After visiting London, Bruges, Belgium, was the second city we visited in our trip to Europe. We’d heard great things from some friends of ours who had traveled there a few years ago, and our pre-trip research of the city looked promising.
Bruges overall impressions
A relic of the medieval ages, Bruges is amazingly quaint and charming and other similar adjectives. Called the Venice of the North because of its abundance of canals, the city looks like its been there for hundreds of years because it has. Bruges is filled with small shops and narrow streets; it’s easy to get lost in the city, but that’s part of the experience. Bruges sits in the northern portion of Belgium, a country in which both French and Dutch are commonly spoken (the Dutch spelling of the city is “Brugge”).
The most recognizable landmark in Bruges is likely its famous belfry. The tower was originally built in the 13th century and has had multiple additions throughout the years. It played a large role in the movie In Bruges, a film I hadn’t seen until our plane ride to Europe. Inside, we climbed to the top of the tower, up 366 steps in a very tight spiral staircase, sometimes a thick rope hanging down the middle served as a “railing” to hold on to. At the top we had an amazing view of the city and stood beneath the bells as they played songs.
A common theme of our trip (because it seems to be a common theme of all of Europe) was visiting extravagant churches. Bruges has three major ones and we visited two: Church of Our Lady and St Salvator’s Cathedral. The Church of Our Lady had a huge collection of Mary-focused pantings, sculptures, and other works of art. One was the Madonna and Child or “the Bruges Madonna” (featured in The Monuments Men), a marble sculpture that is believed to be the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy during his lifetime. St Salvator’s Cathedral was undergoing a renovation at the time, but we were still able to see its architecture and art as well.
I’d never been a huge fan of waffles, but I’d never been to Belgium before. Just next to the belfry, on the street between the Burg square and the Markt square was a walk-up waffle shop called Chez Albert. For only €3.5, you could get a warm delicious waffles smothered in chocolate sauce. It was incredible and we had it two straight days. (The second day, we had strawberries on top also. Healthier, right?) Interestingly, they waffle “batter” was more a dough. I’m convinced this made all the difference and I’ve been looking for a recipe.
While waffles were the highlight for me, the rest of the food we had in Bruges was fantastic. At our bed and breakfast, the innkeeper made a relatively huge breakfast every day that included lots of fruits, yogurt, meat, cheese, and chocolate. Local fare we ate included fish stew, a half chicken, toasted sandwiches, and pomme frites (french fries, served with mayonnaise). Oh yeah, did I mention chocolate?
Belgium was the first stop on our trip where the native language wasn’t English, and we were immediately put to the test when we got off the train from London in Brussels. We knew our ticket to Bruges was paid for, but we didn’t know exactly how to get to it and there was seemingly no one to ask. After a few educated guesses, we found “Brugge” on a signboard and went to the right track. The interesting mix of French and Dutch was fun to hear, and most people we interacted with also knew English (as the UK is just across the Channel).
Right before we got married, I went to the bank to buy some pesos for our honeymoon to Mexico. We didn’t need them at all. I made no such effort for this trip and in London, I’m not sure that we even saw a pound. We used our chip-and-pin Chase credit card for everything and it was perfect. In Bruges, however, we needed cash to do some shopping at some of the small shops and to pay for our bed and breakfast. There was one ATM near the Markt square that we visited. We withdrew some Euros and that sustained us the rest of the trip. (I still have some.)
It took us just a few hours to get from the metropolis of London to the small city of Bruges (a journey consisting of the Chunnel and three countries) thanks to the modern marvel of high-speed trains. I’m kind of in love with high-speed trains and their lack of seat belts, boarding process, baggage fees, and claustrophobia. You walk on to a train, sit in your seat, and off you go. Our train stopped in Brussels, where we transferred to a (slower) commuter train to Bruges. The regional train felt a bit like a subway train, just above ground and covering further distances. There were no assigned seats, just hop on and go to another city.
Although the majority of our time was spent in Bruges, we also saw a bit of Brussels. When our train arrived from London, we immediately swapped trains. But on our way back, we had about two hours between the arrival of our Bruges train and the boarding of our Paris train. Brussels, or at least the portion that we saw, reminded me a lot of New York. We walked a few blocks to the Grand Place, a large historic square. We also saw Mannequin Pis, surround by a ridiculously large crowd of people. We quickly made our way back to the train station to catch our train to Paris.
Things we missed
Fortunately, there were very few touristy things in Bruges that we missed. We didn’t make it to The Basilica of the Holy Blood, a church that claims to a vial of Jesus’s blood. While there were plenty of shops that we didn’t make it to, we did see a wide assortment of chocolate, tea, Christmas, and other shops. With our limited stop in Brussels, we missed much of the sights, notably the EU and NATO headquarters, Atomium, and many famous historic sights, churches, and museums. Maybe next time.
It’s been more than three months, but I’m finally getting a chance to write a bit about our amazing trip to Europe. Rather than ramble on and on as I’m prone to do (just ask anyone who’s sat through the whole photo-showing session), I’m breaking up my post into five parts: one for every major city we visited. So here goes.
