Friday, March 26, 2010

In Bruges

Being in Bruges did not feel like the start of a hardcore round-the-world odyssey. It's too clean, and civilised, and dainty, and picturesque (and nothing I could write would add to the eulogies that already, justly, abound). It really is no wonder that it's Belgium's top tourist destination with its myriad canals and immaculately-preserved medieval buildings. Of course, like any good traveller I had done my research on my intended destination by watching the film In Bruges. And despite my disappointment at the lack of dwarfs and gangster shoot-outs, I was lucky enough to be hosted by some lovely locals who showed me some of their favourite spots around town and local drinking spots. Every British student worth their salt knows that Belgium is the land of beer, with innumerable varieties (especially of the super-strong type). However what's less well-known is the culture of beer drinking, which is almost an art-form here. It's not about the quantity, but the quality. Belgians take the time to taste and enjoy their beers, and at the better establishments, not only will each beer have its own dedicated type of glass to enhance its flavour but you will also be served a variety of complementary nibbles and cheeses, each also tailored to your specific beer.

A typical canal-side view of Bruges' old town, with its iconic belfry looming in the background.

The travelling started in earnest upon leaving Bruges. After the first-class Eurostar treatment I thought a little self-flagellation was in order and so I decided to hitch to Brussels. It started off a bit too easy when I only had to wait 12 mins before I was picked up by a nice Belgian couple. Unfortunately they were only going as far as Ghent, the next major town, and so they dropped me off at a motorway service station. I quickly spotted 2 cars with British plates and so I wandered over and pleaded my case. It turns out that they were neither British or Belgian, but Romanian. They had come over to buy some 2nd hand cars, drive them 2000km back to Romania, take them apart and sell them on as spare parts. It seemed a rather long way to go for spare parts, which I mentioned to them - to which Florian, my driver (although the other guy was called Florian too), agreed, but said that Romania was a poor country and that there aren't many opportunities.

Unfortunately they weren't going into Brussels and so I was disgorged on a lay-by on the ring road. After negotiating a couple of ditches I found myself atop a rise looking across at the city. From the map it looked quite close, so I shouldered my rucksack and set off in the direction off the greatest concentration of tall buildings. Obviously my distance-estimation skills require a bit of work as it took me almost 2 hours to reach the centre. But here I am and I've found myself a friendly host for the next few days and I'm excited to discover this throbbing city with its many facets: its historic centre, its gentrified turn-of-century quarters, its immigrant districts and even its bureaucratic EU nerve-centre.

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