Sunday February 11th 2018
It has been a few years since we visited Belgium and we were rather missing the place. As a result, we pencilled in a trip to Gent [I prefer to adhere to Flemish spelling] for a few days of piling on calories with beer drinking, eating out and popping the odd chocolate truffle in our mouths. We like to travel by train and tend to get an early Eurostar service to maximise our first day's enjoyment. This means an overnight stay somewhere near St. Pancras. Of course, this presents an opportunity to explore a little around London.
Camden Market is generally vibrant on Sundays so we headed that way to marvel at the array of goods on sale. You can buy just about anything at Camden, particularly if you are looking for retro stuff. I thought the prices were quite keen at several stalls. We selected a spot to regroup should we get lost amid the thronging crowd. The place was heaving.
The main reason for heading towards Camden was to visit the local brewery tap. It is only a short walk to Wilkin Street Mews where the brewery specialising in lager have a modest drinking room beneath the arches of Kentish Town West Station. This is not our normal type of drinking experience as it is not a pub and we are not really fans of lager. But, hey, it was something different to do on a cold Sunday in London.
Our reception was warm and the young woman behind the counter supplied us with what seem to be called flight boards these days. I know these as tipple boards. Anyway, five glasses of third-pint beers was fairly priced at around £7.50p. She carefully ensured the glasses were lined up in order of ABV and each had a small information card. There are also beer menus on the tables with tasting notes for the brewery' range. We found this delightful.
The lagers were pleasant enough and the drinking environment agreeable. One criticism is that two customers were allowed to take their children to the counter when being served. I can understand not wanting to leave your precious offspring unattended but plonking them on the counter whilst ordering your beer is a faux pas in my book and, as a former licensee, something that should not be allowed. Besides if you want to spend some quality time with your children then take them to a place where they will be engaged or entertained - a museum or park for example. A bar is not the place for children.
The emphasis on lager is due to the founder having Australian ancestry and brewing heritage. Jasper Cuppaidge founded the brewery in 2010 after running The Horseshoe at Hampstead. I had no prior knowledge of the business before our visit and was surprised to learn that the brewery had been bought out by world's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, in a deal estimated to be worth £85 million. Jasper Cuppaidge was lambasted for "selling-out" but put yourself in his shoes - would you remain independent or would you take the cash?
After quaffing our beers we were hungry. We remembered that we had seen a tasty-looking falafel outlet at Camden Locks so headed back towards the madding crowds. We walked along Harmood Street, one of the early thoroughares at Chalk Farm. The small cottages probably housed those working on the canals or railways but the once-cheap working-class properties now sell for around £1m. Most of the old shops have gone, though one survivor is Walden Books, an emporium where you can blow the dust and cobwebs off an old tome in tranquility.
The Pure Vegan Magic Falafel kiosk at Camden Market is sensational. They have 5-Stars on Happy Cow and Trip Advisor and, after our experience, I can say that they deserve top marks. You also get to meet interesting people in the queue. I was talking footy with two guys from Bermuda who were feeling the London weather a little frosty for their liking. Magic Falafel sell pittas, platters and salads and are really friendly people too.
It is another short walk through busy Camden Town to Bayham Street where Scottish brewers Brewdog have a tap house. Located on the corner of Greenland Street, the building was formerly a Charrington's pub called the Laurel Tree. It was here that Coldplay played their debut gig - an excuse perhaps for continuing past to another establishment! However, there is a long list of artists with more street-cred who have patronised the boozer in the past. The upstairs function room of the Laurel Tree was where the legendary club night "Blow Up" was launched by DJ Paul Tunkin in October 1993. I have a bit of claim-to-fame music history here for it was just up the road at the Electric Ballroom that I attended the Creation Records All-Dayer in the late 80s [I think it was 1987] when the bill featured The House of Love, My Bloody Valentine, The Jasmine Minks et al. The doors opened at lunchtime and we were there till late at night - it was incredible, though exhausting!
Trendy Brewdog may have been at the vanguard of Britain's craft beer scene for some time but they hardly lavish money on their venues. This place still has some of its Britpop grime and the toilets are a health hazard. As part of the perceived "sell-out", the brewery were one of the first to refuse entry to casks from the Camden Town Brewery after their sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev. However, the company really ought to explain to customers why their prices are so ridiculous. I once paid £14.40p for two pints in their Birmingham outlet. I have never been back. Here however, I am on holiday and biting the bullet. This tipple board, which is essentially a pint and a third, cost almost £11. Yes, I'm not even bothering with abbreviations - I'm stating "For Fuck's Sake" in full. There wasn't anything here to get too excited about, the Libertine Black Ale being the pick of the bunch.
