Monday, April 12, 2004

Honeymoon in Brugge and Ghent

Thursday

Lance and I left around 2 pm. We hit rush hour in Brussels. Not fun. Belgium has one of the worst accident records in Europe, and I can see why.

We arrived at our hotel (Inter Hotel) around 5:30 pm. The hotel looked very lavish both on the outside and in the lobby, but our room certainly wasn't that way! It was just very basic. The room was kind of bland and lacked decorations, but at least we had a private bath. It was right on a busy street though, so I could've done without the traffic. But the guy running the hotel was nice and spoke at least 4 different languages (aside from the regional Flemish, I heard him speak French, German, and of course English...all fluently). We also had a welcome committee - the owner's dog - who was a constant presence at the hotel and whose bark was worse than his bite (he was actually very sweet, but he just loved to bark at everything). Lance and I got settled into our hotel and then we walked to the t 'Zand, which was just down the road a few blocks...the t 'Zand is basically just a square with a bunch of restaurants and hotels. Most of the restaurants seemed to have similar menus, so we settled on Cafe Leffe (named after one of the local brews) and ordered dinner. Lance ordered a Leffe Blond...I actually sipped it and I hate beer, but it wasn't bad. But Belgium is famous for their beer, after all (and their chocolates as well...I'll get to that later...and of course lace and tapestries, which were everywhere in Bruges). One interesting thing is that they brought us these 2 little dishes of snacks...one was a party mix with crackers and pretzels...the other one was pieces of raw fish in vinegar. I thought that was kind of weird, but I was brave enough to taste it. Too vinegary for my taste. Anyway, we had a good dinner...if you could call what I had dinner. I ordered cheese kroketten, which is basically 2 balls of breaded and fried cheese, and it came with some salad on the side (and their idea of salad is separate piles of shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, some lettuce, cucumber, and sometimes shredded beets and corn). So I didn't feel like I had a very substantial dinner. But I was okay, so we walked around a little to see what was past the Concertgebouw (Concert Hall) and discovered a nice little park with a big statue of King Albert in the middle. Then we went back to the hotel and played a couple games of pool in the hotel basement and called it a night. We spent the rest of the evening in our room watching television...we got a lot of British stations and a Belgian station that showed mostly American shows and movies with Flemish subtitles (Flemish, by the way, is a dialect of Dutch).

Friday

We had an AMAZING breakfast at the hotel. Seriously, what the hotel lacked in room attractiveness, it more than made up for with breakfast. There was this incredible spread of croissants, brotchen, meats, cheeses, yogurt, jams, honey, nutella, and cream cheese. They had orange juice and they gave us a choice of coffee or tea. I got addicted to croissants with cream cheese and strawberry jam...perhaps the best breakfast in the entire universe. And we could smell all the bread baking a couple of hours before they started serving breakfast...that wonderful smell wafted up to our room. So we enjoyed 3 days of that (and they even gave us chocolate eggs with our breakfast yesterday since it was Easter).

Anyway...we needed a big breakfast, because we had a long day ahead. Our first stop was the Markt, a 10 minute walk from our hotel. We climbed 366 steps to the top of the bell tower, which offered fantastic views of the city (note: if you ever go to Bruges, buy the "5 museums for 15 euro" pass...we got good use out of ours and saved quite a bit of money...this pass also includes the bell tower). After the rather nerve-wracking descent, we walked to the Burg, which is one of the finest medieval squares in all of Europe. The stadhuis (Town Hall) is absolutely breathtaking, and adjoining the stadhuis is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses (supposedly) a few drops of Christ's blood. It being Good Friday, they were having a special service where you could go in and see the holy blood up close. So we walked in to watch it...we didn't get close, but we could see the priest holding the crystal vial that contained the blood, and people were walking up and kissing it. Of course, we looked around the basilica as well, and as with even the smaller churches in Europe, it didn't disappoint.

Our day also included a visit to the Gruuthuse Museum, which is devoted entirely to life in medieval Flanders. The artifacts were very interesting, and the building itself was a work of art, including the fantastic courtyard that contained statues representing the four horsemen of the apocolypse...and the courtyard leads into the Church of Our Lady, another one of Bruges' beautiful cathedrals, which contains the famous Michelangelo sculpture, "Madonna and Child" (in fact, there is a private chapel in the Gruuthuse museum that has windows that look into the cathedral, so we caught of glimpse of the inside from the museum, before we even stepped foot inside the cathedral).

We also took a boat tour on the canal. I highly recommend it. It is a very interesting way to tour the city.

About the aforementioned chocolates...we visited a chocolate/souvenir shop to get some goodies because we had a 15% off coupon that we got from the hotel. We chatted with the woman behind the counter, and when we mentioned that we were on our honeymoon, she gave us two Belgian chocolate truffles that were shaped like Easter eggs (and trust me when I say that you don't get much free stuff in Europe, so this was very unexpected, but very nice). Mmmmmmm...

Side note: we had an interesting lunch. We popped into one of the many "tea rooms" and ordered ham and cheese stuffed pastry...it was actually ham and cheese pressed between two thin waffles that had heart shapes all over it. Very cool...and very tasty. Dinner was at an Italian place that was very cheap and good.

