Thursday, 5 November 2015


Yesterday, the Eurostar rolled into Kings Cross at half past 9 in the evening. From our train, we dashed home for a quick change before heading out again to celebrate Halloween at a Dark Circus party. Today, I did not emerge from bed until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Bruges, you broke me.

Beautiful, so pretty, surreal and at times almost like we were walking through a film set. I think it's safe to say, we loved Bruges! Already a huge fan of Belgium and the Belgians, my love has grown ever stronger thanks to three days of amazing beers, scrumptious food, Autumnal perfection, aimless wandering and the friendliest of people.

We set off in the early hours of Thursday morning. I hadn't really considered that we would be leaving in such early hours that trains would not yet be running. Fortunately, thanks to the powers of Gett, we ordered a a black cab (I'd hardly expect to be able to flag one down along Seven Sisters road itself, let alone my road!) and were on our way in good time.

As always, check in at the Eurostar terminal was quick and easy (although I did almost lose my fur to the security machine) and we were soon sitting down to enjoy a breakfast of tea, croissant & Croque Monsieur (getting in the mood).

Having packed reading material in the hope of being productive on the train journey, it was actually almost entirely spent sleeping. I find it funny to think I never used to be able to sleep on any form of journey yet now I almost always find my head doing the embarrassing bobbing thing.

When we arrived in Brussels, memories of journeys to and from Pukkelpop came flooding. The connection to a train for Bruges was incredibly simple (why are everyone elses train systems so much better and easier to use than ours?). As is usually the case, we accidentally found ourselves in First Class which was orange and brown and brilliant! I love how other parts of Europe are sort of behind but still totally working the dated look.

Unlike with resort holidays, city breaks always provide an opportunity for feeling more grounded. As opposed to the horror coach journey where you twist and turn along precarious roads, a train journey that you have had to figure out by yourself gives you a better sense of place. You see how one place is connected to another, you experience the simple but marked differences between home and abroad and you encounter local people. I love train travel!

Only an hour to Bruges, we were soon standing outside the station and I was realising my Google Map reliance. One of those 'mum and dad would have thought of that' moments came as I became aware that I had forgotten to find directions from the station to the hotel. All I had to go on was that it was '600 metres from Bruges Railway Station'. But in which direction?

We did end up paying an extortionate amount for internet abroad just to figure out where we were going and then agreed that we would figure out all further directions on hotel Wifi ahead of needing them.

It really was the shortest walk to the hotel, through piles and piles of leaves. I must say that we absolutely chose the best time of year to visit Bruges - the Autumn trees were looking gorgeous!

Our hotel was a barge on the canal. When we'd seen it online, we loved the concept and it looked very sweet in pictures so we booked! Despite knowing that a canal was water, it was still slightly alarming to find life jackets at the end of the bed as opposed to towels twisted into elegant swans. I'm still not entirely sure whether they were for effect or genuine use. Needless to say, we didn't need them.

Only 11 o'clock by this point, we headed straight out to get our bearings and have a little explore! As seemed to be the theme of our few days, our wandering was guided by things that looked pretty or intriguing which actually seemed to be most of Bruges to be honest!

As well as being 600m away from the station, we were about 200m away from entering the city across a bridge that crossed the 'Lake of Love'. From the lake, we then found ourselves wandering through a nunnery complete with tree-houses because, as always seems to be the case, it turns out we were in Bruges for their Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennial. We naively wondered whether they were huts for the nuns to find peace within... never mind how they would have climbed into them.

Majorly distracted by the endless supply of pretty buildings and canals, we finally found time for lunch in the late afternoon. Although there were a whole host of restaurants around every square, they were all so similar it was hard to decide where would be best to go. So we deviated and ended up finding a sweet and cosy restaurant down an alley. Here we ordered grilled salmon and a king prawn skewer which we then watched being flame grilled on an open fire in the middle of the restaurant. Oh my gosh. Of course, we had a side of 'frites' to share and our first Belgian beer to wash it down. I went for a Haacht Mystic white beer with lime which went down very well indeed!

We could hardly believe that we'd been in Belgium for so long before our first beer had been consumed. So we resolved that we would avoid further distraction from prettiness and dive into the next bar that came our way (and appealed. We are fussy after all).

Thinking we'd found the one a short walk from the restaurant, I then saw a sign outside one a little further along advertising jazz & blues to accompany our drinking. Well of course that appealed a great deal, so in we ventured. Dark wood, stained glass, instruments mounted on the walls and a good taste in music, we found ourselves to be very at home. This time I had a Bourgogne des Flandres, a sweet dark beer which was very tasty indeed and turned out to be very popular in Bruges!

