Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Bruges

I'll admit it: I went to Belgium to see Bruges, and I went to Bruges because of the movie. I saw "In Bruges" when it came out in 2008 and, like everyone else, immediately put Bruges on my "to do" list. I never actually got there for a few years despite being in the neighborhood multiple times because...well, you have to go through Belgium to get there. I was led to believe the best part of Belgium is the beer, and I do enjoy that - from afar. Everything else was evidently copped from the Dutch or French, but more bland than either...or so I heard among the European backpacker set. Well, now I have been to Bruges and Belgium, and I am ready to pronounce judgement: yes, Bruges really is that fantastic, and its charms were not exaggerated by the movie. Yes, Belgium is ugly and bland...if by Belgium, you mean Brussels.

Dawn was gone to New York City for the weekend with four of her cousins, leaving me to my own devices for a three day weekend. After getting off work on Friday, I hopped on an Airbus 330 to Amsterdam - in first class, of course, it's the only way to fly! I woke up in Europe feeling reasonably fresh and boarded an Intercity train southward. I passed Den Haag and Rotterdam, changed trains in Antwerp, and again in the medieval Flemish city of Ghent. I was "In Bruges" by 2pm.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and all of the next morning walking around Bruges. I took a boat ride through the canals and climbed the belfry. I ate frites while people-watching in Grote Markt and a canal-side wafel at the Sunday morning flea market. Saturday night, I sampled some local brews in a warm, dim tavern with 400 Belgian beers on offer, met a couple of guys from near Edinburgh, and ended the night singing karaoke with the Scots in a Celtic bar with some Danish girls while some loudmouth South Carolinian drunkenly proclaimed that he was more Scottish than the lads wearing kilts (yes, really; "to get girls to talk to us"; seemed to work!). Ah, globalism.

There were quite a few other tourists, especially for late October, but they mostly mass around Grote Markt and the rest of the town largely retains its quiet charm. All the "te koop" signs in empty windows provided a clue why. Only 20,000 people actually live in the town center, a fraction of the medieval population. I inquired about one average-looking canal house for sale, and was told the asking price was €3,000,000. It had been vacant for three years.

Sunday afternoon, I took the one-hour train ride to Brussels. I wasn't horribly impressed. It's like someone took Amsterdam, Paris, and Frankfurt, put them together and shook hard, and threw in a little Stalinist architecture for good measure. The end result is that you have 16th century Flemish row houses next to elegant 19th century Parisian buildings next to ugly concrete apartment blocks next to gleaming modern skyscrapers next to a massive parking garage. The very center around the town square has a few well-preserved medieval blocks, but they are clogged with tourist restaurants and kitschy gift shops. There are some pretty spots, to be sure. There are a few tranquil squares worth lingering in. I took a tram east of the city, past the European Parliament, and found gorgeous landscaped parks with quiet lakes and swans and stately villas surrounded by rolling forestland. On my return I grabbed a cheap, scrumptious doner kebap from a ubiquitous falafal stand and parked myself in a great little bar that had good, cheap Belgian beers - and the Vikings-Packers game on TV, of all things!

Mostly, though, Brussels made me wonder if it is the source of Belgium's ho-hum reputation, and perhaps the rest of the country is quite worthy of exploration. Both Antwerp and Ghent looked inviting when I passed through. I'd quite like to visit the Ardennes. I stayed up playing cards with a group of students on my return to the hostel Sunday night, and they told me Li├Ęge is a fun town. That would have to wait for other weekends, though. Monday morning, I headed back across the Atlantic. It was a great little trip, but work awaited.