Monday, August 27, 2007

Day 4: Walking the Streets of Brugge, Belgium

Brugge Canal & Bridge


  1. Walking tour of Brugge including, but not limited to:
    1. Belfry
    2. Town Hall
    3. Waffles
    4. Blind Donkey Alley
    5. Fisher's Market
    6. Mussels
    7. Find a particular bridge with fantastic view that I know is in a general vicinity, but not exactly sure how I’ll find it
    8. Old hospital with a 15th century de . . .
    9. View the only Michelangelo statue known to have left Italy during his lifetime in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk
    10. Chocolate
    11. Enter the Begijnhof where the Benedictine nuns dwell
    12. Wander their gardens around the Minnewater or “Love Lake”
    13. Beer

Let me just begin by saying if there were one city in this whole trip that I wished we could have stayed a week in, it would have been this one. Any recollections from this day were each a treasure a will carry with me for the rest of my days.

We awoke for a wonderful breakfast in the front room of the Brugge mansion. The weather was ideal and we were all anxious to get on our feet and head towards the main attractions. I had found several suggestions via websites and tour books which outlined ideal walking tours of Brugge and I used these to make up my own. My "tour" started at the town square which I’d calculated to be a 5 minute walk from our hotel, but even though the walk did not consist of the “real” sites there were just too many things to see along the way turning 5 minutes into about an hour. We found ourselves posing in front of old churches and pointing out odd features of buildings. It seemed treasures were lurking around every corner or through every store window in this beautiful gothic city. One thing in particular peeked out at me and caught my attention through the open door of a little botique shop. Both Jungle Dad and I spotted it at the same time and answered its call by stepping into the store and trying it on. It was a beautiful little straw hat which had my name written all over it. When the shopkeeper came out of the back room she immediately reminded me of the prim and curt Dutch Dames; she simply stated its price as if I were waiting to ring up at the cash register. Her abruptness and the price tag of 40 euros was a bit too much for me to take in one bite, so I stated in my own matter-of-fact manner, "Forty euros? Oh, that is too much." Whereupon she began a long rant towards an invisible guest over the dismay that Europe could bring American workers over and not pay them enough to even buy a forty euro hat and ended the conversation by looking at me and stating, "Well, then you'll just have to go to the market if you want to buy a hat." Properly rebuffed, we left on our way for further adventure but my mind would scarcely leave the shop where my hat lay dejected and lost.

With every twist in the road my first site was closer in view and hung majestically over the array of buildings and with each of those turns in the road I had to take another snapshot. The one you see here is my very favorite shot of the historic Brugge Belfry.Brugge Belfry It just so happens to be one of the only bell towers in the world and was built around 1240. It actually used to have a wooden spire which crowned its top, but fire and lightening had burnt it to ashes twice. I am not sure if this was the same fire which burnt the city archives as well; being a genealogist this part grieves me more than the missing spire. We climbed the 366 stairs to the top of the tower while the grandparents watched the kids and found seating at one of the café-style restaurants surrounding the square for lunch. The walk up those narrow, steep, and ancient stairs was grueling but the view was amazing! Jungle Dad loved the bells and all their mechanisms and each time we heard them ring thereafter we were swaying with them at the top of the tower again.

At the café below the waiter assured us that we must try their lobster as that was their specialty and to assure us it was fresh he brought the little bugger out to meet us on a tray. The girls squirmed to think of the poor thing being killed just so his mother could eat him, but I held no similar convictions and we ate like proper Belgians: A liter of beer, a big pot of mussels, and freshly cooked lobster! It was a meal which could only compare with the French pastry breakfast we ate in Reims a week or so later.

It so happened that the rest of the family could not resist a visit to the top of the tower after hearing our raving reviews and we somehow convinced the grandparents that the two oldest girls could make the 366 steps along with them. I somehow forgot to mention the fact that by the time we had exited the bottom of the tower I loudly groaned upon realization I had yet to traverse the last flight of stairs (probably a whole 15) down into the market square. While they did this we went on a hunt for a cap for Jungle Dad's head. The first souvenir place we stopped found us a very attractive hat, but it was only four euros and I figured if we could find a cap for four euros mabye we could find the kind with the extra neck protection for ten, so off we went. We walked to the end of our time limit and found a sports store with a variety of those I'd been thinking of, so many that it took us out of our time limit to try them all on, only to realize he didn't like the look of any of them. Now we needed to book it back to our meeting place and I told him to run ahead so they knew we hadn't forgotten about them while I speed walked through a shortcut. I love shortcuts! I got there long before he did and we found ourselves all waiting for him to find us. Among the confusion of trying to figure out where one or another was we all ended up eating ice cream and presenting each other with our favorite hats! He was so sweet to have gone back to the store and purchased that forty euro hat that we both loved and I felt even better about it after he let me know the same ranting woman had not been in the shop at the time of the purchase. Phew!

So off we wandered with ice cream in hand, hats on our heads, and smiles on our faces through the meandering and wondrous streets of Brugge. The town was once a bustling port city and is now home to many gothic buildings and architecture. It is also lined with so many canals and where there are canals there are bridges. Like all the other streets in this part of the world they were made of cobblestones and as the lines of horse-drawn carriages passed by with their tourists the streets and squares were filled with the delightful sounds of hooves on stones. Along the main streets were people performing one art or another for a few coins in a hat and we obliged one who was passing out kisses on the hands of young maidens and picking flowers from the cobblestone street for those with an imagination enough to see. The girls didn’t know what to think of him but it was worth the few coins just to see them give him their furtive shy glances as they walked away.