Monday February 12th 2018
After a very comfortable journey via Brussels, we arrived in Gent by early afternoon. It was a case of dumping the luggage and getting out-and-about to make the most of the lovely sunshine. It was extremely cold but the crisp weather was refreshing.
Our last visit to Gent was back in 2009 and we were amazed at how different the city felt. The local economy is seemingly more geared up for tourism so this canal city is fast catching up with Brugge. However, it is still very much a working city and, coupled with the large student population, this makes Gent such a vibrant place to visit. We love it.
Walking into the city centre we managed to catch this lovely sunny late afternoon view of Het Groot Vleeshuis [the Great Butcher's Hall], an early 15th century structure that now houses the centre for the promotion of regional products. Up until the late 19th century this acted as Gent's covered meat market and guildhall. Meat retailing was controlled and centralised in most medieval cities and, accordingly, large halls were erected for the sale of goods. It was in 1407 that Gills de Suttere ordered the construction of this large meat house, replacing a wooden structure built in the mid-13th century. The building fell into disrepair when the market was moved to Sint-Veerleplein in the late 19th century. Gent's hosting of a World Exhibition in 1913 acted as the impetus for the restoration of this historic building. This work was conducted by Ernest Van Hamme.
We spent a couple of hours in the late afternoon sunshine getting to know Gent again. We have visited several times and sometimes it can feel like putting on a comfy pair of slippers but Gent is so dynamic there is always a surprise around the corner. We have explored the streets in fine detail on previous trips. Consequently, we wondered whether we would find enough new things to do over the next four days but, as it turned out, we didn't have enough hours to do all the things we had planned. There's nothing for it - we'll have to return! One palpable change in the city centre is that there are less cars and traffic. The local authorities have seemingly realised that people want to visit Gent on foot and bicycle - besides, if you really want to be transported about there is a superb tram and bus network. There is even a FREE Wandelbus on which you can hop on and off anywhere on the route.
If you are new to Gent then the first port-of-call is the Tourist Information Centre to pick up your free guide and map. However, don''t miss out on the advice from the friendly team behind the desk, especially if you get stuck with the multimedia table. There is also a good vista from a glass viewing point that looks out onto the old gateway at Sint-Veerleplein. I fully recommend the purchase of a Gent City Card. For €35 you can buy a 72 hour card with which you can visit 17 museums, use all the trams and buses, get a full day's bicycle hire and also a guided boat trip. What a bargain!
With the light fading and armed with notes and information we thought we'd sit down and plan our strategy for the next four days. Actually we had come with our pre-prepared map marked with the locations of all the cafés and restaurants we wanted to visit. Now, as I have stated, we have been here before so we have visited many of the well-known cafés and we wanted to try out new places. So, for example, we didn't visit bars like Dulle Griet, Trollekelder or the Trappistenhuis.
Before setting off I had looked up some cafés recommended by locals and was looking forward to visiting Het Onverwacht Geluk or The Unexpected Happiness which I noted was a brown café with old furnishings, a lovely landlady and Tripel Karmeliet on tap. A decade ago it wasn't that easy to find Tripel Karmeliet on tap so this was a big draw with the Venerable Bead. We got a little confused when we arrived at Burgstraat 59. Indeed, for a moment I thought I had written down the wrong address. However, I realised that the bar had completely changed. The new owner had only just opened a few days earlier with a new look and a new name - Bar Mirwaar. It looked a bit more trendy than we'd like but our reticence on venturing inside was overcome by the sight of the Tripel Karmeliet tap.
I can imagine that the makeover and refurbishment is not to the liking of the regulars of Het Onverwacht Geluk but there is plenty to justify spending a few hours in here. For starters the beer choice is much bigger than you would imagine. Two beers from De Ranke were among many of our favourites on the menu. Secondly, the new landlady was very friendly and kept supplying us with free dishes of popcorn. And thirdly, the bar has a massive [and I mean seriously massive] vinyl record collection. I pulled out a couple to see if they were simply shelf-fillers but was surprised to find some treasures. I believe that Het Onverwacht Geluk had jazz overtones at the weekend but Bar Mirwaar looks set to be more eclectic and possibly even esoteric. As for the Tripel Karmeliet there seems to have been a shift in the taste since it has entered the keg mainstream. We found it in on tap in plenty of other bars during the week. We double checked over the next few days and it doesn't seem to be the Tripel Karmeliet of old. Still pleasant enough but there's just something missing that once made your palate go ping. Not that this detracted from what was a pleasant visit to Bar Mirwaar.
More to follow ...