I’ve always felt that making diminutive comparisons between cities is unfair: “like a little Greenwich Village,” or “an earlier reincarnation of…” (fill in the blank). In all my travels I have always found some
element, sometimes intangible, that helps distinguish the character of one city or town from a similar one. At first brush, Bruges, or Brugge (“Broogkh-uh” in its Dutch pronunciation) could be dismissed as “Little Amsterdam” and what an injustice that would be. Yes, Bruges has picturesque canals lined with old houses and buildings, the cobbled streets are narrow and twisting, but that is where any similarities remain.
Bruges has a relaxed atmosphere and slower tempo that Amsterdam could never achieve. Despite being there on a weekend, the crowds were manageable – and the absence of bicycles, buses and trams was noticeable and welcome. Compact and calm, Bruges felt relaxing in a way a larger city could never be. Granted, we never left the old town center of Bruges and I realize our experiences would have been vastly different had we ventured further afield. But we were content to wander afoot the main Markt (market plaza) with its historic buildings and wheel-spokes of side streets, take a canal boat tour, and sample the local cuisine and liquid offerings (translate: Belgian beer).
Previously I’d discussed our discovery and new-found love of Belgian beer from our trip to Brussels, so I’ll skip being repetitious on that score. (See the posting, “How do you spell Brussels: B-i-e-r.”) But we did indulge in mussels, which seem to be – along with frites (“French
fries”) – the national foods of Belgium.
Both in Brussels and here in Bruges, we saw far more advertisements for
mussels in all possible gastronomic presentations and frites with all possible combination of accompanying sauces, than I could possibly imagine (although mayonnaise was by far the most popular frites sauce).
“Moules au gratin” (mussels in cheese sauce) may not sound like an appropriate choice for someone coming off a week-long stomach virus,
but choose it I did with no long term consequences. The immediate sensations, however, were purely delightful. It was, quite simply, a savory, delicious dish. I hardly wanted to share. By far the most
popularly selected mussels dish by other diners was a bucket of mussels, usually steamed in a simple white wine and garlic sauce. Had I chosen this, the bucket would have come with a mound of fries (about the
equivalent of two super-sized McDonald’s fries) with about two cups of
mayonnaise on the side. I didn’t think either my stomach or my waistline could tolerate all that grease.
Frites – the prefix “French” never finds its way onto the frites menu – seem to be a national obsession in both the Netherlands as well as Belgium. However, IMHO Bruges takes the potato when it comes to obsessions and frites. While there are stores in both countries devoted to selling only this one “food” item, only Bruges (to the best of my knowledge) has a whole museum devoted to fries. Yup. The Frites Museum.
But on this short trip to Bruges, we stuck to more pedestrian pursuits with a leisurely canal boat tour, which I highly recommend, taking in the portrait museum, and exploring the old town on foot. The advantage of a canal boat tour is you can cover a large amount of territory from a unique perspective, often from the reverse of the “face” of the city or town, as well as, hopefully, a bit of local history. Our little canal tour was no exception, providing us a glimpse into the small, beautifully groomed back
gardens of the town’s mansions and hotels. However, my favorite sighting was of this very relaxed canine who chose to enjoy the sights in pillowed comfort:
We could have also chosen to climb to the top of the old town hall tower, but just 24 hours past being horribly ill, I declined. I remember climbing it as a child and do recall the views as quite impressive. The climb, however, is not for the faint of heart or out of shape, as the 366 steps are narrow, steep and the stairwell a bit claustrophobic.
Instead, we remained, feet-planted, in the Markt, or grand plaza, watching an enterprising New Zealander attempting to entertain the crowd with her balloon-on-a-spoon balancing antics (takes all kinds) and unicycling
finale. Certainly beat the gorillas at the Dam in Amsterdam.
Michael and I ended the day in Bruges with a glass of wine at an outdoor café in the Burg, another picturesque square, then joined the throngs for a free evening concert of what seemed to be local rock bands. The crowds were singing and swaying in accompaniment to the music, largely covers, and all had a good time, including the two of us. I only wish I had been feeling better, but we enjoyed Bruges enough to vow, in a paraphrase of our disgraced California governor, “We’ll be back!’
Afterword on hotel accomodations: We supposed to stay at the Hotel Bourgoensch Hof, located about 1 block from the town center. I had chosen this hotel due to its location, fantati reviews, and reasonable price, which included breakfast. Due to me confusing the date, when we arrived o a Saturday, we had no room. However, the owner very kindly let us stay in their new B&B suite a few blocks away, still honoring the paid reservation for the hotel, and, providing us breakfast at the hotel the next morning. I’d say you cannot beat hospitality and incredible service such as this, particularly since I was at fault, not the hotel. The Bourgoensch itself looked great and the location can’t be beat. Not only is it one block from the main square, it is a beautifully renovated15th century house on a lovely canal. Breakfast is included, and the buffet is quite nice. We plan to go back and definitey will stay at the Bourgoensch Hotel. Definitely a thumbs up for the Bourgoensch.