Bruges, Belgium
September 2005
 
In 2001, during my first year in Germany, I heard from several co-workers that the perfect weekend getaway was Bruges, in Belgium (spelled "Brugges" in Flemish, Dutch and German). It took me four years to finally make it. Turns out that Bruges is a dreamy Flemish medieval city, surrounded and criss-crossed by narrow canals (there's one you can take all the way to the Netherlands). The cobblestone bridges, the medieval architecture, the massive city tower (Belfort), the two large churches, the windmill just outside of the city center, the adorable houses... it's almost too picturesque to be true.

But first, a word about my traveling mood: it's been a bit off this year. I wasn't at my best on my trip to Spain this year, and for Bruges, it was as though the traveling deities conspired to keep us from getting there. This year, I haven't been as good at relaxing and enjoying the moment as I've been previously... gotta work on that.

The trip was, in theory, for Stefan's birthday. It was also so that we could finally travel together this year, something we hadn't done in more than 12 months. We went by motorcycle, something we were both really itching to do. We made a lot of missteps as we kicked off -- Stefan forgot his camera, and the lovely drive on the back roads of Germany to the border of Belgium took much longer than we expected (but it was so beautiful -- the grapes in the vineyards are blood purple, so full and heavy and lovely).

I wasn't sure when we crossed over into to Belgium -- there was no sign, at least that I saw. But I'm sorry to say that the way I should have known was that the street immediately became bad at the border. Tsk, tsk. We stopped just over the border, somewhere in or around Verviers, for a very tasty dinner (the waitress seemed happy to get to speak English -- I love when that happens). But the sun was setting, and we were way late. We got lost a couple of times, and by the time we got to the autobahn (or whatever it's called in Belgium), it was almost 10 p.m., and pouring rain. I half suggested we turn back. Mostly because I was afraid our room that was supposed to be waiting for us in Bruges would be given away, and if it was gone, we would have no where to stay (it had been quite a chore to find a room, because I had waited to try to book something just two weeks before our trip). I called twice from the road, assuring them we would be there. We didn't get to Bruges until 11:30, with me wearing a huge backpack stuffed to the gills with all our stuff. My butt was killing me. I have to lose weight...

But driving into the city, the rain had stopped, and I could immediately see that Bruges was a very special place. The tiny cafes and bars, the winding canals, the lovely old buildings... I already loved it.

As mentioned earlier, like the idiot I am, I had waited until just two weeks before we left to book us a place to stay -- and, ofcourse, all of the B & Bs were full by then. So I had booked us at a youth hostel called... Charlie Rockets. I had managed to get us a private room, at least. What worried me -- and I knew this when I booked the room -- was that Charlie Rockets is also a bar. Well, the bar was hopping when we arrived. Upon reflection, I realize that it was a very good thing I had booked us there -- most B & Bs don't allow check in so late. The staff was very nice, difficult though they were to hear through the pounding music. We went to our room, and I was dreading the rest of the stay, as I'd just found out that the bar didn't close until 4 a.m. But right at midnight, the music got turned way down, to the point we could not hear it anymore. We weren't in a room over the bar -- we were in a part of a building away from the bar, so that was helpful. The room was simple, clean, and there was a sink in the room. What was really, really needed: hooks on the walls so we could hang up at least a few things. Using just one chair and one screw in the wall, we managed as best we could.

We decided to go out -- we were both keyed up -- and we walked down the winding street cobbled street (okay, it's all cobbled streets). We passed on the two "scene" bars we saw, and ended up at this local place that had room for only about 20 people -- and there were just five there. And a dog. And the dog loved me. We sampled all sorts of Belgian beers. I immediately fell in love with the famous white beer of Belgium, Hoegaarden. I don't usually go for light beers, but it was so refreshing -- even thirst-quenching (something beer never is for me). We sampled more, referring to the Lonely Planet beer guide to know a bit more about what we were drinking. Then we stumbled back to our room just after 2 and collapsed. A few pesky mosquitos attacked us in the night, unfortunately, and were particularly focused on poor Stefan.

Highlights of the city:

The bummer of the trip after we arrived: most of the exhibit halls of the Groeningemuseum were closed. I had gotten myself completely keyed up to see The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch, as well as works by Jan Van Eyck and Memling. All closed.

I was surprised at how much Flemish we heard. I was under the impression that French was the dominant language, even in the North. Not so at all.

Our last bar of the evening was just four doors down from Charlie Rockets, and I adored it -- it was small, all wood, with a clientele that was all over the place age wise, including this Flemish middle aged guy trying to pick up this British middle aged woman, a Flemish woman celebrating her 77th birthday... it was great. I switched from beer and had an amoretto and was feeling very relaxed by the time we got back to the room. And it was a good thing I was feeling so relaxed, and that Stefan had bought earplugs for us both, because, for some reason, the Charlie Rockets music did NOT get turned down at midnight this time. I fell asleep anyway. The bug spray we bought earlier that day kept the mosquitos away from me, but they still got Stefan a few times.

Charlie Rockets is a strange place. It's a former movie theater, and the former lobby of such -- which is huge -- is what has been turned into the bar. The decor is a mix of movie stuff leftover from the theater and American street signs and American license plates -- it has a nice feel to it. The movie screen, and where the seats were, is still there, but in complete disrepair -- the space is now used to allow people to store their backpacks. Stefan got to park his bike in the part of the locked building directly behind the movie screen, which gave us great peace of mind (you do not park motorcycles overnight in oh-so-much of Europe). And they had really nice bicycles for rent back there. The bar is great in the day time and early evening -- we even had a drink there Saturday evening before we went out -- the staff was very nice, and the three Euro breakfast was fine. But I HATED the crowd the bar attracted at night: rich American university kids who want go to foreign countries to PARTY. If you stay there, be sure to ask for a room in the "annex" -- otherwise, you will be over the bar, and unless you like to stay up until 4 a.m...

We did meet travelers who were more "our" style, like a young guy from Texas: just turned 21, dropped out of Texas A & M (so proud of him for that), was backpacking across Europe, had never been out of the USA, and had had a total epiphany about life as a result of his travels (such as the US government being so full of crap). As he talked, you could tell that life for him was never going to be the same -- and that it was a very good thing. And when we checked out on Sunday, there was another young American guy considering checking in -- he heard my accent and asked me if I would recommend the place, and said he had just passed "a group of kids that walked out of an Eddie Bauer ad" and that he really didn't want to stay there if that was the atmosphere. I assured him they had just checked out.

We left after breakfast on Sunday and headed to Ostend, on the coast. It is not a pretty city, but it was nice to see the Atlantic from the other side. And it's always awesome to people-watch, particularly sitting at a table outdoors. We went had lunch there -- my fish was okay. Stefan's steak looked unbelievably good. I had no idea that so much beef was eaten in Belgium. Then we headed out, this time entirely by autobahn, which is incredibly boring but much faster. We left the coast between 2 and 2:30 and were back home just after 6.

I didn't buy any postcards -- I've sent oh-so-many to you all, but I never hear much about if you liked them or not...

In sum: Bruges is a MUST if you come to Europe, no question. If you go to Bruges, you definitely need to stay overnight; you really miss out on so much if you just make it a day trip. You see the city as the locals see it if you are there at night. Plus, all the crowds disappear at night.

I definitely want to go to Belgium again -- I would really like to see Antwerp and Tongeren. And I guess I need to get to Brussels eventually...

See pictures from this and other travels.

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