A bank holiday
+ No real vacation for long time (trip to India doesn’t count)
+ Too small a period to visit R’s preferred destinations (Corsica & Tuscany OR Baltics)
+ My plans for a cycling vacation in the low countries
= 7AM Eurostar to Brussels

Brussels, though, was just a transit point. Within 30 mins of getting off the Eurostar, we were in another train, on our way to Brugge. We were both looking forward to this vacation and not just because we hadn’t been on one for a long time. Rags had been to Brugge before and had good memories of the place while I’d been enchanted by it ever since I’d seen the movie whose name I shamelessly lifted for the post title. Also, both of us were looking forward to the cycling bit – in forms very dissimilar to each other and to the one it would end up to be.

Random Bit: I’d read about it on the web and heard it countless times during the classics, still I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how ‘flat’ Flanders is. It quickly became clear why this cockpit of Europe is referred to sometimes as the ‘Low Countries’. Also, while the flat terrain makes it easy to cycle in the towns and cities, it also means there is little protection for longer distance cyclists from the strong winds coming in from the North Sea.

Any guesses on nationality?

Style with cigar

So, we landed in Brugge around noon and took the bus to the B&B. Wait. One bit. At the time I’d been trying to quit smoking and had been off it for about 3 weeks. Belgium – bad choice of place for someone trying to quit – I had smoke coming at me from at least 3 directions while waiting for the train to Brugge at the platform in Brussels, similarly at the bus stop in Brugge and at almost all restaurants and open areas around the town. It didn’t help that for some reason cigars are highly popular amongst tourists in Brugge. I lost about a month’s quota of self-restraint in those 5 days trying not to smoke. Specially, every time I smelled those cigars. Rant over.

The Belfry - Welcome To Bruges

The Belfry - Welcome To Brugge

So, we landed in Brugge around noon and took the bus to the B&B. We knew the B&B was within the limits of inner, historical city. What we didn’t know was that the bus would take us right through the central Markt square. A pleasant surprise. And then, when the canals appeared on side of the road, it turned into delight. The B&B itself was wonderful too – right by the canal with a traditional exterior but with the rooms and passage done in a very post-modern style by an architect friend of the hosts. The best part about the B&B, though, were the hosts – Cathy & Dries – uber helpful and always ready to chat about every topic under the earth. Being cyclists themselves they helped us with tips and even detailed cycling maps of north-west Flanders. The breakfasts weren’t as heavy as the ones we were served in Scotland but definitely tastier than anything I’ve had in a B&B before. The only issue with the place was the lack of shower curtains with the bath tubs (which Dries had explained was to maintain the unity of the architecture) but the wonderful attitude of the hosts made us quickly forget that small hiccup.

After dropping the bags, getting initial bits of advice from Dries and getting a snapshot of the map of central Brugge in my head, we started off to see the city. That’s when the next surprise came. The main squares – Burg & Markt – which had seemed far in the centre of town turned up within 5 minutes of walking from the B&B. Spent a bit around the squares before heading off to the info centre to gather a few cycling maps.

Flags plenty: Brugge, EU, Belgium

Flags plenty: Brugge, EU, Belgium

Random Bit: Most city & town centres in Belgium have 2 things – at least 5 flags and a cart or two selling fries. The flags, as in pictures above and below, are of the key political/geographical entities. In case of Brugge, from biggest to smallest: EU, Belgium, Flanders, West Flanders and Brugge.

Flags Plenty - Flanders, West Flanders & Brugge

Flags Plenty - Flanders, West Flanders & Brugge

Later, stopped for lunch at just another restaurant for lunch. Having no idea of what to order, and the quantities served, I took the safe route of going for the set menu. Brilliant choice. It was the first time I loved a mushroom soup. The steak was done just right, the sauce was delicious and to help me on the side were the first of many beers I’d be having on the trip and the first of many serving of fries. To top it all, I decided to have a coffee – simple cafe. And that, for me, was the find of the trip.

While Brugge & Belgium may be famous for the beers, fries, mussels and waffles (all of which are amazing), what clinched the deal for me was the coffee – a simple black coffee, neither thick and sticky like an espresso nor light and watery like the americano, with a tiny pack of milk cream and a biscuit on the side. I so fell in love with the coffee that a couple of times I actually skipped having a beer just to have the coffee. And have been avoiding coffee here in LDN since coming back so as not to forget the taste of wonderful coffee on the continent :)

Cycle chic country

Cycle chic country

Moving on. After the coffee, with lunch on the side, we wandered through some more of the market streets while I set my internal compass in order and R window shopped. The first stop on that walk was the cycle rental shop. An innovatively done up exterior made the shop a breeze to find even in the maze of streets. Though R was a bit upset since they didn’t stock too many MTBs, Bilal helped her try and select the most comfortable of the available bikes. It was just a matter of comfort as being used to being bent forward on an MTB, sitting straight on these city cruisers felt strange to R. Having booked our bikes for pickup the following morning, we moved on towards the city theatre and then back to Markt square for the only museum / gallery / exhibition I was to visit on the whole trip.

