The only memory I had of the Belgian city Bruges was thanks to the black comedy film “In Bruges,” where the city is more or less equated to some form of purgatory. The only image I had retained was a grey, misty and dismal city with not much going for it.
Not the case.
An easy day trip from Brussels, Bruges is worth your time, and not just if your obsessed with waffles. If you’re lucky, the sun will be out and you’ll find out exactly why this picturesque European town is called the “Venice of Belgium.”
1. It’s a bicycle heaven, reminiscent of other bike capitals like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, only smaller and much more manageable. There are several bikerental operations in town as well as bike tours.
2. You can eat your weight in waffles. However, although waffles are easy to find, not all are created equal. Make sure you buy yours from a place that makes their own batter and makes the waffles right in front of you instead of heating them up.
3. Nothing is more classic than the rooftops of Bruges, and the city is perfect for anyone interested in architecture.
4. Bruges is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Thanks to its Gothic center, there’s plenty to explore from the Belfry, dating back to the 1200s, and the Burgh square in front of town hall.
5. You can dive into the world of Belgian beer on pretty much any corner. If you’re a beer connoisseur you better get ready; the options are endless and it’s good to choose carefully. Here’s a good roundup of a few of the best.
6. It’s quainter than Brussels. Yeah, I said it, and although most of Bruges looks like it could be the subject of a postcard collection, you never get the feel that it’s overly touristy. There are just as many Belgians out for a day trip on weekends as foreigners.
7. You can tour the city by boat. There are few cities that are lucky enough to be built around canals (hello, Venice) and snagging a boat tour is a perfect way to explore all the ins and out that Bruges has to offer. So when you’ve had enough of walking or riding, track down a canal tour.
Historic sights, art galleries, beautiful countryside – all these are important in a vacation, but one thing you absolutely can’t go without is the food. You have to eat, after all, and a country with poor local cuisine just isn’t going to get many repeat visitors.
Luckily, Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that takes influences from Slavic traditions and its Austrian and Italian neighbors.
The food has a Slavic heartiness to it, with lots of heavy meats, soups and breads. Sausages come in a limitless variety. Pork seems to be the favorite meat, with beef a close second. You can also find venison and game birds on the menu. Despite only having 27 miles of coastline, the Slovenians sure do like fish. Every restaurant I went to had an extensive fish menu. In the mountains you can also get fresh fish from the lakes.
For fast food there’s kebab (no thanks) and burek (yes please!). Burek is a flaky baked pastry filled with various ingredients, usually cheese and/or meat. It’s a bit greasy and heavy, but cheap and good for eating on the go.
Pastries are big for dessert too. A traditional favorite is potica, a rolled up pastry filled with sugary fruit jam and sprinkled with more sugar on top. Walnuts often make it into the mix too. Messy and delicious! Thanks to nearby Italy, gelato is universally available.
%Slideshow-668%Slovenia produces various beers, the most common being two lagers called Union and Laško. Both are good but not particularly notable. There are various microbrews too, including Human Fish Brewery, which produces an excellent stout as well as a Zombie Goat Lager. More interesting are the various liqueurs. I especially liked borovničevec, a blueberry liqueur that’s strong and fruity. Mead is also available thanks to a long tradition of harvesting honey.
Although Slovenia is a wine-growing region that’s beginning to get noticed, I knew nothing about Slovenian wines before I went. Wine writer Rachel Weil recommended Vinakras 2010 Sparkling Teran as a red and the 2011 Pullus Sauvignon Blanc as a white. She also mentioned that the reds were “grape-forward.” Like with most wine terminology, I had no clear idea what that meant. Once I was in Slovenia I discovered that meant the reds often had a pronounced grape flavor, especially the Magolio Zweigelt I brought home for my wife. While these weren’t to my taste (I prefer Rioja) they were well made and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Slovenian wine in the future.
