My solitary experience in Belgium previously was a brief visit to the dreary and bureaucratic capital of Brussels. Consequently, I decided I needed to visit a slightly more appealing destination to appreciate the country, so I ventured to the Flemish city of Bruges for 2 nights. I travelled to Bruges expecting to encounter a quaint city that is easily “coverable” with limited time. I was surprised to discover that the old town, one of the best preserved in Europe, is humungous; a reflection of the city’s medieval prestigious as a major international trading centre.
Just after arriving in Bruges, I met up with Australian Paul and a group of his Australian friends who were on a day trip from Antwerp. A Globo Trip veteran, Paul (otherwise known by his Greekified name Pol Antriou Chenterson, according to his newly acquired Greek passport) is easily the most critical person of the existence of this blog and frequently campaigns for its permanent disbandment. Fortunately, my commitment is immune to the churlish commentary of a dour (and somewhat grotty) individual. I found Paul and his friends grazing on greasy roast chicken at a somewhat sterile takeaway establishment, an unusual choice for lunch in a city renowned for its culinary prowess. We then spent the afternoon wandering Bruges, critiquing the austere interiors of churches and exploring, with much more interest, gift shops laden with Belgian specialties. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic supposedly containing Jesus’ blood (apparently He was a blood donor). As an alumni of the Catholic education system, I was personally incensed that a fee was required to visit the museum where we thought the relic was located. I firmly believe that if you successfully endure 13 years of indoctrination, you should be entitled to free entry at all Catholic associated institutions globally. In protest, I exited the Basilica promptly, though we later discovered the relic is exhibited in a freely accessible chapel… not the museum.
I joined a free walking tour of Bruges to appreciate the city’s history. The tour commenced from the iconic Belfry, an 83m tall clocktower at the centre of the old town and a powerful demonstration of Bruges’ medieval importance. The “Golden Age” of Bruges lasted from the 12th to 15th centuries as the city functioned as one of the most important commercial centres in the world and the population boomed to approximately 200,000. From 1500 however, the channel that gave Bruges direct access to the sea began silting up, resulting in the city gradually declining and losing prominence to nearby Antwerp as the leading port of the Low Countries. The stalled development preserved the city’s architecture and layout, allowing Bruges to recover economically at the end of the 19th century as one of the first mass tourism destinations. The architecture of the old town is uniquely and entirely “old”, with many buildings serving as traditional breweries.The old town is crisscrossed by canals, which allowed merchants to easily transport goods from warehouses to the port. The canals provide spectacular vantage points to admire the city’s beautiful skyline, punctuated by church spires and bell-towers.
The expansive old town of Bruges is almost completely unnavigable in the absence of technology. After dinner on my first night, I found myself completely lost as my phone ran out of battery power and I had no recollection of how to return to my hostel. The streets of Bruges wind in a totally illogical manner, the architecture is very similar throughout and the layout lacks a defining geographical feature (like a river), creating a veritable labyrinth where its very difficult to establish your bearings in the twilight. In yesteryears, I would have loved the romanticism of “getting lost” in a beautiful old city, but I’m too old and cynical now to be frustrated by the inconvenience. I bitterly wasted an hour trying to locate my hostel, before finally stumbling upon a street map I could photograph and follow. I was subsequently vigilant with ensuring my phone was adequately charged.
For such an infinitesimally small and mostly unnoticed country, Belgium’s succession of momentous contributions to global gastronomy is really quite extraordinary. The Belgians are (supposedly) the inventors of chips (or fries / frites) and the quality of Belgian waffles, chocolates and beers are internationally recognised as peerless. I sampled two traditional Flemish meals in Bruges; moules and frites and carbonnade. Moules and frites consist of a cauldron of mussels cooked in white wine and twice fried chips with garlic mayonnaise. Carbonnade is a rich beef stew similar to France’s beef bourguignon, but cooked with beer rather than red wine. Belgium is synonymous with quality beer and I was of course required to sample a few drops, despite my preparations for Paris. Pol’s friends suggested I try a “sour” beer, which is produced from a very unpredictable process of fermentation. The beer was unlike anything I had tasted before, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I much preferred drinking cherry beer, wheat beer and a Belgian tripel called Garre, which I found at a historic pub hidden down a side alley and upstairs. The beer has an alcohol content of 11%, so the pub’s policy is to limit 3 drinks served to patrons.
I anticipated Bruges would be a pretty little town, where I would possibly become bored after 2 days. However, I found that I had grossly insufficient time to explore the entire old town, visit some of the museums and breweries and sample enough beers to feel like I had properly tasted Belgium.
That’s all for now,