A little later than planned, but here it is – what we did in Bruges. I’ve covered how we got to Zeebrugge (‘Bruges-on-sea’) in a post about the P&O Ferries ‘mini-cruise’ posted on Tuesday, so this picks up where that left off.
After alighting from the ferry we got onto one of several coaches for the half hour journey from Zeebrugge to Bruges. It’s actually not that far as the crow flies but we were slowed down by roadworks and the coach drop-off point being to the south of Bruges city centre – Zeebrugge is on the coast to the north, so we had to go around the Bruges western bypass.
We were duly dropped off at a small island off the southern tip of the city centre – this is presumably the main coach drop off point for all visiting coaches as there were plenty of ‘Welcome to Bruges’ signs in four languages and a rather grand modern red bridge taking you over one of Bruges’ many canals. This leads into the Minnewaterpark, a nice public park that we should have walked through, it being the quickest route into the centre. Instead we got confused by a sign aimed at cyclists and took a longer and less interesting route.
We aimed for The Markt first of all, which is one of Bruges’ two large public squares. It sits in the shadow of the Belfort, a belltower with over 40 bells that you can climb up for views of the city (we didn’t). From here you can pay €39 for a tour of the city by horse and cart (the price is set by the city council) or visit one of the many overpriced brasseries around the edge. Seriously, these places are expensive; we ended up having lunch here as we struggled to find anywhere cheaper in the limited time that we had, and I paid €22.50 for Moules Frites (mussels and chips). At almost £18 that would buy me a decent three course meal back home. Fortunately we did find some cheaper places away from the main tourist areas later on and so our afternoon tea wasn’t quite so eye-wateringly expensive.
Bruges has a number of museums and had we stayed overnight we would have had the opportunity to visit more than one. As it was, we settled on Sint-Janshospitaal, an 11th-century hospital that treated patients well into the 20th century. It’s a big building, but there’s not a lot inside – some paintings and a few old fashioned medical tools for outdated practices like trepanning. Next to Sint-Janshospitaal is the Apothek, which is the pharmacy dispensary that served the hospital. Its opening hours are more restricted than the main hospital museum but you get entry for both in the ticket price.
Afterwards we had a general wander around the city. Belgium is well-known for its chocolate and its beer, and, as you might expect, Bruges has a chocolate museum and a beer museum. We didn’t visit either – the chocolate museum had some very mixed reviews on Foursquare and Christine doesn’t like beer, and I still feel guilty for dragging her around the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. We did, however, visit a number of chocolate and beer shops. We bought quite a bit of the former but ended up not buying any of the latter. Many of the chocolatiers produce their chocolate on the premises and you can sometimes see it being made.
A note on language in Bruges. Belgium’s official languages are French, Flemish (a dialect of Dutch), and German. Bruges is in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, and so most signs are just in Flemish – unlike in Brussels, the capital, where signs are generally in both Flemish and French. So whilst Flemish is the primary language used, English is a close second. The guidebook we bought even suggested that you are better speaking English than attempting French, and we encountered a couple of situations where Flemish bar staff didn’t speak French (but their English was almost perfect). Whilst it feels odd using English in a country where it isn’t a first language, it was a bit of a relief that I didn’t need to use my rather rusty French vocabulary.
Another thing that we didn’t expect in Bruges was the lack of pigeons. They’re the scourge of most cities, but we didn’t see any in Bruges. There were crows, ducks, swans and a few collared doves, but no pigeons. Whether this is deliberate or not, I don’t know.
All in all we had a lovely time. Bruges is a really nice place – it is to Brussels what York or Chester is to London, in that it’s much smaller and more manageable, but still full of history and interesting attractions. It was Christine’s first visit and my second, but my first time was over 20 years’ ago when I was only eight years old and so I don’t remember much about it. If I were to go back I’d like to stay there a bit longer and do the bits that we didn’t have time to see this time, possibly as a wider visit to other parts of Belgium as well. Despite what Nigel Farage says, Belgium is far from being a ‘non-country’.