Bruges – it’s raining chocolate and beer

Bruges was the last destination of our first trip together and we have to say, that it was a choice even the occasional rain showers made pleasing to the eye. The city was a major European trading point after the middle ages and its center is a Unesco world heritage sight. Besides the historically important medieval architectures, we discovered a lively city, full of chocolate and beer, along with other delicacies. Below we provide a quick guide on the city’s highlights as we experienced it.

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The Canals. A tour of the canals on a boat is definitely a must do while visiting the city. You can encounter a few hidden gems of artwork, swans and ducks and have the chance to view the city from a different angle, one as charming as the one from its streets. The boatmen provide information about the sights you encounter, thus expanding your knowledge of the city’s past. The canal system honestly justifies the city’s nickname, Venice of the North (not as much as Amsterdam though, since the canal network is smaller).

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Minnewater Park, is a park located near the train station. It is the supposed site of Minna’s grave. According to the local fable, before the Romans conquered the area, Minna a fisherman’s daughter was in love with Stromberg, a warrior from a neighboring clan but her father had promised to have her married to another man. After her lover left to fight the Romans, her father decided it was the right chance for his daughter’s marriage. Well, that didn’t work out. The girl fled to the woods and disappeared. When Stromberg returned he sought to find his lost love and he did, only moments before she passed away in his arms. So, he built a temporary dam thus diverting the nearby streams flow and buried Minna on the dry stream bed. Then he let the stream return to its original course in order to seal the tomb. A bridge currently stands on the dam’s site and legend has it that the couples that cross it experience eternal love.

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The Markt is the city’s ticking heart. It’s the central square where you can find many historical buildings and enjoy the vie of passers by like in most city squares. I believe there’s some kind of market once in a while, with street food and stuff, but we missed it (Occasionally, I Still dream that a Vietnamese is stretching his hand to give me food and then something terrible happens and I wake up at night, thinking if my life would be different if we had made it on time there. Vietnam seems like a good future travel plan though). You could also take a ride in a horse drawn carriage, or have a bite or a drink in one of the Brasseries surrounding the plaza. We did it and it was not that costly a choice. We guess there are cheaper options away from the Markt though.

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The Belfry. Well you can’t miss the Belfry. I mean it’s 83 meters high, situated on the Markt and you can also climb the stairs to the top floor for a fee (8 euro) and get a great view of the city. It’s actually a medieval bell tower and we have to know that the climb on the narrow spiral staircase can be exhausting.

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Sint Salvator’s Cathedral, was a great place to visit, not as our Lord in the attic’s church we saw on Amsterdam, since it’s a huge church, the interior seems to be 100 meters long, and once there you get to admire the artwork of centuries past. I was more moved by the offerings though, probably because that practice seems to be present in every religious dogma, revealing that people try to tend to the same needs on similar methods no mater their place of origin. Other than that, the place seemed as if it were a harmonious collection of smaller church parts since the visitor seems a bit small inside these huge Catholic temples. We were fascinated by the artwork and, but I was more impressed with a wooden statue that although depicted a Cristian theme, seemed like a Celtic pagan ornament.

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Basilica of the holy blood is a smaller church by the Provinciaal Hof, on a corner of the Markt. Not as spectacular as Sint Salvator, but as the name suggests it houses a reputable relic, a vial, containing a cloth with the blood of Jesus. Now what could be more medieval than that? The beautiful Gothic styled church is an easily reachable attraction, worthy of a visit.

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Groeninge museum. This museum is situated on an old abbey and offers the guest a lesson in Flemish painting. It’s top attraction is the collection of VanEyck’s (I liked his Maddona and child) and the rest of the Flemish primitives, but the other exhibits are as wonderful. As always, make sure to be in a great mental state to fully appreciate the museum treasures (don’t go there tired from sightseeing – we were on the edge of collapse and definitely don’t pay a visit after having a beer or two – we tend to spent our mornings sightseeing and afternoons relaxing, as we believe that system to bring a perfect balance between sightseeing and relaxation).

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Luc VanLaere is a definite MUST. We cannot stress that much enough. You get to please your ears with some great music performed live for such a small audience that you feel that this guy is offering you a private concert. This composer truly loves music, even constructing some instruments himself. We were shown one which was inspired by the Pythagorean monochord, except it was a combination of eight of them, producing different tones. He even bothered to explain the history of some instruments and to sum up, his music keeps your mind traveling. So, attending the concert on your trip to the city you ‘ll find your mind traveling as well. A trip within a trip. Inception-like.

 

 

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Church of our Lady is another medieval church of the city. It’s main point of interest is Michelangelo’s Maddona of Bruges, the only artist’s sculpture to live Italy during his lifetime. It’s tower is 122 meters high and is the tallest building in the city. We took pleasure in its imposing view from the canals, dominating the cloudy Belgian sky.

