Belgium 2 – the Bruges saga !

Day 1

Saturday, 6th Sept, 2008

It was a nice and sunny day in Brussels …….and Bharat, Akansha, Anil Curpad, Rama and I kicked it off with a lavish buffet breakfast at our hotel [Yea…if its a buffet, its got to be lavish 🙂 ] This was technically our first day here in Belgium, and we had planned to spend it in the western city of Bruges.  So, off we headed ….in a metro, from the nearby Beurs metro station to Brussel’s main train station- the Brussels Midi. Though we had originally targeted to catch the 8:30am train to Bruges, keeping up with our great tradition, we ended up boarding the 10 am one…..and that too, ‘accidentally’ in the First Class compartment ! [ The fact that we didn’t bother to change even after realizing the mistake, was a different matter all together 🙂 ]

The first time I had heard about Bruges was from the Metro newspapers that I used to pick up from the Aztec 800 canteen in office everyday..[…they always carried these picture ads of tour packages to exotic European locations] ….and as a matter of fact, while we were chalking out our plans for this Belgian trip, Bruges was one of the first places we decided upon. The journey from Brussels to Bruges took us just under an hour, and as soon as we got there,  we bought a city map from the Tourist Office at the station. The City-Centre was just about 15 minutes away, so we set off walking…..through the many narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Bruges……. and stopping only to capture some classic photographs on the Digital SLRs that Anil and Bharat carried around !

Out on the streets of Bruges

From Belgium 2008

Bruges pronounced as ‘Bru’ + <cough> […yea, you literally have to cough the last syllable out 🙂 ], is the capital of the Flanders – the Dutch-speaking northern region of Belgium. Extremely popular among tourists, Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval cities of Europe and is said to offer the kind of charms rarely seen elsewhere.

The Wall 🙂

From Belgium 2008

Just like Strasbourg in France […..where Bharat and I had visited 2 weeks ago], Bruges – with its beautiful canals and the ‘UNESCO World Heritage zone’ historic city-centre, is a classic picture-postcard destination, and extremely popular among western tourists …though we couldn’t spot too many Indians around !

The Canals of Bruges

From Belgium 2008

We had booked ourselves on a Bike tour from the QuasiMundo Biketours company…… and as we had opted for the 1pm batch,  we had ample time in hand to explore around the 2 main squares of the city – the Grote Markt and Burg Square ! Typical of any major European square, both were characterized by an abundance of life and buzz….and were surrounded on all sides by spectacular, neo-Gothic buildings.

Grote Markt

From Belgium 2008

Following an early lunch at a fast food joint on the Grote Markt, we walked down to the designated meeting point at Burg Square, to be received by the guide from the Bike Tour company. Besides us, there were about a dozen other people from different parts of the world too, who had gathered there. After basic introductions, the guide gave us a crash-course in the history and geography of Bruges, and took us to his nearby garage, where we paid up and took our bikes. We had booked for the ‘Border by bike’ tour, which would take us on a 3-4 hour journey right upto the Dutch border and back ….and it cost us around 20 euros per head !

Test riding our bikes

From Belgium 2008

The bikes were awesome – 18-speed and fully loaded ! Considering that I’d been riding an old, rusty bike all this while in Bristol; to me, the sudden transformation was like moving on from a Premier Padmini to a Lamborghini 🙂

The tour kicked off with all of us maintaining an Indian file through the city centre, but soon progressed along the canal-sides and beside the many picturesque wind-mills…..In no time, we were pedaling through the gorgeous Belgian countryside – via serene, winding roads that had hardly any traffic at all, except for the odd cyclists going either way !

Cycling through the pristine villages

From Belgium 2008

All along, on either sides of the tracks, were herds of cattle lazily grazing on the meadows and occasionally, a few horses as well !

Lazy cows

From Belgium 2008

6 kms later, we arrived at Damme – a beautiful, quiet town…shadowed by an ancient church with a missing spire ! After a quick tour of the place, we pushed on towards the Dutch border !

Entering the town of Damme

From Belgium 2008

Never before in our lives, had we pedaled so much at one stretch ! Nevertheless, the excitement kept us going and longing for more ! We rode along unbelievably beautiful paths….stopping only for photographs, or when the guide had to explain something.

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From Belgium 2008

I was particularly enthralled by a spot along the canal, which had been the site of a fierce battle between advancing Canadian soldiers and the Nazis during WW2 ! Holland/Netherlands was on the far side of the canal, but sadly, we were only allowed to view the country from where we were !

