Dutch Countryside


It’s a SHLEP!

Day 11 — In Heaven There is No Beer? Well you ain’t been to Bruges!

The best sight of all in Bruges! My lovely wife! Did I mention this trip celebrates our 35th wedding anniversary?

Day what have you — Brugge

We had cleared our throats the day before in Ghent, because we knew that today’s excursion to Bruges (Brugge) was going to be more Phlegmish that we could imagine.

Using the magic word, we bought a couple of round trip train tickets from Brussels to Bruges for about 5 Euros each, a little more than half what we paid to go to Ghent the day before. Strangely enough, Ghent is halfway between Brussels and Bruges. But the trainfare is twice as much.

The train before ours had broken down and was going to be several hours late. So about 1,000 antsy people waited on the platform to crowd onto the next train … ours. We got on, though separated by a lively group of abuelas from Mexico trying to get an explanation from a young man from Spain as to why nobody in Belgium spoke Spanish, and spent the 70 minute ride standing up. I actually understood a good portion of it and almost suggested they come to Texas … but then I remembered that our governor and other political zealots preferred we all spoke Texan. I just stayed quiet and tried to dodge the swinging rucksack on the back of the old man pressed into the aisle right next to me… he was just tall enough so the rucksack hit me rather annoyingly and sometimes painfully.

We exited the Bruges train station and took a bus downtown to the Markt, the central square of this SERIOUSLY medieval town. The bell tower soars about 300 feet and, unlike the one in Ghent that was completed for the 1913 Worlds Fair, this one was a LOT older. If you saw the movie “In Bruges,” it’s the tower from where Brendan Gleeson’s character plummeted to a splattery death on the cobblestones below.

We walked around the square and then, following our literary travel guide, Rick Steves, took off for a several hour walking tour of the old city. It was quickly evident that Bruges was going to be the most historic, ancient and best preserved city we’ve ever seen in Europe. Called “Venice of the North,” Bruges is crisscrossed by canals (though nothing like we’ll see in Amsterdam), and in that today was no holiday, the streets were thick with tourists.

At every turn, we were afforded moments of “WOW.” Even the Crowne Plaza Hotel, a building built in the 1980s, housed 10th century ruins in the basement.

Outside the Crowne Plaza, in front of the Cathedral of the Sacred Blood, we met some fellow Americans, in Bruges after a couple of weeks in London for the Olympics. One of the ladies’ daughter competed for the USA in the javelin. Though she didn’t medal, Mom was justifiably bursting at the seams with pride.

After another hour or so of wandering through street after street of postcard views, we stopped for a quick lunch before heading to the Halve Maan brewery and an up close look at the Belgian art of beermaking.

In France, I’d drunk wine only once at our co-in-law’s house, lightly alcoholic apple cider in Normandy and one shot of Havana Club rum (forbidden in the US) from Cuba. I was saving myself for Belgium.

After sampling another Belgian beer or ale each day, the tour gave us a great look at how they make it, but more importantly, how the Belgian people LOVE their beer. From what we’d seen, they are more passionate about their beer than the Germans. The tour included a big beer afterwards, so we spent a little more time in the biergarden enjoying, because we were about to pop our chocolate covered cherries.

Genevieve and I poked our heads in a bunch of chocolate shops. Everybody had a lot of the same items as well as selections, collections and assortments for sale. They even had chocolates with Cuban tobacco, Chili peppers and other unseemly fillings. It all looked so good to me, and I’m not a huge fan of sweets. But Genevieve is, so half the fun was shopping for the chocolates we were going to eat there in Bruges as well as the ones we’d shlep around for the rest of our trip.

Our tour continued through an ancient compound where the members of the Beguine order have lived for centuries. Poor women are still allowed to live and spend their time praying to God in this little walled community to this day. We stuck our heads into the church where the sisters were singing vespers.

I tried to think of a place in the US where single poor women could live like that and spend their day working and praying to God. Closest thing I could think of was Mississippi.

Outside of the Beguine compound was a gorgeous little lake, full of ducks, geese and swans, Minnewatter (sp). It was the beginning of a beautiful park with finely manicured grass and trees, canals and bike trails. We got to walk through a small part of it on our way back to the train station.

We’d had a great day in Bruges, though not as much time as we’d have liked. If we ever get back to these parts, we’ll definitely come back to Bruges… and spend a few days here.

Dinner in Brussels was a bummer, since the restaurant we’d picked was closed for vacation (but not a word about it was mentioned on their website.) So we found a place near the hotel … with the worst service we’ve had on our entire trip. However, I did get to scratch another Flemish specialty off my to-do list … Waterzooi, a creamy chicken stew with potatoes, carrots, onions and other stuff. Very good.

For dessert … the last of the beer sampler I’d bought earlier in the week at the corner deli. This one was a BUSH. 12% alcohol. 100% sleep!

We’ll have the morning in Brussels before our trail leaves for Amsterdam.

Belgium was a great choice.

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