Belgium · europe · Travel

Bruges, November 2011: Beer and Waffles and Chocolates oh my!

Our trip begins with a train from Birmingham down to London, a quick cross-over to St Pancras and jump onto the Eurostar. Since breaking our Eurostar virginity with our April Paris trip, we are seasoned experts on the protocol and we settle down for the two-hour journey. We arrive at Brussels Midi and easily find the platform for the final leg of our train journey.

It’s already dark by the time we reach our destination, and the Christmas lights are twinkling and the scent of waffles is in the air! It’s a short, inexpensive taxi ride to Hotel Ter Reien on Langestraat, winding our way through streets filled with early Saturday evening shoppers and tourists, with sparkling lights enticing one and all into delicious-looking chocolatiers and patisseries

It’s a relief to finally shed our travelling clothes and rest our weary bones for a short while. But there’s a whole city outside to be explored! Soon, we are strolling along the banks of the canal.  After a long travelling day however, sustenance is required… we’ve been in Bruges for a whole hour and haven’t had a beer yet – what’s wrong with us? Maybe this lack of beer is causing Mr Fletche’s headache?Luckily, my meticulous planning takes us to Cafe Terrastje on Genthof… Time to stop for a quick beer (or two), an omelette for Mr Fletche and a Croque Hawaii for me.

Christmas in Bruges, Belgium
Christmas in Bruges

Food and beer has unfortunately not helped Mr Fletche’s headache. And despite all the meticulous planning, Mrs Fletche forgot to pack the paracetamol.  So, after an amble to Jan Van Eyck Plein (and a quick wave at Jan Van Eyck himself – or his statue anyway), and a dash through Markt & Burg Square (Mrs Fletche: “NOOOOO… this is tomorrow’s plan! Avert your eyes Mr Fletche from these wonderful sparkling delights…”), we decide to head back to home base and get an early night.

Mr Fletche is asleep within seconds, and I – despite not being afflicted with any head pain – am not too far behind. However, we both get a rude awakening at 2:30am when the room phone starts ringing – with quite possibly the loudest ring in the world. And then again at 4:30am. Oh, and again at 6:30am. I hope this doesn’t happen every night…

Good morning Bruges!

Apart from the unexpected alarm calls in the night, we’ve had a lovely, healthy ten hours sleep and we’re ready to face the outside world! The hotel’s continental breakfast offering sets us up for the day, and Mr Fletche looks to me for the day’s activities… after all, the planning and execution of any trip is vital. And yes, I had a plan… only I hadn’t counted on Bruges being quite as “compact” as it is – and all of today’s activities being completed by 11am…

So – on-plan – we head for Burg Square. Photos are taken of this administrative heart of Bruges, and we take a reverential peek around the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Neither of us are particularly religious, yet we can still experience and appreciate the atmosphere of calm and serenity… and it is definitely a most impressive building.  If I wanted a moment of solitude or reflection, this is definitely where I’d come…

Bruges, Belgium
All ready for Christmas
Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges, Belgium
Basilica of the Holy Blood

Of course, we’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from Markt Square, where the Christmas market has set up home for the festive season. Although the scent of waffles, hot dogs and beer is permeating the very air around us, we don’t linger… this is, after all, tonight’s plan!

We head for the Belfort (or belfry) – after all, we are tourists, and this is probably the MOST touristy thing you can do in Bruges. Unfortunately, all of the other tourists think so too and the queue is out of the door. Mr Fletche comes up with a cunning plan of returning just before the final tickets are sold at 4:15…

Belfort, Bruges, Belgium
Belfort

So, off to Choco-Story – the Chocolate Museum. I take advantage of the free chocolates on the admissions desk, and we get a 1E discount with the discount card offered by our hotel. Lots of interesting information about the history of one of my favourite things, but the museum was very busy and – huddled up in our finest winter wear – very hot.  After gazing in wonderment at the chocolate Barack Obama, we skip the chocolate-making demonstration – and thus the opportunity of more free chocolate – and we hustle ourselves through the shop to the exit (past people with armfuls of chocolate moulds in the shape of religious figures…)

Chocolate Museum, Bruges, Belgium
Chocolate Statues

That was our day’s itinerary. Done. Apart from the Belfort, which we have re-scheduled for this afternoon. And it’s not even lunchtime. Bruges is tiny!  So, we decide to find the Bruges windmills.  Mr Fletche takes charge of locating them, and we wander though tiny cobbled streets, through residential areas with local Bruges inhabitants going about doing their thing, undisturbed by tourists… apart from the Fletches, stopping on every corner to check our map. Lo and behold… we stumble upon two windmills! It’s very peaceful, apart from the rush of traffic on the ring-road and we decide to celebrate our find with a beer.

