A Rest day in Bruges

No biking today, and as it turned out, this was the only day of the trip when it didn’t rain. I couldn’t decide whether I would have preferred to have saved the nice day for biking, or whether it was better taken playing tourist in Bruges.

And today I was a tourist. It was a strange and not altogether comfortable feeling. On other days, biking into a town with all my gear, I always felt like a traveler, rather than a tourist. Seeing busloads of tourists at some attraction, I would feel like I had earned the right to be there, whereas they hadn’t. However, today I was one of them.

I did start with a very un-touristy thing. I needed to do a wash. The hotel told me where there was a Laundromat about six blocks away. Needless to say, this was not in a tourist area of town. This was a neighborhood in which, presumably, real people lived. There were grocery stores and butcher shops, and yes – there was my Laundromat. Unfortunately, it required a lot of coins that I didn’t have, and it didn’t have any change machine. Nor could I get change from any of the local merchants. So I had to walk back to the square and wait for an incredibly small bank to open in order to get a roll of coins.

Later in the morning I went for a walk around the city. Here are some typical views:

A canal near my hotel

The Tour Boats ready for the day

Market Square

I walked to the bus plaza and took a picture of myself next to the statue of the biker, but it’s not a picture worth including here. Then I browsed in some of the busy walking streets. There were lots of stores selling Belgium lace and Belgium chocolates. These were probably for tourists, I suppose, but both the lace and the chocolates looked appealing in their own ways. I resisted. With the laces it was easy, not so for the chocolates!

I went into a large bike store and marveled at the difference from American stores. Bikes here were beasts of burden. Everything was big, heavy, and functional. There was a huge assortment of bags to put on the back of your bike. I had noticed that no one had panniers like me. Instead they had these large bags that flopped across the rack on the back of your bike. Displayed on the sidewalk outside the store were several large racks of rain gear. Good thinking, store, I said to myself.

I was tired from the walking, which I thought a bit strange when I was used to biking all day long, but it’s a different thing. I went back to my hotel room and resumed reading the book I had been working on this trip. This was “The Information” by Martin Amis. It turned out to be a good choice, because you could read it in little bits and snips. It was terribly literate and hilariously funny in a very intellectual way. After a while, though, I felt very sleepy. I was worried that this precious day was going to be frittered away without anything to show for it at the present rate.

For lunch I chose one of the very many outdoor brasseries, shown here.

Lunch in Bruges

Here I fulfilled another item from my wish list – I had a Belgium waffle with whipped cream and strawberries. It was delicious, and I had dreams of ordering another one. However, this choice deprived me of a desert. What can you order for desert after the main course has been a Belgium waffle? Not much, I’m afraid.

After lunch I wandered around a little, and here are some of the things I saw:

Tree-lined canal

Typical Bruges view

Sightseeing boat

Sightseeing horse

There were a number of museums in Bruges, and I saw advertisements for a special exhibition of works by Dali. I went into the nearest museum, which was the Groeningen Museum, housed in a beautiful old building with a garden. Inside were a number of works by van Eyck. There was some typical Flemish art, and although the collection spanned art history, the largest part was devoted to pre-renaissance. I was interested in how many of the artists had lived in Bruges, and a number of paintings showed Bruges in the 1600s. It looked then remarkably just as it does today.

The Groeningen Museum

One painting showed the digging of the Ghent canal, which I would be following on the next day. In the painting there was a virtual army of workers, camped in tents around the unorganized digging. It seemed as if there was a movable city of gypsy workers – a city that always managed to be at the point of digging. I was fascinated at how these canals must have been dug hundreds of years ago. How did they keep them straight? How did they recruit labor? How did they finance them?

After the museum I had tea and another meringue thing in an English Tea Shop. Then I succumbed to one of those ubiquitous sightseeing boats that plied the canals. I had hesitated, because it was so very touristy, but in the end I was glad that I went. The sun shone warmly, and as the boat drifted up one canal and down another, the driver gave short descriptions of the buildings we passed – first in Dutch, then French, then English. His heart wasn’t in it, and one problem was that by the time he got to the English description we would have passed whatever it was, and I would be uncertain what he was referring to. At times the canals were so full of these sightseeing boats that it was hard to see the water.

Back at the hotel I had a hot shower and then asked the hotel manager for a good restaurant recommendation. I walked to the place he had recommended, which was down an interesting side street. The menu outside looked very appealing, and I thought that at last I would have a sample of the famous Belgium cuisine. However, I was met at the door by a maitre-de who informed me that the restaurant would not be open for another half hour, and that I shouldn’t bother to come back, because, “We are fully booked.” I thought he was a bit haughty, and maybe I wasn’t dressed right either.

I settled for another nameless brasserie, where I ordered a sole. It was ok, but nothing special.

I was back at the hotel at about 8:30pm or so, which had been the typical time that I would retire to watch television, read, and go to bed. However, today was a special holiday in Belgium, and there was to be an outdoor spectacle in the square that evening. I was never quite sure what the celebration was all about. Someone said that it was about so many years since freedom from France, but I’m not sure about that. I had seen them building the stands, preparing the audio system, and setting up television platforms on the square. The show was to start at 10:30pm.

I thought that I would try to stay awake and go out to see the show. On television I watched an old movie in English – “The Wild Outdoors” starring John Candy. I had seen parts of this before, and it wasn’t very good, but sitting there in Belgium it was a welcome diversion and a touch of Americana. It carried me until about 10:15pm, when I left the hotel. On the way to the show, I took this picture of a nearby square.

Bruges in the late evening

You may not be about to see the time on the clock in this picture, but it says 10:20pm. Notice that the sky is still light. It would be about 11:00pm before darkness really fell here, on but most nights I would be asleep by this time.

On the main square there were thousands of folding seats arrayed in front of stands holding still more seats. This area was roped off, and apparently tickets were required to enter. Ticketless, I stood around the perimeter and jostled for a good location where I could stand. A few people moved and I found myself in the front row of the standees, but I was a little surprised that there were so few standees. There were perhaps 10,000 people seated, but only five or six rows of standees at the perimeter. Everyone was speaking Dutch, and I didn’t see anyone that I thought was a tourist. This seemed to be a show for the locals.

On the giant television screen there was an older man in shirtsleeves playing the bells that were above on the steeple. He did this with great gusto, hammering away at wooden levers that controlled the bells that I heard ringing over the city. In between numbers he would bow and show the sheet music that he was to play next. It sounded to me, well, clamorous. Enough already, I thought. Get him out of here. It was now past 10:30pm, and I was very conscious of my need to get to bed at a decent hour.

After endless bell ringing, the show finally began. A small orchestra on stage played what I assumed was the Belgian national anthem. People stood and sang. I had never heard it before. Maybe they don’t win things at the Olympics, or whatever. Anyway, it was nice, but relatively forgettable as these things go.

The show was comprised of Broadway songs and dances, and performed by what I assumed were local Belgian television and show personalities. It began with a dance scene from “Chicago.”

The Spectacle in Bruges

There was another dance scene from “Evita”, and then a woman sang “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina”. It was in Dutch, but beautiful and moving. Then they did song and dance numbers from “Jesus Christ, Superstar”, “Sound of Music”, and “Jeckyl and Hyde”. A man with a nice bass voice sang “Edelweiss” in Dutch, and the audience sang along and swayed. For a while there was a kind of magic in the air. It was a great show, and I would have like to have stayed, but it was now 11:30pm, and I had to get some sleep.

On the way back to my hotel I took this lovely nighttime picture of Bruges.

Night in Bruges

Proceed to next day's biking, Bruges to Ghent

Back to Holland overview page