How beautiful Bruges still was, seen from above, with its belfries, its pinnacles, its stepped gables like stairs to climb up to the land of dreams, to return to the great days of yesteryear. Among the roofs were canals fanned by the trees, quiet streets with a few women making their way in cloaks, swinging like silent bells. Lethargic peace! The sweetness of renunciation! A queen in exile, the widow of History whose only desire, basically, was to carve her own tomb.”
Brugges or Bruge, depending on what part of Belgium you are from, is a beautiful city of light and soaring towers. The evening sunlight set the buildings on fire and it was hard to find an area that was not quaint and medieval. While six days in Bruges may have been a bit much, we were able to see a lot and putter around without being rushed. We also had time to do a side trip to Blankenberge and the WWI sites that dot Flander’s Fields. Bruges is one of Europe’s best-preserved cities. Picturesque cobbled lanes and dreamy canals link photogenic market squares lined with soaring towers, historical churches and lane after lane of old whitewashed almshouses. The history of Bruges is one of rise, fall and rise again. It ascended from it’s founding by Vikings to become a major seller of wool and Flemish cloth. The old city declined as the cloth industry waned in importance but rose again as a tourist destination.
Getting into Brugges, we headed from the train station to our AirBnB. It was a wonderful location, being five minutes from the old city but far enough away to be very quiet. We had a very large flat that was carefully kept up by an older couple who spent about 40 mins going through everything with us. They were extremely kind and gracious hosts. We discovered that we had lucked out with the booking as they were not going to be continuing the AirBnB, having gotten too old to continue. We were also thankful for a well-stocked kitchen with actual large sized mugs! I don’t know what it is about Europe but everywhere we go, we are supplied with only tiny little coffee cups made for espresso. I have found that aspect to be very difficult as those of you who know my coffee drinking habits can well imagine.
Heading into the town, we were immediately struck by the towers and buildings. While the town center was certainly more crowded with tourists than Ghent was, you could quickly find an area away from the crowds, dipping into the historical buildings or squares quickly and avoiding most of the crowds. The town center showcased the striking town hall with the Waterhall beside. The Waterhall was once the center of the thriving trade of the area with boats being able to glide right into the hall and unload. While the hall is mostly stores now, it was still a sight to see. We wandered over on the first day to visit the Historium. Appealing to the kids, the Historium told weaved storytelling into the various important historical points to help engage the kids in the importance of Brugges as the video superimposed on the walls continued to story of a boy searching for objects to help the famous artist, Jan van Eyck, finish his famous painting.
We wandered from room to room, each room being recreated in the style of the medieval rooms from Brugges various houses and citizens. One room showed a middle-class living room, another showed a dining hall. Another room actually showed the bathing houses of Brugges which turned out to be quite a risque scene! Deanne actually covered Liam’s eyes at one point as one of the main characters in the video screen walked down the hallway away from us with no clothing (luckily no frontal nudity)! It wouldn’t probably be risque from a European point of view (this is the land of speedos after all) but it was a little shocking to us and we had a good laugh after. We also enjoyed the Virtual Reality part of the visit. The kids especially loved being able to fly over the city through the goggles. This was their first time doing VR and the kids could talk about nothing else for the rest of the day. With the goggles on, we got to experience a 360 degree view of the town in the medieval day, experiencing life as if we were actually there. It was too short but a lot of fun to do. Following that, we had drinks on the balcony, which had great views of the old town square.
Waffles and Chocolates
There is probably no place better for waffles and chocolate than Brugges. As we walked through the town center, the kid’s mouths would begin to water and we were “forced” to go into lots of chocolate shops. The chocolate was very good and we all bought some of the chocolate to bring back to the house. Liam’s favorite were the truffles. One afternoon, Deanne was not feeling very well, so I took the kids out for a snack. We wandered around until we found a waffle maker. We settled on a waffle with whip cream and chocolate. The kids loved being able to add lots of different toppings and heaped the waffle with marshmallows, chocolate chips and other toppings. It was quite the waffle when we were done. The kids both agreed that it was the best waffle they had ever had. I’m not sure as the waffle was gone so quickly, by the time I picked up the fork before it was gone!
