A second day in Bruges (Flanders, Belgium)

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We wake to clear skies and a crisp clear winter’s day. Where yesterday felt cold, today feels joyful despite the cold temperatures. We set outside and the city looks even more gorgeous than it did yesterday. Here we are in the middle of Bruges with a whole day stretched out ahead of us to enjoy.
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Our first stop is the cathedral precinct where tall spires stab the sky. The Church of Our Lady Bruges looks closed and there’s a sign about buying tickets at the hospital museum across the lane. I’d read that the hospital museum could be interesting so we buy over priced tickets. We will learn throughout the day that the museum curators of Bruges are old-fashioned and still believe dumping a heap of barely curated oddities in a space is acceptable in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by some of the more modern museums we’ve experienced in The Netherlands, Poland and South Korea. After this visit to the museum we decide not to bother with any other museums and just to enjoy cathedrals, castles and open spaces. Fortunately, there’s plenty of those to enjoy.
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The Church of Our Lady of Bruges is partially open and entry ends up being free (tickets will be sold after the renovation is completed though). The church is a mix of peaceful and hectic, as are many major religious spaces we’ve visited. The faithful pray. Pilgrims kneel. Tourists click away with their cameras and smart phones. And the stained glass windows continue to watch on as they always have.
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We walk through Oud Sint-Jan. It’s crawling with tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. That is a sight we will see all day here as it is the winter high season. The apotek (pharmacy) museum was included in our hospital museum tickets. The apotek is interesting but again there are irrelevant displays mixed in here, making for a confused experience. We spend more time trying to take photos of the courtyard through the windows of the museum.
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The Cathedral of St Salvador is our next stop. Again, restoration work is underway but still the cathedral is stunning. We ooh and aah our way around. I light some prayer candles and we buy a candle made by a refugee. This is the common theme here in mainland Europe – the refugees. From what we have seen, the anger against them has eased and a more humanitarian approach is being taken by those Europeans we speak with. Everyday people tell stories of visiting refugees in their local areas to help them complete paperwork, learn language and engage with culture. Everywhere there are small stalls selling items to raise money to help the refugees. And some houses even have stickers on the windows advertising that they will accept refugees into their homes. It’s refreshing to see and hear after all the negative press the refugees get at home in Australia. Every time I travel to Europe or talk about it people say “but aren’t you afraid of the refugees” or “you can’t go there because of the refugees”. But here in Europe, in the thick of the crisis, solutions are being found, especially as the refugees’ stories are learned.
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Leaving the church we walk to the Beguinage. The walk takes us near the train station where massive tour groups follow flag-carrying guides briskly into the centre of Bruges. I feel immediately exhausted as we try to wind our way between the groups. They’ve paid lots of money to be guided through the city so they push to the front at every good view point to take a quick photo and continue. We stop longer, taking photos of buildings, playing with the light and enjoying the sunshine. My recommendation is to always travel independently – Europe is easy and safe for travel so there’s no need to tie yourself to a guided tour.
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The Beguinage is gorgeous. White buildings line a large wooded square. It’s easy to see why women chose to live here. Formerly a convent, the Beguinage is now a place secular women of prayer live spiritual lives. One house is open for the public and it’s worth a look. I feel calm here after the hectic tour group parade outside the Beguinage’s walls.

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We walk some more from the Beguinage to Gentpoort. I have to go inside because it’s a castle. I can’t help myself with castles. We look through the bolt holes. And walk onto the roof where we can take in views of old and new Bruges. In the medieval days the city gates were closed at night so this would have been a busy place at sunset. Pubs lined the outside of the gates in those days because people who didn’t make it back into the city on time would need somewhere to stay. I can just imagine how hectic this place would have been back then.

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Our final stop for the walk is The Church of the Holy Maria. It too is being renovated but is less popular than other churches in the city. We are the only people there, other than the guide who sits at the entrance to offer apologies to guests for the renovation works. The words of wisdom at the entrance to the church touch me.

We end the day with dinner at an Italian restaurant near our hotel. It’s typical tourist fare. You don’t come to Bruges for the food (other than the waffles and chocolate) because, like so many tourist towns, there’s no need to impress for repeat business so prices are high and quality is low. That said’ we had a fantastic day and then head out for one last walk in wintery Bruges before bed.

Walking Bruges (Flanders, Belgium)

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Clip clop clip clop. The sounds of horse drawn carts greets us as we walk out of our hotel onto the wet cobblestones of Bruges. I’ve used the Izi.travel app to create something of a route for us to walk today. It looks like there’s something to see at every turn.

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We start our exploration in the Market Square with it’s gorgeous architecture. The shape of the shop fronts is emphasised by the bright colours. Its particularly stunning given the grey skies and freezing cold air. The only thing missing is snow.