Bruges, Belgium
Belgian back streets
Windmills, Bruges, Belgium
Windmill spotting

Where to now on our ‘no-plan’ Sunday afternoon? It’s off to the Koningin Astrid Park, where I am excited to discover the bandstand featured in ‘In Bruges’. Did I mention that both Mr Fletche and I love this film, and watched it again in preparation for our trip? And now I’m home, I feel the need to watch it again so I can spend the whole film going “I stood there. And there. And there!”

Koningen Astrid Park, Bruges, Belgium
Bandstand at Koningen Astrid Park
Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson - "In Bruges"
Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson – “In Bruges”

Luckily, there are no suicidal hitmen present today, just Belgian children happily playing in the late November sunshine.With no particular place to go, we twist and turn down cobbled streets, peering down alleyways and passing churches and beautiful buildings (sometimes more than once…). After hardly seeing a soul for ages, we are surrounded by people as we find ourselves at probably one of the most photographed spots in Bruges on Djiver.  The boat trips are going full-force here, but with tourists packed into the boats like sardines we decide to continue travelling by foot instead of by water.

Bruges, Belgium
Reflections of Bruges @CPF_Photography

Time for a late lunch – oh, and a beer – at Cafe Volkshuis. This is a free Wi-Fi zone so we catch up on all the goings-on back home.   With a beer and a toasted cheese sandwich inside us, we’re ready to tackle the Belfort.  There is still a short queue, but it’s moving quickly, and we soon find ourselves at the bottom of those 366 steps.Here goes nothing! The first 30 or 40 steps are fine – no problems here – but then we start to feel the burn and we’re grateful for the first rest stop at around step number 55 or so. And then, there are two nasty stints of stairs at 100+ each time. This is not helped by the many people climbing down the stairs in the opposite direction, meaning that we ascenders have to balance precariously on the narrow edge of the steps to let people pass.  After one step for each day of a Leap Year we’re at the top! And it is worth it, for the views over Bruges are indeed spectacular.

Belfort, Bruges, Belgium
Views from the Belfort
Belfort, Bruges, Belgium
Views from the Belfort

Coming down is possibly worse than going up; the concentration required not to plummet down those 366 winding steps is immense! Although luckily, by going up so late in the day, no-one else was coming up as we were coming down… a handy little tip for future Belfort visitors there!

A rest is needed to calm our wobbly legs, so it’s a quick afternoon snooze back at the hotel. At 8pm, we venture back outside to spend our evening at the Christmas market on Markt. Except, all of the stalls appear to be closing and there are very few people around.  At least, it’s not heaving like the Christmas market we’re used to back here in Birmingham, and we’re able to get a fried potato, bacon and onion concoction and a chocolate-sauce soaked waffle before everything is packed away. Once again, our plans are foiled, so there is only one thing to do…. Drink beer.

Bruges, Belgium
Bruges by Night

We head off in no particular direction. We find the second Christmas market at Simon Stevin plein – also closing for the night. Then a little alleyway and a pub sign catches my eye…Cafe‘t Brugs Beertje was definitely on my list of recommended drinking establishments. You know you’re in trouble when the beer options are provided in a thick ringbound menu.We snuggle in a nice table in the corner, and each sample a couple of beers each. laugh at Mr Fletche’s girly-sounding “Femme Fatale”, and fully expect it to be served with a cocktail umbrella).

The couple next to us are clearly taking their beer-drinking very seriously, with a little notebook being used to record all the vital details (if this had been me, no doubt my writing would have become more and more illegible as the night wore on… Imagine… “11pm. Beer no 7. Called ‘Beer’. Tastes like… ‘Beer’…”).  Before we get to the stage where every beer starts to taste the same – and before we start demanding “bartender, give me the strongest beer you have!” – we return to our hotel to contemplate our final day in Bruges…

A day of romance – and beer.

Another 2:30am, 4:30am and 6:30am alarm call before the official getting up time of 8:30. Much the same as the morning before we have breakfast, watch a bit of children’s TV in German and prepare for the day ahead. We slightly encroached on today’s itinerary yesterday during our aimless rambling but we headed back out towards Djiver and Gruuthouse.  The Belfort is the tower that gets all the attention in Bruges, but we both preferred the beautiful Church of our Lady… this is a stunning building, and the area around Bonifacius Bridge is to me “typically Bruges” … all canals right up to the buildings, and crumbling, ivy-covered bridges.

