We hadn’t stopped off in the Netherlands or Belgium for some while and had never visited Lille, so off we went in November 2022, together with our friend Ken who lived in Leiden for many years and shares our liking for good beer, of which there is plenty in this part of the world. This trip was mainly about the beer, plus a couple of transport curiosities. We’ve kept the notes short rather than give a blow-by-blow account of what we did each day.
The practicalities section at the end should help you to plan a similar trip and provides a bit more info for anyone who is interested in where and what we drank.
We flew to Amsterdam Schiphol, went through passport control in a couple of minutes, found the railway station and sorted out an OV Chipkaart. This is needed to use public transport in the Netherlands and details are in the practicalities section. We caught the first train to Leiden and met Ken who had arrived the previous day. We had four nights there to reacquaint ourselves with the city – when I checked we had visited Ken in Leiden nine times between 1996 and 2005 but hadn’t been back since. Ken moved away but returned regularly and still has a network of friends there.
Leiden is the capital of the province of Zuid-Holland (South Holland) and has a population of 120,000 in the city itself with another 200,000 in the surrounding metropolitan area. It has an important university founded in 1575, with 35,000 students today, which keeps the city lively. Historically, Leiden was also a centre of weaving, printing and publishing. The network of canals and the seventeenth century houses and commercial buildings in the town centre gives it the look and feel of a smaller version of Amsterdam without the hordes of tourists. It is a very liveable place which reminds me of our home in Durham.
The Bonte Koe – in 1998 (left) and 2022 (right)
There are plenty of museums and other attractions to keep the visitor occupied but we were here for the beer and spent our evenings checking out how the bars that Ken knew were faring and trying some places which had appeared or had a makeover in recent years. The one which particularly deserves a mention (and a visit) is the Bonte Koe which became Kens local, has a fine selection of beer, an interesting and friendly crowd of regulars.
Our visit coincided with the Amsterdam Stoutfest, a celebration of Dutch stouts, and a group of us wandered through from Leiden. The venue was the Poesiat and Keter brewpub in Amsterdam, named after two brewers from around 1900. The admission price included a free t-shirt, which turned out to be for the 2021 Stoutfest, cancelled due to Covid. We had small glasses of a selection of the offerings but wimped out of trying the strongest (17% ABV).
Ken enjoys (?) the November evening weather at the Brouwerij ‘t Ij. See if you can spot the mysterious person in a blue jacket in a couple of other photos – that is him.
After a pleasant afternoon sipping stout we walked to the nearby Brouwerij ‘t Ij, based in a windmill. From there we caught the tram into town and had a beer in the famous In de Wildeman – this is sounding like a cliched Dutch day out, but we didn’t ride a bike at any point. We were meant to meet up again with some of the others but there turned out to be two pubs of the same name and guess who chose the wrong one – there’s always a cock up on every trip.
On Sunday we decided to visit Delft. We caught the bus outside our hotel to Den Haag (The Hague) through a series of suburban small towns full of estate agents and, for some reason physiotherapists. Den Haag, with its endless office tower blocks looked as unappealing as ever so we carried straight on by train to Delft. The station has been moved underground and the line is being widened with extra tracks – necessary given the frequent service. Foul weather meant we were restricted in how far we could explore without being soaked and chilled, but we managed to include the classic bar Locus Publicus, which we last visited in 1996.
Locus Publicus, Delft, in 1996 (left) and 2022 (right)
We left Leiden on a Monday morning and headed by train to Middelburg – a double deck train was a plus. The town is away from the main through routes to Belgium, on a peninsula between the estuaries of the River Schelde – the Oosterschelde and the Westerschelde to the north and south respectively (of course). Middelburg is the capital of the province of Zeeland with a population of 48,000.
Middelburg (pictured above and below) has a historic town centre which makes it worth a visit and stopover. Sights include the rows of merchant houses along the canals, the Stadhuis (Town Hall) on the market square and the church tower, known as Lange Jan. Our pub crawl was limited by several places being closed on a Monday though our visit coincided with the first Dutch World Cup game and others were lively and we had an enjoyable evening.
The following morning we set off for Brugge (Bruges), first by train for the short distance to Vlissingen (Flushing), then the passenger ferry across the Westerschelde to Breskens and finally by bus. We had hoped to see shipping traffic in and out of Antwerpen (Antwerp) but the river was quiet. The ferry was double hulled so there was no swaying as we crossed the estuary in under half an hour.
The bus from Breskens connects with the ferry. It trundles round the houses and takes about 90 minutes to reach Brugge via towns such as Oostburg and Sluis (which looked attractive). Then the route crosses the border into the Belgian province of West Vlanderren (West Flanders), pootles through Damme and finally into Brugge, where we waited ten minutes to reach the city centre while the canal bridge was raised to let several barges through.
