I am having trouble getting internet strong enough to load the photo's so I am posting the words and will add the photo's (as in short for photographs for anyone concerned at my use of the apostrophe) when I get better coverage.
After a long day of travel the previous day (it was 24.5 hours from when we left the Hotel in Singapore to when we arrived at the one in Brussels after a long delay in Dubai due to rain) we slept late in Brussels. We had needed to put our watches back 2 hours when we got to Dubai, and a further 3 hours when we got to Brussels, and then overnight Daylight Saving started in Europe so we needed to put them forward one hour.
We decided we would leave the hotel, catch the train and have ‘brunch’ in Ghent. Being Sunday, there was a street market operating right opposite the Novotel Hotel Midi where we were staying. Part of the street had been blocked off and I had heard them setting it up in the early hours but had just thought the workmen at the station started early! We did not have time for much of a look but it seemed to be similar to what we have at home – lots of fresh produce, bric a brac, cheap souvenirs etc except there was like a ‘supermarket’ set up on one end of it where items you would normally buy at a supermarket were displayed eg packet food, cleaning products, bottled drinks but not chilled items. Several places were selling seedlings in pots – and some were already flowering so they were doing a roaring trade as everyone in Europe wants to be part of ‘Spring.’
As this was the first time we had used the Eurorail pass we had to get it validated at the counter – but this took no time at all, especially as we had wandered over the night before to familiarise ourselves with the place, so it saved us time that morning.. The train was very comfortable, modern and quick so we were there in 35 minutes. The station is at Ghent- Saint Pierre – which was probably a nearby village at one stage and is now a suburb. The station was an interesting building and there was a Sunday market in the round park in front of it, but it was starting to pack up by the time we got there.
We had brunch in the Brasserie on the other side of this park. We ordered omelettes and they were simply delightful. Mine had lots of crisp bacon, tomato and onion through it. Judy also had mushrooms. (Yes I know I do not usually eat scrambled egg or omelette because of my intolerance to egg white – but there was nothing else I could eat, so I made an exception.) I found there is no point asking for “half strength flat white” when ordering coffee over here as they just look at you with a bewildered expression. Judy had little more success when she asked for a Machiatto. The look on her face when they presented her with a large mug with lots of milk and froth on the top is one I will remember forever. It was priceless. (I am just sorry I did not get a photo to be able to share!)
We were then very adventurous so got on the local ‘tram’ and went into the main City Square. Now I should state here that Judy speaks French (was a French teacher an age ago) so it makes it much easier - even if as she said, she was a “bit rusty”. I should say here that we found at least four different pronunciations of the name. Some say Gent as in ‘gentle’ (probably tourists like me), some say it with a harder ‘g’ like in ‘guest’, some say it like the French – ‘gon’ (Judy says it differently to that but that is how it sounds to my ear), some say it like it is spelt “Hent” and some – well they sort of hiccough at the start and end in ‘ent’. (I can’t think of any other way to describe it and Judy says it is like we say the gh in ‘cough’!) Each seems to be equally acceptable – if a trifle confusing.
The central city area of Ghent is just delightful, very old, very historic and beautifully preserved with lots of cobblestone streets. The ‘main street’ is very understated and quite narrow. We did a tour in one of the horse and carriages. Two lovely young women. One is learning the job, so that was why we had the two. They took us around the main city area and in some places, down laneways where cars are not allowed. We had a lovely time. We were surprised to learn that they have a population of about 160,000 plus 85,000 students for their university which is the second biggest in Belgium. It specialises in Medicine and allied professions including Veterinary Science. (Surprisingly the largest is not at Brussels but a little west of there at the town of Leuven.)
There is a modern new building in the city centre which is like a huge covered open-sided meeting area. It was built by the local Council to try to bring the locals together for events, but it seems they all hate it and won’t use it. There was a lovely lawned area and there were many people making use of it to soak up the sun. I was finding it quite cool and had my gloves on even, at one stage. The thought of stripping off – albeit in the sun – was enough to make me shiver. There was a place where you could rent a bike, which was well set up and also offered ‘free air’ for anyone who needed it.
Then we caught the ‘tram’ back to the station in time for the next train to Brugge. Now here I will explain that there are several different spellings and pronunciations of this as well, depending which language you choose to speak in – ie Brugge , Bruges. I have chosen this way as that is what it said on the front of the English language guide I got last time I was here. The trip again took roughly 35 minutes. The train is a vast improvement on the one I travelled on in 2009 when I last came to Brugge, and the railway station has had a big modernisation and facelift. I was fascinated to find the toilets are unisex and you just all line up out front and take the next one that comes free. Inside the cubicle was a hand-basin so there was no one to police how much paper you used to dry your hands. (See travel log from previous visit.) I have to say they were not as clean as on the previous visit either, and there was no ‘entertainment’ component either!!!
I wondered where all the bikes had gone when I came out front because (after the situation at the loo) that was what I remembered most from the previous visit – the many thousand of bikes parked out the front of the station. We got a taxi into town and I noted the new ‘motorway’ we used to get there.
The Markt (Market Square) in Brugge has been dominated for centuries by the 83 m high Belfry - which many of you will recall from the movie “In Bruges” – and is surrounded by colourful houses. It is as beautiful now as I remember it from 2009. I will have to find some photo’s from that trip and do a comparison, but I think the same places are still painted the same colours. The Markt is also the regular standing place for the famous horse drawn carriages. We did not do the tour in one here but I pointed out to Judy how they all have a fitting that ensures their manure does not hit the ground but is collected in a “bag” (for want of a better word) and can be retrieved and disposed of later.
