In Bruges

The first thing we did in Bruges was get relatively lost. This was for two reasons; we couldn’t find our hotel … anywhere … online, offline, on Google, on maps … and when we parked opposite the entrance to the city, neither of us really had any idea where we were going. We had, after all, forgotten to watch In Bruges before we left.

So we walked. Initially, walking around the outskirts, Bruges gave every appearance of being quiet and quaint, just like one wants it to be. Like Ghent before it, Bruges proved to be the perfect city for strolling. Over a couple of bridges, down a few streets, past a cinematic cafe-overlooking-a-canal setting and we hit the city centre. Boom. Tourist stampede. People everywhere, sitting squashed together in cafes with long, mediocre menus and high prices. Perhaps it felt busier than it really was, because Bruges isn’t a big city. Perhaps Bruges really is just a super touristy city and Colin Farrell didn’t help. My sister said it was overrun ten years ago, so I’m suspecting it’s a case of the latter. Whatever the reason, you don’t ever really feel like you’ll chance upon a local in Bruges and you do often feel that most of the city, as it is today, operates largely around tourism.

But that doesn’t mean that, walking around Bruges, you don’t want to take a photo of everything you see, which is largely what SG did – the photos of both Ghent and Bruges come courtesy of him. And even though we wound up at a classically touristy cafe in the classically touristy main square, pumpkin soup and people watching was still an entirely pleasant way to kick things off. Because Bruges, for all my nitpicking, is an entirely pleasant city. I suppose, coming off the back of an instant love affair with the lesser known Ghent, I wanted more. I wanted Ghent but even more cute and quaint and authentic.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Bruges. It is nearly impossibly beautiful and so well preserved, it’s as if the past 500 years never happened. But I couldn’t help but walk away with the feeling that the city lacks a sense of authenticity. Maybe it’s the insanely expensive restaurants, all with set menus and similar food, or the chocolate shops jostling side by side selling almost identical products. I felt like I was being sold Bruges, instead of discovering it. And I speak of discovery not literally, because I clearly will never ‘discover’ anything in its truest sense of the word. I mean discovery as a personal experience. When travelling, even to the world’s most famous cities, there has to be a sense of discovery within you and unfortunately, despite its beauty, its preservation, it’s almost aesthetic perfection, I just didn’t get that feeling. The annoying thing is, Bruge should be the ultimate discovery city; little laneways and alcoves, canals and cafes beneath huge, leafy trees, bridges, churches, chocolate. But for all its obvious charm, I just wasn’t as charmed as I wanted to be. Curse expectations.

The best part of Bruges, I think, are the back streets. And they’re even better after dark. After dark, it’s almost guaranteed no one will be on them, except for the occasional walker. The streets are all but completely dark – save for a few lights on in apartments above shops – and you can see the huge, lit-up church spires piercing the sky, you can hear your footsteps on the polished cobbles. The canals are as still as glass, reflecting the little old houses, and you don’t have to compete to absorb the city with the thousands of tourists that swarm the city during the day. Bruges by night is a different beast to Bruges by day and only when the sun goes down, do you get the closest you will to discovering the city on your own terms.

Medieval building facades.

Don’t Forget About Ghent

We drove from Germany to Belgium on Sunday with me clapping the crossing of each border. It still thrills me, the idea of cruising from one country to the next, no passports, no planes, no … nothing. One minute you’re in Germany, then you’re in Holland. Then Belgium. No big deal. I also pointed out every number-plate. ‘German!’ ‘Dutch!’ ‘Lithuanian!’ ‘Polish truck!’ ‘Pom! He’s on the right side of the car!’ Annoying, yet necessary. Sharing roads with cars of all nationalities feels so marvellously exciting. It’s the little things.

Our first stop was Gent/Ghent, a city, I have to confess, I had previously heard approximately nothing of. Brussels, yes. Bruges, yes. Ghent? No. But thank God the SG suggested we stop by for a visit – Ghent is, quite frankly, wonderful.

The city, that flourished in the middle ages, was a medieval fairytale, and I, its princess. There was even a fortress with a tower and a view across the entire, pointy-rooved city. I tried to let down my golden hair, but it didn’t quite work. So instead, I settled for skipping down little lanes and gazing at florists and cake shops. The old buildings have been lovingly preserved and restored, maintaining their medieval facades and architecture.

