On the ski hills, on the bike trails, and thru life in general

Archive for May, 2012

In Bruges

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.

Chocolaty treats

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.

In Flight

May 22/23. The United flight between YEG and ORD, on a CRJ700, was cramped as expected. I booked an aisle seat online but the seating arrangement on the plane was different and it turned out to be a window seat. Fortunately, I had a small woman next to me so was not crowded.  The 42 minute window in Chicago, between arriving at Terminal 2 and departing from Terminal 1, turned out not to be a problem. Everyone else took the shuttle bus but I wanted the exercise so I walked (briskly) and beat them to the gate by 15 minutes!  Too many people waiting for too few shuttles slowed them down.  The flight over to Brussels (767-300) was a long and sleepless 9.5 hours in the cheap seats.  There are advantages to being short. I pity the people with long legs who have to endure the cramped legroom. At least we got fed, although I question the functionality of the spork (foon?) provided as a utensil.  Didn’t work as a fork for the chicken (tines too short to stab anything) or a spoon for the yoghurt (glop slips thru the tines imperiling the front of my shirt). United almost got all our bags to Brussels – only 1 out of 14 got lost. Not mine, thank goodness.

Arrived in Brussels around 11 a.m., but with Bill’s luggage problem, we decided to wait for the Child’s flight to arrive before heading into the city.  Took the train to Central station downtown and started walking.  It didn’t take any time at all to find the Grand Square and a heap of restaurants and touristy stores.  It was a lovely, warm day so ate lunch outside.  Every restaurant had tables set up on the sidewalks so we just found some empty seats, not that easy seeing as it was just after 12, and grabbed some food and beer from a take out store.  Everywhere there is beer!  And when we checked the prices of it in beer stores, it was pretty well the same price as what we paid in the restaurant.  Not much markup.  After lunch, a bunch of us wandered around the galleria (covered shopping streets) and checked out the old buildings in the square.  Lots of gargoyles and little statues set into the walls, mostly of saints and bloody battle scenes.

The Beer Museum seemed as good a place as any to start our cultural education.  Not worth the price of admission but at least it came with a complimentary beer, so it did have 1 redeeming grace.  Belgium is known for it’s varied types of beer, including fruit beers, so I tried the raspberry beer.  Tasty and very raspberryish but not my idea of what beer should taste like.  Next, we went to the large and ornate Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. Lots of stained glass windows. a huge pipe organ and lots of apses (naves?) filled with confessionals – i.e. a fancy, rich church.  After a nice rest on a park bench (apparently there is photographic evidence that Klaus and I may have been caught napping), we headed back to Central Station where we caught the train to Bruges.

The train ride from Brussels to Bruges is only 55 minutes and not really designed for people dragging suitcases around.  Unlike the LRT in Edmonton, or any other Skytrain-like transportation, the train and platform do not meet.  It is quite a step to get into the train and the cars have no room to store luggage, except in the overhead bins.  Glad again that I packed light so that I was able to heave it up there without getting a hernia or killing some unlucky Belgian commuter.

The bus ride from the station to our hotel in Bruges was another treat. Imagine 18 seniors trying to get on a city bus with suitcases and carry-ons. Yes, it was a clusterfrak. But it was only a little over a euro to use it and the driver was quite good natured, even giving us detailed instructions how to get to our hotel from the bus stop.

After throwing our stuff in our rooms, it was time for another beer in the hotel pub.  It has a nice outside courtyard, not to mention the largest selection of Belgian beers of any hotel in the city – over 150 different brands.  I’ll never get through them all but I have found that I favour the Trappist beers so far.  Went for a walk in the streets around the hotel, trying to get our bearings for the coming days.  Like Brussels, lots of bars, restaurants, chocolate shops and knick-knack shops.  The little gold guy in the picture below is either showing that Bruges has a sense of humour or showing what they think of tourists.  Slept like a log that night.

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