Belgium and a taste for the fine arts (Beer)

​It’s incredible that Belgians are sober at all.  Beers of 11.5% alcohol are drunk like apple juice and then apple juice is sniffed at and turned into beer. It’s a vicious cycle that renders all innocent travellers light headed and dancing canal-side. 

Number one beer companion contemplating a dance

We spent just over a week in the country, starting in Ghent. Now as you surely MUST know, the most famous painting in Ghent is of a sheep called the ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ or the Ghent Altarpiece (comprising 12 panels painted during the 15th century).

 Through history it has been stolen not four or even six but SEVEN times. As well as being the victim of 13 violent crime since it’s been on show (I’m not exactly sure what these crimes involve, perhaps some blasphemous sheep jokes). This makes it the most stolen painting in the world, France had a hold of it at one point, then England, Germany, the Nazis, I think I even saw it hanging up in uncle Jim’s house once – it seems that everyone’s had a crack. 

Finally in a momentous final fight scene, those good old Monument Men (not just in the movie but also in real life) took charge and now it’s safely on display in Ghent. 

‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ (a reproduction)
Not the adoration of the lamb by a very admirable castle where knights battled for princesses

Ghent also has the most vegetarian restaurants per capita and every Thursday is veggie day, all hail the Savoy cabbage! I’m not suggesting a correlation between the lamb disappearances and the high vego population but if I ate meat and I heard a bunch of vegetarians were harbouring a mystic lamb I’d probably also want the little guy for the Sunday barbeque. 

Ghent loves veggies and veggies love Ghent
Cafe’s line streets and canals, it’s hard not to stop at them all

“Enough about mystical lambs and more about mystical beer!” I hear you cry, well just wait because there’s more… did you know that if a sheep falls into a Belgian canal it turns into a bicycle?! If you already knew that then you need to start asking less questions about beer and focus on your health. But seriously, the amount of old bikes pulled from canals in Belgium is unfathomable. In the university town of Leuven alone, 300 bikes a year are pulled out by the local police (question: where do Leuven police hide their guns when they’re in wetsuits?).

And with that as a most excellent segway, let me tell you about Leuven. The most impressive draw card appears to be the world’s…longest bar! Not actually one continuous bar but a rectangle (the Oude Markt) lined with ‘around 40’ bars. Yes when I looked it up in the official Leuven information centre it said ‘around 40’ which means they haven’t got around to actually counting them all – because why count them when you could sit down at one (or ‘around 40’ of them) and have a beer (or ‘around 40’ beers)? What a place! 

Personally as my favourite draw card I would have to pick the….Scout’s and Guides Museum. A hall in a garden with a high intensity of neck scarfs, patches, impressive knots, good neighbourly deeds and collections from every world jamboree ever held. After being shown around the museum by a lovely Leuven lady (with many many years of patches upon her scarf) we sat outside in the gardens to eat a picnic and a concerto of bell ringing began in the neighbouring bell tower. We were even given a program and the scouts even sold beer. Leuven is truly an underrated destination, this is the kind of stuff I want to see and hear in a foreign city; listening to a bell concerto while scouts serve beer to the elderly locals (and their dogs!).

Proposed idea for Belgian scout badge

So it’s time for the beer?! Well just hold on because did you know that for every scout in Leuven there are four swans (and at least eleven patches, 10 if you can’t put up a tent in under a minute) swimming the canals?
And again you have been fooled because it’s not true but again a fantastic segway into our final Belgian destination, Bruges.

I have written about Bruges before, it’s romantic canals, it’s medieval fairytales and it’s promise to have 60 swans in its canals at all times (written here on Restless Boots).

But this time I experienced something new, Belgian Beer Tasting! Yes yes it’s here, the beer!
I’m no beer expert but thankfully I had a very good beer drinker by my side and not only can he drink beers but he drinks up knowledge about beer. A drunk education they call it. Over our week in Belgium we pickes out ten favourite beers and here they are….

Trappist: means that they beer is brewed within monastery walls (traditionally by monks to supply the monastery and local community). There are a grand total of 11 accredited Trappist beers in the world, six of which come from Belgium.
Fruit: many varieties of beer flavoured with fruit are being brewed over in Belgium (it’s not real beer! You’ll hear the purists yell). For those that enjoy sweet cider then this shall be they jam. Lambic: is fermented in a wild wild way with the natural strains of bacteria left to do their thing creating a unique taste of cider, wild notes with a sour punch.
A mix of classics: try these brews the Belgian way, even the Hoegaarden tastes different and a refreshing sip for a sunny canal-side picnic.

One of the great things about the beer in Belgium is that it isn’t abused, it’s really enjoyed and seems mainly a way to bring people together. Each beer has its own specific glass and the fact that bars honour this and serve your special beer in its special glass you feel that you’re enjoying your drink the way the brewer intended. It’s an art form after all and a pleasure to taste what the country has concocted over years of experimentation. I mean if the monks say it’s ok then I feel pretty good about enjoying a bevvy in the sun (with 60 swans, 300 bikes and some scouts).

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