Being a small country, Slovenia is influenced by its larger neighbors. The Italian presence is especially strong, and you can find pizza and pasta in many restaurants. From Austria you can find strudel filled with nuts, fruit or cheese. This is good news for vegetarians who want to avoid the meat-centric Slavic dishes.
Speaking of meat, the Slovenians love horsemeat, something not very popular in English-speaking countries. When I was in Ljubljana I set out to try some horsemeat. More on that next time!
There must be someone in Bend, Oregon, who drinks Coors or Bud Light. But I imagine that this mythical, mass produced beer loving android keeps a very low profile so as not to be shunned, like an alcoholic Amish swinger, in what must be America’s best craft beer town. Bend is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and some 250 days of sunshine a year. There are so many opportunities to hike, kayak, go trail running, white water rafting, skiing or snowboarding that one doesn’t have to feel too guilty about throwing back a few craft beers at one of Bend’s 13 breweries.
With a population of just under 80,000, Bend apparently has the most per capita breweries in the nation. Inside the city limits, there are 10 brewpubs and three breweries (Boneyard has a tasting room open to the public, Below Grade Brewing isn’t open to the public and the Ale Apothecary is by appointment only). There are two more brewpubs in the neighboring towns of Sunriver and Sisters, and I’m told there is one more brewpub set to open later this summer called Riverside and another brewery called Rathole about to open any time now. Bend also has a Cycle Pub that gives drinkers and bike enthusiasts to combine their two favorite pastimes.
But it’s not just the quantity of microbrew offerings in Bend – locals know good beer and in a place with this many breweries, brewers know that their product had better be good. And it is.
On a four-day visit to Bend, my plan was to visit each of Bend’s brewpubs, plus another brewpub, Three Creeks Brewing Company, in nearby Sisters. Tourism officials have established an official Bend Ale Trail detailing where the brewpubs are and what they specialize in. Drinkers can download an app or pick up a passport; those who get stamps from every brewery are entitled to a free mug. The mug is worth no more than about $5, but securing it seemed like a worthy quest.
I started at Bend’s oldest brewpub, founded in 1988, the Deschutes Brewery, which is named after the river that runs through town. I ordered Bachelor Bitter, named after the towering, snowcapped, 9,000-foot peak that’s just outside town, and my wife ordered a Trees of Doom Dunkel as we listened in on a couple who told our waitress they wanted to move to Bend. In the days to come, we’d realize that nearly every visitor in town seemed to be pondering a move to Bend. And by the time I started guzzling my second pint, a malty, sweet little number called a Free Ride Cream Ale, I was ready to move to Bend myself.
In the days that followed, I hit six more brewpubs in the area; below you’ll find some observations about each place.
Three Creeks Brewery- Three Creeks is located about 20 minutes northwest of Bend in Sisters, an interesting little town with a cool, Old West flavor to it. (There’s also a great independent bookstore in town called Paulina Springs Books.) It was a hot day, so we sat outside, facing a parking lot backed by some towering evergreens, and I ordered their lightest beer, a Knotty Blonde, which they advertised as being “as light as the hair of our pistol carrying honey.” It was good but not particularly memorable, though I liked the fact that they advertise all the beer’s stats – including its original gravity (OG) of 1.039, its final gravity (FG) of 1.008, its alcohol content (4.0%) and its International bittering units (IBU) total. (I had to Google these terms to find out that the OG and FG have to do with the beer’s sugar content and the IBU has to do with how hoppy the beer is.)
10 Barrel Brewing Company- As soon as I walked into this Westside brewpub, I wanted to buy the place, or, at the very least, become a regular. There’s an inviting fire pit with benches and tables built around it and half the bar stools are outside. I ordered a “Mike Saw a Sasquatch” Session Ale, a golden Summer Ale, made with Cascade and Sterling hops and honey and 2-row pale malts. It tasted a little hoppier than its low (26) IBU rating suggested but, once again, I loved how much information was provided about the beer.
