I don’t know how other people do it – having the time to update a travel blog so that it is more or less current – but I do not have that dedication or talent. Setting out on this trip with every good intention to keep my friends and family informed of my adventures (assuming that they were indeed interested enough to follow it), I found that I was just too busy enjoying myself and being in the moment to take the time to document everything. I did make notes every day – my smartphone was handy for jotting the odd note to jog my memory later on – but compiling everything into a readable and timely document proved to be too much for me. Regardless, late as it is, I’ll start at the beginning.
May 27 – Tuesday
Awake at 3am and up by 3:30 to pick up Archie and Velma by 4. The one good thing about an early (7am) flight is that there was virtually no traffic to contend with and we made it to the airport before 5. Because we were routed through Newark, we had to pre-clear US Customs but everything went smoothly. On the immigration card, I wrote “Brussels via Newark” as my destination. This prompted a “Where’s Brussels?” comment from the customs agent. Apparently, I should have specified Brussels, Belgium, so as not to be confused with Brussels, Wisconsin. Live and learn, and be specific.The flight to Newark, on a United A319, was comfortable . We left a little late but had a 4 hour layover in Newark so we were not concerned about making our Brussels connection. Didn’t get fed, of course, being United and all. I guess a 4.5 hour flight isn’t long enough to warrant even a bag of pretzels unless you buy them. The wait in Newark airport was long, boring and expensive – and all we bought was food. I guess with a captive audience, the restaurants can charge whatever they want to hungry fliers and get away with it. Soup, sandwich, smoothie and a later beer put me back $30. And the cheap-ass airport doesn’t even offer free wifi, even for a limited time. The real frustration came once on the plane. We boarded a few minutes late but sat on the tarmac for 2 hours before taking off. It was hot and muggy outside, 89 F, and lots of thunderstorm around so all the flights in the New York area (and that is a lot of flights) had to be routed through the ever-changing narrow gaps between the storm cells. Fortunately, as we had to stay buckled up for the delay because “we could leave at any time”, I had drained my system before I got on the plane so I wasn’t too uncomfortable. I found the seats in the 777-200 less comfortable than the shorter haul A319, which didn’t bode well for the long flight. I wasn’t able to sleep for the duration but at least they fed us. One bonus was that “The Monuments Men” was one of the movie choices on the flight. Since the movie dealt with some of the cities we would be visiting and some of the art works (Madonna and Child, in Bruges, and the Ghent Alterpiece, in Ghent), it was very relevant. Decent movie but, as one of the reviews I read said, it would have been more informative (and likely more accurate) if done as a documentary.
May 28 – Wednesday
Arrived in Brussels 2 hours late, not surprisingly, but at least we didn’t have any air connections to make. The rest of our group, flying on Air Canada, also arrived late, but only by a half hour or so. Since we were originally supposed to get in 45 minutes ahead of them, we conveniently hooked up waiting at the baggage carousel! We would have waited for them at the airport anyway so our combined delays actually worked out pretty well. Most of the group wanted to go on a tour of Brussels but 5 of us wanted to go directly to Bruges. We all grabbed the same train from the airport but the 5 of us got off at the Nord station and changed for the Bruges train, about a 30 minute wait. It was a nice ride on a fast, comfortable train, passing through Ghent after 30 minutes then another 30 to Bruges.Once in Bruges, we got on a city bus (Centrum) and went to the Grote Markt square. From there, it was a only short walk to our hotel, the Cordoeanier – the same one we stayed in 2 years ago. Nice cozy hotel with an exceptionally good beer selection and a huge complimentary breakfast. Having spent 3 days in the city only 2 years previously, everything was quite familiar. It was almost like going home again. Funny how a foreign city can feel like that.
Bob wanted to check out a nearby bike store before we did anything else, like eat or drink, but the items there were highly overpriced (€100 for a bike jersey, although a very nice one). So back to our hotel we went and settled into the bar to sample Belgian beers. I LOVE Belgian beer and am trying to sample as many as I can while in the country without becoming an alcoholic. My favourite so far is Chimay Blue, a 9% dark Trappist beer. It goes down really smoothly but packs a punch! The rest of the group arrived around suppertime so we finally grabbed some food and I, at least, retired to bed shortly after. Being awake for over 31 straight hours, not to mention the strong Belgian beer, makes one a little sleepy!
May 29 – Thursday
After a fitful 14-hour sleep, more like a bunch of naps really, on a narrow bed with an anorexic pillow it was time to wander the city, see some sights and play tourist. As luck would have it, today is the Feast of the Ascension, a big day in this Catholic city. One of the churches – the Church of the Holy Blood – houses a vial of what is purported to be Christ`s blood and this is the one day of the year that it is paraded around town. A lot of the town, especially on long the parade route, was shut down and bleachers and seats (for rent) were set up everywhere. This was not a little undertaking. The procession lasts about 3 hours, with floats, horses, bands, dancers, and hundreds of participating townspeople in period costumes – about everything you would expect from a religious celebration and more. Unfortunately, my naps were not enough to offset the jet lag and Gerry and I missed the first half of the procession. We only had to walk a block from our hotel to see it though, so eventually caught a lot of it and even got to see the `Raiders of the Lost Ark` type of box that contained the Holy Blood – not that the vial itself was on display. All this was presented with great fanfare. It also intertwined some of the history of Bruges – the various guilds, participation in the Crusades and such – which made things a little confusing for those not in the know, interspersed as they were with the way of the cross (what are these guys in robes doing marching after Jesus carrying the cross and being flogged). After the show we all retired back to the hotel courtyard for more beer, supper, then bed. Even though we just walked around, it was an exhausting day as we were still adjusting to the jet lag.
May 30 – Friday
Bob had arranged a Flanders Field Battlefield tour for today, through quasimodo.be. The tour host, Philippe, drove us through and stopped at many of the Commonwealth and German cemeteries (Tyne Cot and Langemark among them), battlefields, memorials and towns well known to most Canadians. Philippe had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area and WW1 (which is good, considering his job) and kept us well informed and entertained throughout. A highlight for me was the visit to the Essex Farm Cemetery and Dressing Station, where John McCrae worked and wrote “In Flanders Fields”. The panels in the Menin Gate, in Ypres, contain the names of over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been found. Bodies are still being discovered today and, if identified, the names are removed from the Menin gate. Armaments – grenades, shells, gas canisters, etc – are also still being discovered, either turned over in fields by farmers, in construction sites, etc, sometimes to disastrous effects. Sadly, people are still dying from this war.
There were lots of other tour groups roaming around, and at the Poelkapelle British cemetery we encountered one composed of some car club, driving their hot cars.
Kinda took the edge off the sadness of the area, which wasn’t a bad thing.