Day One

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Travelin-Tigers

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Tigres de Voyage

May 11, 2002
Saturday

Arrive in Brussels / Brugge on Foot

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Arrive in Brussels / Train to Brugge

Find our Hotel and a Quick Nap

Brugge on Foot

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Arrive in Brussels / Train to Brugge

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Dave: We landed in Brussels exhausted, and walked the half mile to luggage and customs. The Brussels airport was modern and easy to navigate, but we needed Euros and the two ATM's on the main floor were "Out of Order" (in Dutch). We went up to the promenade level, got money from the last ATM in the airport, rearranged ourselves for the train trip to Brugge, and snapped these couple pictures.

Welcome to Belgium in four languages!

Dutch Street Sign

Welcome to Brussels in four languages!
We enjoyed signs in Dutch and could almost read them.

From the web, we knew that both trains and busses ran from the airport to downtown, and that the train for Brugge left from the Brussels Midi station, but we could not find any definite information about route numbers, fares, tickets, etc. It turns out that there is a train station in the airport basement, and it is not for "Subway/Metro" trains but the actual inter-city trains we would take to Brugge and to Paris. We got in a long line (that was poorly marked), and made conversation with an American man in front of us with his Belgian girlfriend. There was confusion and jostling in line, but we eventually reached the front and discovered that our EurailPass was all we needed for the train and, since Lyn had already had it validated, we could have headed right down to the platform (grrr!). Since we were already there, we verified the departure times and also purchased our Thalys reservations from Brugge to Paris for Sunday. Suddenly we had nothing to worry about! Thalys recognizes the Eurailpass, but requires a "reservation" (about $20) to get on the train. Pay me now AND pay me later.

We headed down to the platform and in ten minutes the train arrived. Fifteen uneventful minutes later we were downtown Brussels. We had about an hour to kill, so we walked out the station door and once around the block. It was Saturday morning, so downtown was essentially dead. We returned to this station on the last day of our trip (with a car!) and were surprised to learn that we had been only a couple of blocks from the famous "Mannequin de Pis" statue. But today we were exhausted and nervous and anxious to get out of Brussels and onto Brugge. We would do our sightseeing later, when we weren't trailing rolly-bags.

We bought a soda and some water and a fresh Waffle from a young woman manning a small kiosk. "Frias?", I asked (fresh?) repeating the only French I could remember from our trip to Montreal. She raised one eyebrow and lifted a small container lid to show me dozens of small doughballs that she pressed into her magic waffle iron. "Oui" and "Merci" I added with my American grin and a nod.

As we walked around the block, we saw our first European cityscape, with 5 story buildings, mostly French provincial. But my eye quickly spotted a familiar sight from back home. Across the street, on the sidewalk on a cardboard box and under a tattered blanket was sleeping a typical "homeless guy", just like home. We were both taken aback and somewhat worried (and took a picture, of course). Unknown to us at the time, it would be our only "homeless guy" we would see for the entire two week, five country trip.

Train station beneath the Brussels Airport

Brussels Airport Basement

Jesse and a "Fresh" Belgian Waffle

Jesse and a "Fresh" Belgian Waffle

Jesse outside Brussels-Midi

Jesse outside Brussels-Midii

Jesse outside Brussels-Midi waiting for our train.
The only "Homeless Guy" we found on our whole trip

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Finding Our Hotel and a Quick Nap

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Cobblestone streets of BruggeJesse: With only an hour of sleep on the plane, we were both dead tired when the train pulled into Brugge. But the inviting premise of a waiting hotel room was enough to coax me to my feet. I was still intrigued by the advertisements in the train stations, although this one had only the same ads that I had seen back in Brussels. Eau de toilette seemed to be the big seller as we wandered through the station. As we exited the station our aching legs were greeted to a new sight that would be constant throughout our time in Brugge. Cobblestones. I was awestruck by the sheer vastness of the sea of cobblestones that lay in front of us. We steeled ourselves, and moved forward.

The thwa-thwamping of our rolly bags became an almost maddening noise as we strived for the sidewalk  lining the street. A map stood prominently in front of the cross-walk, so we took the opportunity to get our bearings. We had two choices for routes to our suspected hotel location. One would take us through a city park, the other through a residential section. As we peered down the road to both options, each was covered in cobblestones. Dad's theory was that a park path was more likely to be made of cobblestones than a suburban sidewalk, so we opted for the route around the park. As it turned out, the entirety of Brugge was covered in cobblestones of varying size, shape, and color. This was our first glimpse of suburban European life, with the old, small houses packed tightly together, and the roads and sidewalks lined with parked cars. We stopped about every 20 yards or so to give our ears and minds a minute of rest from the wheels of our suitcases beating against the stones. We tried a few different maneuvers, carrying our cases instead of rolling them, etc, but none seemed to work with any efficiency. Sleepless, aching bodies only compounded our problem as we wandered  towards a GPS coordinate, passing by countless pretty buildings, which I found difficult to admire at the time. I had printed out some maps of Brugge before we left, and we were able to generally accustom ourselves to the location of our hotel, as well as looking for a building resembling the photo we had seen on their website.

