At 6am I was out of the door running through the canals to get on my train headed for Antwerp Belgium via Rotterdam and Dan Haag. The trip to Antwerp had some very nice scenery including old windmills on the rivers and tulip fields, but for the most part I was fading in and out of sleepy. I missed the connection from Antwerp to Bruges as the train arrived late so I waited another hour and picked up the train via Ghent to Bruges. The city of Bruges is quintessential cute and as I got off the train and heard the quirky Flemish language over the speakers I knew I was in for a treat. It is the best kept Medieval city in Europe as it was unaffected by war destruction for the most part. The main square is called the Marketplace and in the centre a huge monument stands looking over the towering church and grand palace.
Across the palace are several outdoor cafes and Belgian Frites stands. I picked up a basket of Frites and choose from the 25 or so sauces. I had a heaping portion of curried ketchup and garlic mayonnaise. The city has far superior canals to the dirty filthy gutters in Amsterdam. The canals have beautiful little houses with hanging gardens and potted plants throughout. Each street is filled with little shops selling hand made lace and a plethora of hand made chocolates can be found everywhere. The Belgian chocolate specialty is the Praline, which you may have eaten in the form of a Hedgehog or Sea Shell. Bruges is Belgium’s most visited city and therefore is a haven for tourists. Horse drawn carriages are everywhere and add a cutesy feel to the old town village ambiance. Many stores also sell the famous Belgian thin cookies that are ever so delicate and yummy.
I walked throughout the entire city which is easy and manageable to stroll through and stopped off at a huge swan park which showcases an ancient bridge and lagoon like pond. Next stop was a fulfillment of my Belgian waffle craving. I ordered a waffle from a sidewalk ice cream shop and enjoyed the 10 seconds of pleasure it gave me. Interesting note is that the waffles here take on more of a sweet pie crust texture and taste than at home. They do not pour a batter onto the grill but rather use a leavened dough which is already prepared and in a proofer throughout the day. I went all out and got a waffle with strawberries, chocolate sauce and banana gelato. Mid day I was barely able to stand up as it was so hot. I ran along the side of the street that was shaded in order to avoid the rays as much as possible. I decided to make my own dinner so entered the freezer like temperatures of the local supermarket. The cool interior was delightful and I purchased a big box of Jules Destrooper Belgian Biscuits assorted varieties. All of the best Belgian cookies in one box. I also purchased salami and some herb chicken slices with a brick of Chimay Belgian cheese. I couldn’t help myself so I purchased a little tub of garlic Boursin and smothered a baguette with the creamy wonderfulness. I had my last bottle of travel wine which I have been carrying since Portugal! It was a nice fruity white from the Porto region, fantastic.
In the morning I walked to the east outskirts of the city and exited the medieval city walls, walking along the exterior river bank. There is a strip of parkland which locals use to jog along and is the perfect picturesque little spot to start your morning. The park looks over the river and has 8 old style windmills located on little hill tops. I sat beside a windmill under the shade of a tree and listened to some music and enjoyed the scenery.
My first destination was the Chocolate Story Museum. The museum tells the story of how chocolate was invented, used as a social symbol, medicine etc. The Spaniards in Europe were the first to control the importation of cocoa and the Dutch soon started to smuggle the bean into the ports in Rotterdam. Soon the bean reached Antwerp and the entire area which is now Belgium, the rest is history! The regulation of Chocolate in Bruges started in 1712 when a tax was imposed so that only certain shops could sell to certain sorts of citizens, the aristocracy and merchant class. The story starts in Central America where the cocoa tree was used to create chocolate by the Aztecs as an offering to the gods. The earliest date of consumption known today is 600BC, at this time chocolate was consumed with peppers as a spicy addition to drinks and meats. An interesting tidbit: archaeologists found a legal contract outlining how cocoa the currency could purchase certain goods. One turkey egg was worth three beans, one tomato was one bean, five green peppers was one bean and one rabbit was worth ten beans. On the second floor the display cases are full of instruments used to make chocolate in the early times. The Milinillo is an elaborate wooden decorative whisk and frother that is used for liquid cocoa preparation. They look like expensive children’s rattles. In 1847 the English produced the first tablet of chocolate. In 1875 the Swiss produced the first milk chocolate with Nestle milk. In 1912 the Belgian praline came to be and in 1913 Lindtt produced the first filled chocolates. An entire room described the patriotic world of Belgian chocolatiers as each year a huge competition is held throughout the country to find the BEST Belgian Praline. The final part of the tour was a live demonstration of how to make Belgian Praline cups. Chocolate making is much more of a science than anything else as tempering chocolate is a very precise art and the knowledge of exact temperatures is essential. The Chocletier said that it takes one and a half hours to make on praline from start to finish. That’s a bit labor intensive but so worth it, I heart Belgian Pralines! In the gift shop I noticed some very interesting little goods such as Rubbers Chocolade Jenever which is a chocolate spirit with an alcohol content of 17 percent.
For lunch I visited Cafe Vlissinghe the oldest bar in Bruges, which opened all the way back in 1515. For lunch I visited the highly recommended De Pas Partout which specializes in Flemish cuisine. I had a bowl of leek soup, which to my astonishment was refilled for free! I had a one euro glass of Pils beer and the special of the day called Vogelnestie Champignons met tomatenaus puree. I had no clue what I was getting other than some mushrooms and tomato sauce. On my plate sat a huge dollop of mashed potatoes, mushrooms with gravy and a sphere cut in half revealing a boiled egg in the center. Around the boiled egg was a savoury and spicy meat loaf with a breaded exterior. This was all surrounded by a nice zesty tomato sauce. I sat with a local man that I met at the entrance while waiting for the spot to open up. He told me that the restaurant is very good and the only place that really specializes in local cuisine. He also said the people that come here are typically invalids. I didn’t really understand him and thought he was making some sort of joke. Once I sat down I realized he was serious. Sitting across from me was a very nice blind man and to my left and right were two deaf ladies and a schizophrenic. There is a charity center right close to the restaurant so people with special needs tend to come here for the cheap local dining options. A wild meal I will never forget with bazaar company.
