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The Venice of the North
Member Name: lamorna
Date: 04/01/04, updated on 04/01/04 (2576 review reads)
Advantages: Romantic, Welcoming, Compact
Disadvantages: Getting there, Expensive, Couldn't try all the Beers
had booked our three night break in Bruges through the Sunday Times Leisure Direction. On paper this appeared to be a four day break to be taken in the period between Christmas and New Year but we failed to take too much notice of the travelling time involved in getting from West Dorset to Bruges. Our best option would have been to fly from Bristol to Brussels but we had set our hearts on journeying by Eurostar from Waterloo International to Brussels as a first time experience that had to be done at least once in a lifetime. Yes, Eurostar must be heaven to those who live in London and the South East and within easy access to Waterloo or Ashford in Kent but to fellow West Country travellers-beware.
We left home by car at 8.00 am to catch the 9.00 am South-West Train direct to Waterloo London due to arrive at 11.30 am. This left us with one hour and ten minutes to simply cross the concourse and take our pre-booked seats on the Eurostar at 12.40 pm. Unfortunately our 9.00 am SW train broke down at Bournemouth. We waited while they divided a ten coach train into two five coach trains resulting in a crowded train with passengers standing and waving goodbye to any booked seats. Worse was to come when we were told we had no train driver. Well we did have a driver but he was on his way in a taxi. I needn't describe my internal panic as we watched the minutes tick by. The panic was exacerbated when I had a closer read of our travel documents. Not only did we have to be in the Eurostar departure lounge forty minutes before departure time but we also had to be on board the train twenty minutes before the departure time. It got worse when I saw that we had only been given a pre-paid ticket voucher instead of real Eurostar tickets and were to collect them from the ticket office at Waterloo International. I could already envisage the queues. Why pay for rail tickets six weeks in advance only to have to queue for them at the departure point?
We arrived at Wa
terloo with less than twenty minutes to spare to collect our tickets, pass through security and passport control and board the train. Morty sprang into action and kidnapped a man in a uniform and insisted that he jumped the massive ticket queue on our behalf. There are quick serve ticket machines where pre-paid for tickets can be collected by entering the voucher number along with the credit card details used to pay for the tickets. Oh yes? I did that and my card wasn't recognised. By now I am in a purple haze and fraught beyond belief. However, thanks to the kidnapped man in uniform we eventually boarded the Eurostar with seconds to spare. The next train was in two hours time with no guarantee we would get a seat.
Once on the other side of the Channel we had to move our watches forward one hour to European time and arrived in Brussels at 4.00 pm. We were under the impression that the train journey from Brussels to Bruges was matter of minutes. Wrong on that one; up and down escalators with our luggage and a twenty minute wait on a cold platform then what must have been the slow train to Bruges arriving at 5.30 pm. A taxi to our hotel in the centre of Bruges and we were finally in our hotel room at 6.00 pm. Have you got that? A car, three trains and a taxi with a total travelling time of ten hours; it didn't take that long to get to Russia earlier in the year. Was it all going to be worth it? Fortunately it was.
Our hotel, De Tuilerieen, was pure five-star luxury, situated overlooking the Dijver Canal complete with pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and solarium. It was 18th Century elegance with everything we expected from a hotel of this class. De Tuilerieen actually cost £160.00 a night for a double en-suite room with breakfast an extra £18.00 per person-Gulp! Our package was based on 'buy two and get the third night free including breakfast' and all return rail travel from Waterloo to Bruges for £450.00 for the two of us so this was indeed e
xcellent value. The hotel was enchanting and extremely comfortable and warm and the nightmare journey soon faded from our minds.
Bruges is the capital of the province of West Flanders and Belgium's most popular tourist destination. The old town of Bruges is almost an island encircled by canals and is dubbed 'The Venice of the North' In fact, my first impression of Bruges by night was that I may have got it wrong and the entire place was a Disney film set complete with Gothic spires, Bruges-red painted shutters, cobbled streets, gabled houses, horse drawn carriages, big city walls and the harmonious appearance of the architecture. All the charming buildings were covered with Christmas lights- not the flashing Christmas lights of the U.K-tacky, flashing, neon, mobile reindeers, sleighs and Father Christmas-but gossamer fine lights seeming to hang airily suspended on the roofs and walls of the picturesque buildings. The many bars, cafes and restaurants continually burned small red night lights by the thousand and as soon as one burnt out it was immediately replaced with a freshly lit burner. The attention to detail was impressive wherever we went.
Our hotel was a few minutes walk from the Markt, Bruges' main square, so by 7.00 pm we were strolling looking for food and beer. After reading several menus we realised they were all pretty much the same offering moules, frites, eel, Flemish beef stew, trout, sole, lobster (Alive in a tank so choose your own) steaks and veal. We've never been to Northern Europe before and found things comparatively expensive. Perhaps this is because the rest of Europe appears to have a better standard of living than us with higher average incomes making things seem more expensive to us poor old Brits? We were very impressed by the service in all the busy restaurants we ate in over the three days. A table is found for you at once; a menu is produced; a drink is offered; smoking isn't an issue; the food
is of a high quality; all the waiters, and they are mainly waiters as opposed to waitresses, are attentive, polite and speak English even when we tried a few Flemish phrases. On leaving any restaurant the door is opened for you with a friendly goodbye and a thank you. I would like to see more UK service industries take note of this courteousness. I sometimes think we don't have a clue how to cater!
