Sunday, 24 July 2011

In Bruges

Last year I saw the film In Bruges which made me think it was time to revisit.  We were there first back in the early 1970's and visited again in the mid 1990's but some of the scenes from the film made me think it would be worth returning for a short break.  We have used a company called Riviera Travel for continental breaks several times and they offered a four day short holiday which ticked all the boxes so I booked for July thinking the weather would be about right for us.  Luckily we have the philosophy "there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing" so were undaunted by the constant rain and drizzle.  We had waterproofs, brollies and watertight footwear which we made good use of.  The linen slacks and sandals remained unused.

Day One saw us catching the early train down to London in order to connect with the Eurostar.  This is the first time we have gone from St Pancras, all our former dealings with Eurostar have been via Waterloo.  St Pancras is like a mini shopping mall and we spent an interesting hour sorting out provisions for the journey.  The Marks Simply Food is much cheaper than onboard food and the choice much better.  We had an uneventful trip to Lille where we were met by a coach and the Riviera Travel courier Max.  Max was already known to us, he took us through Andalusia a few years ago and was incredibly good when I got a touch of Spanish Tummy in the middle of the night.  He is a former language teacher with a love of history and absolutely brilliant at his job.  Nothing ever fazes him, all requests are dealt with efficiently and courteously and he is an absolute mine of information.

Our hotel in Bruges was right by The Belfort - the carillions rang regularly but stopped at around ten each evening and did not start again until around eight the following morning so our sleep was undisturbed.  The hotel was excellent, a shade better than Novotel standards with extremely comfortable beds and really good power showers.  There was even a minifridge in the bathroom which was rapidly filled with gin and tonic water.  Martin's Brugge was the name, one of a chain owned by a chap called John Martin who went to Belgium from England to learn the brewing trade, stayed and built a hotel empire.  The hotel only served breakfast but the breakfasts were banquets.  A cold table of fruits and yoghurts, another cold table with cheeses and cold meats, a table with French pastries (fantastic croissants), a hotplate with bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans and tomatoes and a further bar with a dozen different cereals.  There was a dispensing machine (with half pint glasses) for grapefruit, orange, tropical and apple juices and a coffee machine.  A Dualit toaster proved to be enough for everyone  and I never had to wait to put my toast on. 

On the first afternoon we went for a bit of a mooch around, admiring the stepped gables, the cobbled streets and the general ambience.  We went out for supper and had some deep fried cheese croquettes as a starter, mussels and chips for a main course and a creme caramel for pudding.  With a glass of wine and a bottle of sparkling water it came to seventy four Euros - Bruges is hideously expensive and the practical parity with the pound does not help either.  The food was OK, but nothing special and the service was absolutely dire.

Day two found us ready to go off on a walking tour at 9am - having breakfasted like kings.  One of the things I really rate about Riviera is that they do important things early in the day when it is quieter and the customers get a much better experience.  I remember being at The Alhambra as it opened and having a wonderful peaceful tour - by the time we left it was noisy and full of people.  Anyway, back to the walking tour of Bruges with Max.  It took about two hours and was a very leisurely stroll around (as befits old people like us) starting in the market place, going to the Burg and seeing all the municipal buildings and statues and being given lots of information.  It was actually 21st July which is Independence Day in Belgium so all the flags were flying, and they have lots of flags.  We went to the two major churches and walked through the fishmarket (now full of "craft" stalls) and saw the wonderful old stone slabs and waterways.  There was a brewery tour arranged for 11.30 but we bowed out, Max warned us that there were a lot of steps and Onslow has dodgy knees so caution was the order of the day so that we would enjoy the rest of the holiday.  We walked slowly back to our hotel and went into the bar and ordered a coffee and a hot chocolate to warm up (the rain was bouncing by this time) and what a chocolate it was.  A large glass mug filled with steaming hot milk with a wooden stick with a chunk of chocolate a good inch cube on the end.  I put the chocolate in the milk and stirred holding on to the stick and the chocolate melted making a dense, rich drink.  Quite the nicest hot chocolate I can remember, and I have had a lot of hot chocolate in my time.

We then went off on our own going down back alleys and side streets - uncovering treasures every step of the way.  Bruges is not big enough to get lost in and the three high buildings, two churches and The Belfort, enable you to find your bearings very easily.  We found a military chapel which had the rolls of honour from both World Wars inscribed on slabs of marble on the outside and an amazing pulpit which was "liberated" from somewhere in Antwerp.  We found a bike hire shop which had metal sheets in the shape of working parts of bikes covering the outside, right up to the gables.  The metal had rusted so it was a bright orange house - it looked great.  We found lots of wonderful statuary, too numerous to mention but my personal favourite was Papengeo outside the theatre.  There are some very naughty four horses of the apocalypse too.  The cake and chocolate shops were amazing and I could have stood looking into the window of one particular bakers for hours. 

