Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bruges - The Belgium Days

As anticipated, Belgium got off to a bit of a rough start. We got the keys to the rental car at the train station in Brussels and were told to take the elevator to the third floor of the underground parking garage and then proceed down to the fourth floor. At the third floor we nervously stepped into the stairwell and as soon as the door closed behind me, I had a sinking feeling that one of us should have held it open just in case this wasn't the correct way. The stairwell was strewn with newspapers, feces and cigarette butts- a real human guinea pig cage of sorts. Down one level the door was locked and Jacob instinctively began pounding on it. My heart raced as I thought I heard stirring on a level below as though perhaps we had woken the Dutch Stair People who would come and try and get us. Luckily it took only a few seconds to regain composure and walk back up to try the door we had come in through, which was open.

Once on the road it didn't take long to figure out the GPS wasn't working. It would have been one thing if it just wasn't working, but it mocked us by continuing to call out directions every few minutes. You would think we would have just turned it off but we were so frustrated and hopeful that maybe it would change its mind and start to work that we just let it keep chattering away to “turn left at the round-about” as we drove down the freeway.

The plan was to find a place to stay in the city of Ghent but the rain combined with the fact that we kept turning down the same wrong way streets had us cursing the town within minutes of arrival. Vaughn woke up from a nap as we were back on the freeway to Bruges and began cursing us for setting out with no reservations.

You really can't overstate the charm of Bruges, a 9th century fortress developed to protect the coast from the Vikings (you'll pardon me if I occasionally lift from our guidebooks). The city is walled and you have to pass over a stone bridge to enter. It is chock full of medieval charm and feels like you are stepping into a fairy tale with cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and swans swimming though the canals. Despite the rain and our fatigue, we couldn't help feeling tickled by this last minute decision. I was also pretty tickled by the $4 carafe of wine Jacob had grabbed me at the last gas station we stopped at.

The next day we set out and walked back to the center of the city where there was a Farmer's Market in progress. Smoking vendors shouted out descriptions of their products and handed us samples. We walked over to the 272 ft Belfort bell tower and decided to pay the 20 Euros to walk the 366 steps to the top. There are 47 bells at the top of the tower controlled by a person using a keyboard and the chiming is heard throughout the city on a regular basis. The steps wind in a tight winding spiral and are only about three feet long and between one and a half feet to a few inches deep, depending on your spot on the stair. There are no windows and you must pull tightly to the wall to allow a person to pass. A near constant stream of people walking up and down the steps makes for the most claustrophobic situation imaginable and about two-thirds of the way up I was overcome by a horrible panic and had to let the boys continue on without me.

The veganism and strict budgeting means that really only Vaughn is sampling the culinary treats such as Belgian waffles and chocolates and it all starts to feel like that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the grandparents gather 'round to vicariously enjoy the single chocolate bar that Charlie gets for his birthday.

As you might imagine, Jacob is the consummate friendly traveler, asking everyone we encounter where they are from (the most amusing encounter thus far being an older couple from London who said they had been to the States three times but only to Las Vegas and it was “lovely, just lovely”). I also appreciate his boldness in doing things that I'm too shy to do, such as fill up our water bottle from the machine at breakfast since the hotel has said it is “not advisable” to drink the tap water (which I read after pounding three large glasses to get rid of a dehydration headache).

Tomorrow we set off for the Ardennes in the Central Wallonia region and this time we're going to try to have reservations.

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