After lunch I walked to De Halve Maan Brewpub. It was built in 1856 and is the only brewery left in Bruges. They produce the Bruges Zot which translates to “Fool From Bruges.” They won the 2006 World Beer Cup in the Belgium in the French style Ale category. The guide was hilarious and could have a very successful comedy club career if she ever so chose to change her occupation. She called American 4 percent beer “Children’s Table Beer” and called it ridiculous. Belgian beer is the strongest beer in the world with beers up to 12.5 percent alcohol by volume! Belgians love their glasses: regular glasses, tulip shaped and even ones that look like mad scientist test tubes! We entered a very cool room with over 700 beer cans on the walls and over 200 different beer glasses in huge glass cases. She explained the process of brewing and the major ingredients. The Belgians don’t follow the RUBISH law of the Germans and like to add various flavorings such as orange, lemon rind, cardamom, cinnamon and honey to give an interesting sweet taste to their drinks. We walked a total of 220 steps throughout the very steep building to the very top which where were able to walk out onto a patio and get a beautiful panoramic view of the city. FACT, Belgians drink 225L of beer each a year. The guide said this with great shame as they used to be first but have plumeted to 5th place. I recall that Czech Republic are first and the Germans are 2nd. At the end of the tour we were ushered into the brewpub restaurant and given a wonderful Blond Ale. The beer was smooth, sweet and a bit cloudy. Throughout the tour I had a Jewish family behind me from New Jersey. The husband was half the size of me and was one of those characters that makes the most ridiculous jokes that are obvious and not a bit funny. On queue his entire family would fake laugh as if it was compulsory. I was glad to have met them as their son didn’t use his drink ticket so I was given another glass full of the honey coloured Blond. On my walk back to the hostel I stopped by the Choco Bar which is a high end bar and restaurant that specializes in everything made from chocolate. They have over 40 different varieties of chocolate milk and take the chocolate experience to a whole new level. Much like Starbucks coffee which can be purchased by origin and region, you can purchase your hot cocoa from Columbia, Costa Rica or Panama. Most interesting was their entrée: rabbit in beer and chocolate sauce.
My last words before I sign off: I wanted to scream to the world good news. I have found the most exciting map on earth. All of my travels in Bruges were aided by the “Crazy Map Of Bruges for Young People.” It is absolutely hilarious and you see many older tourists using it as well. It suggested my beer tour, Choc Bar visit, and today’s interesting lunch with the special people as well as many other hot spots in the city. The map even outlines the 5 parks and describes them as follows: chill out park, picnic, foot ball park and my favorite “the frisbee and cute asses park.”
Some interesting fun facts from my map:
Belgium used to have the highest suicide rate in Europe so town council here declared Langetraat the official “Hello Street.” There are traffic signs that advise you to salute your fellow pedestrian. This was an attempt to abolish all depressive behavior. De Vuurmplen holds Belgium’s record for most beers per square meter. They serve 1750 liters per week, which is 7000 glasses or 1000 per day! One of the funniest facts on the map is the Pantpeeing segment where they warn tourists against public wild pees. Bruges has the highest penalty on wild pees in the country. It will cost you 152 euros! Finally I wanted to mention the three famous churches. One is on the market square, the second houses Michelangelo’s only commissioned sculpture outside of Italy called Madonna and Child and the last church is a huge pilgrim site as it is said that Jesus’ blood is held in a vile which can be seen every day at 12 noon.
I spent my last evening in Bruges sitting at the hostel bar drinking two very unique beers from the area. The first is called Bruges Straffe Hendrik and is a dark yellow and woody flavored beer served in a goblet which looks like a salad bowl sitting on a stick. The second beer I purchased called Kwak, solely for the glass which is over a foot tall and looks like a mad scientists test tube. The bottom is a sphere and since it does not have a flat bottom you are given a wooden holder to place the glass in when you are not drinking. The beer was dark amber and tasted like candy with a bitter after taste. As I drank these beers I watched the rain patter down and read a little article on the famous cartoonists from Belgium who created Tin Tin and the Smurfs. Throughout the streets you could hear the crowds screaming during the Italy vs Germany game. Unfortunately Germany lost and all day today there have been news reports showing thousands of crying Germans. What a bummer they had to lose when the games are in their country this year. Tonight Portugal vs France and then on the 9th it all comes down to the final game! The evening was less than stellar as I experienced the most intense thunderstorm of my life. I had my eyes closed and the lightening actually felt as though someone was flashing their camera in my eyes. The thunder was mind blowing and actually hurt my ears after a few minutes. I tried to picture myself during one of the World Wars feeling as though the sounds of bombs going off in the Flemish countryside in Ypres just a few miles away must have sounded similar to this storm I was experiencing. To end all bad sleeps, my entire room of Spaniard tourists arrived at 4am from the pub down the street singing as loudly as they possibly could and dancing around my room. They woke me up and I could have killed them, but I believe so strongly in world peace!
An amazing city with plenty of history and good eats. You could sit by the river for hours just staring and people watching. Tonight I plan to enjoy the spitting rain which promises to cool down and enjoy a draft beer from the hostels bar with the ends of my dinner treats from the night before.