Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Adventures In Bruges (You will need a whole pot of tea for this, it is a long post!)

It is a distinct advantage when travelling, to set out on your journey convinced you are going to have a wonderful time, and love your destination, and I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed: Bruges was bliss, a real delight.

Somehow, despite being awoken at sometime around half past four, I was not grumpy! Perhaps this is because dear Carl pushed a cup of tea into my hands and then let me be for a little while! Having packed the night before, we were ready on time, and set out at half past five to walk into town to catch the train to London. The air was beautifully fresh, I so love that time of day. There is a kind of peace in the air, and the day is still slightly damp, like butterfly wings just emerged from the cocoon.

Surprisingly for such an early hour, we only just got seats on the train to London. Happily the tube was not crowded, so when we emerged at St Pancras station, I was still in extremely good spirits. This was my first visit since The Meeting Place statue was unveiled, in fact, my first visit for a number of years, and I was captivated by the place. There is so much glass that there is a great deal of light, and yet somehow, it looks very traditional whilst being modern, too. To my delight, there were discs set in to the floor, carved with lines from Betjeman poems (John Betjeman was instrumental in the campaign to save and renovate the station rather than demolish it) and then there was a statue of the man himself. The Meeting Place statue was curious in that it was much nicer viewed from further away!

It was not long before we boarded the Eurostar, and I must confess that no sooner were we settled than I dispatched dear Carl in search of tea. Little did I know it then, it was to be the last good cup of tea before we returned home! The journey was so much fun. I got to sit next to the window, and when I was not gazing out at the countryside (even the trees look different somehow to me, in France and Belgium to here!) I was reading ‘Murder on the Blue Train’ which is a Poirot novel. I had packed us up sandwiches (egg and tomato, my favourite, as discovered at Claridge’s) which we enjoyed as we gazed out at little French farms. I really think that train is my favourite way to travel. I love having my own little seat, with a bar that pulls down to rest my feet on (being on the short side, they are often left dangling!) and a little tray that I can pull down to rest my tea on, or push up and out of the way.

I was almost sorry when we reached Brussels; a few minutes later I really was sorry, because we were quite lost! We had imagined that our connection would be signposted somehow….but no. We queued at an Information booth, reached the front to be told they do not do train information. So we found our way to another place, where we had to use a computer to choose our nationality and if we wanted domestic or international train information; this then printed us a ticket that we had to take to a counter where the lady told us our train may or may not leave from platform 15 at five past the hour! Happily the delay gave me time to look in the magazine shop (I have not forsworn them entirely!) where I found Marie Claire Idees! A magazine about which I have heard much, but never until then found a copy of.

We were pleased to find that the train to Bruges did indeed leave from platform 15, and before we knew it, we were emerging from the train station into a sunny afternoon in Bruges. The train station is a short walk from the town centre, a walk which took us through a park, and along some beautiful little streets. One door had a lovely little wreath upon it, and many windows had little displays of ornaments, windowboxes full of flowers, or other thoughtful whimsical little touches.

Having been on one or two day trips to Bruges before, everything was at once familiar and a little strange. There are two main squares; Markt, which has many shops, cafes, restaurants, and a large belfry tower, and Burg, which has beautiful gold embellished buildings, and one restaurant, and then countless little side streets and lanes. We remembered a wonderful restaurant from a previous visit. For some reason ‘Tom’s Café’ stuck in my mind, and that it had green awnings outside. Well all of the café’s in the Markt square had green awnings, and none were called Tom’s Café or felt familiar. We wandered through to Burg, and happily, there it was! It was not called Tom’s Café, but Café Tom something. We sat outside under an ivy-patterned awning, and soaked up the sunshine and atmosphere. We ordered mussels and chips each, and a beer each, and a cola to share. (Beer on an empty tummy is not a good idea!) The beer came first – pink cherry beer for me (I only like fruit beer) and a dark beer for Carl, and then our cola. We asked for a large cola, so we could share it, and I have never seen such a large glass in my life! There must have been a litre in there at least! Our mussels came in such clever dishes; they are the pans they are cooked in on the stove, like a saucepan with no handles, and the lid is much deeper than on a normal saucepan. When they reach the table, they lift the lid off and put it upside down next to you, and you put your empty mussel shells into it. One day, when I have a bigger kitchen, I would love some of these! We sat and watched people going by, remarking upon the different nationalities and the way they dress. We looked and looked at the beautiful gothic buildings, really drinking it all in. So relaxing, and uplifting. I was really full after my mussels, but felt I could manage a little dessert. We each ordered a chocolate mousse as it was the cheapest thing on the menu, and so, according to our logic, the smallest. Not so! It came out in a sundae glass, and was the most wonderful chocolate mousse you can imagine. It was like a black hole of chocolate, deep and velvety, and not very sweet, but sweet enough, and utterly heavenly! While we were sitting there, spooning up this loveliness, a school band set up next to the café, and started playing. We were so lucky.

After this, we decided it would be best to find our hotel and check in, and leave our luggage so we could explore. Given the ease with which we often find ourselves lost, we were surprised to find our hotel exactly where it should be! See here http://www.hotelnavarra.com/en/ for some pictures. While we were exploring our room, I remarked that I was sure we were meant to have tea and coffee making facilities, but could see none. Then we opened a cupboard, and a tray lifted out, with all the things to make tea and coffee upon it. It was really clever, because the tray had a plug on it, and the kettle sat on part of the tray to work. Not a very good explanation, but a very good idea! We even had Lipton’s tea bags, but sadly only little plastic cartons of coffee cream, so a good cup of tea eluded me!

