[I’m blogging this out of order bc my sister has a friend who wanted to know about my trip.]
First things first – I still have no idea what the proper spelling is: Brugges, Bruges, Brugge, Bruge? But no matter how you spell it, it was my favorite for so many well founded reasons. And what’s really funny is that it was a total last minute addition to my itinerary. Basically, the night before I was flying back to Amsterdam from Cape Town I realized that I should probably figure out where to go and book a hotel room. I didn’t want it to be a big hassle to get to by train from the Amsterdam airport (esp bc I had the case of wine to deal with and my painting) and the only city in Belgium in Rick Steve’s Best of Europe book was Bruges. Once I started reading about everything to do there I was sold. I checked Trip Advisor for reviews of the hotels Rick suggested but the Hotel Ter Duinen popped up as the #4 hotel in Bruges and was very reasonably priced and available for the 3 nights I had to kill before meeting my parents in Amsterdam. What I should have done was investigate the train situation, but the hotel owner said in his email that the slow trains were just as fast as the fast trains so not to bother with the extra expense of the fast trains and just take my time getting there – someone would meet me whenever I arrived. So after a mostly sleepless overnight 12 hour flight and a long line at immigration, I found the large baggage storage in the basement of the departure terminal and dropped off my case of wine (from which I detached my painting to keep with me as they charge per piece and the attendant wasn’t buying that they were one piece despite the ridiculous shrink wrapping attempt by the South African airport employee). There was much chaos at the train ticketing station in the mall that is the Amsterdam airport because the trains weren’t running to the central station and people had to get on buses and it was just really complicated. So I went to an automatic ticket machine and bought a first class round trip ticket to Bruges, not knowing exactly what that was getting me, and spending entirely too much money, but I was so tired and didn’t have a working phone. Then I couldn’t find a board listing platforms or anything so I stood in a bizarre “line” to ask an agent in a yellow vest where to go. She informed me that the train was splitting and I would have to change at a station before Rotterdam but to just ask on the train and to hustle to it because it was leaving in 2 minutes. So hustle I did, and I found the first class compartment and sat next to the only other occupants who turned out to be Finnish coworkers headed to some town near Rotterdam for a big convention. They were also kind of confused by the train situation so eventually I wandered up to the conductor and asked her at the next stop where I was supposed to get off and switch. Luckily she was super helpful and made sure that I got on the correct train when required. Unfortunately I still had to change trains again and ours was running late so the conductor on that second train was phenomenal and checked on the schedule of the train I needed to get on and told me to wait one more stop so it’d be on the same platform instead of having to go from the bowels of the Antwerp station all the way up to the top floor which would take me longer than our connection allowed. Eventually I got to Bruges – and by eventually I mean like 5 hours later. I was so tired and thirsty and had like 12euros and already decided I’d take a cab to the hotel, but stopped at 2 different ATMs to try and get some more euros before leaving the station. My Ally card had worked like a charm absolutely everywhere I tried to use it (and no fees!!!) but for some reason it was flagged in Bruges. I confirmed with the darling lady cab driver (yes lady!) that the fare wouldn’t be more than 12euros before I got in and apologized profusely when I literally gave her every coin I had. Money is money though right? She didn’t mind. I was already falling in love with the city just riding through town past the canals, watching cyclists, runners, and walkers out enjoying the gorgeous summer day.
The hotel was darling, a little maze of small but adequate rooms, and a beautiful breakfast room with courtyard and big red geraniums in the window boxes facing the canal across the cobblestone street. Despite being completely exhausted and dirty and gross from 24 hours of planes trains and automobiles, I changed into some running clothes and took my phone and went for an exploratory run. I had no idea where I was going and enjoyed getting lost on some quiet side streets and jostling between the crowds of tourists on the busy shopping streets. It was 6 o’clock so everyone was having their afternoon ice cream – this is a phenomenon of the Netherlands, everyone gets ice cream around 5 or 6 – I don’t know what it does to their dinner appetites. I kind of got my bearings and I did successfully use an ATM (after a very pleasant phone call to Ally after I swapped my American SIM card back into my phone and turned on the global data plan). So I showered and consulted with the hotel staff about where to get dinner and rent a bike. He sent me to Souffleur just near the Jan Van Eyck square. Since it was still totally light at 9pm I asked to sit outside so I could people watch. I had one of the best meals of my life which probably seems strange because it was just a giant salad but it was divine and the wine was perfect and I indulged with some chocolate mousse and an Italian coffee for dessert (I mean, it IS Belgium, chocolate is their thing!) then I went and sat in the corner of the Markt (the main square) and people watched with the sun on my face, just soaking in the charm of this amazing little frozen in time perfect European town.
