Bruges in six hours

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A European city break has become something of an October tradition for me. For the past six or seven years I have looked forward to a few days on the continent, but this year,  and last,  I tried something a bit different, choosing to sail rather than fly, and spending just a day at my destination. Last week I set off on a three day round trip to the lovely Belgian city of Bruges.

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We departed from the port of Hull at 6:30pm on Tuesday for an overnight sail to Zeebrugge. The 14 hour crossing was smooth and relaxing on calm water. Having traversed the North Sea several times now, my early fears of sea-sickness or sinking have been eradicated. Basic cabins are small – sometimes VERY small – but serve their purpose for the two nights on board; other amenities on P&O ferries are excellent. My feelings about sailing have changed, and I now look forward to the voyage as part of my mini break. We docked at the Belgian port on Wednesday morning as we watched the sun rise over our continental breakfast.

From Zeebrugge it was just a 30 minute coach ride to the historic city of Bruges. Setting us down just outside the city centre, our driver gave us directions and told us what time to meet up again later in the day.

 


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Bruges is well-known for its horse-pulled carriages, a popular way for tourists to see the city. Personally, I don’t like horses being used like this when there’s so much traffic on the roads, just as a touristy gimmick. I was glad to see though that the animals I encountered seemed well cared for.

We walked through a small water park where bold evergreens contrasted with muted yellows and russets on sparse branches and passed an attractive building with paving in the style of a chess board.

 

Bruges is a small city and it’s perfectly possible for most people to be able to walk around the central areas in a day, visiting museums and stopping off at cafes and restaurants along the way; but I was with my mum, who has mobility difficulties and uses a walking aid, so we went at a slower pace and decided to get a flavour rather than try everything on the menu. One wonderful flavour which dominates in Bruges is chocolate.

 

 

 

Belgian chocolate is famous the world over. Walk around Bruges and your nose will twitch with delight at the rich aroma escaping from the abundance of artisan shops on every street. Most sell the same range of goodies whilst others offer a more bespoke and artistic selection at a higher price. Many chocolatiers had created special Halloween treats such as the skulls in the window in the photo above. Another famous Belgian confection is the sweet waffle, served with a variety of toppings including fresh cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce, hot caramel and ice cream to name a few. Waffles are cooked fresh as street food and are also on the menu in most cafes.

We continued our leisurely stroll towards the centre of the city, passing the canal where we admired the swans and watched one of the city tour boats heading under the bridge.

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Undeterred by my misgivings about the design of the tour boats, mum and I decided to view Bruges from the water, not one of my better decisions as it turned out. We made our way to one of the landing stages and paid our €10 each. Despite there being two other empty vessels waiting, we were ushered into the first, which already seemed to me to be overloaded. Mum required some help getting in, and those already seated were urged by the skipper to squash up. To our dismay, about six other people were made to get in after us, with an American lady being quite vocal about wanting to board one of the other boats instead. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. So off we sailed, packed in like sardines, low in the water and barely able to move. Photography was not easy, but I did get some shots of what was a very picturesque waterside vista.

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The crow-stepped architectural style is typical of buildings all over the city. Once a major European trading port, Bruges – or Brugge, in Flemish – has evolved since medieval times and incorporates a variety of styles as revealed as we wound our way around the bends and under the ancient low bridges. Unfortunately, our rather primitive sailing vessel was not equipped with the usual audio ports and headphones which provide an interesting accompaniment to any tour, in a range of languages; instead we relied on our skipper, unenthusiastically pointing out a few key landmarks and furnishing us with sparse details in French, Spanish, German and English, always in that order. By the time we got to the English bit, the landmark would be behind us and impossible to view when any movement would surely knock one’s neighbour into the water. Back at the landing stage our joyful skipper told us it was customary to tip the driver and stood with his hand outstretched by way of an extra visual clue. We waited for the other passengers to disembark so that mum had time to carefully step up on to the bank, and to his credit our guide did lend a hand, but then spoiled the gesture by demanding the ‘customary’ tip which I had to give in order to get past him. Other people have told me of lovely experiences on the Bruges canals, so I guess we were just unlucky, and it was the only negative of the day.

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I spotted an interesting looking door in an old wall and decided to investigate.

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We found ourselves inside a passage way which opened up into the courtyard of the Beguinge or Begijnhof. Dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary, this was once a church and religious community of Benedictine nuns, founded in 1245, though the present buildings date back to the 1600s only. The nuns dedicated their lives to prayer and simplicity but didn’t take vows and could leave the community at any time. Now, the church is still open and some of the buildings are part of a museum. Numerous signs indicated that visitors should be silent and not take photographs (saw that one too late) so we didn’t stick around, despite the peaceful atmosphere.

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Unfortunately, the quaint cobbles of some of Bruges’ main streets were, like the rest of the modern world, subject to construction works, which made navigation just a tad trickier, but as we slowly made our way along we enjoyed browsing in some of the specialist shop windows. Bruges is also famous for textile production going back centuries, mainly cloth and lace. This tradition is still well represented with souvenirs aplenty.

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By this time we were ready for lunch, which necessarily included waffles. Everywhere was crowded but friendly and we took some time to relax and watch the world go by. There really is something special about Europe in the autumn.

