In Bruges…

We awoke from a restful sleep with enough time for a leisurely walk to the train station.  July 7th marked the start of our 1 month (plus 5 free day) Eurail Pass.  Our inaugural journey would take us to the highly anticipated city of Bruges. 

We purchased the Eurail pass a few months earlier after some careful research, mostly credited to Rachel.  We wanted the cheapest, most flexible, and fastest mode of travel through Europe.  I had always associated European travel with train passes, so I initially assumed this was the obvious way to go. However, thanks to Rachel, I quickly learned this was not necessarily the case.  

The Eurail pass is expensive.  A one month first class pass would cost us each 788€ ($1230 CAD).  This was much more than we expected and with countless blogs insisting European travel by rail is no longer a foregone conclusion, we realized we had a lot to consider.  How much is a single train ticket?  How many countries do we actually intend to visit?  More importantly, how many cities do we actually think we’ll visit?  How much is a car rental?  How much is a typical airfare within Europe?  Etc.  Etc. 

Indeed, a lot to consider.  Airfare can be surprisingly cheap within Europe, especially through low cost airlines like Ryanair.  We could buy a lot of flights for 788€.  However, while the flight itself is reasonably cheap and fast, we’d still have to get to and from the airport, which is often a good distance from the city centre.  We would also need sufficient time to get through security, etc..  In other words, there is a lot of added time and cost associated with flying that we don’t always consider. 

Driving would likely be most flexible, but renting a car is expensive, especially for such a long duration and starting and ending in different places.  Also, since we intended to stay in cities mostly, parking and traffic would be a nightmare. 

Finally, the rail option.  With quick access to train stations and no time required for security and check in, traveling by rail is fairly fast.  It would come down to cost and flexibility. When we looked at the cost of individual train tickets for July and August, they were quite cheap…definitely cheaper than buying a pass.  However, we were looking in March.  The cost skyrocketed for tickets only a couple days ahead, and this would surely be worse in the peak season of summer.  We knew we didn’t want to plan out our trip day by day so far in advance. So, for maximum flexibility, the rail pass would be cheapest, even when you add the cost of reservations, which are generally required to secure seats on busy routes.  

After much deliberation, we finally decided the Eurail pass was right for us.  For sure, travel by rail is not cheap and no longer a foregone conclusion in Europe.  Cost is now extremely competitive among trains, planes, and automobiles, and all other considerations are really dependent upon one’s individual travel plans.

Anyway, back to the train station in Brussels.  After initiating our pass at the ticket office, we bought breakfast and headed for the train.  We found our seats and sat comfortably with our coffee and croissants.  The train began to pull away  at 8:51am, right on time.

(Breakfast on the train en route to Bruges)

We arrived at Bruges Station a little over an hour later.  Across a busy ring road and over a tree lined canal that encircles the old city, we quickly entered a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and medieval brick buildings.  Flowered windowsills, courtyards, archways, and tranquil canals staged postcard views at every turn. 

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

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(Stopping to smell the flowers)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

We were in search of Oud Sint Jan Museum, the birthplace of our friend from home, Dirk.  An avid traveller, Dirk gave us many great recommendations leading up to our trip.  We came to Oud Sint Jan, which was the city’s hospital until about 25 years ago.

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the birthplace of our friend, Dirk)

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the old hospital of Bruges)

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the old hospital of Bruges)

Through more archways, we walked passed The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch.

(One of many medieval looking archways)

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(The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch)

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(The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch)

We came to Grote Markt in the centre of the city.  It is a large square full of tourists and surrounded by historic buildings, most of which are now museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants.  The Belfry of Bruges towers over the city from the south side of the square.  It is a must see. 

(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges – looking east)

(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges – looking west)

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(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges)

It was time for breakfast round 2.  We sat outside in the market square at one of the many restaurants and ordered pannekoeken (pancakes) and a waffle.  When we asked the waiter if the restaurant has wifi, he responded, “No. Sorry, you will have to talk to each other today.”  I still haven’t decided if this was merely rude or perhaps a reasonable criticism of our generations’ ADHD.  Anyway, the waffle and pancakes were decidedly better than the service.  

(Breakfast #2 beneath the Belfry of Bruges)

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(Pannekoeken with icing sugar and a side of brown sugar)

(Belgian waffle with icing sugar and whipped cream)

We wandered into the Belfry, a medieval bell tower.  This is probably the most iconic symbol of Bruges and definitely worth a visit.  It was built in 1240 on the north end of the old market square and served as a lookout.  The connected building enclosing the market square once housed the city’s treasury and was the centre of municipal affairs.  We opted not to pay 10€ each to climb the 366 steps to the top mainly due to the heavy stream of tourists all vying for the best views of the city.  Bruges is pretty enough from street level. 