Dali Exhibition - 15

Salvador Dali

While walking through Markt earlier, I had spied upon a Salvador Dali exhibition in the market building below the Belfry and decided to check it out later. R, as usual, didn’t want to go. So we made a deal – she takes off to check out all the shoe stores we’d seen and buy a new pair of stores while I get to visit the exhibition. Now, I intended to write a complete separate post about this exhibition (and might still do so) but given that even this post has taken about a month to appear, I’ve dumped a few photos from the exhibition in the gallery of this post. So jumping to the end of exhibition. It turned out that though I’d been told it’d take me about 45 mins to view the exhibition, about 90 minutes after I had entered and with quarter of the exhibits still to go, I was pushed out the gates as the exhibition closed for the day.

The Fries Museum

The Fries Museum.

Random bit: Brugge is full of museums. There is a chocolate museum, a diamond museum, a museum dedicated to fries, a hospital museum and countless other brilliant museums apart from many travelling exhibitions and street sculptures and exhibitions. Unfortunately, R is allergic to museums so I got to visit a grand total of zero.

Cappuccino, with cream

Cappuccino, with cream

Having shopped, walked, visited an exhibition, we couldn’t find much else to do so we headed off to the nearest cafe for another taste of the local beer & coffee. Rags went for the cappuccino, which they prepare here with cream instead of milk froth, and I tasted my second beer of the trip. It was here I spotted the most innovative beer vessel (can’t call it a glass) ever. It is used to drink a beer called Krak (or Kriek). Unfortunately, the particular cafe we had stopped at didn’t have that beer so I just noted the name to try it later. Little did I know then that I’d have to wait till the last drink on the last day in Brussels to finally taste the Krak :)

After a long time caressing our drinks, we finally headed back to the B&B to freshen up before heading off for dinner again. Took a longer route home this time through the Astrid park and back up along the Coupure.

For dinner, R selected a nice little restaurant from her lonely planet and asked me to locate it on the map. It turned out to be about 10 houses down from our B&B. I was in love with this city already. The restaurant itself was a nice little place tucked into a corner house with the grill, low ceiling and subdued candle lighting giving it a welcoming, cosy warm feeling. My dish, kebab of king prawns with garlic creamsauce and pasta, was good. However, R’s dish – Rack of lamb with wocked vegetables and mustardsauce, was brilliant. Looking at the size of the serving she got, she initially asked me to help her with it. Soon, though, she was threatening me with dire consequences if I so much as touched her dish for the second time. And this from a girl who refused to touch red meat – mutton, pork or beef – till little over an year ago. Topped off the amazing dinner with a Dame Blanche, essentially vanilla ice cream and ice tastefully covered with chocolate sauce and cream on the side. The food in this city, whether mains, fries, desserts or coffees, just kept getting better.

Resting & Preparing

Resting & digesting

Finally, filled to the top, beaming at the wonderful town and its people, we retired to the B&B to prepare for the first of our planned bike rides. Being used to doing 50-80 km rides without much preparation, I expected it to be a slow and easy ride. How wrong I was… but that’s in the next post. Till then, tot ziens.

Random Bit: There was a time, not too long ago when Netherlands and Belgium were a single country ruled by a Habsburg king. There might be a time, not too long in the future when the two regions of Belgium, Flanders and Wallonia, may be separate countries as well. The differences between the three – Wallonia, Flanders and Netherlands are small but striking. People of Wallonia are French speaking Catholics. People of Flanders are Dutch (Flemish) speaking Catholics. People of Netherlands are Dutch speaking Protestants. Small differences but ones that tore countries apart. Of course, there were other wider geopolitical factors involved in separation of Belgium from Netherlands. Similarly, there are other bigger (fiscal / financial) reasons for the growing disparity between Flanders and Wallonia. Still, those small and stark differences help each region retain an identity. 

Bonus Random Bit: Brussels, the capital of Belgium is in heart of Flanders but the majority of its residents are French speaking. I wonder, if Belgium ever splits, who’ll get to keep the capital.

Day 1 Gallery:

  1. jina says:

    Ah.Love the pics…and your narratives.I almost feel like the fly on the wall

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