We also noticed how many Belgian families with young children ate out together at night. The young children obviously enjoyed eating out without resorting to running around the place and there were no specific menus for children (No chicken nuggets, burgers, and scampi) but they ate the same as their parents, in some cases being given empty plates in order to share. High chairs were produced by the waiters in seconds. It wasn't unusual to see three or four generations eating together in these Gothic inspired, red walled, chandeliered and candlelit restaurants and it seemed the norm to them.
We were rather restrained on our first night in Bruges as the country produces over seven hundred different beers, many being served in their own special glasses. Restrained, because Morty only tried two different beers, a blonde and a dark; announcing them delicious and ruing the fact that he wouldn't have enough time to sample the remaining seven hundred and forty eight.
Our hotel served breakfast until the civilised hour of 10.30 am. This gave Morty time use the complimentary white cotton towelling bath-robe and slippers and swim in the pool, have a Turkish bath and a Jacuzzi, returning to our room energised and ready for breakfast. This was a superb buffet including Belgian Pate, smoked fishes, brawn, hams, cheeses, eggs, cereal, quiches, fresh fruits, yoghurts, croissants, fruit breads, rye breads, juices, jams and oh so perfect coffee. We only tasted perfect coffee in Bruges and I wish I'd taken the time to discover the blend they favou
The hotel supplied complimentary bicycles and umbrellas. The bicycle was tempting as Bruges is flat and we would have liked to have cycled along the canals and the cycle paths to Damme, the Flemish village that serves as the coastal port for Bruges. Bruges was once on the coast but the inlet silted up cutting the city off from the sea. So as it was raining the umbrellas won and we made this a morning for museums. There were three next door to the hotel. We only viewed one, the Groeninge Museum, containing some of the great works of the Flemish Primitives including Bosch's 'Last Judgement' with the blazing fires of hell. We missed the Brangwyn Museum showing The Arts and Crafts and founded by a Welshman and the Lace Museum as it was lunchtime and we felt the need for coffee and cognac sitting in the window of a traditional Bruges; bar and people-watching.
The Bruges' canal cruises don't run in the winter months and are said to be the best way of viewing the city. Instead we took a horse and carriage ride. These pick up visitors in the Markt, the largest of several impressive squares, which by this time of the day was full of Christmas Market stalls selling everything from gloves to cheeses, hot spicy drinks to frites and mayo, and an ice-rink. This was a delightful half an hour spent clip-clopping our way around this compact city accompanied by an entertaining commentary from our driver. This tour really showed how intact these medieval buildings are. The main reason for this preservation is due to Bruges' five centuries of economic decline when there was never enough money to demolish and rebuild. Although the city became badly dilapidated once visitors 'discovered' Bruges in the 19th Century money was spent on renovation, repairs and rebuilding so the present day visitor benefits as at every turn there are scenes to delight the eye-like an outdoor museum.
All the historic buildings in Bruges give the vi
sitor an insight into the long and distinguished history of Bruges and the Golden Ages of trade with the Orient, Europe and the Middle East which peaked in the 14th Century. Bruges prospered with wealthy merchants and the first Stock Exchange in Europe was founded in Bruges as well as the first European railway line in 1835. There are many events and festivals through out the year in Bruges. Film festivals, flower festivals, jazz festivals, antique fairs and religious festivals as this is a predominantly Catholic country.
Apart from the hundreds of restaurants and bars all along the cobbled streets there is an abundance of lace and tapestry shops, chocolate shops, diamond and gold shops, specialist beer shops punctuated with excellent delicatessens selling delectable pastries, fruit breads, cheeses and pates and a good smattering of antique shops. We were struck by the fact that although Bruges has a 'Beer Culture' there was no evidence of public drunkenness and the streets felt safe to walk at night with no fevered checking that personal valuables hadn't been pick-pocketed. We saw no litter and noted how well kept and well maintained everything was. The Belgians appear to be very house-proud people and like things to be orderly.
The spoken and written language is Flemish which at times is remarkably similar to English. However, everyone we met spoke extremely good English, French and German. This small city is inundated with visitors from the UK and Europe all the year round and they clearly have the tourism industry honed to a fine art. Whether a day tripper or staying for a longer break the visitor is welcomed and treated with respect.
Bruges is a romantic city. The romance can be experienced in the park and the lake of Minniewater or 'The Lake of Love.' The serene Lake of Love was once the inner harbour of Bruges before it was cut off from the sea. The canals and the lake are full of gracefully paired swans preenin
g each other as well as herons, flying geese and gulls and it is hard to remember that this beautifully hushed area is in the heart of the city. If I were a young man and wanted to propose to my lady I would book a break in Bruges. I would drape her body in hand-made Bruges lace, feed her hand-made Belgian chocolates, choose a diamond together-all the while plucking up the courage to ask for her hand by sampling as many local beers as I could in case she refused me.
But if I lived in the West Country I'd make sure I went by air.