Bruges has a nice trade in horses and carriages and the clip clop of hooves on the cobbles was a constant background to all our wanderings.  The horses all weat a sort of leather chute attached to the leads which is neatly fixed under their rear ends, this means that the evacuations go straight into the sort of nappy it makes and the streets remain clean.  I was most impressed by the Belgian pragmatism in solving what could be a problem - someone should tell Valletta about this!  Most of the carriage drivers were female, something I have not noticed elsewhere.  They were all very smartly dressed and wore straw hats, a sort of uniform I suppose.  It seems the horses are only permitted to work two days in every seven so they do get plenty of rest between shifts. 

We went out to supper that evening and had one of the very best meals I have had in years.  Nothing nouvelle about it, just fabulous food beautifully presented and with excellent services.  We ordered the thirty euro menu and both started with prosciutto - what we got was a large ten inch plate which had a tablespoon of celeriac remoulade, a tablespoon of finely diced beetroot and a tablespoon of finely grated carrot juxtaposed in a triangular arrangement.  In one of the spaces between was a salad of thinly sliced cucumber sprinkled with dill, sweet luscious tomato slices sprinkled with chives and raw sweet onion rings.  The middle was filled with an assortment of lettuce leaves which had been made into a chiffonade with red and green strips dressed in a delicious mustardy vinaigrette and then on the top were draped four slices of prosciutto.  We were also given a basket of oat bread and some of that lovely pale continental lactic butter.   It was truly exquisite.  For mains we both ordered the steak with a pepper sauce and chips, I like my steak rare and Onslow likes his well done - we both thought our steaks absolutely perfect.  The pepper sauce was unlike any I have previously encountered, it was like a Hollandaise and rich and buttery with a couple of tablespoons of soft green peppercorns stirred in at the last minute.  The chips were long, thin, crispy and in a large bowl.  I thought the big bowl of chips and the half pint of pepper sauce in a separate bowl would be beyond us and would go back to the kitchen.  Wrong.  We ate every single scrap because it was all so gorgeous.  We faltered at the pudding choice but one of the options was Irish coffee so we went for that.  It was one of those perfect meals, eaten out of doors (it stopped raining in the evenings) to the clip clop of hooves and just thoroughly enjoyed.  We had a half litre of rose wine and a beer and the total cost was seventy six Euros - an absolute bargain.  Two Euro more than the previous night's indifferent offering.  If anyone is visiting Bruges it is highly recommended, - the restaurant is called 't Fonteintje and on the corner of Simon Stevinplein and Oude Burg.

Day three found us up and going on a boat trip at 9am.  We were the only two boats on the water at that time, obviously something negotiated by Riviera, but an hour later all the boats were out.  There are only four companies licensed to carry traffic on the canals and they each have four boats.  So at any one time there can be up to sixteen boats on the waters - no private boats are allowed.  It was lovely to see the backs of some of the properties we had seen from the street and a good way to spend an hour. 

We then went off by coach to Ypres which is atruly remarkable place.  It was razed to the ground during the First World War and totally rebuilt in the original style during the early 1920's as German reparation.  The municipal buildings and cathedral look totally authentic.  The cathedral has some wonderful modern stained glass and is well worth visiting.  We also went to the Museum of Flanders Fields which is an interactive display of how dreadful war was.  The highlight for me was the visit to The Menin Gate, something I have wanted to do for a very long time.  I cried.  We then went to a military cemetary and I cried again looking at some of the headstones and realising how young the men were.  Boys. 

We were rather tired after such a long day so went across the road on Oude Burg to a restaurant called Venice for a simple supper.  Some parma ham (not nearly as nice as the previous evening) on a plate dusted with smoked paprika (why?) followed by mussels and chips again and then chocolate mousse.  A glass of wine and a coke brought the total to forty six Euros - quite respectable but nothing special.

Saturday morning had a visit to a chocolate maker on the itinerary but since I am a world expert on Valrhona because of my previous work and Onslow has no interest we elected to not do that either.  Instead we went for a liesurely final walk around.  In the rain.

Conclusions?  Bruges is lovely, it has been restored from when I was last there - I certainly don't remember quite so many cobbles - but in a sympathetic way rather than being turned into a theme park.  It is very expensive though, about 25% more than either Brussels or Ypres in restaurants and there are no cheap street food type places.  I remember buying bags of chips with a blob of mayonnaise back in the 70's and 90's - but found no evidence of such a choice this time.  All the museums charge for entrance and the only way to get a multi ticket to see everything I wanted to was to buy a three day pass - the one day pass limits the buildings you can enter.  So I got sales resistence and went to none of them and enjoyed all the free art in the streets - of which there is plenty.

1 comment:

  1. Yes I organised a group visit there and found eating out so expensive. I spent ages before the trip liaising with restaurants and in the end was able to organise 30 Euro menus at two great places, which gave more choices for each course than the standard ones and also threw in a drink or two per person.

    It's a charming city to visit, very attractive.