Rainy streets of BruggeIn a surprising twist of what I had expected, there was a large number of people meandering about as we got closer to our hotel's location. As it turned out, there was a large carnival just across the street from our hotel, and it was drawing quite a crowd! In all the confusion, I had almost walked right by out hotel. It ended up being right next to two other hotels that had made our list, in a large row of hotel/restaurant combos. They each looked respectively the same in design, with slightly varying colors, prices, and menus. We rolled our luggage into the one labeled "Boudewijn I", squeezing by the lively dinner table situated directly in front of the entranceway.

A young woman was seated behind the desk and welcomed us as we came in. Kathleen was the delightful woman that Mom had talked to on the phone, and she spoke perfectly understandable English. Kathleen had explained to Mom that she was "squeezing us in" due to the festival, giving us the small "extra" room they usually save for walk-ups. She gave us our room and when we asked about where to get some frites (with mayo!), and she informed us confidently "Oh, on every corner!".

She pointed us to the old fashioned elevator, which we marveled at just how small it was. It could fit exactly one of us plus one bag. Although we are admittedly larger than the average European, we still found it difficult to imagine any group being able to fit into such a small space. I decided to head up to the room while Dad took the opportunity to question our hostess a bit more. I wedged myself and my bag into the elevator, a tight fit to say the least. The dangers of the open wall design became obvious as the one wall started to scroll as the car went upwards. I instinctively checked my clothes to make sure nothing got caught, and was eager to exit as it came to a stop. As I exited the elevator, I was greeted to a hallway painted dark red, with matching carpet. This became known as the "Bordello Red" that followed us throughout Europe. I had picked up the term from a webpage commenting on the color of the THALYS bullet trains, which we would use on the way to Paris.

"Bordello Red" hallwayI found the room assigned to us, only to see that the single maid for the hotel was still setting it up. We had a simple conversation in somewhat complex English as I waited. She finished up and I gladly accepted the chance to rest my body in a nice bed. That was my first encounter with a European hotel bed, and it was a rough experience at that. I had not slept in a bed smaller than a queen for some time, and the two little twins proved a rude awakening. And that point I was so tired it proved enough, and Dad discovered me drifting into sleep by the time he made it up the cramped little elevator. We both threw around some encouraging words about exercising our jet lag away, like Rick Steves had suggested, but our actions betrayed our thoughts as we soon found ourselves napping soundly, sprawled across the bed still wearing our shoes.

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Brugge on Foot

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Dave: I had wanted to head right out after dropping our bags in the room but it was Jesse that asked to rest "just for a minute". I closed my eyes, too, and opened them in a start after almost two hours had passed. 1:30 had magically become 4:00 and the weather had gone from threatening rain to actually misting it.  I roused Jesse and we groggily packed our backpack, jackets and umbrellas and headed down the stairs and out into the busy streets of Brugge.

Brugge: Official WebsiteWe had watched several Rick Steves videos about travel in Europe, and we really wanted to follow his one suggestion to avoid jet lag. "Jet lag hates exercise", so he recommended renting and riding bicycles upon arrival (instead of napping) and Brugge would be a perfect city to make that happen. Instead we took a brief nap, and awoke groggy and hungry and a little out of sorts. Katheleen, the delightful woman at the "Boudewijn-I" hotel desk, that had helped Lyn with our reservation, provided up maps, directions, and a lot of encouragement. Sadly we postponed taking her picture and she was gone upon our return.

A traveling carnival was in town, stationed at the lot in front our our hotel, but we wanted to see Brugge so we passed by. The sidewalks were packed with shoppers, a raised stage was set up with a brass band playing, and several television remote trucks were set up around town. We later learned that we had arrived in the evening of the day of the annual "Procession of the Holy Blood" festival (well, that explained the difficulty in getting a hotel room!).

Brugge possesses an ancient relict, a flask purported to contain actual Blood of Jesus, gathered at the crucifixion, stored, and passed down through the centuries. Such religious relics were very popular during the dark ages and renaissance, and many European cathedrals boast the bones, skull, (or it seems blood) of a famous saint. I leave it to you to decide if such relics are authentic or hoaxes invented during that long ago era of religious fervor. In either case, Brugge has an annual festival to celebrate theirs and, unknown to us until we returned home, we had quite accidentally stumbled upon it.