Pictures from Steve’s 2008 visit to Brugge
Two nights there gave us plenty of time to explore. The city is well known to British tourists so we won’t describe the sights in detail but it’s a World Heritage Site with a well restored city entre and it is deservedly popular. We were there a few days before the Xmas Market began so it wasn’t overcrowded – there were still quite a few tourists and many of them, like ourselves, were there for the beer. We revisited the classic t’Brugs Beerje bar which Steve first discovered during a tour in 2008, but it is only one of several great places to have a beer or two.
And a few from our November 2022 visit
Now for the transport nerd bit. Belgium has a tramway which runs the full length of the coast from the Dutch to the French border (give or take a kilometre or two). We had never used it so Ted and I sent off. The first stage was by train to Knokke, past parts of the Zeebrugge docks which stretch inland behind the coast with kilometres of cars and vans parked for import or export. A few metres from the railway station is the tram terminus.
The full journey takes about 2.5 hours though we broke our journey in Oostende (Ostend) for a short while – a comfort break mainly as the freezing rain put us off exploring the town. Much of the coast is tourist development with blocks of flats lining the shore. There are some undeveloped stretches of dunes and parkland and some of the older towns such as Blankenberge, de Haan and Nieuwpoort look quite attractive – there is sufficient permanent population to keep the service operating all year. Finally, at de Panne the line turns away from the sea, passes a theme park (closed for the winter) which goes by the wonderful name of Plopsaland, which boasts 6 rollercoasters, and terminates at de Panne railway station, where we caught a train to Lichtervelde and another back to Brugge for our second night on the hoy.
Our final destination on this trip was the French city of Lille. We caught a train to Kortrijk and changed there for Lille. We didn’t explore Kortrijk – it was too early for bars to open – though fortunately directly across the square from Lille Flandres station (pictured) there was a microbrewery pub, for a drink of lunch before heading to our hotel.
Lille is a historic city but the city and surrounding area developed into a centre of heavy industry and mining, all of which ceased, leading to years of depression. Since then, there has been a revival as a centre for commerce, education and administration, and the centre has been restored sensitively. Though it is in France Lille has the same feel as Flanders (the Flemish name is Rysal / Rijsel). It also has a history of brewing beer to slake the thirst of industrial workers.
In the evening we explored the city centre. We passed through the Grand Place (the Place de Général de Gaulle) where a Ferris wheel was set up for Xmas and found our way to the Rue Royale where there are a series of bars – another enjoyable and pleasant evening.
On Friday morning we caught the Eurostar train to London leaving Lille Europe at 0930 and arriving at St Pancras at 0957 – the time difference makes the journey seem even quicker. Finding the Eurostar platforms at Lille wasn’t easy – the journey was smooth once we found the platform at Lille. We headed across the road to Kings Cross and a train to Durham completed the trip.
The OV-Chipkaart is essential and can be used on all public transport in the Netherlands. It costs €7.50 and can be bought on arrival at the ticket office at Schiphol station. When buying top it up with roughly the amount you expect to use over the next few days. Once it is running low it can be topped up at the machines at railway stations. Note that there must be a minimum of €20 credit on the card to use it on trains. Tap in and out at stations and on buses and trams.
Any remaining credit is valid for five years from the date of purchase. While the card can only be used by one person at a time it can be passed on to someone else who is visiting the Netherlands after your return. For more details see the official site www.ov-chipkaart.nl or the public transport section of www.holland.com which is aimed at tourists and is simpler to understand.
From the days before the OV-Chipkaart
Train and bus services are frequent throughout the Netherlands, making it simple to get around. In theory the flat countryside makes it ideal for cycling (and more than a few people do) though, when we’ve tried it, the wind coming in from the North Sea or Siberia can make it hard going for unfit people and bears.
Tickets for the Westerschelde ferry are available from the ticket office at the pier in Vlissingen. The ferry runs hourly and is slightly more substantial than the Lego version in the ticket office waiting room.
The No. 42 bus from Breskens to Brugge crosses the border between the Netherlands and Belgium – Dutch tickets and passes are not valid in Belgium and vice versa. On boarding tap in using your bank contactless/debit card and tap out when leaving the bus. The bus runs hourly in connection with the ferry.
Belgian rail tickets (including international tickets such as ours from Brugge to Lille) can be bought at station ticket offices or ticket machines, which are easy to use.
The Kusttram (coastal tram) runs every 10, 15 or 20 minutes depending on the season. Details are at www.dekusttram.be/en/ . Fares can be bought on board by using bank contactless/debit cards to tap in and out. Note that websites mention ticket offices and machines at the main stops but these have been closed. Tickets, including day tickets, can be bought online at the operator’s site www.delijn.be/en/tickets/ but this involves setting up an account.