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(The iconic Belfry of Bruges)

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(Inside the old market square and Belfry of Bruges)

Instead we walked around the square, in and out of a number of art galleries before heading to the Bruges Beer Museum just down the street.  It was very informative with displays about the history of beer and the processes used to brew it. Of course there was no shortage of trivia.  For instance, cenosilicaphobia is the fear of an empty glass.  An interesting story is that of Saint Arnold, the patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers. He is credited with saving his parish from the plague.  In reality, he just encouraged them to drink beer instead of water.  Contaminated water had been spreading the infection, but since it is boiled in the brewing process, beer was miraculously free of the deadly pathogen.  Parish numbers grew and Arnold was immortalized.  His statues, which depict him with a mashing rake, still commonly adorn breweries all over Belgium.  Above all, I learned that my interest in beer is mainly in drinking it.  Fortunately the tickets came with a tasting. 

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(The Beer Museum of Bruge)

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(Rachel learning more than she cared to know about the history of beer)

(Learning more than I cared to know about brewing beer)

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[Beer tasting.  From Left:  Rodenbach Foederbier – A flat beer, straight from the oak casks at Rodenbach Breweries  (mixed fermentation, 5-6%), Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin – A brown abbey beer with a malty caramel character and a fruity, lightly smoked yeast aroma (top fermentation, 6.5% alcohol),  Palm Hop Select – A balanced connoisseurs beer with a hoppy taste and a touch of caramel (top fermentation, 6% alcohol)]

  The full feeling from our second breakfast was threatening to flee, so we quickly found a restaurant that served mussels and chips, another Bruges specialty.  We settled on Bistro den Huzaar. We (I) also couldn’t pass up the beer tasting and fish soup that seemed to leap off the pages of the menu. These were without a doubt the best mussels either of us had ever tasted. They were very simply steamed in water and white wine and garnished with some spring onion.  The magic was in the freshness of the mussels. Talking to the waiter, who was also the owner, we learned that although Belgium is famous for the dish, nearly all of the mussels served in the country are actually harvested from the coast of the Netherlands.  Apparently mussels just aren’t as popular in Holland.  The beers went surprisingly well with the mussels. We were less impressed with the fish soup, which came with a little flat bread, but overall, this mussel experience was THE highlight of Bruges.  

(Amuse bouche)

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(Belgian sausage – very nice)

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(

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(Beer sampling – by this point i wasn’t keeping track of the types)

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(Showing off my mussels)

(Best mussels to date!)

(Fish soup and flat bread)

Having recovered the full feeling in our bellies, we continued to explore the old city, stopping to watch swans play in the canals and checking out various shops.  There was a perfume store that offers to pair a scent to your personality.  Unfortunately, one needs an appointment for this.  In another store, Rachel found a light down jacket that squishes into a tiny featherweight ball. Her heavy travel jacket’s days of weighing down her backpack were over. 

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(A beautiful girl on a beautiful street in Bruges)

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(A very peaceful canal in Bruges)

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(Another gorgeous canal in Bruges)

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(One of many swans swimming in the canals of Bruges)

We reached the outer perimeter of the old city, a narrow band of green space that follows the canal moat.  To the north was a windmill that begged for a photo op.

(Random windmill on outer perimeter of Bruges)

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(Random windmill on outer perimeter of Bruges)

Despite having seen only a fraction of the quaint old city, a walk along the tranquil ‘moat’ was too inviting. We walked slowly around the city back toward the train station. Although one could easily spend several days in Bruges, we were satisfied with our first day trip in Europe.  We caught the next train back to Brussels determined to find waterzooi before leaving Belgium. 

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(The tranquil moat encircling Bruges)

We settled on a restaurant right across the street from our apartment in St. Giles, La Porteuse d’Eau. It offered a variety of local dishes including waterzooi, the famed soup Dirk had recommended.  It was quintessential comfort food.  A creamy chicken and vegetable soup. Very simple, but quite tasty, especially with several different Belgian beers. 

(More Belgian beer at La Porteuse d’Eau in Brussels)

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(First time Rachel finished her drink before me!)

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(Thirsty Rachel connecting with her Belgian roots.)

(Waterzooi – a creamy chicken and vegetable soup)

It was another early night for us as we had to pack for Amsterdam. Our short time in Belgium was coming to an end. 

For breakfast the next morning we had croissants from one of several patisseries right downstairs…so convenient.  We ate quickly because we had to stop at the post office on the way to the station.  We badly underestimated how long this would take and how uncomfortable it would be to pack a parcel wearing our heavy backpacks.  We finished with 9 minutes to spare so we ran to the station.  We made it there in 7 minutes but lost 3 trying to determine the track.  That’s right, we missed our train.  Oh well, there was another train 90 minutes later…plenty of time for another breakfast before heading to the Venice of the North. 

(Vaarwel Belgie!  Bedankt voor alle chocolade!)

2 thoughts on “In Bruges…

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