“I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”
– In Bruges, a film written and directed by Martin McDonagh (2008)
(Please note, the tough mobster character who speaks that line in the beginning of the film later learns to love the city’s sleepy charm)
You gotta love Ryan Air, Easy Jet and the other discount airlines in Europe.
It cost only 30 Euros apiece for us to fly from Dublin to Brussels. The planes are new, the crews are happy, and a small bottle of water costs €3.
But for short hops like this, we can skip the bottled water and enjoy the bargain price for the flight.
Modern, Industrial Belgium
In Brussels after landing we quickly found our way to a train that took us into the city center, for a connecting train to Bruges. Thus, our first impressions of Belgium were from the windows of the two trains.
Modern Belgium, we noticed, has a lot more infrastructure than Dublin, although much of it (the railroads, the factories, apartment buildings and power lines) looked grimy and a little dated. But also in Brussels we saw a remarkable diversity of people who seem to coexist in relative harmony.
The Twenty-first Century melted away as we approached the historic old city of Bruges. We snacked on a sandwich and beers and chatted happily as the wheels clacked on the rails below our car. It was a short, pleasant ride.
Arrival in Bruges
When we disembarked from the train at Bruges station, abruptly we found ourselves in another century, an earlier era, in a Europe that has all but disappeared in modern times.
Throughout our travels in South America and Europe, we met friendly fellow travelers who offered advice on their favorite places to visit. Bruges kept coming up in these conversations. One afternoon, for example, in a park in faraway, Cuenca, Ecuador, at the base of a massive, ancient Inca ruin, an ice cream vendor disclosed to us that he was from Belgium. “Oh, you should visit Bruges,” we were told.
We did visit Bruges, and we are glad of it. It is really an enchanting city — small and quaint in scale, but bulging in history and charm.
Bruges is quite ancient, dating back to the 9th century. At its zenith in the Fourteenth Century, Bruges was a major port for Europe. Then, however, around 1500, the port silted, and the city fell into decline.
Bruges experienced a brief resurgence in the 1600’s, when it became the world’s lace-making capital. But by 1700, Bruges again slipped into decline.
There things rested for another 200 years, until the early 1900’s, when Bruges was rediscovered as a tourist destination.
The silver lining behind Bruges’ sluggish period of stagnation is that its buildings from the golden age were not destroyed in the name of progress. The city slept for several hundred years with little change.
When Bruges in the early 20th Century was rediscovered by tourists, the old buildings were spruced up, and the city’s antique charm remains for us to enjoy today.
Home in Bruges
Bruges has a population of less than 200,000 people, with only about 20,000 living in the city center. It was there, in the heart of Bruges, that we had a lovely apartment in a lovingly restored Eighteenth Century home right on a canal.
The set-up in our building was a bit unique. We had a kitchen and large, beautifully appointed dining and living area on the main floor. Then, up a common staircase shared by other tenants, we had a nice, spacious bedroom and bath. It was an odd arrangement, these non-contiguous living and sleeping quarters.
The old building was beautiful, with lots of character, and the location was perfect. Right outside our door was the oldest surviving stone bridge in Bruges, dating back to the Fifteenth Century. It spanned a placid old canal, in the heart of the historic center.
Canal Boat Tour
In pretty much any city with a river or canals, one of our favorite ways to see the sights and learn the history is to take a boat tour. Bruges has an intricate network of old canals, very similar to Amsterdam but on a smaller scale. The boat tours run continually, starting around 9:00 AM. It is both touristy and a new perspective on the city. Toss in some history lessons and it’s a very nice way to spend 90 minutes.
Our tour guide was a friendly, good-humored Belgian who spoke five or six languages. We joked with him as we boarded the small boat, asking whether he had ever driven a boat before on these canals. No, he assured us with a smile, this was his first time.
And are you drunk, we asked? Oh, yes, he said.
St. Magdalene’s — An Old Church, Lovingly Reimagined
While out strolling the streets of any city on our travels, it is typical for us to duck into any cathedral or large church we find with an open door. They can often be quite beautiful and historic. We sit for a minute, Frank, the one of us who is Catholic, kneels and says a prayer, and then we look at the artwork and step back out into the daylight.
In Bruges, we stumbled across a very unique Catholic church, St. Magdalene. It is a collaborative effort with a local Catholic college. The architecture students every year are invited to reimagine a spiritual space and then the best ideas are installed in this church. And it works. The old church felt alive with youthful energy and vision.
Our tour of St. Magdalene’s began with stepping stones across a pool of water, which gives the illusion of walking on water.
There were many interesting corners to explore in the old church. A favorite of Brian’s was a swing just in front of the altar. It had a big carved log as a seat, attached by a thick rope to the ceiling fifty feet above, providing a long and graceful arc with a beautiful view of the stain glass windows above.
It takes the stiffness and formality out of a church to be on a swing. The experience of swaying silently through the air in a big wide crescent, in a quiet holy space, was actually very consoling. St. Magdalene’s is a church with its purpose restored.
Reunited With Steffan and Tara in Antwerp
As an astute reader of this blog may recall, we met and befriended Steffan and Tara, a nice couple from Portland, Oregon, while sailing from Brazil to Spain last spring on a cruise ship. We first encountered them at the climbing wall on the upper deck aboard ship.
Steffan and Tara have carved out an interesting life for themselves. Their pattern is to work in stretches of five years or so, save their money, and then quit work and travel for a year or longer. When we met them on the cruise ship, they had just completed a camping trip through the Andes in South America.
Steffan is Belgian by birth. His parents still live in his childhood home on the outskirts of Antwerp.
Serendipitously, we arrived in Belgium just as Steffan and Tara were wrapping up their year abroad there in Antwerp, before heading home to Portland.
We made plans to meet up in Antwerp. Steffan offered to give us a tour of Antwerp which is a short train ride from Bruges and on our way to Amsterdam, our next stop.
We left our bags in a locker in the Antwerp train station. Steffan guided us on a mid-day walking tour of central Antwerp. The four of us chatted amiably, catching up on our travels since we parted company several months earlier in Barcelona.
It was a most delightful day!
Steamed mussels, fries with mayonnaise, and beer. How very Belgian.
Then, back on the train to Amsterdam……