At first glance, Bruges in Belgium doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s small. Tourists often outnumber locals in the summer. And in recent years it’s most famous for a quote from Colin Farrell in the movie In Bruges: “If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, and I'm not, so it doesn’t.”
For these reasons, I only planned on stopping through for a day – two days tops – on my way from Paris. I ended up staying for three nights.
Why? Well, mainly the beer.
That sounds bad. I’m not like others who only visit Europe to party and consume a lot of alcohol. (I’m looking at you, Australia.) I always make a point to explore a city’s various cultural offerings. Bruges, being the beautiful and historical city it is, certainly has a lot to offer in this area – Colin Farrell be damned.
Fortunately for me and the Aussies, Bruges’ most noteworthy cultural accomplishment – in my book, at least – is its beer.
That’s not a slight against Bruges. After all, beer is serious business over there. Trappist monks brew many of their most popular beers. Do holy men regularly take time from worshipping the Almighty in pursuit of good beer in the U.S.? I grew up in Utah, so I’m definitely qualified to answer that question with a “no.”
A guide at my hostel explained that legends surround many of the Belgian beers. Take the beer Orval:
Local lore says that back in the day, a beautiful countess accidentally dropped her golden wedding ring into a pond. Upset, the countess asked God to return the ring, and, in exchange, she promised to build a monastery. Suddenly, a fish bobbed to the surface of the pond with the ring in its mouth. The countess, overwhelmed with gratitude, kept her word by building the Notre Dame d’Orval around the pond. Featuring the fish and the ring, Orval’s label pays tribute to the tale.
Some of the Trappist beers are only served in Bruges, adding to the mystique.
So anticipation, along with the smell of cheese, was heavy in the air when I walked into one of Bruges’ most famous bars, Bacchus Cornelius, with a group of tourists. I can’t remember the name of the first beer we drank. I won’t, however, forget my first taste.
I tipped the glass back and a small stream of beer gently cascaded onto my tongue. It was then that a chorus of angels playing harps appeared from above, descending down from the most blessed of places just to let me know everything is O.K. and that life would work out one way or another.
Or maybe a Canadian guy I befriended, paraphrasing the movie Beerfest, summed it up best: “I wish the beer were winter, so we could freeze it into ice blocks, and skate on it, and let it melt in the spring time and drink it.”
Two glasses later, I considered selling all my possessions and joining the monks’ ranks. Seeing as how I lost plenty of articles of clothing and a few other material things in hostels during my European travels, it’s possible my subconscious was steering me in that direction.
I just happened to be in town for the yearly Procession of the Holy Blood, a religious festival dedicated to when the Count of Flanders is said to have arrived in Bruges with a cloth used to wipe the wounds of Christ. Locals acted out scenes from the Old and New Testament for three hours to celebrate. For me, confusion set in within 60 seconds.
Here’s a play-by-play of that first minute: First I saw sheep, followed by youngsters leading camels by the reins. Then floats rolled by, and dudes dressed as cavemen ran down the narrow cobblestone street, which was lined with people snapping photos. Soon after, girls in snail-like outfits sang and danced in unison. Maybe a bit of the festival was lost in translation – in any case, it was great to see locals ban together and put so much effort into such an intricate parade.
Later that night, many filed into cozy bars around the perimeter of the small town. Between the beer and the festival, holiness was everywhere in Bruges.
(Check out more from Jared Whitlock at gradturnedvagabond.wordpress.com.)