We went for a snack to the same Italian Restaurant I remember eating at last time I was here. I also was fascinated to find their toilets were just as I remembered too!!! You go through the kitchen and there is a very narrow and permanently open door to the toilet area. The “ladies’ is directly to your left, and it is a ‘tight squeeze’ to get in and get the door closed – and you need to back in as there is no room to turn around!! When you come out you take one step ahead to the hand basin. As you stand there using this, you are standing beside (about 10 cms from) and slightly behind the shoulder of the man using the toilet in the “mens “. They never seem to close their door! I have to say it is a little disconcerting, but the men never seem to turn a hair!
I remember Brugge in particular for the great local beer, so I ordered a large one of them – and to eat – well it had to be “pomme frites” - chips or ‘French fries’ as they are called most places these days – but NOT in Belgium as they claim they were theirs first and the French copied them. To me they never taste half so nice anywhere as they do in Belgium – and as Brugge is the first place I had them I always associate them with Brugge. It really felt good to be back in Brugge which has been one of my favourite places since I came here in 2009. (I will post the Travel Log I sent back home then, as a separate post, so I do not have to explain in detail some of the things I did then. I will also try to find some photo’s from that trip to add to the post at some stage.)
We did go on the bus tour which takes and hour and covers most of the points of interest in the town. It is not a ‘Hop on Hop off’ but you do get a commentary in a dozen languages. What is not well known is that from 13th to 15th century Bruges was the greatest trading crossroads in North West Europe. In the former Hansa Quarter (commercial sector) you can still see the magnificent facades where the embassies of the trading nations and the mansions of the leading merchants were located.
Burg Square - nearly as big as Markt Square - contains the 14th Century City Hall, the Liberty of Bruges, the former Civil Registry and the Basilica of the holy blood. The Church of our Lady has the second tallest brick church tower in the world. (115.5m) - never heard who has the tallest. Inside is the “Madonna and Child” by Michelangelo which is a big tourist attraction as you can probably imagine.
We went by The Almhouses which were built to house impoverished elderly or retired craftsmen. They now operate as a “working museum” where people demonstrate how the various machines and businesses operated in the old days. It was not open being Sunday, but I saw it last time.
We then wandered down to one of the Canal rides. There are roughly 41 kms of canals still around Brugge, and Canal rides operate on about 12kms of them. They all leave from different places, which is quite handy as you just go to the one that is most convenient for you. They all go to mostly the same places and usually the boat driver gives you a running commentary as you go. They squeeze you on to the boats though so you can hardly breath, let alone turn around or take photo’s although I did manage a few of those! (My main problem was the leg I hurt in my fall in Singapore kept cramping. That was a challenge when you cannot stand or move and there is barely room to even wriggle!) We had a lovely cruise. Our driver was an older man who spoke several languages so he would say the same thing a couple of times so everyone got the message. He asked each of us as we boarded where we were from, hence he knew from our response how well we spoke/understood French and English.
He was also a bit of a character and regaled us with stories as we went. One of his favourites also involved the making of the movie ‘In Bruges’. Seems like although the character only jumps out the window into the canal once in the movie, in fact he did it around a dozen or more times. The canal was “closed to traffic” that day and some of the ferries were employed to sit out of camera range and make sure everything went well. He reckons the stunt man was a bit like a ‘drowned rat’ at the end of the day. So we got to see which window he jumped from and where his boat had been ‘parked’ for the day.
Many of the bridges are centuries old and one we went under he said it had been built as a narrow bridge and widened three times in the last couple of hundred years. From underneath you can clearly see the different size and colour of the bricks/stones used to do each section. Another is so low that even not particularly tall people (like me) had to duck their heads for us to go under it. The canals in some places go between properties/buildings, sometimes there is a road alongside them, sometimes a park, and sometimes a park with a road alongside that. In one of these such places they had had a Sunday market which was starting to pack up when we went past. Many of the houses that boarded the canal had a type of “window box” (for want of a better description) that protruded out into the canal area for a few metres. I noted that many of the buildings have been undermined by the water, so I do not know what they do to rectify that, and when I asked the driver he said he guessed “there must be something they can do” but did not know what. I was taken by the dates on some of the buildings – many long before Captain Cook’s parents were born! The oldest I remember was 1608 but I have a feeling there was one with 14 something on it.
After our canal ride we wandered back to the Markt Square, stoping to buy some postcards along the way and to admire some of the lace work on display in the windows of many of the shops along the narrow street. The quality of the lace is exquisite, and although much of it is commercially made with machines these days, around Brugge there is still some hand made. Motor vehicles are severely restricted on which of the roads they can use close to the Markt area and bicycles seem to weave adeptly between the walkers on the other roads, alleys and paths so it was quite fun to wander along exploring the place.
We opted to have an early dinner at one of the restaurants fronting the Markt. Our waiter turned out to be a cockney can you believe. He went for a visit, met a girl and “the rest is history’ he told me. The meal was delightful and a fitting end to our wonderful day. We got a taxi back to the train station, walked almost right on to the train and an hour later were back in Brussels.