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.