20 June 2009

In Bruges

left france with my belongings and lugged them into belgium, bruges to be exact.

got up at 6a (couldnt sleep well anyway) to lug our bags to the rennes train station for the 7:05a train to paris. i have two large, heavy bags, one carry-on size bag and a backpack (dave brought a backpack for his stuff for the trip as well). anyway, poundage and poundage of bags ripping out our muscles. after making it to paris, we had to walk the underground mile to the métro to take us to gare du nord.

we took a train direct from paris to brussels on the Thalys train. very nice, comfortable train and we could follow the speed on the computer (300 kph at one point). stopping in brussels, we changed to a local belgian train to get us to bruges. here is where i felt the first "its better in france" moment. waiting on the platform for the bruges train...and it was late...NOT okay. french trains run on time, and if they are going to be late they make an announcement and then apologize for the inconvenience. nothing like this happened. the train ended up being about 5 minutes late and we boarded the crowded train for the one hour trip to bruges.

we arrived in bruges (apparently called the "venice of the north") and dumped our most cumbersome bag at the left luggage area of the train station. then we consulted the map and headed off to the hotel. directly across the street from the train station, we walked over one of the canals, along tree lined streets, and remarked that the brick buildings here were quite a shock from all the stone and wood buildings weve been seeing in france.

we passed another canal with swimming swans and a street buzzing with the sounds of people and horse hooves clacking on the cobblestone as carriages full of tourists were pulled along. then we arrived at our hotel. great place (good job dave). the hotel academie is perfectly located, as we later found out, in the heart of bruges but not in the super busy, touristy area.

so, got settled in our posh room with great views of city rooftops and planned our exploring for the day. we headed down our street toward a canal and started taking a look around. the lighter-colored brick was lovely and the black painted window frames with contrasting white edging had such a classic, clean appearance. as i reached for the camera to capture some first impressions, a nearby man (carrying a digital SLR with a fancy professional zoom lens) commented on our old school Nokia CoolPix camera.

he knew it by sight and told us its the best camera for taking pictures of nature (the moon, birds, etc) in the distance (i dont know what his native language was, but we were having a pseudo-discussion in french and he clearly didnt know english, so we couldnt quite tell exactly what he was saying). dave was excited that someone knew and complimented his huge old camera, rather than look at us strangely, as they normally do.

after this encounter, we walked over a little bridge into the quiet convent square (the beguinage) to look around. the sun was out (a fairly uncommon experience in bruges apparently) and the tall slanted plane trees in the center of this square of homes dappled the grass with shade while the breeze made the leaves quake and whisper waves of peace and silent meditation. such a great place to be and introduce ourselves to bruges. gorgeous weather, impeccably tended homes, quaint architecture, silence in nature, and almost no people. fabulous.

(dave in the convent square)

anyway, after spending some time in the convent area, we started on the "scenic walking tour" path for bruges that our hotel had given us. we walked through an archway and passed the neighborhood brewery, some shops and restaurants, crossed a canal, and arrived at the church of our lady. the steeple was under renovation but we went inside. a little confusing because i had no reference point or history to know why or when the church was built (jj where are you?). it definitely didnt have awesome stained glass or the deep, dense feeling of stone, but it was an interesting church.

after the church, the walk became more crowded and we saw more, and more, and more people with seriously expensive, professional-looking cameras (SLRs, zoom lens, wide-angle lens, etc) walking around snapping pictures of everything in town. dave was getting a bit of camera-envy when we finally saw a few people in shirts saying "fotomarathon brugge" and felt a little better that they were here competing with those things.

(a canal with cute buildings)

anyway, it was crowded and we were getting closer to the absolute center of the town walking along the canals, stone bridges, and the medieval buildings. very nice and very hard to appreciate with thousands of people. thankfully, at this time we found a candy/cookie shop to duck into. its called la cure gourmande. they make hard candies, chocolates candies, and a wide array of hard cookies and biscuits. they had people giving samples and we selected a few sweets to purchase.

