Bruges first became a popular tourist destination in the late 1800s after a novelist penned a few words about the city, condemning it as a poor, dirty, and desperate place. Word of its reputation soon spread, and people from all over Europe and the United States flocked to the small Flemish city in northern Belgium. A little over a hundred years later, the Irish playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh makes the city the hideaway spot for his two Irish hit men in the award-winning film In Bruges, whose main character, played by loveable if not lewd Colin Farrell, endlessly rips on the sleepy city. Again, after Bruges is insulted, people from all over the world flock to it, and in 2002 it was named the European Capital of Culture.
I couldn’t have cared less about it being the “Cultural Capital of Europe” or anything else; I went to Bruges because of the same reason as everyone else: I really loved In Bruges and wanted to go see all the same things that I saw in the film. I do want to try and justify my obviously tourist-like decision by saying that I’m a big fan of McDonagh’s work in general and not just his movie. In other words, the terrible “I liked it before it was popular” argument.
My flight from Dublin to Belgium, courtesy of RyanAir, was a smooth one on a early Friday morning. Upon landing, over the plane’s intercom they played, I kid you not, a loud bugle call, and announced, “Congratulations! This has been another… ON TIME flight by RyanAir!” The whole plane cheered and clapped. I’m not sure if it was out of mockery or if they were generally just that communally happy about the announcement. I’ve only ever seen people bond over hatred of airlines before, but not here it seems. From the Chareloi Airport, or the “Friendly Airport” as it liked to call itself, it took me a couple of hours by train to get to Bruges (or Brugge in Flemish), but thankfully my mastery of the English language, which all Belgians seem to be quite fluent in, I was able to find the right way around and get there without any trouble.
I spent my Friday afternoon wandering around the city, getting the feel of it, enjoying its “natural” sights (the old buildings and canals), and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my evening and the next day. In the main market square area is the famous belfry tower, visible from around most of the city, and thus making it a great way to orient yourself when you’re inevitable lost in the medieval city’s maze-like streets. The belfry tower has several big scenes in In Bruges, including the infamous remarks made at its bottom by Colin Ferrel to a couple of “large” American tourists whom he calls “elephants.” 400 winding and increasingly narrow steps up the tower, definitely not for the claustrophobic, gives you a absolutely fantastic view of the entire city, as well as an unbridled amount of couple’s initials written on the walls, and the occasional In Bruges quote as well. The five euro ticket and the hundreds of steep steps is well worth for the magnificent old city, with its grand old gates in each of the cardinal points, and the winding canals the separate sections of the remarkably well-preserved city.
I continued my self-led walking tour of the city, stopping from time to time for little local delicacies. I nibbled on sweet chocolate delights, delicious fries (or frites), and sampled local Belgian beers. After the sun settled down and the temperature dropped I made my way to a little restaurant that was off the main tourist tracks so I could be away from too much commotion. Inside, I found a warm fire place, cheerful company, and a brilliant steak with homemade béarnaise sauce. To say this young boy’s tummy was in a place as wonderful as any heaven would be no lie. As I left the restaurant, I looked up and the entire sky was free of overcrowding clouds, and the cold air only served to make the stars shine even brighter. The moon’s reflection lit up in the calm still of the canals, a perfect mirror broken by not a single ripple as I passed.
One of the fun parts about staying at hostels in foreign countries is that you get to meet people from all over the world, and I’ve have had some pretty good experiences with these strangers, even if it’s just watching bad movies together late at night in the hostel’s common room and laughing together at them. That first night in Bruges was not one of them. As I came back from a bar I stopped at on the way back, my three unknown roommates were just heading out for the night, so I wished them luck and told them to “have a good time.” I very much regretted those words when I was woken up, through several sleeping pills no less, as they barged in around four or five in the morning and helped one of their friends into bed as he puked over and over into a small trashcan. I guess they had a good time then.
Up early the next morning, I started doing the tours I had planned earlier. First up was the Fries Museum, because fries are a big enough deal in Belgium, apparently, that they warrant their own museum. They described the history and all the different varieties of potatoes, which… frankly, wasn’t all that interesting. The best part was a comic display they had to explain to kids about potatoes and fries, which I loved because it had to deal with the awkward Irish potato famine issue, which the main potato character explained by some of his family going to Ireland and “getting really sick.” No kidding. At the end, the female potato character, as a fry, had some images of her/it that I thought were a little unnecessarily sexual, in a way that was more creepy and unintentionally hilarious than anything else.
The next museum stop was the Chocolate Museum, because Belgian chocolate is delicious and I’d almost assuredly get free samples. Which I did, and in whole handfuls of which I enjoyed each and every bite. Most of the actual chocolate history wasn’t terrible interesting or exciting, but it was worth it for the giant chocolate statues they had at the end, including a poor representation of President Obama. There was also a live demonstration on how they make chocolate, including a sample tasting of freshly made chocolate bites. The Chocolate Museum was also partnered with the next door Lamp Museum, where you could learn about the “exciting” history of lamps and all of their varieties. Thankfully, my life is not so depressingly dull that I had any interest in spending an hour learning about lamps.