Church of our Lady, Bruges, Belgium
Church of our Lady
Bruges, Belgium
Reflections of Bruges

We head towards Minnewaterpark – after all, today is our 3rd wedding anniversary, and where better to be than ‘Lovers Lake’? We head into the Beguinage, obeying all the explicit requests for silence – only to find two women who work there chattering away as if they were reuniting after a long absence… Tsk, some people just don’t respect the rules…

Getting our bearings, we realise that we are just a stone’s throw away from the station and decide that despite having to transport our luggage down the cobbled streets, it would be quicker, cheaper – and less lazy – to walk to the train station the following morning.Once again, that’s our itinerary for the day concluded, apart from our afternoon horse and carriage ride, planned to coincide (almost) with the time we said “I do” three years ago

Minnewaterpark, Bruges, Belgium
Minnewaterpark
Minnewaterpark, Bruges, Belgium
Minnewaterpark @CPF_Photography

After a stop for a drink – a hot chocolate this time instead of a beer (the temperature has turned decidedly nippy despite the sunshine) – we continue our mission to explore every inch of the city. We find ourselves caught up in a school crowd, discover even more churches and little parks, and then stop for the obligatory beer and hot dog at the Christmas market. We’re going to need to layer ourselves up a bit more for our carriage ride so it’s back to the hotel (via a very expensive visit to a chocolatier where we manage to do all our Christmas shopping in one swoop – plus a few extras for ourselves of course…)

The beauty of our hotel being in such a wonderful location – and of course with Bruges being so small – is that we can happily just ‘nip back’ whenever we need to… no long walks, no train/metro/tram rides.  So it’s a short stop, before heading out into the cold once more.  With no queue at the horse & carriage ‘taxi rank’’, we’re soon trotting through the cobbled streets, leaving pedestrians and cyclists in our wake.

Bruges, Belgium
Horsey!

I had looked with envy at those passengers earlier in the day; wrapped up in cosy tartan blankets… we were offered instead what looked suspiciously like a dog blanket (yes, with images of paw prints and bones on it…). I am sure it had never been used to swaddle a small pooch, but we left it on the opposite bench just in case… We had a separate ‘guide’ from the driver, who spent the whole journey conversing with the driver, with just the odd “and on your left is…” interspersed into his conversation. It’s a good job we were happy to snuggle up and enjoy the ride, and didn’t want a detailed commentary on the sights…

Another quick beer at the Christmas market, another quick trip back to the hotel for a further layer of clothes and we’re back out again for our final evening in Bruges. We’ve  been surviving on snack-type meals, but this was our anniversary dinner! But with no plan in mind – and that scourge of the 21st century: TOO MUCH CHOICE! – we wander around aimlessly trying to decide who would be our culinary hosts for the night. Too expensive… too cheap… too busy… too quiet… not enough variety… nothing we want to eat here….

Eventually we do what all good tourists shouldn’t do… we succumb to a nice warm restaurant, offering a set ‘Touristique’ menu, right on Markt.  I know, I know… never eat on Markt Square… too expensive, low quality food blah, blah, blah…. But the waiter on the door was luring us in out of the cold and we didn’t resist. And, you know what? Our meal was fantastic.

Three courses – including the obligatory bucket of mussels for me and Flemish stew for Mr Fletche – with one drink each and side orders – 60E. Everything was fresh, hot, and most importantly, delicious. We emerge from the restaurant after a nice leisurely dinner, slightly stuffed. Actually, scrap that. Both of us were full to bursting and we uttered those immortal words which have never passed our lips before… “I couldn’t eat or drink another thing….” In fact, with Mrs Fletche keen to lie down flat and let those mussels settle, the most sensible option was a final wobble back to the hotel…

Final morning, final thoughts

Today is going to be a long day. Instead of the anticipation of reaching a new and exciting city, we’re heading home to the familiar grey streets of Birmingham and a final working slog until Christmas.

As the hotel was pre-paid, check-out is quick and painless. It’s a 25 minute walk to the station, dragging our suitcases over the cobbled streets – waking up the Bruges residents as we go… We pass those sights that we’ve sighed at over the last couple of days, and whisper a silent farewell to this wonderful city.

The train to Brussels Zuid is packed, so we spend the hour-long journey sitting on our suitcases by the doorway, and we disembark with our fellow Brit passengers at the correct station.  Time for a final hot chocolate – alas, not a beer – at Brussels and it’s finally time to board the Eurostar back to London…

Bruges was an amazing city, and I think that in our two days there we were able to see everything that we wanted to see in such a short time – we made the most of every minute that we were there. We explored every inch of the city, straying down alleyways and tiny little streets. We sat and people-watched – a favourite hobby. And there would still be enough to do on a return trip… the museums, the brewery tour, a trip to Flanders.

Compared to other cities we’ve visited (Paris, I’m looking at you!) there was a distinct lack of beggars, homeless or street sellers. Everyone we encountered was extremely friendly, and was able to converse with us in English. We also found the prices of food and drinks reasonable, with our only trip to an ATM to replace the money we’d spent on chocolate Christmas presents…

Thank you Bruges for an anniversary weekend to remember!

Bruges Nov 2011

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