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Travels and Tribulations - in Belgium

Including Bruges

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LANGUAGE: Dutch, French and German
PEOPLE: Flemish, French and German

Belgium is a small, highly developed and densely populated country (10 million of inhabitants) at the cross-roads of Western Europe. Belgium is one of the founding members of the European Community, and its capital, Brussels, is also the capital of the European Union. It is since recently a federal state, with 3 relatively autonomous regions: Flanders in the north, where the language is Dutch ("Flemish"), Wallonia in the south, where the language is French, and the centrally located Brussels, which is officially bilingual. Belgium's rich history has left impressive churches, town halls, castles and works of art, dating back to the early Middle Ages, spread around the cities and country-side.

Belgium is not a large country - keep going, and you can travel right through it in a couple of hours - but it does contain some special delights: as the following will show.

One of the delights that you may not savour, however, is the fact that some of the toilet facilities leave a great deal to be desired! Now, if you go to an ancient town and manage to find the local facilities, you can, perhaps, excuse primitive facilities; what I find difficult to accept is the same style of primitive facilities at a 'modern' motorway service station (yes, I am talking about those dreadful "squat and beware" features). Do the locals really like them? Do they think they're quaint? OK, so different customs do apply, even in adjoining countries, but these monstrosities should surely be banned come the millennium! But don't think they're all like that: it's just that you never know what to expect!

Bruges is a place with an almost tangible history, and its architecture is a delight

Driving across Belgium via a motorway is stress-free, and can be a little boring. The flat fields and little change of scenery might lull you into thinking it is a country not worth stopping in; it is, after all, a convenient country to pass through on your way from the English-Channel ports to other countries such as Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Many do just that: pass through without hardly stopping. But, as the tour operators know, there are special beauties to be seen in this country, and not least of these is fantastic Bruges.


Bruges - click to enlargeI must confess to being very biased here: Bruges is probably my favourite city. (It is also a beautifully clean city.) Here you truly get that feeling of going back in time - it has stood still in Bruges for centuries. It has a truly medieval flavour. Some call it the "Venice of the North" - a much hackneyed phrase in Europe to mean that it has 'some water of note within the city' - but by conjuring up the vision of water, this phrase does convey one of the principal memories that you will take away: water does play a very important part in Bruges. Once it played a vital part - for Bruges was a significant port before the dreaded silt gained its hold and prevented sea-going vessels from reaching to the city. A network of canals around and within the confines of Bruges once allowed water-borne trade to flourish: a direct route between the sea and the warehouse. Today the water is merely a picturesque reminder of a former facility: but not of a former glory, for probably there is more glory now than there was then, in the days of laden industrial barges. Today it is only a few select tourist boats that ply the waterways, and strict control ensures that these are up to satisfactory standards. Not just anyone can take to the waters of Bruges!

Grand Canal, Bruges - click to enlargeBasically there is an outer, circular canal, surrounding the city, and then there are other canals linked to this which penetrate the centre in various places, crossed frequently by small arched bridges. Tranquil green areas flank this outer circle of water, and buildings flank the inner waterways - hence reference to Venice. But do not expect the Grand Canal in Bruges: its waterways are narrow, far less frequently seen, and you are definitely not island hopping as in Venice. What you do frequently see is evidence of religion. It is all around you: images of the Madonna and Child are to be found at practically every turn.

Bruges is a place with an almost tangible history, and its architecture is a delight. The Town Square is dominated by an enormous Belfry - which you can climb, if you have the stamina - and cast-iron ear-drums. If you do, you'll reach a superb vantage point, and you'll also pass a little glass-windowed door, near the top, leading to the room where a strange keyboard allows the many bells to be played. Not a finger-stretching exercise this: the player uses fists to thump down on the enormous shafts which replace a conventional keyboard. These bells ring out all the time and, thankfully for the poor man who plays them and has to climb to this lofty 'music room' - they are also automated by means of a barrel-organ type mechanism of pegs on a rotating drum. It's a climb worth doing - and after it, your head now doing the ringing, you can take a snack at a restaurant, café or bar - no matter in which direction you head.