Saturday

A bit rainy and colder than Friday, but still a fantastic day. After our cream cheese and jam croissants, we walked back to the park we saw on Thursday, only we went past the park. This leads to Minnewater, which is a lovely park also known as the "Lake of Love." It's right next to the Beguinage, which until recently was a place for women to live who wanted to devote themselves to religious life without taking vows. They would spend their lives devoting themselves to religious study and the craft of lace-making. It is now a benedictine convent. The nunnery is one of the most photographed locations in Bruges...the fields surrounding it were blooming with thousands upon thousands of daffodils, and dozens of swans swam in the waters surrounding it. I can see why it's one of the most photographed locations...it was just breathtaking.

Once we toured that area to our satisfaction, we visited the archaeology musuem, which was a total waste of time, but at least that was included on our pass.

After the museum, we decided to try to get into the stadhuis to see the gothic hall. There was a huge group of people with cameras that were all going in together, so we figured they were a tour group and we went in with them. We followed them up into the gothic hall, which was just incredible and rivaled the beauty of most churches I've seen. It wasn't until a minute after we got there when they closed the doors and we saw a woman standing in a white dress with a bouquet of flowers that we realized these people were wedding guests, not tourists (although they weren't dressed like they were attending a wedding). Our only escape was into a room adjoining the gothic hall, but there was no way out of that room except through the gothic hall. So we stood there and waited until the wedding was over and then sneaked back out with the wedding guests as they left. We had a good laugh about that after we were freed from the building. But hey, we got a free look at the stadhuis (although I realized after we left that it was also on our museum pass, so we would've gotten free admission anyway).

After that adventure, we took a romantic horse and buggy ride, which took us past everything we've already seen, but it was a nice way to relax. It was a little cold, but they provided us with blankets, so we snuggled up as the buggy tripped over the cobblestones (I seriously thought we were going to tip over several times). The horse took a 10 minute break for food and water at Minnewater, so we took our pictures with the horse.

We had some lunch after that, and then decided to go to the Groeninge Museum, which houses great masterpieces of the Flemish primitives. Lance has never been that much into art, but even he enjoyed this. Some of the paintings were just incredible. The religious art in particular was very realistic looking and beautifully rendered.

That pretty much concludes Saturday. There was some good television on at the hotel, and we were tired and cold and damp so we hung out at the hotel (with the exception of going somewhere for dinner) and watched television for the rest of the day.

Sunday

We checked out of our hotel after breakfast and drove to Ghent, which is about a half an hour away from Bruges. We got to our hotel way before we could check in, but they allowed us to park there for the day while we went sightseeing. This hotel was less expensive and our room was much nicer (although breakfast was disappointing, but at least they brought it to our room and we didn't have to eat in a specially designated breakfast room like we did at the other hotel). Our hotel, however, was not remotely close to the tourist attractions. It was just a 2 minute walk to the train/tram station, so we walked over there and bought our ticket to take the streetcar into town. I wasn't really expecting anything to be open, with it being Easter and all, so I figured we could only walk around and take pictures of the outside of buildings.

I was surprised. There was quite a bit open on Easter. Most of the museums were closed though. Our first stop was Gravensteen Castle. They had a chilling collection of medieval torture devices (and killing devices, including a guillotine) that were used in the castle, and we got to see the dungeons and the rooms where the tortures took place. It was kind of creepy, but very cool. The castle is looming presence over the city, so when we were able to take the stairs up to the top of the castle, we had spectacular views of the city (we didn't even need to go up in the bell tower here, because the bell tower wasn't much higher than the castle). And the church bells were ringing constantly while we were there, having just completed Easter mass, plus we heard the sound of horse hooves on the cobblestones, so it really did transport you back to the Middle Ages (that is, if you could block out the sound of the streetcars going by).

After that, we grabbed some lunch. And to our surprise, we discovered that a couple of the cathedrals were open to the public. So our first stop was to St. Bavo's (Sint Baafskaathedral). Oh my God. It was just astonishing on the inside. There was so much art...lots of fantastic marble sculptures and so many paintings, including Van Eyck's famous "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," which is arguably Belgium's greatest treasure. And for some reason, the crypt at St. Bavo's was displaying the exhibits that are normally housed in the Museum of Fine Arts (I don't know if that museum was temporarily closed or what), so we went down to the crypt to look at the artworks (we got to see them for free, I'm sure the museum would've charged a fee). And there were religious relics too...priests' and bishops' garb that dated back to the 16th century and remarkably well preserved. The crypt itself was interesting to look at. Some of the graves were very very old. And of course, we got to see some of the sarcophagi in the cathedral itself...bishops who died hundreds of years ago. After that, we went inside the church of St. Nicklaus, which was disappointing by comparison, but had one of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen.

We didn't see much after that. We just wandered around along the canals...we stopped at a waffle stand to taste "the best waffle in town"...mine was fresh from the waffle iron and smothered in chocolate sauce (if you think the Belgians eat waffles for breakfast, then you're mistaken...waffles are dessert...as are pancakes...typically smothered in lots of slagroom (whipped cream)). Once we decided that we saw everything there was to see, we hopped back on the tram and headed back to the hotel. We watched some television, and then walked to the area across from the train station, which had some restaurants, so we could have some dinner. Then back to the hotel for the rest of the night...

And this morning after breakfast, we checked out and were on our merry way, this time past Antwerp (for a change of scenery).

1 comment:

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