Another 'mum and dad would have thought of that' moment arose when we had both realised upon unpacking that we were without travel adaptor. I think I've been spoilt by good hostels with USB adaptors the last few times I've travelled so hadn't even thought of bringing one! Nevertheless, it was pretty crucial if I wanted to take photos, so we had to go on a mission to find one.

In any usual city, this 'mission' would have been no such thing. Nevertheless, in Bruges, while souvenir shops were aplenty, trying to find a basic tourist-esque corner shop that would offer travel necessities was tricky. Eventually, we were directed by an incredibly helpful and highly animated sales assistant in Carrefour towards a shop that can only be described as Argos come WH Smiths come HMV. Here we found what we needed and felt reassured that photos (and music and accessing Wifi to figure out directions) would indeed be a possibility for the remainder of our trip.

Still without much of a clue about where we were or wanted to go, we let our feet take us for some more aimless wandering. This time, the lure of canals got us rather monumentally lost as upon later inspection of the map we realised we had almost come to the edge of the city and may well have found ourselves at the sea.

Fortunately, we realised as we encountered far more 'local' looking bars and shops (and people) that we were definitely going the wrong way so turned around and headed back towards tourism. Once on the right track, we decided it was time to find another beer. On yet another square we found a modern bar with an extensive enough menu. By this time it was getting cold and having been a bit lost we were feeling rather sorry for ourselves so in we went. Always a fan of Hoegaarden, I spied a Rosee on the menu which was extremely pleasant and refreshing!

Bruges sure know how to maximise their customer satisfaction. Free WiFi almost everywhere we went made finding our way from one place to the next a lot easier. While in this bar, we returned to Trip Advisor to see where else we should frequent before we headed back to the hotel. Here we discovered a place called The Vintage. It was all in the name. We had to go!

One might have actually described The Vintage as a pub. Rammed full of memorabilia (including signage  from Pukkelpop; pang) and also home to the sweetest English Bulldog, we were feeling more at home than ever! Here, on the dark beer train but not wanting anything with too high a percentage by this point in the evening, I tried an Achel Bruin and we snacked on salami and cheese (some of which was obviously fed to the dog for a very impressive high five) for a light tea after such a late lunch before heading back to the hotel to bed.

After the most comfortable night's sleep, we awoke relatively bright and early to make the most of our only full day away. Admittedly, we'd managed to get a lot more out of our first day considering some of the morning was spent travelling, but we decided to be a little more directive about how we spent our time on the Friday.

On our way into the city this time we took a different route, through a pretty little park with benches that apparently looked like they could suddenly burst into life like they were in a Disney film. After such extensive wandering the day before, we definitely had a much better sense and awareness of direction which set us in good stead for making the most of the day.

The first plan we had was to climb to the top of the Belfry tower for a view over the city. So we joined a moving queue in order to ascend the 366 steps of pain. Fortunately, every 100 steps or so there was a point of interest in the form of a room where, once breath was caught, we discovered some Flemish history. We were particularly fortunate (not that everyone there agreed) to be in the room housing all of the bells when the clock struck 12 and they started playing It's a Long Way to Tipperary. If going up was a struggle, the real challenge came in the descent. Lots of side stepping and gripping on to pretty much anything for dear life, our legs were absolute jelly by the time we reached the bottom due both to muscle re-awakening and sheer nerves. The view was definitely worth it though (as a view always is)!

Climbing so many steps was thirsty work. Carrefour to the rescue again as we bought cold drinks with which we then sat in the square below the Belfry to participate in a spot of people watching and to rest. It was a milder day on the Friday and unlike the day before, there was no sign of mist but some hints of blue sky! It was as we sat that we realised we'd actually done the one thing we wanted to do that required planning. The rest of the day was therefore free for more wandering in alternative directions.

Having enjoyed our restaurant experience the previous day, we headed back to the area to see what else was about and landed outside a bar boasting 21 draft beers. Here I had a Steen Brugge Dubbel Bruin. I have to say it was my least favourite beer. For me it had an almost mushroomy after-taste which, as much as I love mushrooms, was a little disconcerting.  The owner of the bar was incredibly friendly and chatted with us for a while. He took great pride in his bar, particularly the set up of an enormous copper pipe which ran above the bar from which the taps hung. It was pretty special!

