I am sorry.
If anyone is intending to travel to Belgium, and more specifically Bruges, I’m afraid I have, in my attempt to blend with local custom, done my level best to rid the town and country of as large a supply of beer as I was able. There may be none left. Not just the beer. Waffles, fries, mussels, chocolate.
Now, have you ever been to a new place and immediately felt at home? Like some part of you was already there, waiting for the rest of you to show up. Have you ever met a new person and instantly knew that you were going to be fast friends? Lovers? A connection in a moment. Like some part of you was already with them, waiting for the rest of you to show up. Bruges hit me like that.
I’ve returned home from several of these trips now and always have much to report to Mark. But this one, this one was different. I didn’t come home showing photos or discussing a meal I had in a particular pub. I came home adamant, insisting even, that Mark see it too. That he experience it for himself. To this day, and it’s been months since that trip to Belgium, I haven’t changed my mind about this. I think he should see it. I think you should, too.
I was immediately caught up. The people. The medieval architecture. The winding lanes and old world charm. The waffles, fries, mussels, chocolate, and beer. (Contentious “Oxford comma” is again for you, Sean) I felt immediately connected. You know how that is?
When I was in the 8th grade, I took a trip to New York City. Me, three other classmates, and the middle-school drama teacher, Mrs. Cook, who always smelled of cigarette smoke and a particular perfume that I’ve never known the name of. But once a year or so, as I’m making my way through the Village, or rushing through Herald Square, it’ll hit me. A whiff of someone. One part cigarette-smoke-filled-clothes: one part mystery scent. And I am there again. Transported back in time. 14 and breathless with excitement. Standing in Times Square fresh out of Jacksonville, TX. Further from home than ever before. In awe of the lights and the crowds. The grit. The unashamed-humanness of it all.
I was home.
A part of me is still that breathless 8th grader. Thrilled seeing new places and people. Now, for all the obvious reasons, I think about my Nanny and Papa a lot on these trips. I find myself walking down a road, or stepping into a café for a snack, and wondering if they had been there before me. Mostly, I find myself wondering what kept calling them out. Out into the world. What is it that I’ve inherited from them that leaves me restless and itching for the next trip before I’ve even unpacked from the last one. I miss them. I wish I had asked more questions when I had the chance. I wish I’d known then how much we had in common. This constant pull. This never-ending wish to stand before the world, breathless.
I arrived in Beglium on the redeye from New York on a mild day in late summer, and after spending a couple hours wandering around Brussels, I boarded my train to Bruges. It was a short trip to the coast. And in what seemed like moments, I found myself dragging my suitcase along cobblestone streets through a medieval fairytale.
Now you’ll hear a lot about how tourist-crowded the place can be in peak season. But this influx of people adds its own energy to the place. They also get a ton of day-trippers from Brussels and London and other cities easily accessible by train. But don’t be put off. When night falls and the last train has left for the capital, there is a mystery that descends over this place. The mist laying low over the canals. The quiet streets peppered with the strolling couple or the carousing group of friends looking for fun. There is a haunted beauty to this place.
So, it was my Nanny’s simple scrawl on a list of notes, “Brugge”, that led me here for the picture in the Markt. And a Google search for “ivy-covered-building-Europe” that led me to the second location: the courtyard of the Gruuthuse Museum in the long shadow of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk. Other than that, I actually know very little of what they did here back in the summer of 1980. But I do hope they loved it as I did. I know they were some of those day-trippers off their cruise ship for a quick bite of Flemish charm. But whatever their time here involved, I’m glad they stopped by. It was their wanderings that brought me here. Their wanderlust. But it was the people and the beauty and the general warmth of this place that will bring me back.
Oh, and did I mention the beer, waffles, mussels, chocolate and fries?
Seriously. All gone.
Here are three of the highlights of my trip I wanted to share. Hope you enjoy.
or…Journey to Puerto Rico, (post coming soon)
or…Journey to York,
‘t Brugs Beertje
Down a narrow cobblestone lane, just a few minutes walk from the Markt, there is an unassuming sign swinging gently over a simple door. Beyond this portal is a history of Bruges. A story of a community, a people’s love of beer. Feeling more like you’ve stepped into someone’s home than a bar, the conversation in ‘t Brugs Beertje flows easily as stranger meets stranger, local meets tourist. All of this unfolds in an environment made all the more inviting by Daisy, the bar’s owner, in her never-ending conversation about beer from behind the tile covered counter. The etching on the glass door boasting (in four different languages) “300 kinds of traditional Belgian beers” proves true. Now to be clear, I only had a few, not 300. But loved the few Daisy suggested. And loved this place!
Bruges is a city truly held in time. It was used for different purposes by different cultures throughout its nearly millennium long history. Fortifications built for fending off pirates in one century. More for fending off Vikings in another. It even served as Charles II of England’s court in exile. But the canal to the sea silted up and the city was largely abandoned. There it sat for 400 years until “re-discovered” by tourists headed to Waterloo. Over the next couple of decades, by miracle or grace, it was spared the bombings of both world wars. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, it has kept all of its medieval charm. As though held in time. And there is no better way to feel the town and see it’s beauty than from the waterways. No longer used for private use, the canals are only available for guided tours. I took one. I truly expected a silly tourist experience; of course I did it anyway being that I am primarily made up of silly tourist. But my Scottish tour guide made the journey through the ancient canals so enjoyable. Some of the tunnels so low, we had to all but lay down to get through. A sleeping dog hanging out a window, a group of French tourists onboard, and a beautiful sunset ride all came together to make for an unforgettable experience.
The Markt market
On my last morning in Bruges, I rose just after sunrise, which is really not like me, got my bag together and headed out in search of some windmills. I had read about them and thought that would be something I’d like to see. Well, I was quite surprised when I entered the Markt on my way through the city center to discover a bustling and energetic farmers market just getting set up. I learned from a local that every Wednesday the medieval town center is overrun with every farmer and merchant within a day’s ride. Fruits, vegetables, meats of all kinds, flowers, baked goods and of course, the waffle stands. It was a treat for the eyes and the stomach. I did find the windmills. And I guess it was worth the walk. But I couldn’t wait to get back to the Markt and spend my last hours in this remarkable town sampling my way across that square.
See captions of images below for more info on the trip.