So the streets were packed and the stores were packed and the three city squares were packed, and the restaurants were packed. Quite a festival for the city of Brugge.

The sidewalks were packed with people but cars, buses and bicycles were still zipping down the streets. We were often required to step off the curb to walk past a slower pedestrian, but had taken our lives in our hands to do so. On top of that, a church service let out as we passed by, and the throng of people was unbelievable to this American, now acclimated to cars, parking lots, and suburban malls.

Shoppers jam the sidewalks in Brugge

Shoppers jam the sidewalks in Brugge

Cafes line the Market square

Cafes line the Market Square

Brugge has incredible shopping areas with many streets lined with famous stores. It shopping district seemed more like an open-air mall than a city street, and people were simply everywhere going in and out of stores and all carrying famous name shopping bags.

Brugge sidestreet and Belfry TowerWe had visited several websites, and downloaded maps and tour suggestions, but I was certainly not prepared for the spectacular scenery of the city. The pretty row house architecture, the curvy streets, the music, the smell of the bakeries and vendor kiosks, the acres of cobblestones, the city squares ringed in small cafes and gargantuan civic structures, (and a healthy dose of jet lag) were enough to put my senses on overload. We looked for a cafe, but stopped in a couple bakeries for hand held snacks, we would eat dinner later.

Brugge has several city squares or plazas, and a half dozen famous ancient structures including churches and the "Belfry tower" overlooking Market square. Our visit was so brief (just to get acquainted), that we did not actually visit any store, museum, or historical building. Yet we enjoyed our short, one-night, stay immensely. We fully intend to return for an extended visit, and heartily recommend a stop in Brugge to anyone visiting anywhere in the vicinity. It was absolutely delightful!

Festival Bandstand in Brugge Market Square

Tourists swarm about the bandstand in the center court

Brugge Market Square

Market Square and the remnants of the festival

A Bakery Window in Brugge

A streetcorner of cafes in Brugge

Click HERE to Read the signs in this Bakery Window
Cafes and shops nestle every nook and cranny of Brugge

Belfry Tower on Market Square in Brugge

Dave snacking his way across Brugge

The Belfry tower is a famous site in Brugge
We snacked all day long was we walked around town

Brugge is famous for many things, its architecture and structures from the glory days when it was a commercial capital of Europe. Of course, it is famous for the "holy blood". But it also know as the "Venice of the North" because it is ringed in canals built during its commercial heights. Today, these canals are plied by small tourist boats enjoying the beautiful scenery. Brugge is also a great place to acquire the Belgian chocolates famous throughout the world and available all across the country. We purchased a small assortment of chocolates and were stunned by the aroma and bouquet of each soft confection. They were both addictive and dangerous, as a "chocolate rush" added on to our jet-lag could spell disaster. We meted out the delicious treats over the next couple days, and each one was a spectacular taste treat.

The Burg Square in Brugge

Jesse in "Burg" Square

Famous Brugge canals: the Venice of the North

Famous Belgian Chocolate in many Brugge shops

Scenic canals criss cross Brugge
Delicate Belgian Chocolate: shops on every corner

Dave: We visited each main "square" and ventured off on sidestreets in several directions. Of course we had snacked at bakeries and chocolate shops and simply had to have a order of Frites (french-fries) where we ordered a "grande" and should have had a "petite". Can you guess? Add our snacking to our jet-lag and my new arrival discomfort and we ended up looking in the windows at lots of cafes and restaurants, but ended up wandering back to the hotel and going to bed instead.

We tried the "authentic" mayonnaise dip for frites and both had a good laugh. It tasted terrible, of course, but on top of that you could whip up this dreadful concoction in your own American kitchen (but why on earth would you?). We decided that mayonnaise dip must be an elaborate hoax that Belgians play on naive tourists, laughing in back in the kitchen as they dip their own fries in ketchup. But that is just a theory.

We used the GPS and a small tourist map to get back to our hotel, but still somehow managed to get lost. The city is a zig-zag of picturesque twisty streets cross-cut by canals and footbridges. We headed off in a slightly skewed direction and followed that path for about half a mile. We reoriented eventually ("Hey, what is the Hotel Ibis doing here, thats the other way!") and plotted a new path back home. We stopped for one more snack, and to check out the path through the park (turns out we should have taken that one this morning), but the overcast evening, our now damp clothes, our aching legs and feet, all drove us quickly to bed. We retired soundly and caught two nights sleep to compensate for our long flight from Atlanta.

Belgian Frites with Mayo dipping sauce

Scenic sidestreet of Brugge

Too much snacking killed our appetites
Walking the scenic back sidewalks of Brugge

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Last Update: March 18, 2008