Eurostar tickets including seat reservations must be bought in advance. Note that the service has still not returned to its full frequency post-Covid and it may not do so until 2025. At the time of our journey there were only three trains per day between Lille and London. Check in about 45 minutes before departure. Trains to London depart from Hall 4 at Lille Europe. The main entrance from the city centre and Lille Flandres Station is between halls 2 and 3. Turn left and you will reach Hall 4 and the check-in and passport control area for Eurostar.
The hotels we used were:
Leiden: Hotel Bastion: Basic hotel but the room had all the necessities. It is on the edge of town but a frequent bus service takes about 10 minutes to the city centre. It was inexpensive for Leiden and has twin rooms, which were unavailable elsewhere.
Middelburg: Hotel Loskade 45. We were the only people staying. Large comfortable room. Run by a friendly and helpful woman. Close to the station and town centre.
Brugge: NH Brugge, part of the NH chain, located in an old monastery between the station and the town centre. Reasonably priced for the standard of room, and we also enjoyed the hotel bar.
Lille: Hotel Calm: Tiny, expensive rooms in a basic, but clean hotel. There was very little accommodation available in the city due to a large conference / trade exhibition taking place – this seems to be common. Good location within a few minutes walk of the city centre and both railway stations.
Pubs and bars
These are the places we visited – the very best are marked in bold and all had a good selection of beers unless we say otherwise.
Cheers Mate (L), Steve and Ted in ‘t Brugs Beertje (R)
Bierlokaal de Veste; de Bonte Koe – tremendous place; de Bruine Boon – more of a bistro, but a few beers and close to station; Dranklokaal 1650; van Hout – friendly locals bar
Lemmy’s – excellent choice of beer and knowledgeable landlord; Meneer Jansen; ‘t Praethuys; Stadsbrowhuis – almost 30 taps; de Twee Spieghels – jazz cafe; de Vergulde Kruik
Brouwerij ‘t Ij – the one in a windmill; Brouwerij Poesiat & Kater – The venue for the Stoutfest – open daily as the brewery taproom; In de Wildeman – amazing selection; Little Delirium
Delfts Brouwhuis – the photo shows their tap list for the week we were there; Locus Publicus – classic bar with great selection; ‘t Proeflokaal – sports bar
Café Cliché – upmarket café bar; Fletcher Hotel – hotel bar, not much atmosphere but reasonable selection; Hotel de Nieuwe Doelen – hotel bar but popular with locals; Kanaalzicht – very basic, only bottles of Heineken, but opens early and near station; A pub with no name in Herenstraat, or possibly Sint Janstraat – limited choice of beer but friendly small local bar; Seventy-Seven – bar and discobar – kids place but decent beer
Bar Rose Red – more of a restaurant; Bourgogne des Flandres – brewery with tours but bar open to public; ‘t Brugs Beertje – classic place; Café Cambrinus – fine selection; Le Trappiste; Volkscafé Sint-Jakobs – locals bar, opens 1000 -1900, fine place, pictured above; One which we didn’t visit as it was closed both days, but several folk recommended – Garre
3 Brasseurs – microbrewery, emphasis on food; La Capsule – good beer but postmodern industrial décor a bit over the top; Le Chopping; L’Illustration – good local bar. Beware the steps to the toilets
Here are a few of the best beers we tasted during the trip and we recommend that you give them a try if you are in the area. Some are widely available, others less so, but you can find out more about them online.
Bourgogne de Flandres Brune; Brugse Zot – blonde; Cambrinus Bruin; Cuvee de Jonquilles; Ename Blond; Fleur de Flandres; Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de keizer; Gulpener Ur-pilsner;
Hertog Jan – pilsner; Imperial Blond; Karmeliet Tripel; Kasteel Rouge; de Koninck – amber ale; Mateloze Marter – rauchbier; Ninth Secret Eagle – stout; La Trappe Blonde
Thanks to Ken Donald for his company on this jaunt. He organised the Leiden part of the trip and his friends there helped it to be so enjoyable. Ken also provided the list of the favourite beers we tried. Ken has his own website at http://www.kgdhome.net .
All photos are by Steve Gillon except for the following: The photo of the Belgian Coast Tram by the sea is from Wikivoyage, sourced via Google Images. The ‘proost makker’ (cheers mate), Steve and Ted in ‘t Brugs Beertje, Gulpener glass, ‘proefplank’ (beer board) in Cafe Cambrinus and the Cambrinus glass photos are by Ken Donald. The base map for our journey is from Rail Map Europe 3rd edition, by the compilers of the European Rail Timetable, 2021.The black and white photograph of Brugge is from www.phototourbrugge.com . The view here from the toilet stairs in L’Illustration, Lille is by Ken Donald.
Text and photos, except for those mentioned above and the beer section. © Copyright Steve Gillon 2023