Bruges - click to enlargeI won't even attempt to fill you in on the history of Bruges - that's what the linked web sites are for - but I do want to pass on the 'feelings' I have for this magical city. I first saw it just before Christmas, at dusk, when its Christmas market was in full swing, with braziers burning around the central square, the aroma of gluhwein was in the air, and the red Christmas stalls were loaded with their festive gifts; but even when such scenes are not to be seen, the beautiful buildings, vaulted fascias, and tempting alleys and streets are enough to invite your exploration, day or night, any time of the year. It is also a city where I feel safe - even after dark - and a city to which is difficult not to return.

If you like food, you'll love Bruges! I get the impression that there are so many places to choose from that you could try a different one every day - for a year or more! And in a city where food is so important, and competition is so hot, quality results! Then there are as many different beers to choose from as places in which to sample them, if this is what takes your fancy: plus a traditional brewery to tour. Then there is the famous lace to be seen; visit one of the lace shops to boggle at the skill used in its making - and to gain their warnings about inferior products on sale elsewhere: if you want the real thing, be prepared to pay; if you want something like the real thing, be prepared to be selective! Not least, there are the Belgium chocolates! Fabulous selections in shops all over the place serve to tempt the weak-willed - yet you can hardly justify a visit to Bruges without sampling this particular speciality. Once again you can see it being made - if you can take that sort of masochistic torture. My wife and I did just that, and were then tempted to their café across the street where they make chocolate drink the proper way: or rather you do, melting your own chocolate! What a wicked place it is!

My best words of advice if you are visiting Bruges are these.

  • If you speak English, then go ahead: speak English. Practically everyone can understand you. Don't try out uncertain French: an historical contretemp with the French is remembered through the centuries and genes as well as the French remember their defeats, and so the language is not best loved; most shopkeepers happily switch between Flemish, English, and German - or French, if you really must push your luck!

  • If staying in Bruges, make sure that your hotel is right in the city; it is such a delight to wander around at night that to be stuck on the outskirts would be a criminal waste of your resources; any extra cost or trouble taken is well worth it; especially make sure of this if you go with a tour operator - for there are those using hotels right in the heart of Bruges. The city is beautifully compact, but there is so much to seen, make the most of it. Don't sit around too long indoors! Just because it is dark is no excuse for not exploring the sights, for those you saw in daylight take on a new, magical significance in the twinkling lights. And don't worry about transport if you have functional legs. Do use them, for wherever you are going in the city can't be that far away, and you will really enjoy getting there!

  • If you are a couple and want to sample the famous horse-drawn carriages in Bruges, don't be shy, team up to make a foursome with like-minded people you may see gazing wistfully at the carriages; it could do you all a favour. Otherwise the experience may prove memorably expensive.

  • Take care when walking. The bicycle is king in Bruges, and they are everywhere - and generally moving! Have your wits about you: because they are king, they even come at you the wrong way down the many one-way streets - and legally, too!

  • Finally, do take the time to walk around - and to get a city map from the Tourist Information office: better pay for one not requiring a magnifying glass than one which is free but unreadable! You'll need it, since getting lost is quite easy - although enjoyable, if you don't panic. But at least you can't stray very far, since the canals prevent you walking in a straight line out of Bruges without encountering them! And, thanks to the many churches, take a bearing on the spire of the one nearest to your hotel; learn the way to that church from the hotel, and you should be able to get back by sighting the spire.

  • If you do stop-off in Bruges on a three-hour or so limit, make sure you don't get lost! Keep taking your bearings and don't stray too far off the main streets, or you'll be unpopular with your fellow-tourist for turning up late! Getting lost is fun when you have time on your hands in Bruges - but a nightmare if you're in a rush.

Be prepared to be 'inspired' by this city. Many tours stop off here en-route. The usual three hours is just enough time to sample its delights, but I believe you need something like three nights in the city to really soak up its atmosphere. Be prepared to wander round in a timeless zone, so aim to enjoy it with no time pressures.
End of this segment!


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