Monday, November 4, 2013

Adventures in Benelux: In Bruges!

Lundi, 4 novembre.

"You're going to Bruges! You must have see In Bruges, right?" -- direct quote from everyone to whom we mentioned our day trip, including (but not limited to) my cousins, my host family, the couple we stayed with in Brussels, and a random French ex-pat I met on the way to Belgium.

In fact, no. I have not seen "In Bruges." Googling the trailer to link it to this post was actually the first time I'd ever watched any part of  it. (Although it does seem pretty hilarious, so maybe I'll have to reconsider that.) Everyone's follow-up question: "So, why exactly are you going to Bruges then?"

Dear haterz everyone ...  here is why.

Are you convinced yet?

Bruges was first developed in the first century BC by the Romans, seeking to protect their new coastal territory from pirates. It was later built up to protect against Viking raids; some people even think its name comes from the Vikings, as 'brygga' is an old Scandanavian word meaning 'harbor.' (So, I mean, that's nifty.) Bruges became a city in the 12th century and quickly grew in importance. Its seaside location allowed it to become an international commercial center for, among other things, a growing cloth market, while the arrival of Philippe le Bon turned the city into a hub of culture and art. It was in Bruges that the artists known as the Flemish Primatives begin to follow the Italian example and bring northern Europe into the Renaissance. Now ... well, it's mostly a tourist site. The city is full of beautiful old buildings, expensive shops, and more chocolatiers than you can shake a stick at!

As you might know, Bruges is located in the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium. Unlike Bruxelles, where everything is written in both Flemish and French, Bruges (or, to more appropriately use its Flemish name, Brugge) is almost exclusively Flemish. Flemish is a dialect of Dutch (and therefore pretty much incomprehensible), so it was definitely a bit of a shock to get off the train and be unable to read the signs! (Want to see what I mean? Check out some words and phrases here.) Granted, the city is a huge area for tourists from all over Europe and the world, so everybody speaks at least a little bit of English or French or Spanish: as a result, everytime you enter a shop, you're quickly greeted in at least three different languages! We managed relatively well, but it did make for a few awkward moments. My favorite? My total failure while trying to order a sandwich. When the cashier, who originally spoke to me in Flemish, tried to figure out what language we should communicate in, I told him in English that I could speak French ... and then when he spoke to me in French, I responded in German! Quel désastre.

We took an hour-long train from Bruxelles to Bruges. (Since we booked online with a special web deal, it was only five euros each way ... plus one for Elisabeth and Molly!) We followed the waves of tourists from the train station, hardly needing to consult a map to find the city's most famous site: the Market Square. 

It's here that you find the Provincial Court and, of course, the famous Belfry of Bruges. (And by famous I obviously mean that I had literally never heard of it before stepping foot into the town square.)

The belfry (above left) is, however, quite the popular building. In fact, it's so famous that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an entire poem about it! You can find the whole thing online, but I really liked it, so I'll share the beginning:
"In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o'er the town.
As the summer morn was breaking, on that lofty tower I stood,
And the world threw off the darkness, like the weeds of widowhood.
Thick with towns and hamlets studded, and with streams and vapors gray,
Like a shield embossed with silver, round and vast the landscape lay.
At my feet the city slumbered.  From its chimneys, here and there,
Wreaths of snow-white smoke, ascending, vanished, ghost-like, into air.
Not a sound rose from the city at that early morning hour,
But I heard a heart of iron beating in the ancient tower."
Isn't that lovely? Although we weren't able to climb the belfry tower this time around, we did have fun wandering around and taking pictures in the square. The whole square was incredibly bright and cheerful, despite the cold and gloomy weather!



Even more famous than the Market Square are the canals of Bruges. The city is known as the "Venice of the North" (I know, I know, more nicknames) ... and it's not hard to see why! The entire historic center is criss-crossed with the most picturesque little canals you ever did see. The most photographed canal site in Bruges is called the Rozenhoedkaai, which is Flemish for ... well, something. I don't think it has any particular historical significance: it's an incredibly beautiful spot! The canal turns a corner and passes behind the belfry tower and the view is just lovely.

Although Molly and I had arrived in Bruges ready and willing to take a canal tour (which we had been told was the thing to do in the city), we ended up changing our minds at the last minute. It was a cold and cloudy day -- not exactly the kind of weather that inspires you to whip across the water on a boat! Instead, we walked along the canals and discovered a few more beautiful spots.

I thought we might regret our decision not to take a boat tour, but every time we saw a group of tourists pass by, huddled together and trying their best to understand the tour guide, I became more and more content with our decision! Besides, saving almost ten dollars on boat fare meant a lot more money to spend on the important things ... like chocolate.

Which brings me to a very important aspect of Bruges (and in fact, Belgium in general): the food. What's so special about it, you ask? Oh nothing, really. Just that IT. IS. DELICIOUS. Their specialities include chocolate, frites, and waffles ... so you really can't go wrong. What's more, the Belgians seem much more relaxed about their eating: as opposed to France, where standing up and chewing at the same time is still looked upon a sin worthy of confession, it seemed totally exceptable to eat on the go. So, naturally, we did just that!

On the menu in Bruges? Frites with ketchup (you pay extra for sauce, but it's worth it). Lots and lots of chocolate. A slice of absolutely amazing cake that we saw in a store window and simply had to have.


... oh, and the "Best Hot Chocolate" in Bruges? Or maybe Belgium? Or maybe the whole wide world? The sign didn't specify, so who knows! (Disclaimer: okay, so this definitely wasn't the world's best hot chocolate. And at only two euros a cup, it probably wasn't even in the best in Bruges. But we sure enjoyed it!)

I even found stroopwafels -- my absolute FAVORITE Dutch dessert -- at a quirky and very inexpensive IKEA-like store called HEMA. We had a blast wandering through the aisles and wishing that we could buy absolutely everything. Unfortunately, HEMA isn't located in the US and there aren't any stores close to Montpellier (I checked), so this is likely to be a short-lived obsession. 

After having my passion for stroopwafels reignited by my new favorite Dutch chain, I have extensively researched how to make my very own stroopwafels. (Unfortunately, the tiny waffles can only be made with a pizzelle maker ... Christmas anyone?)

What would a European city be without a church? Bruges actually has several, but this was one of the ones we visited first. The church itself was -- no surprise -- absolutely gorgeous, but I was most intrigued by the elaborate displays of the coats of arms.


TIme for more canals ... well, sort of! This is actually the Minnewaterpark -- a small pond in Bruges known as the "Lake of Love." (Have you noticed that Molly and I have a habit of accidentally choosing the most romantic travel destinations?) There's some very Crim Dell-esque myth about couples who walk over the bridge together, but I definitely missed out on the finer points of the story. Still, with a view like this, it's not hard to imagine how the romantic legends got started.

Tot ziens, Brugge! Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful!!!! Everything is just so beautiful! The next to last picture in here has a tree in the photo that must have 5 colors in it. Gorgeous autumn colors! I will have to visit this place!