In Belgium, a country known for its beer, the area around Poperinge is known for the hops that make that beer so tasty.
The tiny, green buds grow along guy wires in fields surrounding the city. And there’s no better way to see the hops fields than by hopping on your bike and pedaling the well-marked Hoppeland bike routes.
You’ll also burn off enough calories to justify drinking a few more hearty Belgian beers.
The 43-kilometer loop starts in Poperinge and goes past the aromatic fields northwest of the city. You can pick up a map of the route at the Poperinge tourist information office in the city center. Ask for one at the desk; it will cost a few euros, but includes locations of cafes, points of interest and hops fields along the route.
If you’d rather just hop on your bike and go, the route is marked with white hexagon signs bordered in red. The signs have a bike symbol on them and say "Hoppeland route."
This area of Belgium is pretty flat, so you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to make it the whole way, about 27 miles. And there are plenty of places worth stopping along the way to discreetly catch a breather.
The Hoppeland route goes near the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, which brews what has been called the best beer in the world, the 12. You’ll have to detour slightly from the route to get to the abbey’s cafe to try it. The 12 contains 10.2 percent alcohol, so don’t overdo it if you want to keep riding.
Back on the Hoppeland route, you’ll pass numerous chapels and military cemeteries. The area saw intense fighting in World War I, and several small cemeteries dot the countryside.
If you hit the route in the summer or fall, you can’t miss the hops fields. They are surrounded by what appear to be telephone poles stuck in the ground at odd angles. The poles hold up the guy wires that the hops bines (they’re bines, not vines) grow on vertically. Supposedly in August and September, the fields give off the unmistakable hops aroma.
By the time you finish the ride, you should be in the mood to sample some of the famous Belgian beers. The Hoppeland route ends where it begins at Poperinge’s main square, or Grote Markt.
Conveniently, several cafes that serve a variety of beers ring the square. Just be careful. Belgian beers contain much higher alcohol contents than their American or German counterparts. Don’t drive — or cycle — drunk.