May 2, 2016: Bruges, Belgium
It was another beautiful morning as the Zuiderdam arrived into Zebrugge, Belgium. At 8am, we hopped on-board the free bus shuttle to the nearby Blankenberge train station and with a 3 Euro one way ticket, we found our seats on a Belgian Rail train for the quick 13 minute ride to the city of Bruges, our destination for the day.
We were fortunate enough to make the first shuttle and train of the day, allowing us the privilege to begin our sightseeing in Bruges just a few minutes before 9am. Coming into the Bruges train station, we had a choice of taking one of several buses on a 10 minute ride into the city center, or taking a scenic 20 minute walk through the old town. As it was a beautiful day, and seeing the crush of morning commuters and students on the buses, we ambled our way down narrow cobblestone lanes, surrounded by beautiful brick homes and buildings, in various hues of white, brown, yellow, orange, and red. Steep angled triangular roofs pointed to the sky, with most of these facades exceeding hundreds of years old, and while in seemingly direct conflict with modern life and storefronts like The Body Shop, H&M, Godiva, and Foot Locker along this street, there was a reasonable balance struck, and provided us our first look of this amazing city as we made our way towards the Markt, or city center.
Arriving into the Markt, a massive square, where cobblestone sidewalks, roads, and a huge plaza all merged together, we found a variety of restaurants, a fountain, Belgian frites (Fries!) food trucks, the post office, horse and buggy tours, the sky-scraping Belfort (Bell Tower).
With 366 steps up an exceptionally narrow, circular staircase, Natalie and R remained at ground level, while I ponied up the well worth it (on a beautiful clear day for the views of the city) 10 Euro admission to make the climb. As the Belfort only allows 70 people into the tower at any given time (and that seems a lot given just how small that staircase really is!), we were fortunate to be there a few minutes before opening and I was able to join the first group into the building without a delay.
With a couple of “rest stops” along the climb to provide some information on the bells, the mechanics of how the tower chimes (it’s basically a huge music box!), and to let folks catch their breath, I arrived at “panorama” level (step 366) in just about 8 minutes. It was quarter to 10 in the morning and the bells began to play their quarter hour music. At this level, there were 360 degree views of Bruges and given the good visibility, could see all the way back to the ship! I was excited at the great photo possibilities and pulled out my Canon dSLR to start snapping. While doing so, I noticed some disgruntled looks on a number of the visitor’s faces and quickly realized that these folks were not happy. For a variety of (really good) reasons, a metal security mesh had been placed over all the bell tower view openings, and the lenses of any dSLR and several of the bigger point and shoot cameras wouldn’t fit through the holes. Result = Pictures with annoying grey fuzzy lines through them. As with any good travel plan, always have a backup, and I pulled out my mobile phone and got some great shots that would rival most cameras on my Nexus 6P.
Going down is much easier than the climb up, so after grabbing a ton of great city pics, a quick descent, and I was back at ground level, and we started a walking tour of the city. Along the way, we made a few important stops for Belgian chocolate! We picked up some Dumons chocolate to try and visited the Choco Story museum, where we received a chocolate bar, samples of Dark and Milk Chocolate (from Peru and Venezuela, respectively), and watched a demonstration where pralines with hazelnut and caramel where made and enjoyed by all.
From here, we continued our walking tour to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, City Hall (Stadhuis), and Burg Square. Nearby, we picked up a 30 minute canal tour (8 Euro for adults), which gave us a great overview of the city, a number of additional sights, and a better understanding of the canals and how they connect Bruges with the North Sea and Ghent.
Once completed, we begin a slow walk back towards the train station, but not before we had a stop for two more Belgian treats – Waffles (with strawberries, powdered sugar, and whipped cream) and Dark Hot Chocolate. Waffle was crisp and the chocolate was wonderful – R has had way too many “treats” on this trip!
Our final stop before returning back to the ship was to the Begijnhof. This residential community was originally designed for women of a lay catholic order, and though obedient to a mother superior, they never took the vows of a nun. It was considered a good option for women who widowed or lost their husbands to war, or to travels overseas, and allowed them to have a home, provide for themselves, etc. Today single religious women live in these homes, and the enclosed community can be visited by us (outsiders), as long as we bring a “positive and reflective attitude” to their home.
Returning to the train station, we boarded a 2:05pm departure for the 15 minute trip back to Blankenberge, picked up the ship shuttle, and called it a day. A remarkable day in Bruges, and we would love to return and see more of Belgium!