Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

back to Belgium

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

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There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!

Schlenkerla, Bamberg

back to Germany

schlenkerla

Dominikanerstraße 6, 96049 Bamberg, Germany

The number one purveyor of ‘rauchbier‘ in the universe, Schlenkerla are a big international brand and export their strange smokey ale across the world. Bamberg’s tradition for beer brewing is well known about in Germany with nine active breweries in the centre itself, all of which existed long before this decade’s revival of small scale brewing. You might expect Schlenkerla’s brewery tap to be along the lines of many other German breweries, a vast beer hall serving high volumes to the masses, as the place certainly fulfils one of Bamberg’s central tourist functions.

It comes as a very pleasant surprise then to visit Schlenkerla and find  a small-to-medium sized pub, connected to a cloistered medieval banqueting hall, which while rather impressive to look at isn’t enormous either.

This certainly isn’t a criticism, quite the opposite. In comparison to many other breweries who go in for a far more corporate business-like approach to style and service, hard to hate but at the same time difficult to love, at Schlenkerla the preservation of the tradition, and a determined low-key approach seems to be the modus operandi. For whatever reason, outside of the peak weeks of summer, maintaining this normal scale pub seems to meet demand and work just fine.

There is a luxury to be had bathing in stereotypes from time to time, and you will find the unabashed gothic agricultural charms of Schlenkerla’s tap house so distinct and powerful, encompassing a stereotype of the traditional Germanic identity, (the Middle Ages in particular), as to make a lasting impression.

The exterior of the pub is a beautiful traditional fachwerk house (as could be expected) with the classic Schlenkerla motif on the lantern outside, the name loosely translating to ‘limping man’ (though I believe the direct translation is slightly less politically correct). The location of the pub could hardly be more central, almost at the epicentre of operations in Bamberg’s Altstadt and just a short walk from the absurd and brilliant Altes Rathaus perched halfway across a bridge over a fast-flowing river. You can read more about that in my general review of this modest yet spectacular city here.

Turn left as you walk in to enter the pub room, and notice the Schlenkerla beer served gravity pulled direct from the barrel at the bar. The interior is black beamed, previously having been washed in ox blood, presumably for some superstitious reasons. Bamberg was one of the centres of witch trials in the middle ages and like a few corners of Germany, does enjoy trading on a rather gruesome history. The room itself feels like it could have existed hundreds of years ago, and save perhaps for certain added sounds and smells that would take you there it is remarkably transporting all the same.

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The pub offers communal seating, and was so appealing to dive into on a winter’s day none of my inherently reserved Britishness about sharing communal space came into play. Find any space going and place yourself there – perhaps be polite to ask first, but it’s unlikely anyone will decline – it is the done thing. The serving wench (I do use that term advisedly) is stodgy and middle aged, which suits the place perfectly, being after all, a stout and venerable operation. With her level of dour scrutiny over proceedings, your beer will arrive in short order and be replaced just as swiftly when you’ve finished drinking. Keep the bar mat handy as she will be keeping tabs via pencil marks and you’ll settle up at the end.

Schlenkerla’s rauchbier overwhelms your mouth at first with smoke and bacon flavour, but once it has laid the flavour there, that recedes to the background, or at least becomes the ‘medium’ if you like. From there, drinking the rauchbier becomes milder, with their Marzen being similar to a sweetish nut brown ale, with that background smoke and a refreshing hoppy finish to boot. Similar to trying your first pint of Guinness or other stout, once you overcome the initially strange flavour there is a fantastic drink to be had and one you can put away volumes of in one sitting. The guy I sat next to assured me it takes three full pints before you appreciate the virtues of a rauchbier.  And check out the value as well! Germany has generally offered a large beer for 3 euros 50 cents for a while now, but in Schlenkerla it’s well under that for a glass, meaning you can have a whole session in here without worrying about rapidly draining your funds. Good value is hardly a common feature of any sizeable brewery tap I’ve been to, so here’s another feather to its bow.

The pub room is really cosy and friendly, with many traditional pub staples, including even a serving hatch with a stained glass window, and a door leading to a courtyard of high medieval design where one can get fresh air and nosy around at the general environment at this terrific venue. At the time of my visit it was even snowing in the courtyard heightening the atmosphere further. Diving back inside I spent a good few hours alongside a Brazilian family who were being introduced to Bamberg by their daughter’s husband. Even though I was suffering from a bad sore throat at this point it still counted as one of the highlights of the stay. You know there will be little stories and vignettes shared every day by people who bumped into some stranger or other in Schlenkerla and for a brief moment in their lives because well-acquainted. Such socialising cuts to the heart of a pub’s function.

Although they serve food in the pub area, the best place to be for that sort of thing is their banqueting hall through the other side of the building. The styling inches even further towards medievalism without going over the top as with some themed-restaurants. Schlenkerla serve food built to withstand the power of a smoked beer, and the offerings are intensely flavoured, stodgy and agricultural. The Bamberger sausage is charred black, comes on a spartan metal plate and will make your breath stink for weeks. It’s delicious. The Bamberg Zwiebel is a giant onion stuffed with mince. You’re probably getting the idea. You can even push the boat out and order Schlenkerla’s doppelbock beer. The combination of a complex strong beer and smoked effect on top pushes the boundaries of what a tongue can cope with, and it’s a specialist kind of brew.

All venues that see a high volume of traffic such as this one can suffer from the service being a little jaded and that also applies to Schlenkerla if you’re doing any more than drinking. I got the impression the majority are well meaning but they certainly seem to tire as the day goes along. Most of the negative comments online also pertain to this, and I think they have little patience for the more ignorant tourists, finding their other tasks quite challenging enough as it is. However, that’s a rather mild criticism in what otherwise is a richly enjoyable experience.

As a pub I would recommend this all day long – it is one of the finest drinking spots I’ve ever been to and I wince with regret that we haven’t developed matter transporters so I can press a button and visit every week with impunity. In many ways Schlenkerla sums up what pub going is all about and takes several of those aspects to the very highest level of enjoyment. Stunning.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 10/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • E: Value for Money – 9/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Update: Since my first visit in 2017, I’ve returned twice in 2018 and 2019 and the operation is going strong much as before. Interestingly, all three visits have been in totally different weather conditions, hot sun, pouring rain, and snow. Schlenkerla was just as attractive a prospect in all 3 and is surprisingly cool and pleasant inside when it’s hot outside.