Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bruges, Belgium

Posted on 8/27/03

My plan to case the parking lot outside my hostel in Luxembourg and become best friends with all of the people who had cars in the hopes that I might hitch a ride out of the valley on my way out of town didn’t happen. This was mostly due me spending nearly every waking minute exploring Luxembourg and being a fixture at the Strongbow bar. The moment of truth came very early on a Sunday morning. My voyage to Bruges, Belgium was going to take four and a half hours - a long trip by northern European train standards - so I wanted to get an early start. I took one last pitiful look back into the hostel parking to see if anyone happened to being heading out, but I was alone. I had 20 minutes to get to the top of the hill and catch my bus to the train station. I knew I would need every second, so I got started. It was every bit as ghastly and freakishly painful as I had imagined. By the time I was half way up, I was wheezing, both arms had gone numb from dragging the Barge behind me and my shoulders were erupting with spasms. I had to stop and take a break. The path was so steep that I had to step behind the Barge to prevent it from drifting uncontrollably backwards down the slope into the hostel parking lot and imbedding itself into the side of a car. After a minute of rest, I steeled myself, reaching into the core of my being for all the primal animal strength that I had in reserve and resumed the climb. The next seven minutes have somehow been wiped clean from my memory. I can only assume that my higher consciousness slipped into my Happy Place and I did the rest of the climb on pure instinct. When I snapped out of it, I was at the bus stop, lungs burning, soaked in sweat and every muscle numb from exertion. There were three other people at the bus stop and they had all moved to the far end of the shelter to give me all of the space that I needed to throw up and collapse. It wasn’t pretty, but I got to the station and I drifted off into a train nap almost immediately upon our departure for Bruges.

All I knew about Belgium before I arrived was that they had some wicked good chocolate. I had actually been in Belgium once before in 1993, but it was only long enough to drive through the country at high speed in the middle of the night. I don’t think we even stopped to pee in Belgium.

While the Belgian national language is French, my first stop was in a northern city called Bruges, within wooden shoe tossing range of the boarder with The Netherlands, so walking down the street I heard a great deal more Dutch being spoken than French. It eventually dawned on me that the Dutch wasn’t coming from the locals, it coming from the tourists. Bruges is discouragingly infested with tourists. Middle-Aged Tourists (MATs), to be specific. The MATs had dogged me so often since Prague that I was finally forced to give them a moniker more concise than “Slow-moving, dazed, brainless knobs.” I realize that I am closer to middle age than I am to the age of the average backpacker these days, but I simply cannot identify with people who’s idea of touring a foreign city includes an open-top bus tour and an hour long horse and carriage ride that winds up at the biggest gift shop in the city. Plus, I seem to be able to walk approximately three times faster than the average MAT. MATs move around in creeping herds of 20 or more at a time, walking side-by-side whenever possible so as to take up the entire sidewalk, so us more nimble people either have to slow to the speed of an anesthetized tortoise or risk our lives passing them in the high traffic, narrow streets. My best guess was that there were about four MATs for every Bruges resident at any given time. Bruges had a permanent population of about 30,000 and in 2002 they had 3.5 million tourists pass through the city. It was like being in Aspen, with three times as many people and surrounded by infinitely older buildings.

It became clear early on that Bruges had very little to offer me and the other backpackers. I had been referred to Bruges by some Dutch friends, but after I arrived I started to wonder if they had personally been to Bruges or if they had just heard nice things about it from their parents. I suspect it was the latter. Bruges was totally devoid of activities geared for anyone younger than 40. The only thing in town that interested me in the least was the Salvador Dali exhibit that was in town for a month. In my very humble, but rarely misguided opinion, Dali was a total hoot and I dug his work on my levels. However, I had specific plans to stop in Figueres, Spain for the sole purpose of visiting the Salvador Dali museum and I chose to not bogart that visit by viewing some of the same material that I would undoubtedly see this fall in Figueres.

I was assigned my usual undesirable top bunk in a eight person dorm room at the Snuffle Sleep In hostel. The Snuffle was Spartan, cramped and the bathrooms made you wish that you had a jumbo can of Lysol. Beyond those predictable details, Snuffle had one very horrifyingly memorable feature. The staircase to get up to the second and third levels was the ricketiest, scariest, accident-waiting-to-happen spiral staircase that I had ever risked my life on. It looked like it had been cobbled together by a freshman shop class with materials that they found out in the dumpster, while being supervised by a substitute gym teacher. Other than the mushroom cloud sized sigh that I unleashed upon seeing how narrow the stairs were, I had not given the stairs a close look before embarking on my first trip up to the third floor with my bags. I was on the fifth step before I noticed that more than half of the wooden steps were split in half lengthwise and threatening to collapse every time I put the massive, combined weight of me and my bags onto them. The steps were somehow being tentatively held together by some unseen force, but for the sake of my anxiety and sanity, I wisely decided that ignorance was indeed bliss and opted not to look into it.

