The second venture took me to another country. Except in the Schengen Zone where there are no formal border crossings and passport control, it doesn’t seem like another country. In fact, I only know I have crossed the border when my French phone company sends me a text that welcomes me to Belgium and reminds me I can’t use my phone there as my plan is only for France.
Bruges is also called the Venice of the North (a title shared by Amsterdam and Stockholm). Years past it was a big center of trading, the southernmost member of the Hanseatic League – 14th to 17th-century trade group. I will let you link over to Wikipedia if you want to know more about that group. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanseatic_League I had read about them in some history classes long ago but also was reminded of them when I visited Tallinn Estonia on my Baltic trip in 2010.
The architecture is unique and reminiscent of The Netherlands. The stepped gables. Pictures will tell the story better than I.
While my friend climbed the belfry (it was a bad knee day for me), I went to the Historium. Clever exhibit/show. I was early and actually went through by myself. You are given an audio set and stand in front of a door. Then you walk through seven rooms to see videos and hear the story. The doors open automatically. And close after the 30-40 in a group walk through. Needless to say, I waited a bit for all those non-existent others to catch up to me. It was a story of an apprentice to Jan van Eyck. So you got to see the city, the docks, the duty collectors, and the painting atelier. Supposedly you could also smell! the incense and fire etc. With my allergies, I have lost much of a sense of smell so that went over my nose. They turned history into an interactive walking tours with multimedia. Probably they were successful at getting people to put down their smart phones for a moment.
That morning we also took a boat ride through the canals. Being there at 10:00 when they start tickets sales was the way to go – we finally took off at 10:30 but there were only 3 of us – not a full boat of 40. Clearly, Bruges is a day trip kinda town. The only traffic on the canals now are the boat tours. And since the canals are a closed system (he did point out a canal that goes to Ghent but I bet locks are involved), there is no worry of flooding like Paris.
We also hit the churches – Our Lady which has a rare Michelangelo Madonna and Child. Not many of his statues outside of Italy. And the Church of the Holy Blood which has a relic of the Holy Blood – if you pay a donation you can walk up and see it. Nice medieval church. And the Diamant and the Lace Museums which tell the stories of diamonds and of lace in Bruges.
What I came away with – even though it was a good trip – was a sad feeling. Bruges just feels like life has passed it by. And in a way, it has. It was a huge center of commerce in the middle ages. Just saying something was made in Bruges gave it great cachet and probably upped the price considerably. Bruges equaled Quality! But the town feels a bit empty – we walked to the Lace Museum though residential areas. Lifeless. I suppose they are off working… but just lifeless. Just trying to reclaim its former glory through retelling history.
Of course, there’s a problem when the tour bus touts all the languages but doesn’t include American… See – no Stars and Stripes on that van! (That’s joke! But seriously, a guard in Hampton Court told me that they had to put the American flag on the brochures because Americans couldn’t figure out how to find one in a language they understood….)
But their Belgian chocolates are tasty. And the Belgian waffle was delicious! If you ever go, I also highly recommend the Guesthouse Mirabel. It’s a B&B in a 1850 mansion run by a delightful man, Gaston, who cared well for us – even making scrambled eggs as we requested. And I found a great scarf – poppies which come from Flanders fields so it’s a great memory of Bruges.
And a closing note on the train. We took Thalys. This Paris Brussels route is famous for the terrorist foiled by the three Sacramento boys last year. So security in Paris is high. X-rayed the bags and we had to walk through those airport type screening machines ourselves. Very fast process. I was impressed. But on the way back – when we were leaving Brussels which is the hotspot of terrorists these days – where you would expect to have the toughest security: Nothing. Yup. We and all the other passengers just walked right on with our bags. OK, before the train started moving, four big policeman got on our car (we were in the first car) and walked through the train with train personnel checking tickets. Checking some tickets. Not ours. It was very strange. But even stranger was getting off in Paris and walking past maybe 15-20 security personnel from Thalys, the train station and French police. Um. If there was a terrorist, wouldn’t the problem have been BEFORE we got off the train?
No worries. I am fine.