After our short stay in Ghent we were bound westward in the late afternoon sun. We were excited to see Bruges, as we had heard it was even nicer than Ghent. The train sped by as we saw more of the Belgian countryside. The train ride was only about an hour, but I was glad for the short break after having spent the day walking. We arrived at the train station just Southwest of town, and quickly found busses departing for the city. There was some confusion as we didn’t know where to purchase tickets; we saw no machines which would let us. We ended up asking one of the rail employees and were told to go to the bus office in another building, but when we arrived we found it closed. Out of options, we went to ask a bus driver and found that we were able to pay in cash, so we did that and took the short ride to a stop right by our hostel.
By the time we got settled it was about dinner time, so we quickly decided on a nearby place and set out for it on foot. For dinner, I had sea bass and Mike ordered Mussels and Fries, a Belgian staple. The bass was excellent, and the restaurant was neat too. Dimly lit, we were tucked into a corner next to the bar, as the place was pretty crowded. We discussed plans and our trip so far over dinner, and decided to wander around a bit after dinner to see what we could find.
We were just a short walk from the main market square. The place was fairly empty, save for a few food vendors and the occasional tourist. Some of the buildings surrounding the square were illuminated – while it was fairly quiet we got a sense that this square would be bustling in the daytime.
After some exploration, we went to check out a few bars. The first was actually recommended to me by Chelsea (which is ironic since she doesn’t drink) but the bar had a cool concept: a tucked away basement underneath an old church. You have to duck as you step down below street level, where you’re welcomed by some spanning arches and a quiet atmosphere of people enjoying good beers. We grabbed a drink and hung out, taking in the aesthetic. We sipped on our drinks but didn’t stay for a second, as we had another bar we wanted to check out and were trying to not make it too late of a night.
The second bar we found was an Irish pub. This one had been recommended to us by Natty, who pointed out how ironic it was to be in an Irish pub which had a full beer list of delicious Belgian beers. We grabbed a spot at the crowded bar and began to chat with a local guy. At first he was annoyed with us, assuming we had come to the Irish pub because it was familiar and because they spoke English. Eventually he warmed up to us though, and we ended up talking for quite some time. He gave us beer recommendations and pointed out a nearby bar we should check out. We discussed cuisine which he was very passionate about as he was employed as a chef. He was proud of his food and his culture; perhaps the most memorable point in the evening came when Mike “misspoke” and complimented him on Belgium’s “French fries”. This spurred a loud outburst from our friend, who complained that they were in fact “Flemish fries” and that calling them “French fries” was misleading. He also pointed out a few sights we should check out, and we discussed international politics a bit. We mutually agreed that Heinekin was a terrible beer and discussed what a shame it was that the beer was so popular internationally.
After a long discussion we ended up leaving the pub and heading home, full of tasty beer, good memories, and insider tips. We headed home much later than we had anticipated and went straight to bed. And by straight to bed, I mean that we naturally stopped at the vendor selling fries on the street to pick some up before heading back to the hostel.
The next morning we woke up early enough to catch some breakfast at the hostel. Ready for the day, we marched back down towards the main market square, which was buzzing with activity. Vendors had driven trailers into the square and were selling everything edible you could imagine. Meats, cheeses, veggies, fresh fruit, seafood, and of course, desserts. We spent some time weaving through the crowded alleyways the trailers laid out, and were treated to a medley of sights, scents, and sounds of people getting fresh groceries.
After window-shopping in the market, we picked an interesting-looking spire on the skyline and made our way there. This was a church which was displaying some artwork, connected to an old preserved hospital called St. John. We paid a few euro and went inside, and got to look at an odd assortment of old medical implements as well as religious artwork. I find the role of the medieval church interesting when it came to medicine. On the one hand they did a lot of good helping people and working to fight disease. But on the other, they prevented autopsies and medical research which could have saved lives earlier than otherwise possible. It’s an interesting balance of power. The church featured some art and decorative tombs, including a Michaelangelo sculpture. It was a neat little gem to find, and it was pure luck that we did.
After our tour of the hospital area, we ventured back towards the city center. It was about lunch time, and we were determined to enjoy more of the stereotypical Belgian foods. I had heard of a famous place for waffles, but Mike insisted we grab some fries beforehand. Neither of us really knew just how big the waffle would be, so the fries seemed like a good idea. We both ordered “small” servings, and were handed an overflowing paper basket full of twice-fried potatoes, which we each had to carry with two hands. The serving was huge and the fries were delicious, but they paled in comparison to what was to come.