Site upon site met our eyes and soon we were wandering with heads spinning. My map was in hand but suddenly everyone in our group had a different direction in mind. The afternoon sun had sapped us of all mental energy making it evident to each that we must find something to drink and snack on. The problem was that if one person would move it was towards the shaded lane headed down a dead end or back towards the hotel or to a spot of shade under a tree. It was one of those group moments where everyone seems to want the same thing but they King Maskeach go about it their own way. I thought they understood that if we kept walking in the direction my map suggested we'd not only find shade along the treed marketplace, but we’d also likely find eats and drinks once we neared the next major tourist region close to the historic cathedral and ancient hospital. Unfortunately they only seemed to hear "trees" and "flea market" and gave up like a pack of lost mules on the side of the path ready to trot back towards home. I understand that the prospect of traveling another block or two was a very daunting task at the time because we’d been clocking about a block an hour due to all the amazing little things to look at and take photos of. But I knew if we kept our goal in mind and just moved trying to ignore all the beauty and ingenuity surrounding us I was sure we could make it, rather than walking the 20 blocks back to our hotel that didn't have a restaurant. I don't know how we did it, but the pack began to finally move down the trail again. Yes, we did get a little distracted in the flea market and the cathedral doors were open and calling to us and we did get a little disheartened when the water holes along the way would not let us drink at their tables without ordering an entire meal, but we eventually found ourselves following arrows pointing down a back alley toward "food and WC". It was down that alley that we found many empty tables at a restaurant which would let us order a waffle and waters. The restaurant sat in the courtyards of the Old Saint John's Hospital which had been run by nuns until 2001 (give or take a year; I can't quite remember quite which year they left it). Here there had been built a more modern building (dated 1855) where they'd turned the vacated open wards into restaurants and such. We sat just outside a beautiful courtyard with a single young tree in the middle of the lawn. In this courtyard the girls found a few plastic yard toys which they entertained themselves on while we rested. Here it seemed that the ancient Brugge met modern Brugge, although it was not so easily visible. They still make the houses with their tall peeked roofs and similar facades, but my eye was drawn to a strange absense of something. Much like the "doors to nowhere" in the Manchester Mansion in California I noticed a void in the middle of the skyline, a void which was half camouflaged by overgrown weeds. You must know that feeling when something is out of place and your mind keeps pulling your eyes back to try and place the puzzle pieces together. After my mind had tugged enough I finally decided to pay it some IMG_2501attention and discovered the large hole was the remains of a covered bridge which must have crossed over the canal at quite a high point. The people of Brugge must not have been able to decide what to do with the bridge after it had collapsed because it remained half looming over the canal crumbling away with weeds growing out of its brick laid street. It made my mind return to Minnesota for a while . . .

After our little rest we were ready to make our way to the gardens, but our attentions were distracted as always by a chocolate shop or laces or a pretty canal view and we arrived at the entrance to the Begijnhof just as the nuns quietly closed the doors. No matter, there were still plenty of roads to travel and buildings to admire, so we spent the rest of our evening meandering our way through the streets back towards the town square where we were determined to find some Belgian waffles for “dinner”. The attempt was successful and the rest of the road home was on a full belly and with happy spirits. Enough so that I was able to convince the group to head down a few of the roads less traveled on our way back to the hotel and I am so glad I did. If we had not have traveled just a few blocks out of the way I would never have gotten the beautiful photo which rests at the top of this entry. I cannot say for sure which is my all time favorite photograph of the trip, but this one would be up there in the top 5. It was taken while my husband and his mother purchased an evening snack to go with some of our wine after the kids had fallen asleep in the hotel room.

W.C. Report:

The toilet situation in Belgium seems to be the same as in the Netherlands, but once regular business hours had passed no public toilets were open either. The girls and grandma made a bee line run towards the WC sign only to slam into a locked door. This resulted in a scramble for the nearest toilet which was nowhere in sight. For some reason the search for a toilet always brought up the larger discussion as to which direction our meanderings should take, be it towards the hotel, dinner, north, west, east, or south? In the end I rushed the girls into some bushes while the men conversed in front of a map. I must say that having mapped out all of the sites throughout the city on Google ahead of time had prepared me enough not to let them convince us to walk through the residential part of town and rather through the remaining gardens, over a well known bridge, past a couple Roman columns, and back to the square for dinner. Still, there were no available toilets along the way and at some point while walking the trail through the gardens Spider Monkey let out a cry of concern, "Help! We lost grandma!" It seemed the eye of every person taking in the evening scene of the peaceful gardens was drawn towards our direction. Poor grandma! That’s all she needed was a search party organized to help track her down hidden behind a potty bush. I still wonder what the rest of the tourists thought as we shushed the child and rushed out of the garden without looking back for grandma.

Tragedy Report:

None really unless you count the fact that Jungle Dad and I spent the last hour before sleep in intense discussion over how to navigate a tired and thirsty family through a walking tour. In the end we determined it had all ended well, but that next time more communication might be better. Did the discussion as to how to lead a pack of people through crowded streets help later? I’m not so sure, but at least I never saw them huddled together within a tiny spot of shade ever again.

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