I went to ‘t Velootje late one night at the recommendation of the previous RW to cover Ghent–I was told something along the lines of, “yeah, you need to see ‘t Velootje. It’s nuts.” Now, “nuts” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when kids otherwise used to Boston’s bland nightlife come to Europe and learn what partying really looks like. The word conjures a certain set of images: a dark club, blaring techno, sweaty dancing, ridiculously priced drinks. That’s not exactly what awaits me Velootje. When I arrive, I’m the only customer there. This is the first time I have ever been to a bar in Europe after 10pm on any night of the week and found myself completely alone. The only other person around is Lieven. Lieven is the barkeep of ‘t Velootje, which is a bit of a misnomer because there’s no physical bar in sight. Instead, there’s a circle of wooden chairs of various heights and sizes scattered on the cobblestones outside a building that looks like the illegitimate child of a flea market and bicycle repair shop. Lieven is sitting, smoking a cigar, in a rocking chair right at the entrance. With his big white beard and thick knitted sweater, he looks like a north sea fisherman from the waist up. From the waist down, he’s wearing a baby blue pair of skin-tight capri pants.
When I approach him, he doesn’t say anything. I’m not even sure I’m in the right place. There’s a sign that says ‘t Velootje hanging on the building, but the lights inside are off. I ask Lieven if this is the entrance. He gestures to the wooden chairs lying around outside. “Come have a seat!”
So I join him. It’s just the two of us–no music, no beer. Then Lieven realizes there’s no beer, and he disappears inside. “Here,” he says. “You can finish this bottle I was drinking.” He pours out glass of lager from a wine bottle, and hands it to me. That’s about the extent of the conversation, and I’m starting to wonder if anyone else is going to show up. Finally, I can’t take the silence. “Soooo… what is this place?” I ask.
It’s around one in the morning and though Lieven originally confided to me that he’s trying to get to bed early tonight, the conversations show no sign of stopping.
‘T Velootje, as it turns out, self-identifies as a “special beer café” and bike museum. The inside is entirely covered, apart from a couple of benches and tables, with bicycles. They sit on the floor, they hang from the walls, and they hang from the ceiling. Lieven is a bicycle collector, and he’s filled his bar and the adjacent garage with his findings from decades of prowling antique auctions and second-hand stores. He claims to have a bike from Napoleon III, which he offers to show me multiple times but never does. He also collects model trains, some of which are brought to him by friends in Maine who run a brewery and visit the bar every once in a while. Friends in Maine? As unlikely as it sounds, they even produce a beer named in Lieven’s honor. As the night drags on, I begin to see why he has a following–people begin passing by the chairs in the street, and one by one Lieven invites them to grab a seat and a drink. Strangers, who might not have anything in common other than their presence here tonight, clink glasses and talk loudly in a mixture of Dutch and English. We’re joined by an older gentleman from a house next door who begins to talk about everything from the proper way to prepare a traditional Flemish pork dish (it should be made with pork cheeks, and if the meat looks gray it’s not the real thing) to his days serving in the military along the Berlin Wall. It’s around one in the morning now, and though Lieven originally confided to me that he’s trying to get to bed early tonight, the conversations show no sign of stopping.
It’s not easy to find places where you can get to know total strangers without any prompting or prescriptive activity. It was a delight to sit under the warm summer sky and relax with Lieven and his newest batch of friends, and the next day I decided to head back to Velootje to thank the eccentric barkeep for the experience. I found him sitting, smoking a cigar, in the rocking chair right at the entrance. He was wearing the same sweater, and what appeared to be women’s short shorts.
Sam is a sophomore who usually needs a haircut. He gives a lot of tours on campus and is excited to actually get the chance to go on some this summer for a change. He also leads trips into the wilderness for the First-Year Outdoor Program and Outing Club and serves as manager for the alpine ski team. This love for the mountains is reflected in his destinations for this summer: Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands… wait.
While he might not be straying too far from sea level, Sam’s still looking forward to the many high points of his trip—eating chocolate in Antwerp, eating chocolate in Bruges, eating chocolate in Brussels, and making friends with the deer that live in that one deer sanctuary north of Copenhagen.