We sat down at Lizzie’s in awe of the table next to us. Presented with a monumental waffle, the pair next to us was chowing down and they looked like they were in heaven. I ordered hot chocolate and a waffle with whipped cream. The hot chocolate was a uniquely decadent experience. They serve you warm milk and a little flower-looking ball of shaved chocolate, either white, milk, or dark. I opted for the dark as I expected the waffle to be really sweet. It’s up to you to drop the ball of chocolate into the milk and stir it, resulting in a creamy, rich mixture of deliciousness. I was only interrupted in enjoying the hot chocolate when our waffles came out, a massive grid of golden flakey goodness waiting for the freshly whipped (on-site) cream. The waffle was surprisingly light, which was a relief as there’s no way I would have finished a dense waffle that large. The whipped cream was not overly sweet either, which was a pleasant surprise. Everything complimented one another perfectly. We were stuffed but I’m proud (or ashamed) to announce (admit) I finished the waffle, albeit barely. I could not have had any more.
Full to bursting, we decided it was a good time to visit a chocolate shop. This sounds counter-intuitive but the rationale was that we wouldn’t impulse-buy anything. I bought my mom a gift box of chocolate from one of the more famous stores in Bruges. So far, she has been enjoying them thoroughly. After the chocolate-stop we went back to our hostel to drop off the goods and chill for a bit while our food settled.
In our downtime I found a place which looked promising for dinner. It was a ways away but we were in no hurry, so we took a roundabout way to get there, cutting south through town till we reached a large park area with some pretty waterways. We also took a chance to climb the bell tower and get a glimpse of the city from above.
There is a ring of park area circling the old-town, we followed this around until we reached the eastern side and then cut in to find our restaurant. The most entertaining part of this stroll was when a drawbridge had to be raised to allow a barge to pass, causing what must have been hundreds of bikers and dozens of cars to wait at the bridge. We stopped to watch the ensuing chaos as everyone went to move at once whenever the bridge was lowered.
Our chosen restaurant was another cozy place. The dining area was pretty empty but our hostess informed us that we were only able to get a table because we were eating relatively early, and told us that there was a reservation for our table in a few hours. I ordered a Flemish beef stew which was pretty tasty. My meal included a dessert as well, because as you can tell I hadn’t had enough sweets or junk food during my time in Bruges.
The bar our local friend had recommended didn’t stay open very late. We wanted to check out their selection, so we headed there after dinner to grab a drink. At the bar we made fast friends with a British gentleman, where we again talked about politics, international travel, and broadening one’s horizons. It was a nice conversation and he ended up buying us a few drinks. 2/2 on meeting strangers in bars in Bruges. We didn’t make a late night of it, and made it to our hostel around 11 or 12, then turned in to go to bed.
Throughout the night I did not sleep well. I am unsure if it was something I ate, the alcohol, or the less-than-stellar accommodation we were staying at, but I had a bad stomachache and woke up several times in the night. The next morning I was not feeling well, but I had some water and bread, deciding it might help settle my stomach. We had one more thing we wanted to check out before heading to Amsterdam – an old local Brewery right in the heart of town.
The brewery tour was neat – you got to see how they made beer in a very tight space using several stories to carry out different stages of the process. The tour also included a view from their roof, which showed a nice perspective of the Bruges skyline. I’ve come to realize that Belgians are passionate about their beer, and for good reason. We sampled a glass (ok maybe not the best idea given how I felt, but it was free) and it was excellent. The brewery gained some clout recently when they installed a beer pipeline, yes, pipeline, to their aging facility just on the outskirts of town. The pipeline was crowd-funded and was also the subject of endless jokes about locals tapping into it, but the pipeline is practical in that it reduces heavy vehicular traffic in the old town.
After our tour we grabbed our bags from storage lockers in the hostel and made our way to the train station. I was still not feeling 100%, but I slept on the way to Amsterdam which helped a good bit.
We had made the most of our time in Belgium. I had seen and tasted far more than I thought I would given the limited time we had, it seemed like I needed a little recovery time. But my journey across Europe with Mike was not yet over, and we still had all of Amsterdam to explore. Expect the end of this story in my next post. Until then,
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,