The rolling road the grey waves made, as they crashed onto the golden sands of the beach at Ostend, brimming with foam as if to remind me it was nearly time for a beer. Far out at sea, tankers that had slipped their anchors in some faraway port could be glimpsed, dots that suggested another way of life, as they slowly and stately cleaved their way through the swelling waters whipped up and given encouragement by the brisk autumnal winds. There was a bleakness about the Flemish coast at this time of the year, that encouraged long walks and melancholic thoughts about the meaning of life as well as what to have for lunch. It was a gorgeous and glorious sense of melancholy that was creative as well as being a warm hug of mindfulness that told me it was time to get to a pub.
I was on the Flemish coast last autumn, researching a story about the coastal tram that travels adjacent to the North Sea from the Dutch border to the French (or the other way if you like). Coming to the conclusion of my research, the tram had bought me to De Panne, a seaside resort close to the French border (I often think seaside resorts in their transience are modern Potemkin villages but that is a thought for another day). A few minutes after getting off the tram I was on the beach and caught a glimpse of Dunkirk with all its industrial paraphernalia, as the rollers crashed in on the sands and the autumn gusts battered the eardrums, and I was thankful that 82 years ago the sea was in a gentler mood, otherwise history might have been very different.
Job done, appetite and thirst sharpened by ozone, it was time to return to Ostend, where I was staying and it was to the Café Botteltje that I made my way when the tram dropped me off in a city that was the first ever place on the European mainland I came to at the age of 15. My love of Europe started on that holiday, and perhaps my desire for Belgian beers also began, especially when I persuaded my mother that, yes, it was perfectly legal for me to have a glass of beer in the hotel bar. I think it was Stella Artois.
Once I was in Café Botteltje I didn’t look to see if Stella was on its massive beer menu (you know the type, reverential, a hard spine, almost on a par with an oversized hymn book handed out at a funeral). Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but there were much more interesting beers to explore and demand.
Owned by the same family for several decades, Botteltje is a delicious place, to which I returned to with a friend during this summer. Then, even though the July sun outside was beaming like a child on Christmas morning, it was still a haven, a cosy and comforting den of brown wood, autumnal in its mood, no different in the way it had felt when I had been there nearly a year before. On both occasions, it was not all in the hall of the mountain king or Odin’s death gloom, though. The shiny brass hand- and foot-rails attached to the solid bar counter as well as the gleam of glasses hanging down from the overhead gantry gave a more enlightened contrast to the mellow mahogany tones of its wood fittings, while the draft keg badges at fonts for the likes of La Chouffe, Kwak, Piraat and Bernadus Abt made me nostalgic for Belgian beer in the 1990s.
When I visited in the autumn last year, I had ordered a glass of Bernadus Abt, that rich, spicy, fruity, bittersweet Herculean quad, which I sipped with due autumnal reverence as the afternoon light outside began to fade and a velvety darkness drape itself on the street. This vision of outside seemed a rather apt companion to my Abt. A couple next to me were on their phones, Untapped perhaps, because I heard the words ‘black IPA’ and ‘imperial stout’. I had to nudge myself that because here in the UK we had so much variety and promiscuity amongst the beers at the bar top that maybe drinkers in Ostend in a bar like this had only recently heard about imperial stouts and wanted to try one.
Next morning I left Ostend from its railway station, the cries of seagulls calling and clawing their way through the air, while a massive dredger called Charles Darwin stood sentinel at the dock adjacent to the station. This train station was a terminus where all hopes ended, or was this where adventures began (ever the optimist, my money is on the latter)? As I left Ostend last autumn, sure I would return (as I did), I enjoyed the sense of dislocation I often experienced when travelling — usually with the previous night’s beers swerving my thoughts and opening up new horizons of experience.