Upon arrival we did the most important thing one must do when in Belgium. Ate pommes. Belgian food is heart-clenchingly hearty, pivoting on the axes of meat, pommes (and a healthy pump of mayonnaise), waffles and chocolate, with the ubiquitous buckets of mussels tossed in for good measure. Do not bother searching for light alternatives, they do not exist. Just give yourself a couple of  kilos leeway and dig in.

The rest of the moody afternoon was spent strolling. Down tiny streets, over glistening canals, past strange little shops crammed full of handmade and vntage gifts. If you’re ever there, and into things of days gone by, look out for Fallen Angels. The city was busy, but not stiflingly so, and when dusk hit and we were still exploring, a lovely peace descended. It was so pleasant to be somewhere so beautiful and so obviously aware of its tourism industry – but so sweetly quiet.

Dinner proved tricky. Not because there was a shortage of places to go – oh no, Ghent is full of places to go – but because they were all jam packed. Perhaps this is why the streets were so quiet – everyone was gorging on beef stew and beer. The first three places we tried had not a table between them. We ended up in a table by the kitchen door in a great Turkish restaurant called Ankara. Reasonably priced and perfectly tasty. And sans pommes which, for my arteries, was a positive thing. Ghent isn’t a cheap city, by the way, if you’re going to eat out, don’t be surprised by mains upwards of 20 euro.

Monday dawned brilliantly bright and sunny. The city looked scrubbed clean. We found waffles and take out coffee, went into severe sugar shock overlooking a canal and then went to inspect the fortress. 8 euro (4, if you’re under 26. Not if you are 26. I checked.) and you can walk through the magnificent Gravensteen Castle. Built in 1108, and renovated in the late 1800s, it was apparently constructed not to defend the city from foreign attack, but to defend the King from the stubborn Ghent inhabitants who were not too shy to let their displeasure known. Up until the 14th century it was the seat of the Counts of Flanders, then a courthouse, a prison, a mill and a factory.

It was also something of a rather large torture chamber. Today, ticket holders, as well as acting out Rapunzel fantasies, can see some of the original devices used on criminals, the mentally ill and those with epilepsy (epilepsy was seen as mental illness and in some cases possession). There’s even a fully functional guillotine complete with an original blade and a head bag. I commented on the grisliness of the concept of a head bag, to which SG, ever the pragmatist, said ‘better than having heads flying around everywhere.’

On that note, we departed. Bruges – with big shoes to fill and more pommes to wedge down our gullets – was waiting.

But Ghent, you can guarantee it, I’ll be back. And I won’t be leaving your vintage stores empty handed. I can promise you that.

Gravensteen Castle
The view from where we had breakfast.
A canal view from the castle.
A florist

What a difference …

… the sun makes.

I am of the opinion so many European cities suit gloomy skies. Grey provides the perfect backdrop to church spires and wrought iron balconies. It’s all rather romantic, really.

I am also of the opinion there is no better weather than sunny weather. Full stop. The end.

So it was rather perfect that Gent welcomed us with a brooding embrace and farewelled us with a sunny smile.

Say hello …
Wave goodbye …

Found in Gent

 Julie’s House

Found in Kraanlei 13 Gent, Belgium

Found while desperately looking for a take away coffee (trickier than you’d think)

Found to be full of homemade cupcakes, muffins, tarts, cakes, pancakes, scones macaroons, coffee (takeaway included) and tea.

Found to also have a loft seating option full of rickety wooden chairs and tables, for added romantic effect.

You know how in romantic comedies, the hapless looking-for-love lead is so often a cupcake baker, with a perpetual smear of flour on her rosy cheek? This is the bakery set Hollywood could only dream of.

Worth whiling away a whimsical afternoon in.

Beautiful & Bad Tempered

Turns out waking up at 4am on a Saturday off the back of 50 hour working week feels about as good as it should. Coffee can’t go down fast enough and it seems I can’t move fast enough because at 4.45am, when I am supposed to be out the door en route to my 5.10am train, I’m still not dressed and my hair is a fright wig.

Loitering on the corner of my street, bathed in a glow from the street lights and wearing a trench coat, I feel vaguely like I’m in a bad noir film. A cab comes at the 11th hour, moments after I have befriended the idea of power walking to the station. I continue the noir theme by flagging it down with my trench-coated arm and slipping into it under the cover of 5am darkness.

In the cab, I realise I have left my book on my bedside table. Four hours on a train cannot be spent any other way than reading. I buy a Nick Hornby at the station, in record time, throwing money at the kasse. My train is waiting on the platform and I stag leap on. Belgium, here I come.

