Monday, February 1, 2010

Bruges: Beyond Belief

De Wijngaard monastery
We recently spent a four-day weekend away in Bruges. We got the train to London after work, and stayed the night in a nice, cheap hotel near Paddington Station. Then it was off to Brussels on the Eurostar – our first time! – followed by the slowest train ever to Bruges... Just kidding, but it seemed like that after the Eurostar; twenty minutes to travel under the English Channel!

The Burg Square
The first two days we spent walking around the city; first on what they call the tourist walk, and then, on the second day, on the residential walk, which takes you past some retired windmills too. The whole city really is breathtaking. You've heard it many times now, thanks to that movie – which they have for sale in the tourist information centre next to the train station, incidentally – but it really can't be overstated. The first time I walked into the Markt and saw that belfry, my legs just sort of stopped moving forward, and I'm sure my jaw went stupidly slack. All I could think was, "I'm here. This is Europe."

And if the architecture wasn't enough, you've got the history – we enjoyed a pint of the local Brugse Zot in Café Vlissinghe, a pub that's been in operation since 1515, for example – and, best of all, the food. You know you've landed in a little slice of heaven when, stuffed full of delicious moules frites, you round a cobblestoned corner to smell the most heartwrenchingly-wonderful waffles on the evening air. We had to buy one. I'm pretty sure it's illegal to pass without buying something, actually. And have I mentioned the orange slices, half dipped in heavenly Belgian chocolate? So perfectly sweet and tart? At some point, it does get ridiculous, trust me. As long as you accept that you'll have your Homer-in-the-land-of-chocolate moment – no, I didn't bite any dogs, before you ask – you'll be fine.

In Café Vlissinghe
What else to say... The beer is very strong – even by our standards – and designing the glasses for each brew really does seem to be as important as you've probably heard. It's funny: the tour guide at De Halve Maan brewery said that Belgium has done away with champagne and wine at even their fanciest official dos; only local beer is served now, so they had to make glasses that the ladies could hold with grace. But, yeah, the 'tripel' – usually around 9% – will knock you on your arse pretty darn quick if you aren't careful. That said, the stuff is really tasty. And while, yes, I am a fan of the stronger Unibroue stuff that many won't go near, I have to acknowledge that brews like Brugge Tripel really are in a league of their own.

One final point: we'd heard that Bruges has a different sort of market on Saturday mornings – their version of a boot sale, I guess we'd say now – and decided to check it out. Well, just when we thought the city could hold no more culinary surprises: there we are, in the middle of a freak, ten-minute white-out of snow, in a square full of motorhome-size trucks dedicated to the god of cooked meat. Seriously, these trucks were on fire! Whole sides open, and more ribs, wings, and legs of tasty beasts than I'd ever seen. It was like Ottawa's chicken and ribs festival on speed. Awesome! And then they had the trucks dedicated to cheese, pastries, sweets... As I've said many times, had I grown up there, I would be a very round Belgian man; no question. And, on that note, from one of the best meals of the trip, in Den Gouden Karpel:

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