I walked through various squares and markets, with local vendors peddling their goods from carts in a very traditional, and somehow comforting, way. I started to regret coming to Bruges exactly when I did, because as I walked through the city’s streets they were just in the process of setting up all of its Christmas decorations around town. Lights were being strung over the streets and giant Christmas trees were set up in the open markets. Had I come only a few weeks later I’m sure they would have finished and the cityscape would be bursting with Christmas cheer. So it goes. As I walked around I decided to grab lunch on the go from a little take-away place serving pastas. Since I knew no better, I got a large pasta, overflowing with yummy bolognaise sauce and fresh parmesan cheese, and it easily could have served two people at a fine restaurant. I took my obese lunch to a secluded park so I wouldn’t be judged as I scarfed it down like a pig, and enjoyed the quiet little scene I had found for myself away from all the other tourists.
I had two more visits planned for that day, and after a stop or two for more local beers, I went to the Burg. Though I am not a religious person by any means or definitions, to visit a church and see a vial that supposedly contains the blood of Jesus Christ is an opportunity one really doesn’t pass up regardless of beliefs or affiliations. Plus, it was free, so it literally didn’t cost me anything except a moment of my time. The church, just a few dozen steps from the belfry tower, had signs posted all over reminding visitors in as many languages as possible to be respectful and quiet inside. I entered and inside I saw on a raised platform a man in bright white robes presiding over a table with the aforementioned vial. There was a short line to go up and touch the vial, afterwards the man in robes would wipe it clean before the next person came up. I thought it would be inappropriate for me to go up there, but it did give me a moment’s pause to think about that vial’s history, the implications of it, and many other what-if type deals. The cynic in me had hoped to see something as I left the church and I must admit that I was taken aback by my being wrong; I had expected to find a gift shop selling tacky and overpriced trinkets and mementos to all the pilgrims and tourists who came to visit, but there wasn’t one to be found in the church. I was happy to have my faith in humanity restored a bit after the lack of a capitalistic presence there.
I then made my way to tour the local beer brewery. On my way, I stopped at a local convent and walked through its beautiful gardens, filled with ducks and swans swimming about in the tranquil channels flowing nearby. With the sun setting into an orange sky, it was a serene moment of beauty. But on I went to the brewery! The brewery, I learned had first been established sometime in the 1500s, or something like that, and had more or less been running ever since. The current brewers had been running it in their family for about five or six generations, so they knew a fair bit about what they were doing. As interesting as the tour was, I must say that it really didn’t match up to Dublin’s Guinness Factory, though I may be a bit biased in that opinion. But the beer at the end had a wonderful taste, so I had no regrets.
I dined at a restaurant overlooking one of the canals, while the moon bright light lit up the water. As I came to my desert, crepes with strawberries, an older British couple sat next to me and I struck up a chat with them. As we talked, the man asked me where I was from, so I told him I was from Minnesota. From across the room, where had heard some American accents earlier, a young woman made eye contact with me and shouted above the dim and hum of the restaurant, “Where in Minnesota?” I couldn’t believe that this was happening once again. “Near Saint Cloud,” I replied as I went over to their table. She was from Minnesota too, clearly, and she and her friends were working in France. We exchanged information and they offered to host me if I ever decided to hop over to Paris. Well done Minnesota diaspora, well done. I spent most of the night bar hopping, finally ending in a lovely little movie theater watching a Woody Allen flick before I retired back to my bed for my early wake up for my train back to the airport.
If I have spent what seems to be an inordinate or excessive amount of time talking about my gluttonous adventures instead of things to visit or see, it is because that in Bruges the “grand” sights are fewer in number as compared to London for example. The joy of Bruges I would argue is in the simple beauty of the old medieval city itself and walking around its time-worn streets. That, and enjoying the exquisite cuisines and beers there; with the exception of a glass of fresh orange juice I had with breakfast, the only liquids that passed through my lips were Belgian beers. I do believe I sampled over a dozen beers at least while in the city over my two days there, and they were for the most part quite excellent.
I must also add that while I have described the city in such a positive and flattering to convey a sense of love and pleasure at the time I spent in Bruges, I want to make mention that I hated it. Absolutely hated it; I had an awful time there. Why? Because if you visit the city alone, and I mean that in multiple sense of the word, then the city will make sure you do not forget that you are there alone. Bruges is a very couple-oriented city, from its canal and horse-carriage rides, to the romantic viewpoints it offers. Even the tourist guide the hostel gave me is explicit about this, offering suggestions on its map for romantic “kissing locations.” For Bruges, it’s basically Valentine’s Day every single day, and if you’re there alone any feelings of isolation or loneliness you may have are going to be magnified and amplified by about a million. So, do go if you have someone to go with, especially if they’re “yours” as you’ll have an amazing time. But if you’re thinking about going alone, think twice, or good luck. You’ll need it.