It was not long before we decided to walk back into town to take in some sights. We found our way back to the Markt square, and after a walk around this, we spotted a little yellow mini-bus giving tours. You sit on the bus, and each seat has its own headphones, and as you draw up to a building or statue, you get some commentary in your own language. I am really glad we did this, as it took us much further out than we would have managed on foot. It is so difficult to put into words how beautiful Bruges is; already I am aware that if you started sipping a cup of tea at the beginning of my post, it would be cold by now. But perhaps there is another cup in the pot? It really is a place that is untouched by time. Close your eyes and you hear the clip clop of a passing horse and carriage. Of course, they are for the tourists, but at the same time, they do not sound at all out of place. All the buildings are tall and narrow, many with little niches carved into them, which house beautiful statues. It is rare to see a building that is not decorated somehow, be it with a windowbox or particularly pretty curtains, or some such thing. The shops are often independent shops rather than chains, and are devoted to just one thing- there are lace shops, beer shops, hundreds of chocolate shops- not like we have here at all. In the shops, the window displays are lovingly crafted and really tempting, a joy to look at. Somehow the bus driver squeezed us down narrow roads, pointing out the beer museum, the diamond museum and the chocolate museum, and took us over countless bridges over countless canals.

After a very happy hour on the bus, we decided we would have a little light dinner. When I ordered my raspberry beer to go with the fluffiest and most heavenly cheese and ham omelette I have ever had, I realised that I had never before finished one beer in my life, let alone drink two in one day! We were sitting outside again, and it was lovely to see the shadows lengthen and twilight fall, as we were surrounded by the chatter of so many different languages. We shared a pot of coffee (such a lovely coffee pot! I really wanted to bring it home!) which was almost smoky in flavour, and finally wandered arm in arm back to our hotel, where, after a short rest, we descended to the basement, where we swam up and down and lazily floated about for an hour, for in the basement was a heated pool!

We were the only people down there, and for one moment, I wished I had read my murder mystery book a little quicker and finished it. All alone in the ladies changing room, I heard a bump from the sauna! I squeaked and hurried out, called for Carl and made him investigate. Nothing was there! And then Carl mentioned that there was a sauna in the men’s changing room too. THEN we realised there was only one sauna, with two entry doors, and the bumping I heard was not a murderer, but Carl exploring!

I will not bore you with the particulars of breakfast except to say that it was a joy- the kind of buffet that caters for all nationalities, and it was so much fun to guess what each table would go for. Were they meat-and-cheese people, or fruit-and-yohgurt? Egg-and-bacon or cereal-and-juice? Sometimes I guessed right, but more often wrong!

Our first adventure of the day was to be climbing the belfry in the Markt square. It is very tall, with 366 steps (I tried to count, but lost my thread halfway up!) for more information, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belfry_of_Bruges In the picture on that website, you can see some tall dark windows above the clock; it was to here that we climbed. It was very hot work, and the stairway was very narrow, but the views across Bruges were amazing. I even managed to pick out our hotel bedroom window!

After this I was more than ready for a sit down, so we wandered down to the canals, where we had some lunch, before boarding a boat for a canal tour of Bruges. This is my favourite thing to do in Bruges; the feeling of being on the water is so lovely, and you get to see things from another perspective. Our boat was piloted by a man with an amazing gift for languages- he described the places we saw in English, German, French and Dutch! It was ever so hot, and I rather enjoyed it when we passed under the bridges, just for the shade!

Before we knew it, it was time to start thinking about doing a little shopping, before collecting our luggage from the hotel, and making our way back to the train station. I particularly wanted to buy a box of chocolates I had seen. The lid lifted up to reveal an intricate pop-up scene of Bruges, and then the chocolates pulled out in a drawer underneath. Unfortunately, I could not remember which shop I saw them in, and it is not exaggerating to say that there are a hundred chocolate shops in Bruges! I had almost resigned myself to buying some other chocolates instead, when all of a sudden, we came across one last shop, and there they were! Of course I was interested in the handmade chocolates, but the box was so pretty, I could imagine keeping little treasures in it, and bringing it out to show my nieces and nephews, and maybe one day grandchildren….

We chose some chocolates for Carl (raspberry creams and orange truffles) and then some chocolates for our family, and then visited the beer shop. We also bought a little lace ornament that we will hang from our Christmas tree, along with the crystal sledge we brought home from Barbados.

We only just made our train from Bruges to Brussels (there was another later one, but that would not have given us long before Eurostar left….a little too close for comfort) but I spent a lot of the journey fretting, because the electronic sign kept flashing up destination Brussels Zourd when we wanted Brussels Midi. Thankfully, they turned out to be the same thing!! It was whilst we were waiting to board Eurostar that I took a turn about the magazine shop, and this time, I spotted Victoria Magazine! We had a cup of tea (pretty glass cups, but again, cream instead of milk) which came with a tiny bar of chocolate, about the size of two first class stamps….just enough, and a delightful extra.

The train journey passed peacefully. I flicked through my new prized magazines, chatted with Carl, and drank the most delicious cup of coffee. It was about 10:00pm before we got home, and I have to say, that although I loved every moment of our adventure in Bruges, it was really good to be home.

(There will be pictures to go with this post, just need to get them off of the camera!)

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