February 24, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Flemish fairy-tale

By Ingrid Williams
Published: 2009-01-24

Bruges even provides its own soundtrack. Above the shop entrances on the main streets, Bose speakers pipe out a constant loop of cheery, easy listening hits from decades past. At night, thoughtfully positioned spotlights impart an ethereal glow on buildings and bridges. While other towns allow kitschy souvenir shops to deface their main thoroughfares, in Bruges, boutique chocolate shops littered the streets instead. Tourists who usually buy useless trinkets as souvenirs can instead load up on handsomely wrapped boxes of milk chocolate pralines or bags filled with lemongrass truffles and chocolate-dipped chilies.

WE PICKED up our chocolates at Galler, a chic, closet-sized shop that was markedly less mobbed than other shops near the Markt. Galler seemed to serve a mostly local, in-a-hurry clientele, though the friendly shopkeeper eagerly plied us with samples. In the end, we settled on a box of salted caramel chocolates and dark chocolate-covered gingerbread pralines, with a few of their addictive pistachio-filled, white-chocolate bars for the road.

Markt, the main town square.

After chocolate, the next logical thing to consume in Belgium is beer. A few blocks north of the Markt, we found 't Poatersgat, a candlelit beer pub hidden in an underground cellar (Vlamingstraat 82). Far enough away to discourage the casual tourist, we were pleased to find a refreshingly youthful, welcoming atmosphere in a town overrun with thirsty retirees. While other places (Cambrinus, in particular; Philipstockstraat, 19) might have thicker beer menus, 't Poatersgat still offered over a hundred Belgian brews.

As an interested and informed beer drinker, my husband rambled on about spontaneous fermentation processes and the difference between trappists, lambics and abbeys. As a less interested and certainly less informed beer drinker, all I wanted to drink was Duvel. It's fantastically tasty and easy to drink, though the pleasure comes with a precipitously high alcohol content. But Duvel is a common beer, and common is not cool at hip beer joints. So instead I tried a Trappist Achel Blonde — monk-brewed beer is a source of pride in Belgium — which earned approving nods from the bartender and husband both. In the end, the Trappist tasted an awful lot like Duvel, but what do I know?

Although 't Poatersgat had a blissfully relaxing, cave-like atmosphere with overstuffed sofas and a foosball table in the back, after two beers we needed food. Back on the Markt, we stopped in front of a stall where a giant meter-wide cast-iron pan was filled with creamy-looking potatoes and speck. The sign said "Tartiflette Savoyarde" and the girl stirring the steaming potatoes gave us a knowing, conspiratorial smile. Whatever it was, it was going to be good.

We later figured out that it was generous quantities of cheese, cream, wine and butter that made the potatoes so mind-blowingly rich and creamy. But that night, standing out in the bitter cold, we savored the cheesy, starchy potatoes and spicy speck of this heavenly Belgian mystery dish (which, in the end, turned out to be French). I still dream about those potatoes.

A FEW BLOCKS away, hidden just half a block off the main shopping street, Zuidzandstraat, the Brugs Beertje is a legendary pub in beer circles worldwide. When we arrived, the tiny pub’s two rooms were nearly full, but we managed to snag a small table near the fireplace. While we paged through the menu, we overheard a group of elderly British women ordering wine from the bemused bartender. (There are nearly a hundred beers on offer, but just two wines — white and red.) Cozy and surprisingly quiet considering the crowd, we relaxed over Bink beers. No bemusement there, despite the silly name.

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