Where’s the Cat?
Sometimes it was hard for us to find places that wouldn’t break the bank yet would interest the kids. The folk museum was one of those places. Each room recreated a room from a typical dwelling in Brugge’s history. While not as visually stimulating as the Historium, it was still a nice wander through history and we had the building mostly to ourselves. The kids loved the old games that had been remade and made playable and spent a good hour playing the old games outside while I watched a group of seniors play Bocce. We chatted a bit with some of the group as they had relatives in Canada. The kids also found out that there was a real cat in the museum that liked to hide in amongst the exhibits. This knowledge revived their lagging interests and were thrilled to find the cat lying in the lap of a mannequin posing as a tailor making a suit.
In Flander’s Fields, the poppies blow…
Wednesday, we headed out of town having rented a car for the day. It was a gloomy day, which was very appropriate as we were going out to visit some of the many WWI sites dotting the countryside. Starting at the Flander’s Fields Museum, we saw many artifacts from a variety of sites and were taken through a detailed history of the war with perspectives from both sides given through text and video. One of the more interesting spots was the part focusing on the Christmas ceasefire. They had a video with four characters representing the different sides. Each soldier gave a description of that Christmas from their view and it was quite illuminating. I was interested to learn, though not surprised, that after that first Christmas, soldiers were ordered to not fraternize with the other side again should the war rage through another Christmas. We focused on two of the major Canadian battlefields and memorials, Hill 62 and the cemetery at Passendale. Our first stop, Hill 62, was a beautiful spot lined with maple trees overlooking the charming countryside. As we walked quietly around the memorial even the kids were struck by the fact that the Canadians who came here to fight often remained behind having died on the field, leaving so friends and family behind. It was a very sobering day for us. A nearby forest had the remains of WWI trenches hidden amongst the trees, however, you had to pay quite a bit to get in and instead, jumped a ditch to walk through the adjoining field to peer at the trenches. Passendale was also a powerful experience with the carefully laid gravestones contrasting with the pastoral farmland. The gravestones surrounded the remains of the German bunkers, silently denoting the military significance of the hill as a strategic point that needed to be captured at any cost.
As the day got drearier, the weight of the wars weighed on us and it was sometimes hard to explain the sense of loss and remembrance as we tried to convey why these soldiers fought here especially in light of the world politics happening right now; leaders taking possible military action too lightly with no thought of the past and the consequences it had.
Shaking the gloominess from our thoughts we got back into the car and attempted to get back home before we got washed away from the rising torrents of rain that had started coming down. It was quite a storm. However, it was the perfect day to have a car to use otherwise we would have been stuck in the house for the day.
The Blood of Jesus
Probably one of most interesting things we saw in Brugges was located in one of the oldest Basilica located just off the town square and upstairs from the 12th-century Romanesque chapel. The basilica, Heilig-Bloedbasiliek, claims to have a phial supposedly containing a few drops of Christ’s blood that was brought here after the 12th-century Crusades. Having gotten there at the correct time, unbeknownst to us, we were able to join the line to get an up-close look at the phial and spend time in reflective prayer.
Geocaching and Sandy Beaches
Our final day in Brugge was a bit of mish-mash of activities. We initially started out into the town to do some geocaching. If you don’t know what geocaching is, it’s a worldwide treasure hunt where people have hid little caches of items (mostly just notepads to sign) and put the coordinates into an online map with a description, the location of the cache and a hint to help you find it. They are lots of fun to do but often hard to actually find. We set out looking for two caches. The first one was in a little park that was near to our house in a quiet, sheltered little park we would never have found on our own. We easily found that cache and signed the logbook. The second cache took us to an old convent which was also quite lovely. Alas, we did not find that one even after quite a bit of searching.
With only one cache under our belt, we made the sudden decision to take the train out to Blankenberge, a beach resort town on the coast of the Atlantic. It was a beautiful day to walk along the gorgeous sand. The beach stretched out for miles in either direction and the kids enjoyed exploring the shells and tidal pools along the way. It was a nice peaceful way to end our visit to Belgium.