May 25. Last full day in Bruges. We climbed the Belfort right after breakfast, while the temperature was still comfortable. At 89 metres, it is the highest climbable tower in Bruges and gives a great view of the city. You can even see into Holland, albeit only 20-odd km away. The tower was built in layers – the first 2 built in the late 1200’s and the top tower built in 1480’s. Steep, narrow, clockwise winding staircase with stone steps up to the top tower. Then even steeper, narrower wooden steps to the top viewing level, right under the bells. Very difficult to pass anybody coming the other way but no fat people on those stairs! The bell arrangement was fascinating. The bells are rung every 15 minutes, with the main bell rung on the hour. Of course, we were there at 11 a.m. so had all 11 bongs of a giant bell not 5 feet from our heads. The tune the bells ring every 15 minutes is set up on a huge brass cylinder, like a piano roll on a player piano. They reconfigure the settings on the cylinder every 3 months to change the tunes, so as not to drive the locals crazy, I suppose.
May 24. (No hitmen were harmed in the writing of this blog.) Our first full day in Bruges. The only scheduled activity today was the bike tour of Bruges. We used a company called Quasimundo and the owner, Jos, gave us a very entertaining and informative tour. We only cycled 8 km in the 2.5 hours of the tour, basically the southwest quadrant of the city, but saw most of the required touristy areas and a few of not so touristy. Jos spoke Flemish (which is a dialect of Dutch), English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Greek (his wife is Greek). No wonder his day job is as a tour guide. He is also a stage actor and it shows in the way he presented his info. His tour is highly recommended – definitely not your everyday tour. After his safety talk (cars and bikes coexist remarkably well on the narrow roads but cars are bigger than cyclists so always be aware and cars entering from the right ALWAYS have the right of way) he covered the history of the city, including the Belfort (belfry), many of the various churches, architecture, trading houses, canals, breweries (of which only 1 remains in Bruges). Of course, the tour included a stop at a pub for a sample of the local beer (Bruges Zot). Very good.
Spent a long, leisurely lunch after the bike tour, from 2:30 to 4:30, at an outdoor restaurant in the shadow of the Van Eyke statue by a canal. The service was lanquid to say the least. It wasn’t our intention to have a 2 hour lunch but the waiter, although friendly enough, moved at a glacial pace. We wanted to climb the Belfort – the 89-metre high bell tower that dominates the skyline, but it closed at 4:30 so had to wait for another day. The rest of the day was spent walking around, checking out the shops and sampling more beer. Such is the tourist life in Bruges. Chocolate shops abound and make their treats to accommodate all tastes, both of the palate and otherwise.
Walked in the general direction of where we would be meeting the Feniks, our floating hotel for the bike trip. Took a while to navigate the streets and alleys but we made it to the barge docks in about 45 minutes. The dock area is in a big park. There was a wide paved bike path on the canal side, with bike symbols painted on the trail and bikes whizzing by, and, across the street, an unpaved walking trail (with bikes whizzing by). Bikes are the dominant species in this area! Had a beer at a barge bar and timed our way back to the hotel – only 25 minutes, now that we knew the way. The streets are amazing – you would see a horse carriage, followed by 2 bikes, followed by a scooter, followed by a bus, then a car, then bikes, then trucks – all co-existing wonderfully. No horns or irate drivers who feel they own the road. The bike culture here is ingrained into the fabric of daily life.