I never thought I would have the opportunity to visit Bruges, or Belgium at all. It’s one of those places that you look at and think “Isn’t that wonderful….but is it worth thousands in airfare and a week of jetlag……maybe if we tack it onto a larger trip when we’re senior citizens…maybe.” Realistically, I just hoped I would see Bruges one day, or someone would bring me back a magnet.
I had grand plans for Bruges. We would arrive around 11am, from one of the very convenient trains that leaves every half hour from Brussels. We would forego the bus, and take our time finding a place to have lunch. Then we would take a look at one of the medieval churches. After that we would take a tour and tasting of the last operating brewery in Bruges and then maybe stay a while in their beer garden. From there we would make our way to the Markt, the city center, and browse a museum or two, have some frites/chocolate/waffles/beer and people watch. Full from our snack we would walk around the corner to the canal boats, where we would see Bruges from the water, and through some of its many canals. Like Venice this is the only way to see a lot of the city. Then we would explore, find those tiny secret squares and ivy covered bridges, maybe go see the windmills right outside the city walls. Around six we would make our way back to the train station (last train leaves at seven), and take the long way along Minnewater, with its locks, bridges, towers, and willow trees. And then I would have been satisfied that we had seen Bruges, didn’t rush, made memories, and had a lovely time.
It didn’t happen like that, but that’s okay.
I’ll admit that I may have over-estimated the fairytale just a bit, and I definitely didn’t realize that fall in northern Belgium was code for Baltic hurricane season…but I can’t stay mad, it’s so cute it looks like it belongs in a snow globe.
From the train station we walked, heads down, umbrella forward, towards the city center through perfectly adorable cobbled streets lined with stone cottages. Though the heads down strategy was essential to avoid getting power washed, it didn’t help our navigation purposes. Like most old cities, the streets change name frequently and signs aren’t always easy to find. Because of this we got lost, and ended up not far, but away from where we were planning to go. When we came upon a row of restaurants we leapt inside and took a seat beside the fireplace, ordered beer, frites, and croque monsieurs, and decided to change tactics.
The new angle was to try and navigate Bruges as best we could, with frequent warm-up stops in various pubs and cafes. Things such as the cruise, and outdoor photo extravaganzas were officially (and painfully) off the list. But we were still pleased with ourselves. The weather was winning, but between gusts, we would look up and see the “Venice of the North.”
After a stop for a scarf, then a stop for gloves, then a stop for dry socks, we made it to the Markt, the center of Bruges. With the soaring medieval Belfry and spired Provincial Court, we felt like our efforts were worth it.
Per the new plan, we ducked into several cafés to warm up and snack. Every one we went to was cozy and quaint. All of them had a warm fire, hot drinks, and views to die for.
Since it was Sunday a lot of the churches had limited access, and since the weather was not cooperating we didn’t want to zig zag across town to see other sights, so we were happy to stick to the city center. Around the Markt there are many museums and places to see, but most of them aren’t well marked (get it, not well marked at the Markt…), and since our navigation skills for the day had proven poor, we headed toward the big colorful banners. We noticed the Belfry was showcasing a Salvador Dali exhibit, which sounded nice, but didn’t feel very Belgium. And there was this other place called the Historium, which we thought was an odd name for museum, so we headed that direction.
We had no idea what we were walking into, and truth be told if I had read an online description of it, we probably would have avoided it. We entered, a dark ornate building, where immediately to your right is a two story dark hooded figure in a red cloak looming over us from the grand staircase. We were definitely having a WTF moment, and trying to figure out what we had stepped into. We walked further into the building, where an employee explained to us in perfect English that it was a “Multi-Sense Experience” where you re-live Bruges in its golden age, and walk through an eventful day in the life of one of Jan Van Eyck’s apprentices. Our expectations were low, but it was warm and dry and cost less than sitting at another café so we queued up and got our English headsets.
After entering the first room, we were pleasantly surprised. The tour takes you through about eight or nine rooms. Each room is staged to fit the scene in the film from lighting to scents, to props, so it feels like you are standing in the story. One room smelled like spices, another was pitch black with a starry night sky, another was snowing. And the film was actually good, nuanced and sophisticated, with digitally enhanced scenes through ancient Bruges at its best. It’s a little bit Universal Studios meets Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it’s fun. If you find yourself in Bruges during bad weather, definitely check this out. Better yet, if you find yourself in Bruges at all, check this out.
After the end of the film you’re lead through a history of Bruges, with a few artifacts, and interesting displays. Then you exit the museum through a bar.
The bar was surprisingly well priced, with a fantastic view overlooking the Markt from the second or third story, and with a modern stained glass ceiling. We decided to plant ourselves right there and have one, maybe two glasses of Duvel. This was one of the highlights of the trip, we’d come again if we had the chance.
About the time the museums closed, the tourists were leaving and the rain was finally starting to let up. But the damage had been done. Strewn everywhere like fallen soldiers were broken umbrellas.
Thankfully my umbrella made it, partly because I was holding it down while I was using it to shield myself, and partly because I invested in a good umbrella. My husband also got points for remembering to pack his rain jacket, I didn’t remember to do that, but a rain jacket would have been wonderful. Infact, if anyone actually reads this and walks away with any tips from this dribble remember this: Buy a good umbrella or raincoat if you are visiting any part of Europe after August. You’re welcome.
Our trip was winding down, and the weather was finally letting up, so we made our way slowly to the train station, taking in Bruges now that we could finally look up.
Loopy and triumphant we were almost to the station when I remembered that there was one open sight that we could see on our way back. We took a short detour to Minnewater Park, and it did not disappoint. The lake is not big, but it’s perfectly manicured with tall willow trees, green lawns, ornate buildings, watch towers, swans, and bridges. (I didn’t get any good pictures because the horizontal rain had started again.) The wiser and dryer tourists had left, so we mostly had it to ourselves. So we continued to stroll the lake and ended up at watchtower bridge.
According to my Bruges App: “The tragic romance of Minna and her warrior love Stromberg has evolved into local legend saying that you will experience eternal love if you walk over the lake bridge with your partner.” Interesting, but what makes it tragic? Well…according to legend Minna was a fisherman’s daughter who refused an arranged marriage because she was in love with Stromberg, a warrior. She fled the city over the bridge and hid in the woods. Stromberg returned from battle and found her before she died in his arms. This is a depressing story to cross a bridge to, but we figured why not, never hurts to hedge your bets with a little bit of superstition. So we crossed the bridge. And what did we find on the other end at this lake famed for its bevy of swans?
A chicken. Sensibly taking cover underneath a park bench. (Note that there were no other farm animals anywhere else nearby.) He was a good sport and posed for pictures. I’m not sure if there is any significant symbolism behind the chicken, or even if foreshadowing takes place outside of novels, but we decided this was a good place to end our trip.
Like Brussels, I hope we get another shot at Bruges, we really liked it. But if we never do, I’m still satisfied that we have seen Bruges, made memories, and had a lovely time. If you get the opportunity, go!