Thursday, August 16, 2012

I Take the Long Way to Veurne, and There Is a Party On.

Two things I always said I'd do in Belgium, and never did when I lived there: Take the coastal tram from end to end, and visit Veurne. Knocked both off the bucket list on the same day, two weeks ago.

You can have a day pass on the Kusttram for a measly five euro-bucks. I start up in Knokke and ride down from there, popping off now and then to walk the seaside and look into certain cafés that need looking-into. I skip Oostende altogether to focus on the smaller towns along the way. If you can call them towns. At times the Belgian coast looks more like one long, skinny metroplex of high rises, blacklight mini-golf, cocktail bars, and trampolines. I'm there at the beginning of August, smack in the middle of high season. Tots are popping like corn on those trampolines while their guardians throng the beach bars and theoretically look on.

The whole area is ripe for specialist beer bars that know what they're doing. There are surprisingly few. Among those worth mentioning:

Toogoloog in Middelkerke is getting buzz among the geeks, and rightfully so. It keeps a smart list of 120 beers at last count. Recently being the only café in Belgium, as far as I know, to have Dupont Speciale Belge on draft gives you the idea. Naturally, the day I make my coastal swing is the one day a week that Toogoloog is shut. May you have better luck.

In Blankenberge, a block inward from the beach, next to the Casino, is the Royal and its wraparound corner terrace. You are watching crowds rather than waves, but it keeps 150 beers these days, including a couple of saisons and the odd curiosity, such as Seefbier. I make due with a St. Feuillien Saison, again noticing that the brewery has started listing Vitamin C as an ingredient. What's that about? Clever way to say "orange peel"?

In De Haan, a.k.a. the Cock-by-the-Sea, the great advantage of Torre is its location bang next to the tram stop. From my terrace table I can see the schedule of upcoming southward trams. Its card has 52 beers including Drie Fonteinen, hypothetically. My first couple of choices are out of stock so I enjoy an Oerbier and notice that Moinette is on draft.

Middelkerke has the ever-reliable Iceberg, with nearly 100 beers and seaside views. Like many in this region it is a Palm-Rodenbach-heavy list, but this one includes the stable from Gouden Carolus. I go with coffee. The day is long, and so is the Kusttram.

For now I'll leave out another handful of worthy cafés, because I said "specialist beer bars that know what they're doing." I'm not even sure that applies to all the ones I mention above.

The tram ends (and starts again) in De Panne. Now, many geeks will immediately think "Pannepot!" And they will hope that surely someone in De Panne is smart enough to stock it for the odd beery traveler. Well, they'd be... right, as it turns out. The Verloren Garnoare -- yes, the "Forlorn Shrimp" -- is where you drink while waiting for the train. It has Pannepot among its 50-plus beers, which also include Verhaeghe, St. Bernardus and Boon.

My train ride is a short one to Veurne, where a carnival is on in the Grote Markt. It seems I have just missed the town's procession of the penitents by a few days. (If there is anything the Flemish love more than beer, a friend once said to me, it is penance.) A sign says the party also marks an international kayak polo tournament. Initially I worry that I misread the Dutch, and that the reality is surely less weird than an international kayak polo tournament. I needn't have worried.

I check in at the Old House, which I can now recommend (classy and spotless former government building, converted to B&B, with a solid breakfast). It is now evening. Hunger pangs demand that I dispense with a scheme to rent or steal a bike and make for the Kunstemaecker. Instead I go with a local's recommendation: the Vette Os, a candlelit grillhouse attached to a shop specializing in unconventional world wines.

A well-marbled Irish ribeye and a not-so-unconventional bottle of Côtes du Rhône are my guilty pleasures on this night. It is easily the best steak I've eaten in Belgium, and I can recommend it as heartily as any coastal beer café. It's all a bit self-indulgent, but hell... I can celebrate penance and international water polo tournaments with the best of them.


  1. Great info here, if I ever make it to the Belgian coast (my planned trip this year was cancelled) I will be sure to follow your advice on where to get some interesting beers!

  2. Any idea what the deal is with that kusttram stop called "Moeder Lambiek" near De Panne?

  3. Sure. One of several Moeder Lambic/ik/ieks is there. That would be the Moeder Lambik in Adinkerke (I think). About 15 beers including Pannepot and a few Trappists. Couple of sweet fruit lambics.

    There also is a hotel-restaurant in Blankenberge named Moeder Lambic. Nothing to do with the Brussels pubs and nothing especially beery about it.

    Finally's there's a café/tea room called Moeder Lambik in Bredene. 40-odd beers including a couple of sweet fruity lambics again.