiness, and constant cold dampness (or damp coldness) associated with them were a looming presence the entire weekend. The famous bells of the Bruges belfry clanged and gonged as if symbolizing the veritable end to the days of blogging about hikes and bike rides until Spring. As I sat on the train home, I tried to convince myself, relatively successfully I might add, that writing about urinoirs will make the entire weekend in Bruges have purpose, despite her efforts to thwart me. But then I pondered how was I going to top this in the coming weeks and months? Good God, there are no Christmas Markets to write about this year! Had my creativity for 2020 peaked with a urinoir post? Only time will tell.
As I type, I realize my timing was fortunate as Belgium begins a month long closure of bars and restaurants. What started out as a somewhat reluctant weekend in Bruges following in my own well-worn footsteps has turned into a feeling of deep appreciation that I ignored my own hesitations. Any chance to travel, and travel safely, should not be taken lightly. These days, you never know when that chance will be taken away. Thus, perhaps the real purpose of my Covid weekend in Bruges is revealed. As much as you can, live for today and never, under any circumstance, ignore the fluttering of butterfly wings. And if you are lucky, you will find a church urinoir when you need one.