In Bruges

In Bruges

When I lived in London, Bruges/Brugge was a weekend sightseeing getaway with the benefit bringing back cheap beer & wine. Thirty years on, I’m hoping the experience will be more a little more cultural and a bit less mercenary. And so it proves. Loek, our Elodie bike ‘n barge tour guide, takes us on a quick circuit of the city when we arrive, pointing out the significant landmarks and buildings. Fortunately, Brugge was spared the destruction of many other medieval cities during WWII, and has most of its grandeur intact.

Brugge’s wealth originates in trade—first wool, then spices and a substantial range of other goods through the benefit of its proximity to the North Sea. It lays claim to the first mercantile exchange (bourse) dating from the early 14th century. It was (and is) the capital city of its province of West Flanders and enjoyed a powerful position in the low countries until the end of the 15th century. Its position was challenged by the rise of the other emerging cities in the region—Antwerp, Ghent, Amsterdam, and others—while the gradual silting of river access to the coast compromised its trading position. The city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But Bruges is more than the grand façade of the provincial court and the opulent city hall. Horse-drawn carriages clatter over the cobbled streets, water taxis ply the canals and ferry camera-snapping tourists around. Beyond the centre is a charming network of alleys and quiet streets, cafes, bars and boutique hotels. And that’s where we find our overnight accomms atHotel ‘t Putje. Our room is compact but efficient and has a bijou balcony large enough for a solitary smoker. (The room is non-smoking, though a surprising number of Belgians smoke.)

Intimidated by the expensive menu in the hotel’s ritzy restaurant, Cheryl and I settle for a Croque Monsieur (toasted cheese sandwich) each. The snooty waiter almost visibly sneers as we order our cheap lunch, so he gets an appropriate gratuity.

We’ve arranged to meet some of la gang from the Elodie in the city centre at 5:00pm at the “car wash,” an interesting (if that’s the right word) piece of public art that looks like…well, a car wash, the walls a mosaic of steel hexagons. First we head for the famous Beer Wall pub, which claims to be able to serve 780 different types of beer. Sadly, I only have time to try two: an award-winning unfiltered and naturally conditioned pilsener and a delicious dark Steen Brugge. Cheryl has a Kwak beer, which comes in an elegantly waisted, round-bottomed glass sitting in its own wooden holder.

John & Brenda and Drew & Heather join us for Italian food at Carlito’s, a recommendation of John’s, and as we’re leaving, the sound of rockabilly music wafts in from Charlie Rocket’s bar next door. Turns out the band is from Vancouver (what are the chances?) and led by Paul Pigat (aka Cousin Harley) shouldering a Gretsh Country Gent guitar—signed by “twangy guitar” legend Duane Eddy. Majorly cool!

Cousin Harley

 

 

Brugge off

Monday’s task is to get to Brussels for our Ryan Air flight to Venice. Midday finds us at the train station locked and loaded. The train ride is uneventful, though springing the Euro 30 or so for First Class was a good idea, based on the squeeze in 2nd.

Goodbye Bruges!

At Charleroi, we have to lug our bags across a construction site to get to the taxi stop, then stuff ourselves into a tiny taxi for the haul out to the brand new airport hotel— extremely basic but all cunningly designed for optimum efficiency. The rooms are a sort of cross between a McDonalds and an IKEA store bathroom. There’s no restaurant within a couple of miles (though there’s a TV dinner vending machine in the lobby), so we hike to a nearby gas station (across another construction site…) to buy vino and snacks before ordering in a surprisingly good delivery pizza.

Tuesday lurches into life at 04:15 so we can be ready for the shuttle bus at 05:00. We anticipated that Ryanair would find some way to hose us, and we’re proved right. If you show up at the airport without a boarding pass printed on A4 paper, there’s a charge of Euro 40 each, so we did that at the hotel. But we’ve also decided to check an extra bag, and that’s not shown on the boarding pass—so that costs Euro 80! The buggers’ll get you coming and going–but there’s no alternative direct flight… In fairness, once we’re in the air, the Ryanair experience is just like any other cheap carrier, except that the flight attendants are selling lottery tickets!

Next: downtime in Montegrotto and uptown in Venice.

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