I slept in as late as I could without missing hotel breakfast – the owner and his wife were divine hosts, the coffee was delicious, and I was excited to explore by bike. But first, I stood in a stupidly long line to climb the 366 steps to the top of the bell tower. It was tight quarters but the views were nice and the carillon is quite an interesting piece. I did enjoy it’s music during my time in the city. The hotel gave me a little discount card and sent me to a good rental shop right next to the bell tower, which was actually in the lobby of a different hotel. Despite the bike guy trying his darnedest to give me a late night private tour, I set off on my own and ended up riding around in circles for a little while before heading out the canal path towards Damme. I had high hopes of riding really far until I encountered the insane wind that is apparently quite typical because the gigantic trees that lined the canal on either side were permanently leaning eastwards from the wind that sweeps in from the north across the farmland. So I enjoyed the scenery, the gorgeous cows, and tried not to be too embarrassed when old people passed me handily. But eventually the wind wore me down and I turned around speeding easily back the way I came. I hopped off the path in Damme only to discover there really isn’t much to see there – it’s just a quaint little village marked by an old windmill and lots of pretty flowers along the canal bridge. Back in Bruges I got on the ring canal path that goes all around the city and rode by the big 4 windmills on the east side of the town ended up on the southern end and spent a good 20 minutes winding around the streets trying to find de halve maan (half moon) brewery before the last tour went off. I was about to give up when I literally stumbled into the entrance. I was happy to get off the bike for a bit and having worked up a little appetite, I signed up for the English tour and started drooling over patrons’ bar snacks as they sunned in the courtyard. The tour was entertaining and educational but a large group and pretty claustrophobic at times. I hadn’t made any friends along the way so I sat alone in the brewpub enjoying some super strong beer and a giant loaf of bread and slab of “old cheese”
until they closed and kicked me out. I was right next to the Begijnhof (the women’s enclave) so I parked the bike and wandered around the grounds for a bit before riding back to the hotel for a Belgian beer induced nap.
At some point I had picked up some groceries so I snacked more then rode down the street to a local pub for more Belgian beer and the awkwardness of being a tourist all alone in a locals only bar with no wifi and not even a tv to watch. It was kind of depressing actually. So I went to bed a little sad.
The next day I tried to be a little earlier to breakfast and then headed out on the bike again to find some of the museums. I seriously just kept getting lost on the confusing streets and even GPS wasn’t helping me. But I did find my way to the Groeninge Museum to do the art thing. I actually really like Flemish art – and it was the perfect size, didn’t get fatigued like in Vienna. Then I went for a canal boat tour which was wonderful – a totally different vantage point of the city and a peek into the waterfront gardens of the private homes.
I would have enjoyed it more if there wasn’t a large group of middle school kids from Scotland (or somewhere) in matching red sweatshirts yammering away and invading my personal space. But it was a must do. I stuck my head in a few churches, and did go see “the blood of Christ” which was perhaps one of the most bizarre church artifacts I’ve ever seen. A priest just sat there next to it all day and I didn’t really know what to do when I walked up the little steps to look at this old dirty piece of cloth in a glass vial so I just kind of talked to God about how I wasn’t sure if it was real but ya know, we’re good. Of course the lady after me got on her knees and started crossing herself and stuff and I just thought oh my, these Catholics, I just don’t know… and went on my way (sorry Catholic readers). I went down the street and got my first Belgian waffle (heaven on earth)
and sat in the sun on the Markt. And the longer I sat there I decided that I’d really like to just sit at a table and have a beer and people watch. So that’s what I did. I had read that there was a Carillon concert but after I returned my bike and took another beer nap and cleaned up, I walked back to the Markt to find no concert whatsoever and started walking back, disappointed and a little bored. Then a sweet British couple asked me for directions (haha! joke’s on them I thought!) and we started chatting and although I didn’t help them find the Swan (swanky hotel they wanted to have a drink at), we went in some other hotel and they bought me a drink and we talked about travel and life and I was just so comforted to have these new little strangers befriend me when I was really tired of being alone all the time. Slept a little sweeter that night.
I told my parents I wouldn’t be to Amsterdam til around 5pm because I wanted to spend the morning in Bruges and maybe stop in Ghent to see the altarpiece. I woke up early and went for a run on the ring canal path (a hard interval workout that I impressed myself with). And on the way back I stumbled upon an amazing market on the main square – gorgeous flowers everywhere! I showered and packed and went down to breakfast, surprising my hosts with my productive morning. I left my bags in the luggage closet and went back to the market to check it out before heading to the train station.
I got some to go lunch for myself and some chocolates and pastries for my parents and bid adieu to the city that completely stole my heart with its endless cobblestone streets, 18 hours of sunlight, gorgeous gardens, superb architecture, delicious food, intoxicating beer, kind locals, and rich history. I may not have done all the super touristy stuff, but I had the best time living more as a local, biking everywhere, shopping at the market, and enjoying the sidewalk cafes. I have to go back. I will go back. I could live there. It’s a must do.