(me on a bridge with the map; dave in the candy store)

at the cash register, they wanted to know what language you spoke so they could best help the customer. from what we gathered, these people spoke flemish (bruges is in the flanders region of belgian [flemish is similar to dutch]), french (the other national language of belgium), english, some spanish, and probably german (there were many local restaurants offering their menus in these languages, i think occasionally italian too). it was mind boggling that these people worked at a candy store and could communicate in 4-5 languages! get out of here!

so, stumbling out of the store, feeling inadequate...we peered into a few shops selling handmade lace, another speciality of belgium. beautiful stuff, too bad i would have no idea what to do with it if i bought any. and finally, we arrived in the grand place (grot markt in flemish).

(lace store near grot markt)

the square is surrounded on all sides by historic buildings and the focal point is the belfry. the square was set up for a concert in the center and around the edges, a city triathlon was being organized. add to this the tourists and it was madness! we did manage to purchase a small packet of fries with ketchup, another belgian speciality. there are fritteries (fried places) everywhere. i found a few fries that werent drenched in ketchup and together we finished the snack.

(dave and ketchup fries)

we then headed north to wander some paths less traveled and it was great that we did. we still saw beautiful buildings, canals, bridges, but we had them all to ourselves. we were in the areas where the real citizens of bruges live and relax. their homes were so cheery and adorable and the gardens, gates, and green space around them would be permanent delight.

(me enjoying the uncrowded streets)

we finally hit the outer canal on the eastern side of bruges and noted the little neighborhood pub facing the green lawn running up to the windmill nearby. very nice. we headed south to pass another windmill and turned western to go back into town. we passed a couple of churches and went in to st annes.

these churches are very different than france. they have much more wood, marble, lots of black paint, and the gold that combines with these style elements makes the place look strange. also the organs are quite small and are in the center of the church. interesting.

so, after st. annes, we walked south to astridpark. very nice park with all the important park elements, and again not very touristy. bonus. plus, it looked like an especially ritzy area to own a home. we saw one gorgeous, elaborate home on the park edge that was just this side of gawdy. loved it.

at the south end of the park was another church, this one was VERY different. saint magdalene’s church has been repossessed for art purposes. so, inside, the typical religious architecture makes a home for a water installation, a spiral staircase to nowhere, several tall canvases with abstract designs, and in the area of the altar hangs a large metal frame suspending a shiny rectangle. there were also some exhibits in a side alcove. very cool, very intriguing way to bring contemplation and intrigue to every person who enters your sacred place.

after this delightful afternoon, we headed back to the hotel to formulate a secondary plan of attack. we were hungry and wanted to avoid tourists...so, what to do? we first went to the nearby "de halve maan" brewery, bruges' only local brewery. after squishing past a hundred people, we managed to grab a table so dave could drink his double zot beer. he said it was pretty tasty, but admitted that he is coming off of living on french beer, so...his standards might be lower than normal.

after beer, i was starving, snacktime, because it wasnt yet 7p, when places start to serve dinner. we ordered another packet of fries, with mustard this time. yum! then we circled back to the hotel again to wait for 7p to arrive. then we headed out away from tourist central to find something to eat.

we chose bistro cozy based on location, menu options, and price (it was kinda pricey, but everything is bruges is SO expensive!). it was actually primarily a fondue place but i'd had enough fat for one day so i ordered the asparagus prepared "the flemish way" and dave ordered the petit soles.

i ordered water but received a 2 euro bottle of eau-la la (oh la la!). the butter was crappy (by my french tastebud standards) and the bread was poop. then they gave us an appetizer in a shot glass with tiny shrimp, mayonnaise, and sprouts. it was quite good. then the main courses came. daves was great and mine was interesting. white asparagus with eggs (im guessing the egg preparation was the "flemish way"). the staff was nice but kept coming over asking, "is it good, please?" what a weird question. must be something lost in translation.

(my asparagus dish. looks like chopped off corpse fingers with vomit)

anyway, dinner was good but we stuffed ourselves. way, way, way too full. tomorrow i want to avoid fatty stuff and minimize my food intake. oof!

*title is simple but references the movie title of the same name. dark comedy and a good cinematography effort to capture the sights and scenes in bruges.

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