After a short, one-night stay in the northern city of Lille, France, I took the train over to Belgium to continue my vacation during les vacances de la Toussaints. My next destination was Bruges, of which I had to make a transfer in Brussels just to get there by the train system (not very logical, if you look at the geography, but I can’t complain since I got there eventually).
Cute and quaint, the city of Bruges is situated on the Dutch side of Belgium (fyi Belgium is divided into several regional parts, including a French side as well) and is famous for its massive belfry, colorful Markt Square, and the location for the 2008 film In Bruges which starred Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes (never watched it, though). To me, the city felt more like a town, since most of the historic, touristy parts were pretty centrally-located, thereby relatively easy to get around to.
Funny enough, I didn’t know beforehand that Belgium had a prominent Dutch side and even then I had assumed that the Belgians who spoke Dutch also could speak French; that said, I tried my hand at speaking with shop-owners in French and got blank stares, so English it was (and the Belgians are excellent in English, anyway)!
I arrived in Bruges in the mid-afternoon, catching the bus over to my hostel where I checked in, settled into my dorm (interestingly, the hostel I stayed at was in two separate buildings; you have to go outside the lobby building and next door to access your dorm room, and there’s only Wifi available in the lobby-bar which kind of forced you to get social with others, but whatever…at least there was free breakfast!), and decided to explore the town in the afternoon, as I was waiting for another assistante who I had made plans with to travel together in Belgium to arrive.
What I found striking when in Bruges (and later in the rest of the Belgian cities that I visited) was the fact that there are so many canals! Definitely gave off an Amsterdam vibe, since the Netherlands is only a hop and skip away, but I loved how architecture blended with nature, buildings with water, and you can bet that I took numerous photos of them all!
Afterwards, I headed over to Burg Square and Markt Square, the two touristy squares in the historic center of Bruges. What surprised me was how different their architectures looked: Burg Square has a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, and Neo-Classic structures, and it has the Stadhuis (“Gothic Town Hall”) which dates back to the late 14th century. Personally, I found Burg Square’s architecture to be darker and more austere in contrast with that of Markt Square’s (aka the “Grand Place”), but nevertheless, both squares were absolutely gorgeous in their own respective ways.
In Markt Square, there’s also the famous Belfry of Bruges, of which you can pay to go up and get a view of the town. At first, I wanted to go up, but once I saw the long line and the fact that I needed to pay money to go to the top (which is fair, I guess, but I’m cheap as well), I decided not to do it. In any case, it was a lovely, clear day, so I took a few photos of the outside of the Belfry, which is lovely in itself.
I also popped into a couple of Belgian chocolate shops, which are famous in themselves (for me, I have a huge sweet tooth and grew up eating Godiva chocolates like a boss) and although I didn’t buy any, I let my mouth water at some of the beautiful- and bizarre!- chocolates from the window.
Besides being famous for its chocolate, Belgium is also known for its waffles, which aren’t anything like those from the United States. While American waffles are lighter, fluffier, and usually served plain with maple syrup, Belgian waffles are thicker, heavier, and topped with just about anything you can imagine (chocolate, strawberries, Nutella, etc.). They tend to be much sweeter, too; I ordered a strawberry-whipped cream waffle near Burg Square and was in absolute heaven!
I spent about an hour-and-a-half wandering around town, and afterwards I decided to head back to my hostel to relax a bit before meeting with the assistante later in the evening. Back at the hostel, I met and got acquainted with an Australian guy, a traveler like myself with whom we struck up pleasant talk and decided to get some beers at the hostel lobby-bar. My travel-buddy assistante arrived later in the evening at my hostel and we got to know each other as well; she was teaching in the Bourgogne region and we talked about our English-teaching experiences so far, as well as our lives back in the United States (she was American, too). We ended up talking for quite some time and before I knew it, it was already 22h00! The Australian guy proposed that we headed out to get some Belgian fries (also a huge thing in the country) and even though many of the stores were shut by then, there was still a lone Belgian-fry stand in the center of Markt Square where we ordered our food.
Now, as an American, I’ve grown up associating fries with ketchup (although I usually don’t eat my fries with anything on them- just personal taste), but I didn’t expect mayonnaise to be a big thing in Belgium! Nevertheless, I got mine with mayo, and I have to say that it was quite the game changer! Not necessarily healthy, but with the already-winter weather happening, having hot, fatty food didn’t seem like a bad idea. We headed back to our hostel around midnight, tired and with our stomachs full of beer and fries- like true Belgians, eh?
The next morning, I hung out with the assistante and Australian guy again, just exploring more of the historic center; we visited Saint-Salvator’s Cathedral and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the latter is reputed to contain the actual blood of Jesus Christ (true or not, we’ll never know…). We also got takeaway pasta for lunch (only 5 euros) and sat down by the canal to enjoy our meal.
Shortly afterwards, we said goodbye to the Australian guy, who was leaving a day earlier than us for Ghent. The assistante and I decided then to take a canal tour, which was quite pricey at around 13 euros for a 45-minute ride, but it was pleasant and our guide was quite cute!
The canal tour ended, and although it was only the late afternoon, we were quite tired from walking around all day and decided to return to the hostel to relax for the rest of the day. We left early the next morning to catch the train to Ghent, another Belgian city on the Dutch side and our next destination on les vacances.
In retrospect, I found Bruges to be a lovely city, even though it definitely had a very touristy atmosphere and didn’t feel as “authentically Belgian” as other cities that I’d visited afterwards in the country. Nevertheless, it was the first time that I had ever visited Belgium, and it set the bar quite high for subsequent trips during that vacation, let alone for the rest of my time in Europe that year. Bruges is a good city to consider starting off with should you ever decide to visit Belgium and generally speaking, I found the Belgians to be very warm and nice- even more so than some of the French, I would have to say!
Next up on my vacances: Ghent, Belgium!