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Loppem castle. By the time we got to Loppem castle we were already pretty tired of nearly a week’s sightseeing, so we were as enthusiastic as we would like to be. Furthermore, the building was being renovated and a scaffold overshadowed its beauty, while our main goal, walking in the castle’s maze, was abolished by the pouring rain. In order to get to this 19th century you need to catch a local bus for a short ride to the bus stop outside this neo-Gothic building. Our guess is that you would enjoy it better on a sunny day. Also, if you are interested in Belgian history, King Albert resided there for a while after WW1. We were mostly impressed by the fact that one of the previous residents was a fellow traveler and his collection of curiosities from around the globe is displayed on the site.

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Choco story, is a museum that presents the route taken by cacao seeds to end up as tasty chocolate. One can see cacao seeds, scenes of playmobils depicting Aztecs and pastry chefs, chocolate processing machines, diagrams of cocoa percentages of various types of chocolates, chocolate boxes etc. You can also taste some chocolate at the end of the tour. But always keep in mind that you shouldn’t eat too much candy. At least that seems to be the point of the playmobils depicting a visit to the dentist.

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Comic figures are part of  modern Belgian culture, since many european comic characters originated in the country. Tin tin, the Smurfs, Lucky Luck to name a few of them. You will definitely encounter many figurines in shops around the city bringing to mind childhood memories (and adult as well). Catherine’s favorite is Lucky Luck, sadly we didn’t encounter a figure while wandering the city streets, while mine is Captain Haddock. Billions and bilious blue blistering barnacles! Bring us a beer you iconoclast bashi=bazouks!

 

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Chocolate and beer are products the country takes pride in proclaiming they are among the best worldwide and for good reason. A taste will suffice to prove the Belgians’ claim. A walk around town will prove a sight equal to the other city’s attractions as many shop owners display their goods in elegance and artistic inventiveness. Chocolate fountains, sculptures of all shapes and sizes made of chocolate, boxes and other stuff. The list keeps going. Meanwhile one can enjoy a great variety of Beer, since there are many bars around town, offering tastes you’ve never even thought existed. We found a spot behind a huge willow tree overlooking the canal and indulged ourselves in some beer tasting. Another option to beer tasting is a walk near the Markt where one can enjoy mussels, which are a local specialty along with tasty Belgian beer.

Read all about our trip to Belgium here

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Bruges – getting from Dutch Venice to Venise du Nord

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Advancing from here

After a great breakfast we reluctantly left the pretty Dutch countryside on a local bus to Steenwijk train station, where we boarded a train to Amstel station. There we would catch our eurolines bus to Brussels (at five euro each, it would be unwise to use any other means of transport, especially after the blow our income had taken the previous day). However, we always have a backup plan for the hour of need. Our first line of defense is extra funds that we are never meant to use unless.. and unless was now. Of course that is a line that we could only cross once, or we ‘d find ourselves penniless and faced with our last stand. Having pre booked everything and simply following through the itinerary. We ‘ve never had to deal with that situation yet though and we can only assume what the outcome would be. There are many difficulties, for once you can’t always have everything pre-booked, while your remaining trip days might be to many to succeed in getting by hungry, or – God forbid, without beer.

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So, after a quick snack at a Febo-like establishment near the station, we endured our four hour trip to Brussels and hopped on our train which was conveniently awaiting at the station by our bus stop. The one hour ride to Bruges literary crosses half the Belgian realm, since the country is really small and is so well connected by rail. We were also handily accommodated to the Ibis hotel next to the train station, so no sweat. We had a bath, rested for a while and our passion towards Ibis hotels was slowly building itself strongly inside us. No intention to advertise, it’s just that after our own experience we find that these hotels are great value for money offers. In the evening, we were finally ready to walk the city’s streets.

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Unlike the Netherlands, Belgium proved to be a rather wet country during our stay. We didn’t mind though, some of our greatest times together are accompanied by rainfall, so we bought an umbrella and started walking towards the central plaza, the Markt. From our starting point, the plaza in front of the train station, we could see a big Ferris wheel and the top of Sint Salvator’s cathedral. We followed the towering church and eventually we found ourselves in close proximity to the Markt. There, the rain grew stronger and we had to take shelter somewhere. We rushed in a restaurant to grab a bite and we serenely watched the rain pour down on the medieval square. We began growing a bit tired, but we were also realizing that tomorrow would be our last day together for a while. It was mid May and we ‘d not see each other till September with the exception of a small break in July. So, we headed back to our hotel determined to make the most out of our last day together.

