This was my second trip to Belgium (a trip that I remember very fondly), so the focus of this trip was a little bit more relaxed. While there were certainly things my husband and I definitely wanted to accomplish, it was a much shorter list, with a much more epicurean focus (you will notice as you read on). Additionally, it was also a trip that we made with my in-laws. However, despite our love for the movie In Bruges, our trip didn’t end with a murder spree.
We arrived in Bruges by way of the ferry from Hull, UK. The ferry runs daily and you can take your car on board, but my suspicion is that the European freight truck business, and the travel business just gives them a opportunity to use the rest of the ship. While this ferry is an overnight, it is not inclusive of meals. There are 3.5 dinning options onboard: the buffet (£18), the restaurant (plates priced individually, but a two course minimum – done frugally I think you could get away for about £15) – both of these options allow you to book online when you book your cabin to get a discount, and the Costa coffee (like a Starbucks, has some prepackaged sandwiches and meat pies – the .5 option). I can’t speak to the quality of these establishments; because we opted for a third option: bring sandwiches & other meal items on board. We were all very pleased with our meal (I guess we should be since we all got to chose what we brought), but it was a little trick about were to eat. We didn’t want to eat in our cabin because we didn’t want to feel too confined. The ship has several signs posted about not eating of drinking anything not purchased at the bar in their lounge areas. We ended up eating in the Costa coffee area; which in the end it turns out we shouldn’t have because we noticed another sign afterwards, but no one said anything to us. The ship comes with Duty-Free store, slots casino with roulette table, lounge with piano player, and TVs in the cabins. We had a four person cabin (double bed & two bunks) and while not overly spacious, it also wasn’t cramped.
We woke up the next morning at the port of Zeebruges. We didn’t take our car over, so I hired a taxi to pick us up at the port for the half hour ride into historic Bruges. The ferry does offer a transfer into the city, but is about £13, and with 4 people and the pound to euro exchange rate at the time it was only a little bit more to hire a taxi for ϵ50 that would take us directly to our apartment with our luggage. [Note: P&O Ferries frequently offers 2 for 1 three day mini break, where you spend just the day in Bruges and they include the transfer into Bruges.]
Bruges is in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, so therefore (to avoid further international faux-pas) I will henceforth refer to the city in Dutch as Brugge. Most residents speak Dutch at home, but as part of the educational system are also fluent in French. Now if you are thinking that you took Spanish in high school, and therefore can fake your way through French, don’t bother; everyone we met is at least tri-lingual and spoke English fluently (it really makes you feel like a simpleton).
Our apartment was on the north side of the city; which put us away from the throngs of tourists, but also further away from the train station (and we had planned two day trips) so that was a little bit of trade off (something to consider if you plan to visit). The house also had a reverse layout; with the bedrooms on the ground floor, with the living space up above (which gave you a nice view of the canal). Also (as is common is many parts of continental Europe), the toilet (upstairs in the living room) was separate from the sink and shower (in each of the bedrooms). So if you get up a lot in the middle of the night, this may not be the place for you, but it does have a very modern and stylish decor.
We dropped of our luggage right as the cleaning woman was finishing up, so that gave us some time to settle in. After that we headed to the weekly food market held every Wednesday in the central Markt There we bought bread, cheese, roasted chicken, and fruit for our lunch. My husband and I also par took of what we became part of our holiday routine, which was pre-lunch frites.
Time out: You probably know that Belgium is well well-known for their french fries (fries), and that they dip them in mayonnaise, not ketchup – and that my husband and I are big fans. But there is so much more to it than that. First of all you aren’t limited to mayo; most frites stands have over 10 different types of sauces available (and yes you ca get ketchup if you want) many of them mayo based with different types of flavorings. We’re partial to (spelling likely incorrect) Andulse, Samuri, and curry ketchup, we even bought a bottle of curry ketchup back with us for our fish & chips take-away nights.
Following our market bought lunch we headed back out to orient ourselves to Brugge. One of the things that does carry over from the film is that even with each member of our party equipped with a map, you will constantly feel lost and getting turned around. Brugge was at it’s height during the medieval period, when city planning is not quite what it is today (the fact that they built a series of canals to ship the city’s famous lace out for export is impressive). We used old landmarks to reaquaint ourselves: the Burg (city gov’t center), the Markt (market square), and the Begijnhof (Catholic home for single & widowed women dating from the 13th century).
We then took a canal boat tour of the city. It was a great way to the city; but not ideal for learning the roads, and a little fast for picture taking.
In the afternoon we popped into De Garre for a glass of their custom house beer, served witha few cubes of cheese. De Garre is emblematic of many of Belgium’s beer bars or as they are more commonly known as ‘brown cafes;’ hard to find tucked down an alley, wood panneled, tables and chairs close together, a house beer on offer, and a moderate selection of really good beer.