The bunk beds in the rooms were so close together that even my skinny ass had numerous bruises from banging into the bed posts as I inched through the room. The upside of this close-quarters living was that it was impossible not to meet and greet and squash up against your roommates as you moved around the room. The hostel lobby doubled as the dinning room for breakfast and a neighborhood bar where creepy old guys liked to hang out late at night and stare at the women. Having become instantaneously intimate friends with each other and having nothing better to do in Bruges, the hostel residents spent their nights in the bar, playing cards, Trivial Pursuit, drinking and whooping it up as best as Bruges could be whooped. I had to take into account that I was in town for a Sunday and Monday night stay, but the Bruges streets cleared out so soon after dark each night that I briefly thought that they might be under Marshal Law. The few bars that remained open were only sparsely patronized. With 90% of the people in the city being vacationers with no compelling reason to go bed early, I never quite grasped the reason why the streets emptied out like a dance floor during a Justin Timberlake song after 9:00.

By day, Bruges was packed with MATs walking in their usual shoulder-to-shoulder formation while negotiating the narrow streets on their way to cathedrals, churches and, in my case, every chocolate shop in the metropolitan area. In the city center, chocolate shops are on nearly every block. Between the chocolate snacks that I indulged in constantly and my bi-daily ice cream cones, I started to appreciate the unintentionally tight schedule I had in Belgium, just for the sake of preserving my girlish figure. Unlike Norway, where you can walk into any convenience store and buy what looks like a normal candy bar and treat yourself to chocolate nirvana, Belgium has countless dedicated, specialty chocolate shops where as soon as I walked in the door, the aroma of high quality chocolate obliterated my willpower and made me seriously consider abandoning my current gig and inquiring about an entry level job. I was totally helpless in the face of these chocolate shops and I could somehow sense when there was a shop nearby. I eventually surmised that this was probably due to the chocolate shops venting the fragrance from their storerooms right out into the street to draw weak-minded people like myself into their lair.

Bruges has an inordinately large mini-bike presence. I have never seen so many of these baby motorcycles in one place in my life. The owners tended to be teenaged boys, leading me to believe that the mini-bike craze was just a brief echelon to pass on their way to getting their driver’s licenses for actual cars. Kinda like those pansy assed scooters that were big when I was a freshman in high school. The kids that couldn’t wait until they were 16 to get behind the wheel of something with more horsepower than their dirt bikes, dropped all of their earnings from their paper routes and their part time jobs at Dairy Queen and for about nine months they cruised to and from school at 22 MPH like they were the total shit. The Bruges teenagers had obviously come to the understandable conclusion that it was much cooler to be seen on the mini-motorcycles than, say an Esprit scooter, even though their knees were riding higher than their elbows and they couldn’t give their girls a ride unless they climbed up onto the guy’s shoulders.

The Bruges streets were so crammed with MATs that it was impossible to walk more than three steps in a straight line without having to maneuver around a MAT, their kids or the people zipping around on bikes and mini-motorcycles. Even a trip to get an afternoon ice cream cone four blocks away was a 30 minute errand after you stood in line behind dozens of MATs that couldn’t make their order until they had sampled at least 5 flavors, while the rest of us jonesing ice cream junkies were backed up so far behind them that we were blocking traffic in the street. If that wasn’t taxing enough, once you finally acquired your cone, the walk back to the hostel was restricted to about one block every 10 minutes, while being hopelessly constrained behind the MATs reeling down the sidewalks, trying to find a horse drawn carriage to cart them back to their hotels.

When I wasn’t so boxed in by other people that I had to devote all of my attention to not being stepped on, walking through Bruges and admiring the preserved streets and buildings was probably the biggest bonus of my short visit to the city. Unlike places like Amsterdam where the houses are all ancient and more or less uniform, Bruges had obviously gone through several stages of building, renovating and re-building. Despite most of the buildings being attached to each other, they all seemed to have been built in entirely different eras and styles. As you looked down the street, the choppy variety of the structures seemed as if a they had been plopped down randomly together like my old Lego villages. Each house was interesting and arresting in it’s own right, but if you stepped back, it looked as if the city planning had been done by a five year old.

After passing through three cities in The Netherlands without seeing a single windmill, I got my fill on the eastern edge of Bruges. There were four giant windmills along the massive canal that encircled the city, but the novelty quickly faded when it became apparent that they were non-working models. This didn’t make any sense to me. If you’re going to go through the trouble of building a windmill that big, never mind four of them, you might as well make them do something useful like powering a gigantic city-wide oderification (yes, I made up that word) system that would make the whole city smell like chocolate.

My stay in Bruges was capped off in accidentally brilliant fashion on my final evening when I was coerced into venturing out of the hostel bar and finding something with a little more character. After seeking out a few bars recommended in a European bar guide, only to find them closed, we made a b-line for the square and found a quaint little bar with only about five other patrons huddle in one of the corner outdoor tables. The drool started forming in the bottom of my mouth as soon as I sat down and saw a Post-It note sloppily attached to the menu that read ”Sangria, 4 Euros.” I had been a militant sangria drinker during my time in Spain and I had briefly day-dreamed about up-coming sangria orgies while making plans to fly to the Costa del Sol in southern Spain from Dublin at the end of August, but here I was unexpectedly faced with this drink of the gods in crusty old Bruges. It was totally over-priced, but I ordered two. Not only was the sangria mixed to my liking, but the glass was also half full of apple bits that tasted like they had been soaking in the sangria for weeks. I probably would have stayed there until closing, drinking and chewing my way into a sangria coma, but my soberer and more levelheaded companion kindly urged me to return to the hostel.

Go to Brussels

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