A late lunch time again, we had decided that we would go for something lighter today so that we could treat ourselves to a sit down evening meal. Having turned again to Trip Advisor for baguette recommendations, we had actually come across a bagel 'salon' boasting a whole range of fillings. Now I know a bagel is not exactly Belgian, but it seemed a novel place nonetheless, so we wandered in a new direction to find it.

It should have just been a quick fifteen minute walk to the shop, but yet again we were distracted by all sorts of alleys and squares, markets and shops. Unfortunately this meant that by the time we arrived at the salon, it was closed. Now so used to London opening hours, I think we take for granted that other places work in the same way when in fact hours are very different everywhere but London.

By this time, it was almost acceptable to call lunch dinner anyway, so we headed back to a pretty little square that we had just walked through to find something to eat. Always one to give local cuisine a go, I tried Flemish stew (not the rabbit variety, I drew the line there) which I washed down with a Belle-Vue Kriek which was literally like cherryade; so sweet!

After another full on day and full of tasty food (and beer), we were flagging. Before heading back to the hotel, we made a stop at another bar we had spotted just by The Vintage which had another impressive selection of beers on tap. Here I returned to Bourgogne des Flandres to be on the safe side. Drinks drunk, we couldn't help but head back into The Vintage which was much busier and full of life on a Friday night than it had been the previous evening. We had more salami and cheese (although the dog seemed to be on his best behaviour with so many people around, so no feeding for tricks this time) and I indulged in a couple of mugs of mint green tea which arrived on a silver platter complete with doily. Amazing!

Our final day in Bruges and having taken full advantage of breakfast for the last time, we packed up ready to head out one last time.

Saturday was our souvenir shopping day and we then planned to spend some time either in Ghent or Brussels before returning home in the evening. I don't want to write too much here for fear of giving away the gifts we returned with and who they were intended for, but needless to say Bruges is a great place for finding stocking fillers and slightly unusual gifts that might not be found elsewhere. I did treat myself to a couple of vintage postcards from an 'old curiosity shop' which literally consisted of endless boxes of postcards, vintage photographs, coins, beer mats, everything Tintin and slightly odd posters of very young royals. What I love most about them is that actually, much of Bruges is pretty much untouched, so besides for the antique car in view, it still looks almost the same as it did when the postcards were first made.

Saturday was much busier than Thursday and Friday had been so this time we really made a beeline for where we needed to go which meant we were done by lunchtime. After such an enormous breakfast, I wasn't quite ready for lunch, but we indulged again in salami and cheese (with olives too this time) and there's always room for beer so I had a small Hoegaarden. We sat outside in the sun, watched the world go by and found ourselves feeling grateful that we'd chosen to visit when we had. Not only for the beautiful Autumnal colours but also for the peace of a week day.

Although the train passed through Ghent, for practical reasons of baggage (particularly after our souvenir spree), we decided to explore Brussels for the afternoon. When we arrived back at the station, we found lockers to leave our luggage and we were off!

Before Bruges, Brussels was my only experience of a Belgian city and I was very much a fan! Interestingly though, after being in the much smaller, far less busy city of Bruges for a few days, Brussels was a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as in order to walk from the train station to the centre, you have to pass along roads lined with leering men that smell slightly suspicious (the roads, not the men).

Actually, once we were in the Grand Square, I remembered why I loved it so much. Last time I was there, most of the buildings had been covered in scaffolding for restoration but this time they were almost all exposed and we were certainly wowed! We had come into the square via old Mannequin Pis who was as underwhelming as ever, although he was wearing some sort of uniform including trousers yet was still managing to 'pis' so that was quite entertaining!

While Bruges had not presented very many places that could really be defined as a 'pub', I remembered finding one in particular in Brussels before where Happy Hour was basically Happy Day and while inside, you could be forgiven for forgetting you were abroad. However for some reason (I'm going to blame it on tiredness), my sense of direction was appalling by this point so we ended up in another bar-restaurant where I finally had a pot of mussels with fries washed down with another Mystic, this time of the peach variety.

Before we knew it, it was time to make our way back to the station for check in again to Eurostar.

Ever since our return, time has mainly been spent mourning all of the things that made those three days so glorious. Belgium is a truly special place and a visit to Bruges was a truly beautiful way to spend the end of half term.

Fortunately, in December, I return to Belgium to visit Christmas markets in Antwerp so it's not long until I get to return which excites me very much indeed. I definitely need to go back to Bruges one day though. So until next time!