For dinner we ate at Tom’s Diner, which serves upscale comfort food. And while it was our back up choice for dinner, we were all please with our meal. Even though we were in Brugge mid-week, it receives enough visitors and is small enough that restaurants stay fairly busy, so it is worth looking in to reservations for dinner, even if you only call that day like we did for Tom’s Diner. Since we usually rent apartments, hosts often leave out business cards of local recommendations, and in this case Tom’s Diner was one of them. We finished our evening at the Monk’s Hole, a bar that doesn’t open until 7pm in the basement of church. It is actually quite spacious on the inside (not as packed on the inside as other Brugge establishmets). It doesn’t have the same charm as a brown cafe, it feels a little bit more like a grad student / hipster bar, but they had very comfy sofas and a wide selection of beers from trappists to lambics.
The next morning our group split up, with my husband and I taking the train to Brussels and my in-laws continuing to explore Brugge. This was our second trip to Brussels and the train ticket from Brugge to Brussels was more expensive than I remembered it (about ϵ24) though my husband remembered it being pricey; however, there isn’t really anyway of reducing that cost. We had some lofty goals for Brussels 1) Eat a kebab with french fries in it, 2) Hang out at the Cantillion brewery, 3) Have mussels for dinner, 4) Drink at La Becasse. Of course the four things on that list don’t fill an entire day, so while on the train we made additional plans.
On arrival headed to check out the Manekin Pis statue (but detoured by the Mannekin Frites shop, to continue our tradition of pre-lunch frites). It is pretty much like it sounds, a little boy peeing. The statue was first erected in the early 17th century, and there are several legends about the statue’s meaning. It is a huge tourist attraction tucked away on a small side street, so it is best to get their early in the day. On this day the little guywas dressed up (for modesty?) in a little red outfit. But the best part about the visit was that they were giving away free Delirium Tremens beer! Don’t know why, but I assume that it was related to the outfit for the day. Following our free beer, we were off to a kebab show for a doner & frite kebab accompanied with spicy sauce & a Diet Coke.
Full, we walked to the Magritte Museum, since it was on of the museums we didn’t see on our last visit – except for the fact that we had. The Magritte museum shares an entrance and ticket counter with the fine arts museum. Upon entering I remember visiting the fine arts part, so we began to question if we saw the Magritte part. We came to the realization that we had, and that the Magritte Museum doesn’t actually have that many Magritte’s in it.
We used the museum’s WiFi to plan our next move. We knew we would be heading the Anderlicht later in the day, and saw that there was a museum of the National Resistance (Belgium’s fight against Nazi occupation) there as well. After a short subway ride, we were in Anderlicht. Anderlicht is not a very affluent urban-suburb, it never felt dangerous but I see no need to hang out there after dark without a specific reason. Once we found the National Resistance museum it didn’t look open and none of the sign’s for the museum were in English, which made us think that we would have a hard time understanding the exhibitions. Therefore, it was off to the brewery.
I have been on a number of brewery tours (and always seem to find more when traveling), but Cantillion is a very different brewery, that brews a very different type of beer. They use open top fermetors (which isn’t completely uncommon in some of the older British breweries), but they don’t add yeast. They rely on the wild yeast floating around in the air to get the beer to ferment. They also brew a few varieties of gueze, a lambic beer that has a sour and carbonated taste. It isn’t for everyone, I’ve given a few bottles as presents, and lets just say it is the thought that counts.
After our siesta at Cantillion, we rode the subway to a different outskirt of Brussels to check out the Atomium built in 1958. If you host a World’s Fair there is one rule: build something cool. Be that the Eifel Tower, a Ferris Wheel, or a giant molecule. You can go inside and learn about the ’58 World’s Fair, but we more admired from the outside.
We headed back into the city for our moules (mussels) & frites dinner; before the highlight of the day, drinks at A La Becasse. Because we wanted to visit this bar, but not get to late of a train back to Brugge, we ate dinner early. I mean embarrassingly early. 6:30 to be precise. I know that doesn’t sound ridiculous by US standards, but it is when most restaurants open in Europe. When we arrived we were the only people in the restaurant (I felt a little silly for making reservations online), when we left, three other tables had been seated.
A La Becasse is another classic brown cafe near Brussels’ Borse, whose house beer is an apple lambic, that is only available in small pitchers at this establishment. Their lambic is a good introduction to lambic; not excessively sour, good taste of apple, but not sweet the way ciders are. We split a pitcher (no more than a wine bottle), and from there we walked through Brussels’ Markt, all lite up for night time, on our way to the train station.
