13 Apr 2015

A Weekend in Bruges

Five years ago my husband and I first went to Belgium together on the Eurostar for a long weekend. Our first destination was the extremely quaint town of Bruges. A year later I won a trip to Ghent, and since then our trips to Belgium became something of a tradition, visiting Antwerp and Brussels too - our appreciation of Belgium's beer scene might have had something to do with it.... We didn't make it over there last summer for various reasons, but when I saw an offer for cheap train tickets in January I grabbed the chance to return. We decided to start over again, revisiting Bruges just before Easter.

Unlike on our first trip, on a beautiful hot sunny weekend in June 2010, the weather was disappointingly mixed. We were lucky to get fine weather upon our arrival and for the rest of the first day (thankfully I'd booked an early train so we had enough time to enjoy it), but Saturday was grey and later drizzly and on Sunday it pissed down with rain all day.

The walk from the station to our B&B took us along some canals - I'd forgotten just quite how cute the place is! The canals were swarming with tourists crammed in little boats.

After checking in at our beautiful B&B (Huis Willaeys) we had a disappointing lunch in a lovely spot alongside a canal round the corner, sitting in the sun with blankets over our legs. We had the first of many Belgian beers - mine a horribly strong but delicious one at 11 percent (the strength not displayed on the menu!). I took advantage of the fast-moving clouds in the sky by taking a few long exposure shots using the Tiffen 10-stop Apex filter as we waited for them to get my order right (third time lucky).

One of the highlights on the previous trip had been renting bikes and cycling along the canals past Damme and up to the coast; I was keen to do part of that journey again, so after lunch we headed into town to find the bike rental place on the far side of the Markt square. I hadn't been on a bike for a few years and felt a little nervous cycling along the cobbled roads towards the canal that led to Damme, but soon got back in the swing of it (and sobered up).

In no time we had crossed the nasty junction of roads and canals and were cycling under avenues of tall leafless trees along the canal. It was surprisingly quiet, with just a few serious cyclists passing us, going about 5 times the speed; presumably the energetic tourists would flock there the following day.

I wanted to recreate a photo I'd taken on a point-and-shoot camera on the previous trip, of the trees converging in the distance and reflected perfectly in the canal, taken from a bridge just past Damme. I found the same spot, but the water wasn't very reflective and without leaves the trees didn't look very exciting - I wasn't going to get a shot with the same oomph this time!

In the other direction was a pretty curved stretch of the canal. A few ducks and grebes paddled around.

We cycled back towards Damme and I pulled off to the side of the track when I reached a short mirror-like stretch of water, with the crooked trees reflected below. I'd been carrying my mini tripod, so put it to use at the edge of the canal with the wide-angle lens. The trees are taller than they look, so I tried to include a car speeding past to give a sense of scale.

When we reached Damme we stopped at a café at the side of the canal to enjoy a beer, served with a small bowl of cubed cheese. When the people next to us ordered a sugar pancake we had to do the same - it was delicious!

We'd only rented the bikes for 4 hours, so eventually had to head back, sensible given that I wouldn't have been able to cycle after more than one strong Belgian beer! I stopped a few times to capture the pretty windmill and a few more shots of the lines of trees disappearing into the distance.

We got back to the big junction and cycled back the same way along the canal into town past beautiful stepped-roof houses and bridges that were illuminated by the last throes of the afternoon sun.

We dropped off the bikes and headed for the De Garre bar, hidden down a tiny alleyway between Markt and Burg squares. We missed it on the first attempt, but found it on the map on my iPhone - the entrance to the alleyway is extremely narrow.

Feeling a little exhausted after our early start we didn't manage to try many different beers. After one beer at De Garre we wandered around trying to find a place to eat, but everywhere seemed to be booked. We eventually found an okay restaurant with one of two of the main dishes good and the other disappointing. We tried the white asparagus that was in season to start, washed down with a raspberry lambic beer. We headed back home as I was falling asleep at the table, but after a short rest I forced myself to get a second wind and we went back out for a couple more beers at De Kelk, one of the recommended beer bars, just down the road from the B&B.

We woke up in the morning to pale grey overcast skies and a light drizzle - the view of Bruges from our window wasn't quite as lovely. After a delicious breakfast (with the best home-made raspberry jam ever!) in the cavernous kitchen we headed out along the canals towards the Markt square. I stopped to photograph a couple of people taking selfies with selfie sticks - a practice I find utterly ridiculous! Even without the stick people look ludicrous taking selfies.

We joined the long queue to go up the Belfort tower, where I was hoping for some good views across the city's rooftops. The queue took over half an hour, as they limit it to 70 people inside at any one time, which is definitely a good thing. We finally paid our €8 and trudged up the narrow staircases, stopping from time to time for people coming down to squeeze by, thankful for the rest. There were a few rooms on the way up, so the ascent was broken up into more manageable chunks. At the top it was crowded and extremely windy, and I was very disappointed to see that since our previous visit they'd put up even more netting, so it was very difficult to get a decent shot with a proper lens without a blurred black line of wire in the way. I attempted to get a few shots, and managed one or two with the camera held high above my head and the lens pointed downwards to get a higher view. I guess the extra netting was there to prevent people throwing things off, but they could've made the gaps just a little larger and more photographer-friendly. I certainly wouldn't recommend any photographers paying the €8 to go up there; there must be better rooftops in the city with unencumbered views.

