Monday, November 08, 2010

2010 Europe Trip: Bruges - The Medieval City

Bruges is a perfectly preserved medieval city in Belgium. I'd read about Bruges years ago but it wasn't until after I saw the movie "In Bruges" that I decided I really had to visit the place. In addition to its weirdness and relentless profanity, the film really showcases the city.

I had an interesting reaction about Bruges from that weird couple from Toronto I talked to while in Amsterdam. When I told them I was going to Bruges, the wife said, "Bruges! I had a friend who went there and she said it was completely over the top. I'd never even heard of Bruges before she went." She went on to admit that she didn't exactly know what her friend meant by "being over the top" but she'd assumed it was a negative reaction. She also said visiting a medieval city held no interest for her. I mentioned that the historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and she scoffed at this fact saying "EVERYTHING is a UNESCO World Heritage site so that doesn't mean anything at all." Her husband and that guy from the midwest both agreed with her. She asked me why I would want to go there and I explained that I loved Northern Renaissance art, a comment that had everyone in the room stumped. I changed the subject and took everything she said with a grain of salt. After all, this is a women who announced to everyone she couldn't see why ANYBODY thought Van Gogh had talent. Now, I can understand people not caring much for his art, we all have our preferences, but I couldn't see how she could make a statement like that.

Okay, back to the city. Bruges has a small city center and can be seen easily in one day. I spent a little less than two days here and it was a nice amount of time though if you ask me for a recommendation I think three days would be really lovely.

A view of the Markt (market square) from one of the many surrounding cafes. The tall building is the Belfort (belfrey). I was there during their Pride weekend though I drank too much beer and ended up sleeping through their Pride Parade. Still, when I arrived in town and saw the rainbow flags up at the Markt I was really tickled.

My Bed and Breakfast is just around that corner. This street is about a block and a half from the Markt.

Bruges is a pricey town. While my bed and breakfast was reasonably priced (about $80 a night), the restaurants were expensive. Of course, there are cheaper places to eat, street vendors and such, but I noted there were plenty of upscale, beautiful restaurants, tea houses, cafes, etc. I had an absolutely decadent Belgium waffle with chocolate and strawberries along with some tea at the cafe in the picture above and it cost over $20 when I did the conversion.

Here it is, the $20 Belgium waffle and tea. Was it worth it? I think so. The quality of the chocolate was out of this world and the strawberries were super sweet but I still have to admit that I was a surprised when I got the bill.

Chocolate. The best chocolate I've ever had was here (including white chocolate). There are chocolate shops all over the place and it didn't take me long to pick one so I could buy some for souvenirs. I bought two boxes, one for my Dad and one for the folks at work. The chocolate was handmade that week with fresh ingredients. While this chocolate doesn't last as long because there are no preservatives, nothing tastes better. It was beautiful. The ladies at the shop said you can buy boxes of their chocolate at stores but the ingredients aren't fresh so it tastes different.

There are plenty of beautiful gift shops as well. Bruges only has a handful of tacky gift shops around the Markt. The rest of the shops are all upscale designer type stores. Yep, Bruges caters to folks who have money. I'm not saying you can't go there on a budget, you just have to be aware and plan accordingly.

Not surprising, Bruges is all cobblestones. If you're not used to walking on them they're killer on your feet so make sure you bring supportive, broken in shoes. I'd brought my cute leather clogs but had to switch to my white sneakers. I didn't get used to the cobblestones until my trip was almost over.

Here I am in front of one of the canals in this place. There aren't as many as in Amsterdam but they're still beautiful. Note the touristy white sneakers.

A proper picture of the canal from the bridge above.

A view of the Markt from one of the lower floors of the Belfort. They were doing renovations at the top so I didn't get a shot of the Markt from there.

Here's the shot of the view I was able to get. This view is from back side of the Belfort.

