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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I spotted an interesting looking door in an old wall and decided to investigate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We only really scratched the surface but felt that once again we had experienced an amazing day out a long way from home.