Bend Brewing Company- This brewpub is right downtown with an obstructed view of the Deschutes River. I sat on the outdoor patio with my 5-year-old son, who made friends with a 4-year-old-girl at the table next to us while I enjoyed a Maibock on a warm spring day. It was a solid choice – clean, with a nice malty finish.
McMenamins Old St. Francis School Brewery- This place was converted from a school to a hotel and brewpub in 2004. It was Central Oregon’s first parochial school, opened in 1936, and it has an incredibly ornate 102 degree Fahrenheit soaking pool that looks like one of the fancy bathhouses in Budapest, not to mention a cinema, three cozy pubs and an outdoor fire pit to drink by.
This was my favorite brewpub in Bend, both in terms of atmosphere and quality of beer. I had a seasonal English Brown Ale that was nutty, a little smoky and deliciously creamy and smooth. Something like a beer milkshake, it was the best beer I’ve had in a very long time. Next time I return to Bend, I plan to stay in the hotel.
Old Mill Brew Werks- This is a neighborhood brewpub in the Old Mill District that serves good food and has some tasty beers. We sat outside and I had another English Brown Ale that was outstanding, though perhaps a notch below the version I drank at McMenamins and a bit pricey at $4 for a small 10 ounce glass. But our waitress was friendly and her story – she has a masters degree in Science but doesn’t mind working in a brewpub because she wants to live in Bend – reinforced my impression that this is a place worth rearranging one’s life for.
Crux Fermentation Project- Located in an industrial area adjacent to downtown Bend, this place is Bend’s newest brewpub, at just a year old. It was full of happy drinkers, many of them parents with their kids in tow, like us, on a warm, sunny, Tuesday afternoon. I sampled the Marzen and an On the Fence NW Pale Ale, and couldn’t decide which one I like more. They were both outstanding.
There was a large group gathered for a birthday party, and the birthday girl gave my sons her leftover cupcakes. Another couple, who were watching a game of horseshoes on the patio, told my wife that they moved to Bend from San Francisco eight years ago and haven’t regretted it for a moment since.
I asked our waiter why the place was called a project, rather than a brewpub, and I thought his answer was a perfect metaphor for the city itself.
“We call it a project because it is like a project,” he said. “We’re constantly tinkering, trying to make it better. The place will always be changing.”
Who wants to move to Bend, Oregon, with me? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I already have a perfectly good place to live. Why would I need to move to a small city in Central Oregon? If you’re asking yourself this question, you’ve probably never been to Bend, because it’s one of those places that gets under your skin. Drop by for four or five days, as I did earlier this month, and you can’t help but envy those who call this place home.
Bend makes it onto a lot of Best Places to Live lists, particularly the ones you see in Outside, Men’s Health and other publications that value recreational opportunities and craft beer, rather than career climbing. I was fully prepared to be disappointed by the place, but instead I was seduced. The weather was perfect with sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and clear blue skies and vistas of snowcapped mountains in every direction. And everyone we met, even those we encouraged to tell us something bad about Bend, told us the same thing: we love it here.
My first I-Want-to-Move-to-Bend moment came on a hike to Dillon Falls, just minutes outside of town. We were hiking on a path alongside the cool, rushing waters of the Deschutes River. The sun was out and it was perfectly quiet, save for the melodic rush of the powerful rapids. I watched the river flow and couldn’t help but view it as a metaphor for how quickly life goes by. It’s too short not to be in a place you love, right?
Before you quit your job and move to Bend based upon my half-baked advice, I should admit that it isn’t perfect. The unemployment rate is 11.3 percent and that number doesn’t even accurately reflect how bad the economic situation really is, because there are also lots of people who have only part-time work or full-time McJobs with wages so low that they are forced to drink mass produced beer. (Contrary to popular belief, you cannot use Food Stamps to buy craft beer in Bend, at least not yet.)
