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Bruges, Round 2

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!

Umm-umm good! My favourite beer of the many that I tried.

Chimay Blue – Umm-umm good! My favourite beer of the many that I tried.

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.

Part of the 3-hr long procession celebrating The Feast of the Ascension.

Part of the 3-hr long procession celebrating The Feast of the Ascension.

The group sampling the beers and making plans.

The group sampling the beers and making plans.

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.

Passchendaele Memorial

Passchendaele Memorial

In Flanders Fields memorial

In Flanders Fields memorial

Tyne Cot Commonwealth cemetery. The largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war.

Tyne Cot cemetery. The largest cemetery and memorial for the missing for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war.

The Menin Gate in Ypres. It contains the names of over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

The Menin Gate in Ypres. It contains the names of over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

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.

Ferrari

Ferrari – back seat was all engine!

Lamborghini

Lamborghini

Mclaren

Mclaren

Kinda took the edge off the sadness of the area, which wasn’t a bad thing.

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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