London overall impressions
Man, I want to go back. London as a city reminded me a lot of New York. We stayed at a hotel off Victoria Road in Westminster, so we were surrounded by townhouses and apartments, just blocks from office buildings and major streets, just like Manhattan. Also like Manhattan, if you walked a block or two you ran into something famous. We saw plenty of the familiar red busses and phone booths, but we also saw tons of Pret A Manger locations, "Look Right" directions at crosswalks, red and white Tube trains, and other things that I now associate with London.
Everything next to one another
My first time in New York, I passed Trinity Church, saw Federal Hall, and turned around to see the New York Stock Exchange. London reminded me of that. Standing at Westminster Abbey, we could see Parliament and the Eye directly across the Thames. Just a few blocks away sits 10 Downing Street and just past that is Buckingham Palace. It’s amazing that so much is in such close proximity.
Our hotel was just a few blocks from Westminster Abbey, home of a millennium of history and a bunch of dead famous people. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, and literally dozens of royalty are all in the same (quite large) room. Unfortunately this was one of the only places we went where photographs weren’t allowed, but the Abbey is amazingly huge and impressive. The highlight for me was the Henry VII Lady Chapel with its amazingly intricate ceiling that was barely spared from the German bombs that fell just a few feet away during World War II.
Tower of London
While many of the major tourist sights are amazing in how they’re still used (Westminster Abbey has services; people live at Buckingham Palace), the Tower of London was straight up touristy. There were field trips and museum-like displays and (very well-done) tours led by Yeoman Warders. It was also expensive (£22 each!), but I still enjoyed the experience. It’s an incredible site, at times home of the government, prisoners, and now rotating exhibits in the White Tower. In the US, I expect tours of historic sites to tell me what happened there. The Tower is so old, a comprehensive history isn’t even known: many of the stories are just lore or unsolved history. And even the history is unbelievable: in the (still operating) chapel, thousands of bodies are buried inches under the floor. Oh, and right next door are the Crown Jewels: the sickeningly extravagant coronation hardware that has been used for hundreds of years (no pictures allowed here either).
It’s ridiculous how much history is at the British Museum, starting with the Rosetta Stone. Obviously the most popular attraction, the stone was surrounded by a huge crowd (on the side with writing) and much larger than I imagined it. (I had seen a model of it in high school that I thought was life-size. It wasn’t. Maybe a tenth of the real size.) Other crazy old artifacts include Egyptian mummies (like actual real bodies in there), board games from Ur, and my favorite: the huge lion hunt carving from Ninevah (like Daniel’s Ninevah). Wild. It was also interesting to see the Native American room. Old hat to us, but quite packed by curious British students.
Our only excursion outside the city was taking a bus to Stonehenge (thanks, Chase Rewards points!), a site Lori has always wanted to visit. Our bus (sorry, “coach”) driver was a character who gave us a bit of a tour of our route two hours out to Stonehenge. Once we got to the site, we walked out to the stones and followed the path around, taking lots of pictures and listening to the audio guide. I always knew that Stonehenge was an impressive feat, but seeing the rocks up close makes you realize how incredibly heavy they are, yet how amazing it is that they’ve been there thousands of years. Unexpectedly, those rocks in that windy field were one of my favorite parts of the trip.
The Lion King
For something completely non-historic, we decided a week or two before leaving to try to catch a musical in West End. Neither of us have seen a musical on Broadway, and we figured the British version would be quite an experience. Out of all the plays and musicals, we chose The Lion King. I’m not a theater expert by any means, but it was fantastic. Having seen the movie dozens (hundreds?) of times, it was equal parts familiar and completely new. Very well done and I’d highly recommend it.
While we never toured Buckingham Palace (it wasn’t open for visitors while we were there), we walked by it multiple times to look and take pictures. On our last day in London, we sent to see the Changing the Guard ceremony. We arrived 45 minutes early, but that was too late to be able to see much of the ceremony. We watched the beginning, but as it started to rain, we began walking down The Mall. We saw the traffic halt and a police-escorted car drove by. The Queen and Philip were sitting in the backseat. We later checked Facebook and realized that we had a friend on the other side of the crowd. Elizabeth’s car drove by and they got a better photo than we did.
Watching the news
I love watching the local news when traveling, and the London morning show on the BBC was a delight to watch. First of all, they spoke English (which means we didn’t see any other city’s news on this trip). It was interesting to see current issues in Britain (Cameron vs Miliband was the topic du jour while we were there) as well as the British reports on international news (the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls was a major story at the time). When we got back to the US, I found streams of the BBC and SkyNews and occasionally watch them to get my UK news and British accent fix.
We weren’t extremely adventurous with food in London as we were typically on the go, trying to pack everything into our few days. The most unorthodox (for us) included fish and chips, pie and mash, ham pizza with an egg on top, hummus wraps, and a prawn and mayonnaise sandwich. All were delicious.
Things we missed
We lost about 12 hours in London because of our flight issues (arrived late, missed flight) in Toronto. There is plenty that we ruled out because of time constraints anyway, but the delay cut out even more. We didn’t go up in the Eye (so expensive), into Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Gallery, or St Paul’s Cathedral, though we walked all around them. We missed Abbey Road, 221B Baker Street (or Speedy’s Cafe), Regent’s Park, the Greenwich Observatory, or anything outside of London except Stonehenge. I could easily spend another week in London and not double up on any thing. We crammed quite a bit into two and a half days.