On Monday we went to Brugge. We caught a taxi to the train station at Gare le Nord and caught the Thalys train to Brussels and a connecting local train to Brugge. The countryside in the north of France is very different from that in the south around Provence. Here the fields were much larger and rolled across the gently undulating land. The houses were made of dark local stone with steeper roofs. Here and there we passed a small war cemetery laid out in neat rows and surrounded by trees.
It is clear that train travel in Europe is the ideal way to travel. We have enjoyed every trip that we have had by train. It is a relaxing way to travel. The seats are comfortable, there is a good amount of leg room and (on this trip) a lady came around with an aircraft type of trolley with breakfast and coffee. We changed trains in Brussels, arriving at Brugge on a local train at about 1.00 pm and soon found our hotel which faces onto a large square which was the site of an old railway station.
We immediately had a good feeling about this city. Our hotel (Portinari) is the nicest hotel that we have had on our entire trip – large room, a douna on the bed and best of all, an 8 inch shower rose over the bath. Such luxury! We bought lunch of local brown bread and pate which we washed down with a local beer at a nearby cafe .
Brugge is a unique city. It was once the center of the Flemish lace industry. It is surrounded by canals and has a series of them throughout the city. Because it was lucky enough to be untouched in either of the two world wars it still has all of its original buildings, many of which date back to the early1700’s. Somehow it just seems to have a continuous series of cute and beautiful streetscapes of little brick houses with stepped Flemish gables. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage sits.
We filled in the afternoon with a walk to the market square and a boat ride around tre canals. Bruges is certainly not a city in a hurry. It is easy to walk around without being jostled by crowds and while it has a lot of shops that cater for the tourists, there are many more that provide for the living needs of the lcoal people. We found people going shopping, or to work, by bicycle and each time they passed they would greet each other with an ‘hello’ or brief remark. I really liked the feel of this place.
On our second day in Bruges we set out on one of the self guided walks outlined in the map that we had picked up at the tourist center. Our route took us across canals, along shopping streets, down rows of cute houses and along the perimeter canal near some windmills. We came across a number of churches that were open. I think that Belgium is largely a Catholic country – the churches seemed to reflect the Catholic tradition (to various degrees ).
We finished the walk in the market square and I climbed the 366 narrow winding steps up to the top of the belfry. it was important for medieval towns such as this (similarly Ieper and Arras that we visited later) to have a belfry as a sign of their independence as a city and for prestige. In Flanders, the belfries look like churches but are attached to the Cloth Hall (the center of industry).
The town hall in Bruges is very grand. It is gothic in style with an ornate facade and a display of the coats of arms – either of the city or key families. The old Cloth Hall takes up one side of the square while the other three sides consist of restaurants in what were once houses (you had more status living on, or close to the square ) and other key buildings such as the post office and bank.
Meals weren’t quite as easy to manage here. We knew some French and could get by in Paris, but here the language is Flemish (Dutch) and so we were confronted with a lot of long words that we didn’t understand on the restaurant menus. Fortunately most people spoke excellent English anp were happy to help us out with a translation.
After lunch we walked down to the southern end cf the town to a little park and sat for a while to watch the white swans and the passing parade of people. Since we are close to the end of our trip we can afford to fill up our bags with more souvenirs so we spent a little time shopping before having a nice dinner in a restaurant just around the corner from our hotel.