As I mentioned in my photo comments, this trip was all about climbing stairs. Climbing the Belfort was quite something and the stairs get steeper and narrower as you get closer to the top. They thoughtfully provide a rope for you to hang on to. I met a young man from Kentucky who was visiting his sister in Brussels as I made my way down. I asked him if he wanted to go ahead of me since I was taking a long time but he said he didn't mind. We had a nice conversation about our travels.

The Belfort stairs. A whole lot of them. See the rope in the upper left of the picture?

The courtyard leading to The Church of Our Lady, the largest Church in Bruges.

Even with my interest in medieval art I have to admit I didn't realize what medieval architecture was about. I'd never studied it before other than what I'd seen as background in paintings so I had a wonderful time walking around the city and noting it's beautiful buildings. Bruges was never bombed so the historic city center is completely and wonderfully intact.

Some buildings on the Markt. The large gray building is the Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court). The red brick building on the right is the post office where I mailed a bunch of clothes home in a desperate bid to lighten my luggage.

The back of the Sint Salvator's Cathedral. While smaller than the Church of Our Lady (and lacking a Michelangelo), I still loved this church. It felt so good to be here. I don't know why. I was here for a long time and I couldn't stop touching the walls.

The interior of Sint Salvator's. I actually kissed one of the pillars before leaving. It was my weird way of saying thank you (and I left a small donation).

Since Bruges is so small you could easily walk to the train station from the city center (about a 15-20 minute walk) but if you have a lot of luggage I suggest you take the bus instead. The bus stop was just a few steps away from my B&B. When I took my side trip to Ghent, I walked to the train station. It was a beautiful walk and I had fun because I followed a group of school kids going on a field trip to the station.

On the way to the train station, I walked through a park with the school kids. I stopped to take the following shot. Yep, those are people's actual houses.

Bruges is well known for its swans and they tend to hang out at the Minnewater, a canalized lake, also called the Lake of Love. There's a legend about the swans (go here) which explains why Bruges is supposed to keep swans for eternity. I missed two opportunities to take a canal cruise so I opted for a carriage ride instead. The carriage ride was expensive but worth it.

The driver took me to the Minnewater and let me (and the horse) relax for about 20 minutes.

Miss Turtle at the Minnewater. I spent quite a bit of time observing the swans: two of them were nesting. I probably should have been walking around taking more pictures but the swans were mesmerizing.

The carriage ride was worth it in other ways. The driver pointed out a narrow alley in Bruges, right off the Markt which didn't look like an alley, more like a space between two buildings. Down this alleyway is a legendary beer bar, Staminee de Garre, which has over 100 beers. Apparently, tourists prowl around the Markt looking for the elusive alleyway and walk right by it because it's so narrow. He showed me right where it was and after my carriage ride I went for a drink.

The alleyway looking towards the street. It's incredibly easy to miss it because it doesn't look like anything. Mostly locals hang out here.

I'd mentioned in the photos that I'd walked into the pub and, not knowing what kind of beer to order, requested a recommendation. The man at the bar suggested the "house beer" known as Tripel de Garre. I remember thinking I was going to get gyped into some subpar beer but I was wrong, of course. I included this shot in the photos I uploaded to Picasa but just have to post it here again.

11% alcohol. Very strong tasting. Comes with soft white cheese, and that's not a beer glass, people, it's a beer bowl. I drank the entire thing. I'm not a beer drinker but it was incredible.

I learned that beer in Amsterdam and certainly in Bruges is much, much better than beer here in the U.S. American beers, even if they're imported, taste like watered down crap and have no complexity to them. Bruges is known for having the best beer in the world. If I hadn't been traveling alone I would spent a lot more time drinking in all the places I visited. I almost never drink beer at home but if I do I tend to like Guinness Stout.

The sign for the beer bar near the front of the alley. I might have been a little tipsy when I took this picture.

As I've been writing this post I really do think I would have preferred to be here for at least three days, maybe even three and a half. Bruges is a small city but there's so much walking and strolling to do, and the city encourages you relax, sit at an outdoor restaurant or cafe, and watch the world go by.

View from my B&B window.

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