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We woke up and – without having any breakfast this once, we walked the now familiar route to the Markt. Our first stop was at Sint Salvator’s, where we were amazed by the size of the church. Some inscriptions gave the place a sad but hopeful aspect, they seemed to be vowing offerings or offerings of gratitude and that on the one hand it is sad, to see that people get that desperate in their hour of need  but the fact that they keep fighting for whatever is precious to them is encouraging.

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Then, we walked a bit around the streets near the center, constantly encountering chocolate shops and Tin Tin character dummies as well as various beer brands (Which actually made the city some sort of heaven, in a – all the chocolate you can eat and all the beer you can drink – kind of way). And,  trust us there is no limit to what the local chocolate vendors will do to attract those with a sweet tooth.

Finally we opted to see a different view of the city. One from the canals. So we found a spot where we could board a boat, payed for a couple of tickets and of we were. The sight of Bruges down from the canals reveals another aspect of its beauty. It feels like walking into a different era, the buildings look like castle walls atop a water filled moat, at least that’s the notion we had about Medieval castles.

We saw many swans and a few ducks enjoying the city’s waterways as we enjoyed the views of the sky high cathedrals.

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To our cheerful mood we saw a cute dog laying on a window ledge, staring skeptically at the water, indifferent towards our laughter.

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We were floating as if we were ghosts, away from the city’s traffic but inside the city’s heart at the same time

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On our way back to that mini cruise’s starting point, we saw our fellow dog sleeping serenely, probably imitating a statue we saw on our way, or was it the statue that actually  echoed the dog’s mood? IMG_0626.JPG

We saw some artwork along the route and we marveled at the way the severe look of the old buildings entwined with the statuettes’ playful character.

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Finally we disembarked at the canal’s shore and wandered around the city for a while, window-shopping chocolate and buying some as well, before paying a visit at Groeninge museum. This museum, built on the site of a medieval abbey, offers the visitor a chance to discover the masterpieces of Belgian art, before visiting, we thought that it would be a good chance to admire some Van Eycks, but that is not all the place has to offer. Despite the weariness from walking and visiting museums all the past days, we enjoyed our visit.

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After a short route on our way back to the Markt, we found ourselves trying to decide wether to visit the Dali museum situated there. We chose not to, since we were not impressed by what we saw at the entrance, let alone we had scheduled to visit some more places. Besides, it’s a small museum and we weren’t sure whether the exhibits were originals or copies. We opted to visit choco-story instead, which proved a rather indifferent choice. I guess Catherine mistook choco-story for choco-give away, but of course that wasn’t the case at all. The museum focuses on presenting what the name exclaims. The history of chocolate, all the way from the Aztecs to your taste, since they did give some chocolate at the exit.

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Afterwards we decided to exit the town and head towards Loppem to visit the castle. On our way there, rain began to pour so we took shelter in the castle (we know, a couple seeking shelter in a castle is horror story classic material), which was unfortunately being renovated at the time, so we couldn’t take any good shots of the exterior, but we couldn’t even visit its maze due to the bad weather. IMG_0760.JPG

Our last cultural stop for the trip would be at Luc VanLaere’s harpconcert. The man is a living Belgian heritage who offers free concerts, that do not last long and initiates the listener to the world of harp music, composing melodies even inventing instruments himself.

The show was great, If we had a couple of more days in Bruge we’d probably visit every day to enjoy his performance. The artist offered brief explanations on the role and history of the various instruments and that was pretty illuminating.

After the show we walked back to the city’s living medieval heart the Markt. On our way back there we passed by the canals and we noticed a grand willow tree overlooking the main canal next to a beer hall. We eagerly rushed in the property’s balcony and sat on a stool to quench our thirst. I had a familiar pale Weiss one, while Catherine ordered a cherry flavored beer which tasted a bit tangy like a wine.

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It was time for lunch but with our limited budget we had to be a bit extra choosy as to where we would grab a bite. Of course we could have visited any place situated near the central plaza instead of one directly on it, but we desired to enjoy the view. Luckily, we came across a restaurant that offered pre-arranged menus and surprisingly our selection proved to be a hit.

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After lunch, we took a short walk on the cobblestoned streets and returned to our hotel passing through the magnificent Minnewater park along the way. The place has a romantic scent, undoubtedly triggered by its moving tragic romance story. The place seemed a bit like cutting the city in half, a green line of vegetation, cutting through medieval Bruge and the more modern area of the train station.

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The light began to fade as clouds continued to cover the sky and soon the rain embraced us for one final time on this trip, as we embraced each other for one last time before our already long awaited reunion that would take place a couple of months later. In the morning we headed for Brussels were we took our separate ways. We had a great time on that journey  and although the end of a trip often comes with mixed feelings, the realization that we would be apart for a while, made this one’s closing a rather bitter affair. Yet, this journey’s ending was happily the starting point of our next voyages as a couple and we always look back on the memories it lavishly enriched us with, joyfully.

Check out our highlights of Bruges

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