Boring, Beautiful Bruges

With an eye for architecture and a full wallet, this ancient city has Romance and is a perfect setting for Romance to unfold

On The Town | Daniel Gloeckler | March 2010

As the train from Brussels pulled into the station, I struggled with my over-stuffed backpack and lumbered awkwardly down onto the platform of the dark train station. This was Bruges. It looked abandoned, as if time had stood still for centuries. I took a deep breath, the icy air shredding my throat. Under the dim lights, you couldn’t see a meter past the pool of illumination, giving a shine to the frosted ground. I could already see why the tiny city was considered a fairly tale, although the winter cold made it harder to give in to it.

Life has a knack for making it difficult to get where you want to go. Communism held my father back; over-protectiveness confined me. Today, we both travel whenever we can. He spoke often of the silent, magic city in Northern Belgium, making me long to see for myself. Reality turned out to be significantly different…

To enjoy Bruges, you’ll need a keen eye for architecture, plus you’ll need patience – the town is very small and short on action – and money, which neither I, nor my friend had much of. Best also to go with a girl- or boyfriend, instead of a chum, as the ancient setting not only has romance to it, but is also a fitting place for it to unfold.

The bus driver knew exactly where our guesthouse was and spoke what seemed to be perfect English. In retrospect, this should not have surprised me, as the tourists appeared to outnumber the locals. Still he managed to assist us with a smile.

After a silent bus ride through the darkened town, we headed down a dirt road thick with fog, following his pointed finger. The narrow streets are a fascinating sight, tall slender buildings, built directly next to one another, in bright pastels with stair-like, gabled roofs. We walked down the stone steps to the Bruges-Sluis Canal, one of several that flows through the city, their mirror images slowly waving next to us in vibrant colours. These narrow houses can be found in many parts of Belgium and Holland, the northern European port cities of the late Middle Ages; however, rarely in such mass. Here, it is an entire city still standing from the glory years of the Hanseatic League.

A guide boat slid past and a slight wind left a cold spray stinging our cheeks. Suddenly, everything went white. I stopped and rubbed my glasses of the overwhelming fog. We turned back and followed the Langestraat to the east, finally entering the over-heated lobby of the Bauhaus hostel.

Since it was already dark, we put off any sightseeing and headed to the hostel’s pub. It looked like any other old venue in Vienna, but with a noticeable coat of false purity. No initials scratched in the tables; the white wash a little too clean. Everywhere, brochures were pushing discount tours…. Ignoring them, we ordered a couple of beers.

In fact, Belgium has 1050 different kinds of beer. One Straffe Hendrik, a 9% alcohol beer, was from Bruges’ family Brouwerij De Halve Maan, the Brewery Half Moon. However, curiosity soon got the better of me and I chose a cherry beer. After half a litre, I was back to Duvel beer. Curiosity was too sweet.

During the breaks in our conversations, I scanned the pub from left to right to check out the Bruges tourists. A chubby, little old lady, with a twisted grin next to us was staring off aimlessly into the crowd of people a fraction of her age. A group of young crimson cheeks were shouting to one another across their half-meter-long table, noses separated only by their beer mugs. On the right was a bartender; paid to act relaxed no matter what. All different, all speaking French. Most of the elders were speaking Dutch, though, the more traditional language spoken in the north of Belgium. I was suddenly sorry I had ended my French studies – it could have come in handy. Knowing that Stella Artois was not so popular would have been even better; lack of French and Belgian beer culture lead to an awkward crash course on what not to do. Asking for a Stella Artois – a beer that I was happy to recognize – I was welcomed with a "Ne commandez pas cela. Non que l’on boit." Confused, I replied with an unsure "Okay" and just asked for another Duvel. A British tourist informed me that he said, "Don’t order that. No one drinks that."

After several goblets of Duvel, we decided to leave the other 1048 for another day. Right now our wallets were bare and we set off  to see the city while hunting for an ATM.

Every so often we came across some important church or cathedral, in huge contrast to the Hanseatic buildings. Walking past the Town Hall, a narrow lane led to a tiny square, its side already spoiled with overwrought designs. The cathedral itself was huge, the roof edged with sharp spires, protecting the roof that they surrounded. Below, were a dozen tall, arched windows, all outlined with intricate wave like Gothic designs, similar to the Rathaus in Vienna. I looked around for an ATM. Instead, emptiness – between the roofs of two of the giant buildings surrounded the square nothing but, at the bottom, a mouse of a house.

This tiny basilica was also in the Gothic style, wedged into a corner next to the city hall. What was interesting was what waited inside. According to tradition, after the Second Crusade, a count returned to Bruges with the relic of the Precious Blood, resulting in the name Chapel of the Holy Blood. It is said that the relic he returned was a phial that contained a cloth with some drops of blood from the wounds of Jesus Christ.

