A common thread to our travels is that we try to let our limited budget open doors instead of close them. Left with a few free days between our time in Paris and our rendezvous with Anne-Claire’s former host family in Aix-en-Provence, we had originally hoped to go to Arles to visit the Roman ruins there and in the surrounding countryside. But we expected that to be difficult without a car, and the train ticket from Paris to Aix on the TGV was very expensive.
So, with some creative itinerary engineering and help choosing a location to visit from a good friend, we decided to head to Bruges in Belgium. With a cheap last-minute TGV fare from Paris and a bargain flight from Brussels to Marseille a few days later, we figure we saved about €20.
Getting to Bruges was fairly straightforward. The trickiest part was the half-kilometer walk we had to make between stations in Lille, France. Once in Bruges, a (what-should-have-been) short bus trip to our hostel turned out to be longer than expected. Traffic, even early in the afternoon, was heavy around the moat-encapsulated town, with cyclists whizzing by on their dedicated bike boulevard running parallel and traffic-free to the outer belt.
Our hostel was clean and basic, with lots of college-aged backpackers, its own bar and included breakfast for €26 a night per person for a private double room. Had we to do it over again, we would have done a bit more research and booked one of the town’s many bed-and-breakfasts – probably a bit quieter accommodation for just a few euros more per night.
Still, we didn’t spend much time inside. For a smaller town, Bruges is packed with sights, but Anne-Claire and I spent most of our time just enjoying this stunningly preserved medieval walled town. As Anne-Claire said, it’s so cute, it makes your teeth hurt. Not that it’s saccharin sweet – it’s all real sugar. But if you visit Bruges, prepare yourself for Disneyland-esque charm.
The main town square is anchored by a huge bell tower with concerts every 15 minutes that seem to last about 20 minutes each. Middling restaurants edge the periphery, with better fare, service and prices in the streets and satellite plazas spiraling outward toward the wall.
A few canals slice through the cobbled streets, once useful when Bruges was a hub for trading cloth, but now plied by crotchety guides with packed boats of tourists. While the bilingual spiel (English and French) wasn’t scintillating, the tour was fun and it got us first-rate access to some of the town’s most elegant and relaxed visitors.
The De Halve Maan brewery turned out to be an interesting and reasonable tour, especially when you figure in the beer included at the end. I watched a friendly Dutch-speaking guide take a group in just before ours and was a bit disappointed to see a mousey guy dressed like a mechanic quietly lead us into the first room of the brewery. But hopefully you can tell from the following video that the smell of wort and hops energized him a bit:
After a delicious lunch of Belgian sausages and the obligatory basket of fries, during which we saw a purse snatcher get run down by three bicycle cops right past the terrace where we were sitting, we rented
bicycles for the afternoon. Bruges is a perfect town to get lost in the winding streets. If you can’t figure out where you are, ride until you can see either the bell tower or the spire from the Church of the Holy Blood. A quick aside – I haven’t had time to do the research yet, but this church was clearly built at two different times at least. The older appears more Gothic and the newer looks almost Moorish with what looks like a minaret. If I get a second to poke around about this difference, I’ll try to post something later.
As I mentioned earlier this week, cyclists are given almost limitless right-of-way here, and bikes get access to some of the streets that are too narrow to accommodate vehicles. The town is dotted with hidden parks, and you can get a good idea of the layout in about half a day.
It’s definitely a good thing we’re hitting the Camino de Santiago soon, because I don’t think my waistline could take more days in Belgium. In addition to french fry stands, vendors selling deliciously dense waffles (made from bread-like dough rather than batter) beckon constantly. And I failed miserably in my attempt to try all of the 500-plus types of beer. I came to Belgium thinking I didn’t really like Belgian beers, but I left the country with a new appreciation for the complex-yet-refreshingly light brews that pack a punch when it comes to alcohol content.
We had a few hours to spend in Brussels before heading to the Charleroi airport for the night before our flight to Marseille the next morning. Much larger than Bruges, Brussels doesn’t have the same charm, though the King’s House and city hall in the Grand Place are superb in their gothic splendor. We took in the Manneken Pis, the statue of a small boy with a man’s body peeing that was first a source of clean water and later became a symbol of Brussels itself. And on the Grand Place, just next door to city hall is the Swan House, which used to house a bar where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on the Communist Manifesto in the 1840s. Our guidebook pointed out the irony that it now houses a fancy bourgeoise restaurant.
With a bit more time, we would have taken in the modern parts of this “capital of Europe” that so many foreigners call home. But we had to get out to the airport on a shuttle bus before it got too late. Ryan air flies out of the secondary Charleroi airport an hour outside of town, which makes Newark and SFO look like downtown airports. It wasn’t difficult, but just took a little time.
It’s hard to argue against the charm of this country, especially when you take into account the hearty food and tasty beer, and we were happy to have taken this 3-day detour.