Saturday, April 26, 2014 – Brugge, Belgium
Although we were docked in Terneuzen, we did not visit the town today. Instead, we broke into groups and were bused to Brugge, Belgium, a medieval town about an hour away. Our guide gave us some background during the bus ride, but, as a Belgian, he seemed to take more time than he needed to explain jokingly why Belgians were superior to the Dutch. There may have been some valid points, but it was an insistent theme in his remarks.
Once we were out of the buses, most of the group visited the rest rooms adjacent to the drop-off point. The guide made a point of telling us that this first trip was free, courtesy of Vantage Cruises. Any subsequent use of public toilets would cost one-half euro per person.
After everyone had reassembled, we traipsed rather haphazardly to the outer walls and then into the town itself. To describe it as a madhouse would be a slight understatement, but it was as crowded as it could be. In addition to the throngs of tourists, who had not been a factor when David visited in November, 1992, there were cyclists to dodge, cars going too fast for the crowded roadway and horse-drawn carriages. The carriages posed the greatest threat because the horses are almost programmed to follow a specific route at a set speed. Any thing or person who got in their path would certainly regret it.
Brugge itself is a delightful gingerbread town.
Many of the buildings date to the 16th Century or even earlier and others are more recent but done in the same architectural styles as the originals. The buildings must be maintained to look as they did hundreds of years ago. There is a mixture of styles but many feature step-gables or other roof lines associated with the Netherlands. [Note to self – remember to call the country the Netherlands because only 2 of 12 provinces have Holland in their names.]
The various tour groups from our ship were joined by groups who had motored in for day trips plus individual tourists. Our little group of 30 followed our guide through cobblestoned streets and alleys listening to the stories of the various houses and churches. There was also a long story concerning a Holy Roman Emperor who decreed that the city must maintain a flock of swans which were prominent as one entered the city.
While the walk from the bus to the morning’s final stop was only a mile, it took us an hour-and-a-half to complete. Blame the crowds or blame the old people who could not keep up on the uneven streets and sidewalks. We passed through several squares both inside and outside the central section of the old city. Among others, we saw Burg Square where the oldest government buildings were [as well as a church], Fisherman’s Square and Tanner’s Square. Fisherman’s Square and Tanner’s Square were outside the city walls so their stench would not disturb the residents; The smell of fish is obvious but it should be noted that the leather tanners used urine to soften the hides. Imagine the 2 adjacent squares on a hot summer day. Our final stop this morning was the Bell Tower and Carillon at Market Square.
Market Square, surprisingly, held no market. Like the plazas in old-town Prague and many other
European cities, it is a large square surrounded by restaurants and landmark buildings. One side of the square had the Bell Tower; a second side contained government buildings and offices; and the other 2 sides had an abundance of cafes and restaurants. The group dispersed here at 11:25 with instructions to return by 1:30 for the rest of the tour.
We found our way to the Huis Craenenburg, one of the many cafes on the square. We expected to meet and have lunch with friends from our 2012 Amazon cruise. Peter and Manu live in Brugge and we had arranged this meeting by email over the months leading up to the trip. Peter is a retired restaurant owner who retired several years ago. When we sat next to them for dinner in December 2012, Manu spoke almost no English so most of our conversations were with Peter who would then translate for his wife. Eighteen months later, Manu's English is good as a result of lessons both she and Peter have been taking; today, there was no need for Peter to translate for her.
When we approached the Huis Craenenburg, we found our friends sitting outside in the cold and overcast, he drinking a beer and she with bottled water. We had expected to treat them to lunch at the café, but they had other ideas. Peter had been cooking before coming to the café and they insisted we return to their house for lunch. There was no saying, “No.” They had ridden their bikes to the square but Manu walked to their home while Peter pedaled; he now has difficulty walking and uses an electric bike.
We were at the house in 20 minutes, almost 12 noon on the dot. We knew from our previous conversations that it was an old 1-bedroom house. What we did not expect was the renovations which they had made. The first floor was completely open – living room to dining room to kitchen table and a modern galley kitchen. The rear of the first floor had a partial glass roof and glass walls making the area seem much bigger and brighter. The area opened to a beautifully landscaped back yard. It was enchanting.
After meeting their dog, a Spanish water dog, we sat down at the kitchen table – a converted ship’s wheel -- to asparagus soup which Pater had made from the skins or peelings of fresh white asparagus. What followed next was the rest of the asparagus – six big fat stalks for each of us – served with hard- boiled egg and parsley. We watched Manu to learn how to eat this; the egg and parsley were mashed together at the table, placed on top of the asparagus and then the whole was topped with melted butter. There was white wine accompanying the meal.
We talked and ate until we realized that it was time to go, almost 1:10. Peter drove MA back to the center of town although he was not allowed to drive in the square itself. Manu and David walked back to meet MA outside the Bell Tower. Manu, MA and David all arrived at 1:30 by our watches.
And then MA discovered that the guide had left without us. Luckily, 2 other groups had not started on the second part of the tour, so we hitched ourselves to the Blue Group for the rest of the day. There wasn’t much to it, though. We went as a group to a little boat slip where we boarded a motor boat for a 30 minute ride in the canals which are the other defining feature of Brugge which is often called “the Venice of the North.”
Because the boat held only 25 people, we had to split into 2 groups. Once the second group returned, we made preparations to walk back to the bus. Some people opted to ride a city bus back to the meeting place, but the rest of us started to back-track the tour we had taken as part of the Green Group. The guides had taken different routes to the Bell Tower, so we missed some things by having to switch groups and repeating the walk backwards.
After a stop at the public toilets, not free this time, we found our bus, had a few cross words with the guide and climbed on board. We were back in Terneuzen around 4:30 for a 5 pm departure. However, we found out that the Blue bus was missing 3 people and left late; the MIA’s had to take a taxi from Brugge to Terneuzen and we did not set out until after 5:30.
Tomorrow – Antwerp, Belgium