By now we were out of money and getting hungry. We noticed a tall tower – turned out to be the city’s famed belfry – and decided to follow it. It was as good a direction as any.

Suddenly we found ourselves at the main square. Exhausted, we found an ATM, protected by the giant orange ING lion. We raced towards it and it opened its massive jaws to finance our dinner. All over Belgium, hunger can be quickly satisfied at fry or waffle stands. The strong aroma of sugar drifted out from the front of one and the thick smell of fat out the back of the other. Two shabby fry stands have stood for 114 years, guarding the entrance of the belfry, competing for the loyalty of locals and tourists alike. We sided with the one on the left. We ordered the "Special Belgian Fries." The smell instantly made my mouth water. It turned out to be a large portion of fries covered in a sauce mixed with pieces of beef, a lot like gulyás. An absolute orgasm to taste buds sloshed with Belgian beer.

While busy devouring one of the only solid meals we were going to eat for the next three days, a British couple walked up to the stand, asking for french fries. With pride, the local replied, "These are Belgian fries. You’ll have to go to Paris for those." I smiled.

Standing in front of the Bruges belfry, we looked up and decided to save the UNESCO World Heritage Site for the next day. The belfry of Bruges, or Belfort as the local referred to it, is the city’s most prominent building. It is open to the public; however few still actually climb up the 366 steps of the very narrow and steep staircase. The 83-meter tall building has shifted a little over the years, leaning roughly a meter to the east since it was built in 1240. It’s even managed to burn down three times, every reconstruction resulting in its increased height.

Today, the tower is used to sound the hour and the alarm, for fires, as well as for social, political, and religious events. For hundreds of years, a carillon – a hand keyboard that manipulated the bells – has been heard on holidays and market days.

Despite our thin wallets – the ATM had produced only 160 EUR – money was forgotten that night. Unfortunately, by the next day, regrets set in. The hazier the night at the pub had become, the faster our money had disappeared. The next morning we went back down at the now empty pub and drank free cold tap water. We desperately scraped together our last few Euros. But staying in Bruges was not really the problem, managing to survive in Brussels and making it to the airport was.

So we would spend as little money as possible and just walk around the city. Which was fine in theory; however, we also needed to eat. And the tourists were unavoidable. So, we headed to a grocery store. Inside, we passed all the things we dreamed of and stopped at the cheapest and least desirable ones. My friend grabbed a cold hamburger and hotdog, which would have been fine, had we a microwave. I grabbed a bag of mixed vegetables that I thought was salad. The shiny inside made it appear to include dressing. It was not dressing.

Still we hungrily ate our half-cooked meals and walked back to the belfry. The lack of sleep had left us in a state that amusing ourselves took no effort. One bad joke followed another, our attempts at humour worsened, but the laughter continued. After walking a while, I started singing along with Cher to Believe – something I thought I would never do. It only occurred to us after my friend hushed me up that there was music playing in the streets.

It’s a very odd custom, apparently welcomed by locals. Atmospheric music I could understand, say, some shimmering quartet or symphony floating through the streets would have complemented the city well. Instead, the strategically placed loudspeakers released the most unorthodox music onto Bruges. At first it felt unreal, but after some time hearing Cher asking if I "believed in life after love" or Alice Cooper telling us "school was out for summer" while walking next to some centuries-old building became almost normal.

We wandered back to the belfry once again and bought a small sandwich from Subway and a small beer from a shop. Three down, 1047 to go. For the time being we decided to just buy Glühwein, the cheapest thing we could get our hands on. After a few of those, watching people ice skating seemed like the perfect choice.

During the warmer months the main square is filled tight with tourists. In winter a massive skating rink is constructed in the middle. The surroundings were perfect at night, with the majestic old buildings outlined with white lights and the Town Hall towering over the square. As the sun settled, the main square slowly released its storybook wonder, while skaters glided freely around the decorated ice rink, under the star lit night.

The temperature, though, had become once again increasingly unbearable, but it appeared that everyone was too intoxicated by the scene to care. Meanwhile we were slowly progressing at our Glühwein and watching the people skate. Everything made us laugh, including each unfortunate child’s inexperienced attempt hand-in-hand with their parents, losing balance, arms waving like a rag doll. Fearing we might have made a bigger scene than the children, we turned away; embarrassed.

The final morning we managed to make the breakfast, which sadly was less then we imagined. Having fantasized about how much greasy bacon we would eat, it had only made us hungrier. It turned out to be just a Semmel, some tiny packets of jam and butter, dried croissants, and hard boiled eggs. Displeased, we indulged on what little there was, and I grabbed a dry croissant for later.

My friend went back to sleep and I went out into the cold to walk around Bruges one last time. It was nice to experience everything sober, and I kept my distance from locals and tourists alike, embracing the surroundings as a spectator. I covered most of the city within an hour. It all seemed very unreal.

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