With half our allotted time remaining, we ventured on, reaching the busy market square and arguably Bruges’ best known landmark, the Belfry. I had at first been excited to learn that Wednesday was market day, and had visions of exquisite little curiosity stalls where I would be tempted to part with me euros. Unfortunately, it was a market like any other, selling the usual commodities, but there was an definite buzz around the cafes and the entrances to the interesting side streets.

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Typical selfish tourist, I was quite put out that such banal commercial activity was spoiling this ( market) square and my photo opportunities. At 83m high, the Belfry is a dominant presence in Bruges. Like so many other buildings, it was constructed in the 13th century, originally as an observation post attached to a market hall. It later served as the city treasury and municipal archives. Visitors can ascend its 366 steps to get a fabulous view of the whole of Bruges. If only I’d had time….

The hour is marked by the beautiful ringing of the Belfry’s 16th century carillon, consisting of 47 bells of which 26 are still in full working order.

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We decided on one of the attractive looking streets leading off from the market square. At first I thought we could have chosen better, as we seemed to have found ourselves on a long and modern shopping street. A few twists and turns brought us to Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, so we decided to go inside.

Brugge was the home of the old Flemish Masters, so it should not have come as a surprise that the city’s Cathedral was in some ways a gallery of religious art. We spent longer than expected admiring the rich oil paintings and intricate sculptures along with more modern interpretations of Christian expression. Below are just a few.

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We emerged from the Cathedral into the sunshine again and decided to spend our last hour-and-a-half meandering through the streets and along the canals back to the water park. We found that the views from the pavement were actually just as good as from the water, and certainly more comfortable.

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We only really scratched the surface but felt that once again we had experienced an amazing day out a long way from home.

Travelling back in time

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Last year saw rail chaos in the north of England. At its peak during the summer months hundreds of trains in the region were cancelled every day; of those that ran, far more were delayed than were on time. The impact on my life was minimal compared with the horrific experiences endured daily by thousands of people who depended on Northern trains to get them to and from work. By way of compensation for some of my delayed journeys, Northern sent me several travel vouchers entitling me to free rail journeys. This small collection of freebies has remained in a drawer for nearly a year, so this weekend I thought I’d make use of a couple of them before they expired.

The first leg of the journey was to Grange-over-Sands.It was going to be a changeable day according to the Met Office, and as we sped across the viaduct at Arnside the bright sunshine of early morning was replaced by threatening cloud with the first of the day’s light showers appearing just as I alighted at Grange. I briefly regretted not bringing an umbrella, but the rain had stopped by the time I boarded the bus outside Grange Station to get to my next destination.

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Just 17 minutes later I alighted at Haverthwaite railway station. This once busy branch line of the Furness Railway transported iron ore to the industrial regions of the north west of England until the industry finally went into decline. Popular also with holiday-makers travelling to Lake Windermere, the station finally closed to passengers in 1965 and to freight trains two years later. From the time of the line’s demise, work was going on behind the scenes to purchase steam engines and carriages for preservation. These were stored at nearby Carnforth until a deal would be struck with British Rail for the line to be sold into private ownership. Seven years later, after numerous obstacles, objections and with the support of parliamentary lobbying, the purchase was realised and in 1973 the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway Company reopened the line. The station has been beautifully restored, developed and maintained; shiny red paintwork, window boxes, planters and shrubs offer a welcome contrast with the usual soulless modern railway buildings.

I had planned my day so that I would have an hour or so to spare before boarding the vintage train to Lakeside. Hungry by this time, I decided to try out the tea rooms for some lunch. Walking from the front to the platform I passed a huge pile of coal, obviously fuel for the steam trains. For environmental reasons, Haverthwaite and other vintage train attractions may not be around for too much longer as we seek to reduce our national carbon footprint. I wanted to ride in a train of yesteryear before the last of them are shunted off to museums.

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After a tasty and substantial lunch in the pleasant and reasonably-priced (if somewhat over-crowded) tea rooms I had just 10 minutes to wait before our engine, Victor, chugged up to the platform, whistle blowing and enveloped in an aura of steam. The returning passengers emerged, and it was time to board.

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Like the tea rooms, the train was mainly occupied by young and very noisy children, and I felt rather like I was tagging along on a pre-school outing. I tried to talk myself into a more tolerant, less grumpy mindset, but then another young family took the seats behind and started to sing with great gusto (the parents in particular) about the wheels on the train going round and round all day long. As always on such occasions I resorted to my trusty ear-plugs which remained in place for the next 20 minutes. Settling into my sagging but nostalgically comfortable seat, I appreciated the tints of autumn on display through the window as the train’s gentle rhythm merged harmoniously with the melodic sounds of Agnes Obel. The wheels on the train went round and round, the whistle blew and trails of white steam floated past the window and up above the pastoral scenery.

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Arriving at Lakeside station on the southern tip of Lake Windermere, it was time to leave Victor the steam engine and start the next part of my journey. I observed that almost all of the people with children were heading towards the adjacent Lakeside Aquarium; so that explained it. This must be a typical weekend lunch/ train/ marine life combo.

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I’m glad I made the trip, just for the experience, but I wouldn’t rush back. It was time to get in the queue for my next embarkation.