Bend experienced one of the country’s steepest boom and bust real estate swings, before and after the Great Recession, and though the price of homes has gone down, it’s still far from cheap. And although the climate is sunny and dry, it can get quite cold in winter. So there you go. Bend isn’t perfect. No place is. But even if you don’t want to move there, you at least have to visit. Here’s why.
And even if you’re not a skier, take the ride out to Mt. Bachelor and continue on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (parts of this byway are open only in the summer) for some glorious alpine scenery.
When it comes to good beer, there’s an embarrassment of riches in Bend. I have no clue how 10 brewpubs and three breweries (with more set to open soon) stay in business in a city of 80,000, but as a visitor, you can only benefit from the stiff competition. I visited seven brewpubs in four days and felt like I had just scratched the surface of what must be the best craft beer scene in America.
My favorites were McMenamins Old St. Francis Brewery, for its killer English Brown Ale and its atmospheric pubs, Crux Fermentation Project, for its tasty Marzen beer and its patio, and 10 Barrel Brewing Company, because I love their fire pit and indoor/outdoor bar. But all of Bend’s breweries are worth a visit, and if you manage to hit them all and collect stamps to prove it, you’ll get a nice little souvenir mug from the visitor’s information office.
For a city of its size, Bend has a remarkable array of good restaurants. I didn’t have a single bad meal anywhere. I had a carnivore’s pizza at Deschutes Brewery that was out of this world; some very memorable oatmeal cookies at Lone Pine Coffee Roasters, a stylish little café in an alley location in downtown Bend (thank you, Anna Brones); and some surprisingly outstanding New England Clam Chowder at Parrilla Grill. My colleague Pam Mandel sent me to the Sparrow Bakery for breakfast and I quickly became addicted to their vanilla and cardamom spiced ocean rolls (see photo below).
But the Bend restaurant that I’m still dreaming about, a week after returning from Bend, is Big Island Kona Mix Plate, a casual Hawaiian-style place in the Old Mill District. I had the mixed plate with bulgogi and spicy chicken and couldn’t remember the last time I tasted anything so divine (and affordable at $10 a plate with two sides.)
When Cate Cushman, a real estate broker we met, moved to Bend in 1976, the town had a population of less than 15,000. Cushman, a Georgia native, had been traveling across the country in a Winnebago with her first husband when they fell in love with Bend and decided to stay. Nearly 40 years later, she’s certain that she made the right move.
Bend’s population more than doubled in the ’90s, and continued to rise in the last decade, from 52,029 in 2000 to 76,639. Much of the population gain can be attributed to Baby Boomers from California moving to Bend to retire, but you don’t have to look very hard in Bend to find young people who have moved there as a lifestyle choice. Some call Bend a place to experience “poverty with a view,” but I think that, for many who move there, the point is to step out of the rat race, slow down and enjoy the finer things in life.
Take Sibel Edmonds, for example. I met Sibel at the Bend Brewing Company one afternoon this month and she told me that she looked all over the whole world for the perfect place to live and raise her daughter, Elle, and settled on Bend, thanks to its natural beauty, cultural offerings, good schools and sunny, dry weather, among other things. I don’t know if Sibel is right or not, but I like the idea of being in a place with so many idealistic people who are looking for their own little utopia. Bend may or may not be a good fit for us, but I got enough of a taste of Bend’s good life to know that I want more.
The first piece of news is that if you’re an Iron Maiden fan, there’s now a beer for you. The second piece of news is that if you’re going to Sweden you won’t be able to drink it.
Trooper, the new beer for hardcore Iron Maiden fans, is now available in the U.K., and can also be bought online and distributed to a variety of E.U. countries – except Sweden. Why? The label is just too much.
The main representative for Systembolaget, the government-run store that is the only place to sell any liquor above 3.5% alcohol in Sweden, claims that the label doesn’t adhere to Swedish labeling laws, which regard the Trooper beer label too “aggressive” to be allowed into the Swedish market.
Want your Iron Maiden beer? Stick to the U.K. for now.