Fucking Deutschebahn (I am officially German now, because I am familiar with the world’s most efficient country’s dirty secret; the inefficiency of their rail system). My train doesn’t leave, due to technical difficulties and I’m turfed out. I run for the 6.14am to Duisburg and, once the heating kicks in, fall asleep on it.

From Duisburg to Koeln, I pounce on the snack lady and relieve her of the last coffee on her tray. It tastes like a boot and is as strong as smack to the head with a concrete slab. My eyes go from slits to slightly bigger slits.

Running significantly behind my printed schedule courtesy of Fucking Deutschebahn, I am wildly guessing when trains will depart and arrive at my various connections. On Koeln station I risk it and sidestep into a café to order my third coffee for the day. It’s just on 8.30am.

On my final train for the morning, I loiter in the luggage storage for a while, as I don’t have a reservation for this particular train – I had a reservation for the one that left before it – and now feel less noir, more Christie-esque. I think it’s the trench. A Thalys ticket man with an impressive moustache says I can take any free seat and suggests a cosy compartment away from the riff raff. Thank. You. I sit with Nick Hornby and watch Germany become Belgium through the window. Later I will be joined by two men who will then make a return appearance in the evening at the pub I will find myself dancing in. Moustache Thalys man also joins us, although not in the pub, and tries to guess what city in Australia I am from, despite the fact I am holding a book over my face. Oddly, he goes for Perth.

On Brussels station, amidst a sea of French accents and big-city grit, I find Tammy and we embrace like long lost lovers. She warns me Brussels has not exceeded any expectations she may or may not have had and that it’s grey. Very grey. We hop on a train that looks like something out of a 1980s movie set in New York and listen to the dulcet tones of a mobile busking accordion player, who maintains extended, awkward eye contact with a fellow commuter, as if daring him not to toss him a few euros compensation.

Brussels is, indeed, spectacularly grey and soon after we have set out on our lets-find-food-and-wine walk, it begins to rain. Winding down themed cuisine streets – Greek, Middle Eastern, Italian – we find ourselves in a tourist hotspot where waiters beckon and say things like ’where are you from? What’s your name? They call me Mr Satisfaction …’ The rain (and waiters of the aforementioned ilk) chase us into a restaurant that looks like it belongs on the back-lots of LA, used for made-for-TV films that require novelty French restaurant settings. And so begins our eating frenzy, which will wind its way past a restaurant we are invited into to have a wine for the boss’s birthday (don‘t mind if we do), past a waffle house, into a pub with over 2000 types of beer and end up in a kebab shop after a night during which all conceptions of drunken Irish men are reinforced with lashings of cider and mortification.

Sunday dawns grey and chilly and we kick off with a pain au chocolat and coffee in a corner café. Suitably fuelled, we begin to stroll and soon witness Brussels’ second coming. If Saturday was something of a letdown, Sunday gives us a right slap across the face for ever doubting the city could impress. Brussels is, it turns out, stunning, perhaps even more so because it exists beneath that cranky grey sky. I am beginning to feel I am visiting a beautiful, moody, bad tempered woman. I don’t know what she’ll do next. I want to dislike her for her brooding brow and harsh tongue, but I think I love her because she’s so bloody beautiful. And she knows it. Cafes and restaurants provide splashes of cosmetic colour, wrought iron balconies cling to old, French-style apartments like snippets of lace. The whole effect is a Hitchcock-in-Europe film set where Brussels is the snow covered volcano and you her bumbling co-star.

We buy Godiva chocolate coated strawberries, stop for greasy fries and mayo, both of us groaning that we have to stop abusing our metabolisms. In what must be one of Brussels’ wealthier neighbourhoods, where the locals are groomed and the shop windows magazine-perfect, we blow into a café just before a sudden snap delivers another downpour. Both of us eye the cakes and then each other. But it’s not to be – there is simply no room for the citron tart. We take our coffees out into the grey afternoon and continue inspecting chocolate shops.

Brussels, the beautiful, scowling European woman who suffers from something of an identity crisis, has sucked us in with her cobble stones and lace balconies, her glowing cafes and sprawling palace squares. She sends us on our weary way with an episode involving a man attempting to drunkenly urinate against the wall of a café on the station. He is later spied staggering onto my train, where he passes out in the toilets and has to be pulled out by police on Aachen station.

Tomorrow he and I will both wake up in Germany and Brussels will seem like a strange and, dare I say it, intoxicating dream.

Brussels in pictures here.