The next morning we got up at a more leisurely pace and by the windmills in Brugge, before heading to the train station for our trip to Ghent. Ghent is another predominantly Dutch speaking city in Belgium, but it is also home to one of Belgium’s largest universities; a bit off typical travel path, but still with it’s share of museum, parks, and historic buildings. Not as many of the signs are in French, Dutch, and English as a matter of course, but still everyone still speaks English.
The train station in Ghent that is serviced by the line that runs from Brugge to Brussels is a little bit on the outskirts of the city, but there is a tram line that will take you into the central part. We wanted to visit SMAK, the modern art museum, which is located in a park near the train station, so we decided to walk into the city center and take the tram back in the evening. SMAK is a relatively small modern art museum, but I enjoyed their permanent display pieces on the ground floor. Upstairs was predominently video/documentary installations. All the video pieces focused on some aspect of mental illness. Also in Ghent is a museum in an old asylum dedicated to the history of the mental health profession. We didn’t visit it, but the presence of the same topic at two museums made me wonder if the University of Ghent was known for its psychology program.
Walking from SMAK to the city center took us through the ‘University Quarter.’ As my husband and I made our stroll we both said to each other “Why don’t more people come to Ghent?” It was just really enjoyable; the sun was out, the city has a great youthful vibe, bikes EVERYWHERE! It was around lunch time and we saw a large group of students standing in front of a takeaway window, and we knew we were going to eat there. What started out as frites-free day, turned into frites heaven! When we told the man at the window that we wanted what we saw everyone carrying away, he explained that it was a little bit of a local specialty known as Joillete (sp?). It consists of frites, after which he pumped on mayo and brown gravy, topped with deep fried sausage pieces, and finished off with crunchy bacon bits. I know that it sounds disgusting and unhealthy (and it is unhealthy), but it is delicious. If you are a fan of the Canadian dish poutine, you’ll like this!
As we continued our walk we came to the primary cinema in town, which was in the final stages of hosting the Ghent film festival. We picked up a catalog and investigated the day’s offerings at the bar across the street, which was on a canal boat. The only offer of the day that had English sub-titles was Cold Bloom, about the fall out from the Fukushima nuclear power plant reactor. Based on the timing the film and the train we wanted to catch back to Brugge, we weren’t able to part-take.
Following our beer we continued our walk into the city center. (Yes, we still haven’t made it to the city-center, but if you walk with purpose it will only take you 30 minutes). After Brugge’s economic heyday had passed, Ghent rose up as north Belgium’s trading center. It doesn’t have a main market square, but rather four squares that form the center. We explored the old buildings of the area, which were starting to fill up with Friday afternoon university students. We had enjoyed our canal boat tour so much in Brugge that we tried to get one in Ghent, but the two docks we went to didn’t have any times posted, and appeared to be closed.
Ghent has a sizable Turkish population so we headed north to a ‘pizza’ joint. The term pizza not used in the American sense of tomato & cheese with toppings, but in the flatbread sense of the term. It was very good, and we got out of the restaurant for under ϵ20.
We caught the train back to Brugge and then picked up my father-in-law to take him to De Garre for a beer, since he was’t with us the first time around.
Saturday we had to check out of our apartment by 11am, but we weren’t heading back to the ferry until 4pm. So we checked our baggage at the train station. The Brugge train station has several lockers of various sizes. The four of us were able to fit all our bags into the largest size. You pay ϵ4 upfront and it prints you out a receipt with a bar code on it that you put in front of the optical scanner to unlock your locker. We then walked through Brugge’s Saturday food market, and I picked up some fruit for the ferry, and from there went to the fish market. While the fish market was done for the day we had a nice meal at a seafood restaurant in the area. It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t know where the locker receipt was. (So the one thing my husband told me I couldn’t lose, I lost!) Despite a lot of searching we weren’t able to find it and decided to figure it out when we were back at the train station to get our cab to the ferry. We did a little more walking around, and it was then that we realized how busy Brugge can get on a weekend. In a lot of the central areas it was hard to move around. We picked up sandwiches for the ferry, and then headed back to the train station. It turns out, I am not the first person to have lost their locker slip, it will just cost you more money. There is a ϵ12.50 charge and a staff member will unlock your locker and check to see the bags you described in there are there. It isn’t like I lost our passports (which people have done and they can get replaced!). We caught a cab at the train station to the ferry terminal, and while we were there fairly early it started to rain heavily, and we were glad to be inside.
It was a relaxing return trip to Belgium. Because we had been before, I didn’t plan quite the sightseeing ‘death march’ that I normally do on trips. If you’re planning a trip to Brugge here a few things that you might want to consider doing that weren’t included in this post:
- De Halve Mann Brewery
- Historium Museum – (good for kids)
- Dumon chocolate shop
- Belfry (your choice if you want to climb it – I have’t)
- Groeninge Museum – good collection of Renaissance primitives