Road Less Travelled: In Bruges/Brugge
It’s another rainy day in New York and while it’s certainly a pleasure to be amidst all this rain (compared to sweltering Cairo where the sky opens two or three times a year) I’m getting a little bit fed up with all the clouds and grey overhead and puddles at my feet.
I mean, I thought I moved to New York and not Brussels.
Cynical commentary aside, looking out onto the slick street below got me thinking about one of my favourite countries in Europe: surprise, surprise I’m talking about Belgium. Apparently the weather isn’t behaving any better there either, though there’s something wonderfully melancholic and romantic when the rain falls on cobblestone streets and 17th century townhouses. I mean, while the rain is welcome, it’s just not as sexy here.
Now while I find Belgium to be a most fantastic travel destination, it remains the Euro-underdog for a myriad of reasons. The national tourism board tries its best – but could try harder – to promote the country and all the amazing things it has to offer including cry-worthy food and drink, a bourgeoning arts scene, noteworthy fashion and design (*ahem* Antwerp Six anyone?) and a rich history and landscape worth exploring (from Flanders fields to the Ardennes). This is in addition to Belgians not blowing their own horn as they tend to be a self-effacing and humble sort. Because many travellers aren’t aware of what’s on offer in la Belgique, they’re more apt to spend their hard earned cash and precious time in France, England or Germany. And who can blame them? If I could have a dollar for each time I’ve seen a nose wrinkle at the prospect of touring around Brussels and heard this:
“There’s nothing to see there. I mean, there’s just a fountain of a peeing boy, right?”
I promise you, I’d be quite wealthy indeed.
For travellers who have braved the weather and gotten off the typical Euro-circuit to hit up Belgium, chances are they’ve been to the charming medieval city of Brugge. A quaint historic town in West Flanders, Brugge has drawn in – and continues to attract – tourists in droves thanks to its antiquated architecture, dainty demeanor and World Heritage status.
Though I have several Belgian favourites, Brugge is certainly one of the top three cities I enjoy traipsing around. It’s a city that can instantly transport you to an era long gone; to a time that’s passed. The days of yore still reverberating in the stone-lined pathways and narrow streets that lead you from bodega to bar and cathedral to nunnery.
It’s a place where it feels like the former inhabitants still whisper from the scratched up woodwork and worn down granite walls. There’s so much history in gated little Brugge that it can easily take two days to soak it all in. Established towards the end of the 9th century it served as a commercial outpost for the rest of Europe (France, the Netherlands, England and beyond) and – for many centuries – was a central trading point for grains, spices, wool and wine.
Brugge also gets to boast that it was one of the first cities in the world to establish a bourse/beurs (stock exchange) back in the 13th century. It was here that a highly robust and evolved money market developed that was emulated by other old-Europe states (namely the Netherlands and Luxembourg) and served as the foundation for the money market we know today.
And people wonder where the Flemish get their so-called “business sense” from?
Brugge is a very agreeable city when it comes to traversing by foot, though if you prefer you can choose to cycle your way around town or hop on a boat for a canal tour. There’s also the option to enjoy a horse and carriage ride around the old city, which is particularly fun if the weather is slightly cool or the ground is slick underfoot.
Which brings us to the weather: quite often soggy and miserable regardless of the time of year (so it goes Belgium, so it goes…). In spite of this small blip, I find that the grim and grey skies actually give Brugge that romantic, chivalrous and lugubrious character it is known for. Just make sure you’re always carrying your umbrella!
Luckily, you can shop, drink and eat your way across the old city, stuffing your face with moules and frites (yes, fries are Belgian), chocolate and beer (which are not Swiss and German, they’re very much Belgian too), solid cuts of rump and roast, lightly dusted golden-hued waffles, and anything else that gets your mouth watering.
Now if that hasn’t inspired you to give Belgium half a chance, I’m not sure what will.