- By Colm Hanratty
“It’s like something out of a fairytale, isn’t it?” These were the words of James, a burly chocolatier from Melbourne who had decided to lay his hat in Bruges, rather than London, Edinburgh or Dublin, where most other travelling Antipodeans tend to lay theirs. He was working in a local sweet shop and was offering his opinion of Belgium’s most visited city to Stacey and Lucy, two fellow Melbournians who had also left their shores for greener pastures in Europe.
I met both girls two days previous in a bar in Brussels. We subsequently hung out for a couple of nights, bar hopping, sipping on ‘half and halves’ (a delightful mixture of white wine and champagne) and eating large helpings of ‘moules et frites’ (mussels and fries), Belgium’s national dish. It was over some mussels that we decided to travel to Bruges together as I was heading there with work and they were going since it was so close to the Belgian capital.
Meeting two people never proved to be so difficult. As Stacey’s mobile phone could receive text messages but was unable to send them, I could do nothing else other than bombard her with texts, saying if they weren’t at the monument at 12pm I’d meet them at 12.30pm, and so on and so forth. After numerous texts and obviously no replies, I unintentionally realised what being a stalker felt like. I also found out the girls weren’t morning people as they didn’t show up until 2pm. They did show up though. Turned out I wasn’t the most threatening stalker in the world.
As I waited I decided to take stroll around central Bruges. After a short amount of time, I began to see what all the fuss is about. It is remarkably clean, there is a constant sound of horses trotting around its cobbled streets, and the medieval buildings that border its two main squares, Markt and Burg, are extremely pleasing on the eye.
Once I finally met the girls, we decided to do was grab some lunch. Many years ago Belgium spawned a wonderful chain of bakeries known as ‘Le Pain Quotidien’, or ‘Het Dagelijks Brood’ in Flemish. They are famous for their communal table concept and, like all others, the Bruges branch has a large oval table in the centre of the room. Shortly after, we began to explore.
Thanks to the Belfry, an 83-metres high tower in the centre of the city, it is almost impossible to get lost in Bruges. It is quite a small city so you can see the 800-year old building from almost anywhere in the city. Wandering around the streets, gazing amiably at endless variations of chocolates, lace and beer, we agreed it was time to actually do something, and as Bruges has earned the title of the ‘Venice of the North’, a canal tour of the city won our vote.
It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant way to absorb the beauty of Bruges than on a 30-minute canal trip. There are various operators around the city, and the average cost of a ticket is €6. Streams of tourists pour on to the boats every day, most spending more time reviewing the picture they just took on their digital cameras than the picture in front of them.
I was surprised how much I managed to see within the 30 minutes. By the time the boat trip had ended, each and every one of the thirty people crammed on to the boat had seen the Belfry, the famous Church of our Lady where Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ is housed, Bruges’ well-known Groeninge Museum and more.
As we disembarked, we decided our next port of call would be ‘De Garre’, a bar famous for its 11% house beer. Eventually finding it down a narrow alley in between Markt and Burg, the first thing to strike me was that the walls of this alley were particularly close together. They could easily assist one on their way out if one developed a particular liking to ‘Triple Garre’, the name of the house beer.
“Three house beers, please”, I ordered soon after we sat down. The first thing to strike me after I took a sip was that it reminded me of a pint I drank on my 18th birthday. This particular pint was a concoction of lager and vodka as my friend spiked my drink, as friends do, with a shot of the stuff while I went to the bathroom. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a taste I was happy to be reminded of and it immediately triggered an expression similar to one caused by something very sour. Still, they pepped the three of us so credit where credit is due.
We didn’t stay for another one. Drinking a truck load of 11% beers didn’t seem like the most intelligent thing to do at 6pm in the evening. Drinking a moderate amount of traditional 4.5% beers did, however, so we left De Garre and plonked ourselves on high stools in ‘t Zwart Huis, one of the city’s chicest bars. Over the next couple of hours we talked travels, relationships and Aussie Rules football over a few more beers before they left for the last train to Brussels.
I didn’t join them on that train. I went back to my room and had a shower in the hope of sobering up a little, before going straight back to ‘t Zwart Huis. I originally went there on the recommendation of James the chocolatier. Luckily for me he was there when I got back. I decided to join him since he had advised well earlier that day, in the hope we would also offer his opinion on the city’s nightlife.
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