Beautiful, so pretty, surreal and at times almost like we were walking through a film set. I think it's safe to say, we loved Bruges! Already a huge fan of Belgium and the Belgians, my love has grown ever stronger thanks to three days of amazing beers, scrumptious food, Autumnal perfection, aimless wandering and the friendliest of people.
We set off in the early hours of Thursday morning. I hadn't really considered that we would be leaving in such early hours that trains would not yet be running. Fortunately, thanks to the powers of Gett, we ordered a a black cab (I'd hardly expect to be able to flag one down along Seven Sisters road itself, let alone my road!) and were on our way in good time.
As always, check in at the Eurostar terminal was quick and easy (although I did almost lose my fur to the security machine) and we were soon sitting down to enjoy a breakfast of tea, croissant & Croque Monsieur (getting in the mood).
Having packed reading material in the hope of being productive on the train journey, it was actually almost entirely spent sleeping. I find it funny to think I never used to be able to sleep on any form of journey yet now I almost always find my head doing the embarrassing bobbing thing.
When we arrived in Brussels, memories of journeys to and from Pukkelpop came flooding. The connection to a train for Bruges was incredibly simple (why are everyone elses train systems so much better and easier to use than ours?). As is usually the case, we accidentally found ourselves in First Class which was orange and brown and brilliant! I love how other parts of Europe are sort of behind but still totally working the dated look.
Unlike with resort holidays, city breaks always provide an opportunity for feeling more grounded. As opposed to the horror coach journey where you twist and turn along precarious roads, a train journey that you have had to figure out by yourself gives you a better sense of place. You see how one place is connected to another, you experience the simple but marked differences between home and abroad and you encounter local people. I love train travel!
Only an hour to Bruges, we were soon standing outside the station and I was realising my Google Map reliance. One of those 'mum and dad would have thought of that' moments came as I became aware that I had forgotten to find directions from the station to the hotel. All I had to go on was that it was '600 metres from Bruges Railway Station'. But in which direction?
We did end up paying an extortionate amount for internet abroad just to figure out where we were going and then agreed that we would figure out all further directions on hotel Wifi ahead of needing them.
It really was the shortest walk to the hotel, through piles and piles of leaves. I must say that we absolutely chose the best time of year to visit Bruges - the Autumn trees were looking gorgeous!
Our hotel was a barge on the canal. When we'd seen it online, we loved the concept and it looked very sweet in pictures so we booked! Despite knowing that a canal was water, it was still slightly alarming to find life jackets at the end of the bed as opposed to towels twisted into elegant swans. I'm still not entirely sure whether they were for effect or genuine use. Needless to say, we didn't need them.
Only 11 o'clock by this point, we headed straight out to get our bearings and have a little explore! As seemed to be the theme of our few days, our wandering was guided by things that looked pretty or intriguing which actually seemed to be most of Bruges to be honest!
As well as being 600m away from the station, we were about 200m away from entering the city across a bridge that crossed the 'Lake of Love'. From the lake, we then found ourselves wandering through a nunnery complete with tree-houses because, as always seems to be the case, it turns out we were in Bruges for their Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennial. We naively wondered whether they were huts for the nuns to find peace within... never mind how they would have climbed into them.
Majorly distracted by the endless supply of pretty buildings and canals, we finally found time for lunch in the late afternoon. Although there were a whole host of restaurants around every square, they were all so similar it was hard to decide where would be best to go. So we deviated and ended up finding a sweet and cosy restaurant down an alley. Here we ordered grilled salmon and a king prawn skewer which we then watched being flame grilled on an open fire in the middle of the restaurant. Oh my gosh. Of course, we had a side of 'frites' to share and our first Belgian beer to wash it down. I went for a Haacht Mystic white beer with lime which went down very well indeed!
In any usual city, this 'mission' would have been no such thing. Nevertheless, in Bruges, while souvenir shops were aplenty, trying to find a basic tourist-esque corner shop that would offer travel necessities was tricky. Eventually, we were directed by an incredibly helpful and highly animated sales assistant in Carrefour towards a shop that can only be described as Argos come WH Smiths come HMV. Here we found what we needed and felt reassured that photos (and music and accessing Wifi to figure out directions) would indeed be a possibility for the remainder of our trip.
Still without much of a clue about where we were or wanted to go, we let our feet take us for some more aimless wandering. This time, the lure of canals got us rather monumentally lost as upon later inspection of the map we realised we had almost come to the edge of the city and may well have found ourselves at the sea.
One might have actually described The Vintage as a pub. Rammed full of memorabilia (including signage from Pukkelpop; pang) and also home to the sweetest English Bulldog, we were feeling more at home than ever! Here, on the dark beer train but not wanting anything with too high a percentage by this point in the evening, I tried an Achel Bruin and we snacked on salami and cheese (some of which was obviously fed to the dog for a very impressive high five) for a light tea after such a late lunch before heading back to the hotel to bed.
After the most comfortable night's sleep, we awoke relatively bright and early to make the most of our only full day away. Admittedly, we'd managed to get a lot more out of our first day considering some of the morning was spent travelling, but we decided to be a little more directive about how we spent our time on the Friday.
On our way into the city this time we took a different route, through a pretty little park with benches that apparently looked like they could suddenly burst into life like they were in a Disney film. After such extensive wandering the day before, we definitely had a much better sense and awareness of direction which set us in good stead for making the most of the day.
It should have just been a quick fifteen minute walk to the shop, but yet again we were distracted by all sorts of alleys and squares, markets and shops. Unfortunately this meant that by the time we arrived at the salon, it was closed. Now so used to London opening hours, I think we take for granted that other places work in the same way when in fact hours are very different everywhere but London.
By this time, it was almost acceptable to call lunch dinner anyway, so we headed back to a pretty little square that we had just walked through to find something to eat. Always one to give local cuisine a go, I tried Flemish stew (not the rabbit variety, I drew the line there) which I washed down with a Belle-Vue Kriek which was literally like cherryade; so sweet!
Our final day in Bruges and having taken full advantage of breakfast for the last time, we packed up ready to head out one last time.
Although the train passed through Ghent, for practical reasons of baggage (particularly after our souvenir spree), we decided to explore Brussels for the afternoon. When we arrived back at the station, we found lockers to leave our luggage and we were off!
Before Bruges, Brussels was my only experience of a Belgian city and I was very much a fan! Interestingly though, after being in the much smaller, far less busy city of Bruges for a few days, Brussels was a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as in order to walk from the train station to the centre, you have to pass along roads lined with leering men that smell slightly suspicious (the roads, not the men).
While Bruges had not presented very many places that could really be defined as a 'pub', I remembered finding one in particular in Brussels before where Happy Hour was basically Happy Day and while inside, you could be forgiven for forgetting you were abroad. However for some reason (I'm going to blame it on tiredness), my sense of direction was appalling by this point so we ended up in another bar-restaurant where I finally had a pot of mussels with fries washed down with another Mystic, this time of the peach variety.
Ever since our return, time has mainly been spent mourning all of the things that made those three days so glorious. Belgium is a truly special place and a visit to Bruges was a truly beautiful way to spend the end of half term.
Fortunately, in December, I return to Belgium to visit Christmas markets in Antwerp so it's not long until I get to return which excites me very much indeed. I definitely need to go back to Bruges one day though. So until next time!