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We wander the square. There’s bicycles parked everywhere and some are particularly funky. Clearly this is a funky town. The Christmas Markets are already in full swing with ice skating, shops selling warm clothes and Christmas decorations, and of course Belgian waffles and hot chocolate. I love this part of winter in Europe. We came across it last year in Krakow too.

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Our walk takes us past some incredible gothic architecture. Like this building in Jan van Eyckplein (Jan van Eyck Square). I can see why cousins were so insistent we visit Bruges . There’s not a dull corner or square to be found here. It’s all immensely impressive.

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We walk down small steets near the outer edges of the old city. Buildings that look like old farm houses sit here marking times gone past. The windows typically have stained glass panes and brightly painted shutters. The Folk Arts Museum is located in this area. It’s well worth the visit with each room representing a different aspect of life in Medieval and 18th Century Bruges. I am particularly fascinatd to learn that the smoking of cigarettes was introduced to Europe after Columbus’s journeys to the Americas. The guy who first introduced smoking to Europe was jailed for seven years as a witch. Unfortunately for society after his release smoking took off and has been killing people ever since.

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Kruispoort (Cross Gate) marks the entry to the old city.

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We’re hungry now so go in search of lunch. Unfortunately, the Brugians take ater the French and kitchens close at 2pm. It’s about -1’C but there’s nothing else for it but to have a picnic. Paul is less impressed than me as we sit on a park bench under trees with icicles hanging from their branches. Fortunately, the windmills make a pretty background.

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We almost have to walk just to stay warm. Even though we’re well dressed, this is weather for sitting by a warm fire. The cold and mist does add atmosphere to the architecture though. Especially the Harry Potter-esque guild building. And the brightly painted “modern” residences, which reflect beautifully on the still canal water. We are still not used to the near-perpetual sunset effects of the light with the sun sitting so low in the sky. I think this is part of what I like about winter in Europe – the colours brought on by this low sun.

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All that’s left to do to end our walk is to indulge in a fresh Belgian waffle with melted Belgian chocolate. We warm up in our hotel room revelling in the taste of our first Belgian chocolates bought right here in Bruges before hitting the streets for a wintery evening walk in the chill air.

Tomorrow promises more Bruges beauty.

Baarschot to Brugge via Valkenburg (Limburg, The Netherlands & Flanders, Belgium)

We had a plan to go to Limburg on Boxing Day but changed our minds when my uncle told us about the possibility of cycling in the limestone mines today. We already have a hotel booked tonight in Brugge but that’s okay – we’re  here and have never been to Limburg nor cycling in limestone mines so we change our plans to fit in more fun.
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We arrive early in Valkenburg so that we can take a look around before the ride. The town is absolutely gorgeous. It’s easy to see why it is so popular with domestic tourists. The town centre is well-preserved with old buildings and sections of the fortress walls.
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There’s even hills here. Small ones but hills all the same within the bounds of this flat country. It’s so pretty.
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Especially the sight of Valkenburg Castle nestled between the wooded hills.

My uncle and aunt are caught in a traffic jam so can’t join us on the mountain biking adventure. It’s a pity but we can still go and they will join a late tour. We sign in and walk down a steep long spiral staircase into the mines where our bikes await us. Helmets must be worn because the ceilings in the tunnels are so low. For once we Aussies are at a cycling advantage because the Dutch guests struggle a bit with the concept and practicality of the helmets.
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The ride is amazing. We’re way underground in a live working limestone mine. The rock here has been mined for centuries, first by hand and now by electric saw. Progress is still slow even today with each miner taking just three blocks of limestone out in a single day (it used to be one before electric saws).
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We ride about 4km (2.5 miles) in our 90 minute adventure. We stop along the way to learn about the natural and human history of the mines. Sometimes we have to duck low to pass through tunnels and other times we have to walk to squeeze through smaller spaces. It’s good fun.
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At the end of our your my uncle and aunt are waiting up top for their ride. We say our farewells, thank them for having us stay and set off into the sunset for the long drive to Brugge.
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When we arrive at our hotel in Brugge about 2.5 hours later we fall instantly in love with the town. It’s old and traditional. There are Christmas markets in two squares. There’s old medieval buildings. Horse drawn carriages rattle through the streets. And winter’s chill is in the air. We immediately decide to extend our stay from two to three nights.

Holland and Belgium – it starts tomorrow

It’s only one more sleep until we head to Holland and Belgium for a fortnight. I’m excited to be hitting the road again. 

Life hasn’t been dull since we got home from Cambodia either. We’ve moved house, hosted four Couch Surfing/Warm Showers guests and started our university studies in teaching. 

Stay tuned for stories from the road.