When we got down from the tower we walked out along the canal we'd cycled along the previous day, towards the "ring" canal that encircles the city. The sun came out for a brief moment, but otherwise it was grey. We walked along the banks of the main canal past a few windmills.

We meandered along the cobbled streets back into town and began a bit of a Belgian beer bar crawl. On our way we stopped for waffles at one of the places in town and sheltered in the De Garre alleyway to eat them as it had started to rain slightly.

We then headed to Cambrinus, a popular beer bar and restaurant with an impressive beer selection which had been fully booked the previous evening. We tried a couple of new beers, but had to leave after two as the table was reserved for diners. We were charged for an extra beer each, which fortunately we noticed, but felt a little suspicious that it might have been done on purpose; the service had been erratic and the man didn't seem too surprised at the mistake on the bill.

Next stop was De Garre again, which was very full, so we sat at a table shared with two women, one from England and one from New Zealand. They talked incessantly and loudly but made no attempt to engage with us and the Kiwi's voice was grating after about five seconds, so we headed out after one beer. Our next bar was T' Brugs Beertje where we enjoyed a couple more delicious and not too strong beers (I was careful to avoid ordering anything as strong as the first one I'd had). We chatted briefly to a local man and his daughter who sat at the bar - Eric and Kim; she had a little undershot llasa apso dog on her lap. We also chatted to a friendly American couple on the table next to us who were touring the low countries.

We headed off just before 7.30pm as we'd made a reservation at a restaurant we'd visited on our previous visit, Den Huzaar, located on the other side of the main square. As we left the edge of my coat knocked an empty bottle and it smashed onto the floor - the effect of the beers was perhaps mounting up. We sat in the window and watched the world go by and had an okay meal, but it was slightly dominated by a pushy English girl talking very loudly to her newish, colleague boyfriend on the next table (we weren't having much luck with our neighbours). We were also charged for bottled water that never came (they didn't have tap water) - I was still on the ball enough to notice.

Next we tried another of the bars recommended by the Rate Beers website - Le Trappiste - but the only place we found to sit was next to a table of very drunk English people including an English woman who was even louder than either of the others we'd been forced to listen to earlier. I couldn't bear to have to listen to someone else's loud conversation, so we moved on without getting a drink and went to nearby Comptoir des Arts, another lower-ground-floor cavernous bar - but this time with a friendly and efficient bar-maid, lovely ambiance and no loud people nearby! After a couple of drinks there we headed home, at which point I realised that I was missing my small handbag, in which I kept my purse and had also placed my zoom lens in earlier. My day-pack with the camera itself and other lenses came back safely with me, but the other certainly didn't. We racked our brains trying to think when we'd last seen me with it, and decided it must've been at T' Brugs Beertje.  In my embarrassment about smashing the bottle I must've tried to leave quickly and not checked my seat to make sure I had everything, which I usually do. I looked up the number online and called them up and was relieved to hear that the little blue bag was there safely behind the bar. We headed back there, got reunited with the bag (nothing missing!) and took the opportunity to have one last beer (hubby had two and slipped the barman a nice little tip in exchange for the safe-keeping of my bag). If I'd only realised that it was missing the following morning it might've messed up our return journey home as the bar only opened at 4pm and our train was at 6pm, from Brussels...

We woke up late after our rather eventful and beery late night to heavy rain outside. Annoyingly we had to pay for the B&B in cash - which we hadn't been told earlier - so after breakfast I had to go out in the pouring rain to the nearest ATM that was in Markt square, a good 8 minutes walk away, (and incur another cash withdrawal fee). My jeans were pretty soaked by the time I got back, and we then headed back out in the rain towards the station, deciding that we'd sit out the rain somewhere in Brussels rather than doing any more sightseeing. The rain continued to pour and pour.

As the train pulled into Ghent hundreds of people boarded, on their way to an anti-austerity rally in Brussels. We got up to leave when we pulled in to Brussels Midi station, but no-one else was moving, and then realised that the train went on to Brussels Central station, so we got back on, saving us a twenty-minute walk in the rain. Fortunately I recognised one of the galerie arcades near the station, and knew that the lovely Mort Subite brasserie was at the far end of it, so we headed there.

On the table next to us was a party of nine Welshmen on a stag weekend. We chatted to a few of them and tried to introduce them to the gueuze beer but not surprisingly it was not to everyone's taste, so they ended up with the raspberry flavoured one instead. Some tales were told and songs in welsh were sung.

They eventually moved on, and we stopped for one last beer at the Hilton Hotel bar near the Central station as we needed to use their loo, before getting the train back to Midi station for our Eurostar home.

It was a real shame about the rain - in good weather Bruges really is delightful, but traipsing around the cobbled streets in the rain is just no fun. Maybe we'll stick to summer next time for our return trip to Ghent, which is next on the list to revisit. It was probably my favourite of the four, and a lot cheaper than Bruges (whose prices were definitely a good deal higher than 5 years earlier). Or maybe we'll try a new city, like Leuven.

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