The windmills near the Dutch border

From Belgium 2008

As part of the tour, we were entitled to 1 drink at a local Belgian pub, and so, on our return leg, we pulled into one along the canal at Damme. I tried some Belgian beer called Jupiter, and Bharat tried some White beer …..whilst the rest quenched their thirsts with fruit juices

Trying out some Belgian beer 🙂

From Belgium 2008

…After the drink, we set-off again, this time back into Bruges, where for a brief moment, we lost our way, and the guide had to come back looking for us !

There are many ways to go around sight-seeing in Bruges. Many prefer to take a boat-ride along the intricate network of canals winding through the heart of the city …..Others opt for a guided horse-carriage ride. We, decided to try both !

The boat ride is definitely a must-do here in Bruges ! For 5 euros per head, it offers a completely different picture of the city…… Due to its extensive canal network, Bruges is in fact, popularly known as the ‘Venice of the north’ !!!

The Canals

From Belgium 2008

Next up, it was time for the carriage-ride…..however, our Euro reserves had run dry and hence, were forced to draw cash from the nearest ATM […and just about the only one in the area], which happened to be at the Post Office on Grote Markt square. Quite understandably, there was an endless queue ….. But thanks to Curpad’s commendable patience and persistence, we were rich again in less than half an hour 🙂

The Horse carriages start from the north of the Grote Markt, and we boarded one drawn by a large brown horse and driven by a sweet lady, who very poetically, described the various sights around, as we rode off the beaten path, through the city.

The carriage takes a pit-stop 🙂

From Belgium 2008

By the time we got off the buggy, it was dusk ….and the sky had painted itself in a spectacular pinkish-orange hue !

Dusk at the Grote Markt

From Belgium 2008

We picked up the customary souvenirs on the way and walked back to the Train station hoping to catch a train to Brussels. But little did we know about the saga that was awaiting ahead !!!

To state that the return journey was one helluva nerve-racking adventure, would be an under-statement !!! If all had gone to plan, we’d have been safely tucked in our beds back at the Ibis Hotel in Brussels by around 10pm that night….However, as fate would have it, it so happened that even at 1am, we were aimlessly wandering around on the streets …..in a city called Antwerp – 50 kms north of the capital [….and absolutely not part of our original iterinary at all ! ]

Well, how we got ourselves into such a mess, is perhaps stranger than fiction 🙂 To cut a long story short, having missed the 8:30pm train from Bruges to Brussels by a whisker, we boarded a later one….. and alas, it broke down enroute !!! [ …. Seriously, since when have you heard  of trains breaking down in Europe ??? ] The technicians tried everything they could …but ultimately when it seemed like they weren’t getting anywhere, we were asked to hop on into another passing train.

However, what no one bothered to tell us was that, that train was actually headed towards Antwerp …. and that we had to get off at Ghent and catch a connection to Brussels ! We only realized this a few minutes after passing Ghent, when the TTR lady came along. She was quite sympathetic though, and assured us that we’d still be able to catch a train south into Brussels from Antwerp.

Just as we were starting to believe that everything was under control; did the train stop at a small, deserted station called Lokeren [ a place which none of us would be able to forget in a long time to come 🙂 ]….Heeding on someone’s idiotic advice, we got off, thinking we had reached our destination…….only to realize that it wasn’t quite the case 😦 By then, the train in which we had come in, had left ….The next one, and the last one for the night, was headed towards Antwerp at about 11:45pm !!! Stranded, hungry, and having close to an hour in hand, we ventured out of the station, looking for something to eat…… But, the only place we could find nearby was a shady-looking fast-food joint in a shadier corner of the street – where the guys would speak nothing but Dutch !!!

Nevertheless, all the Dumb-charades that we’d been playing in the train came into handy…and we were able to get the message across by sign-language 🙂

The unforgettable Lokeren station

From Belgium 2008

When the 11:45pm train finally pulled in at Lokeren station, we were among the first to jump in. At Antwerp, it was already well past midnight when we arrived, and as feared, the last train to Brussels was well on its way ! The next one was only at around 5am or so ……and that meant, having to spend the entire night out on the streets of Antwerp ! But judging by the hordes of drunken revelers hanging on the streets around the Train Station, it didn’t seem like a great idea. So for the next hour or so, we wandered around, weighing all possible options – rooms to rent/ buses to Brussels / restaurants that were open throughout the night, etc.

Finally, when everything else failed, we managed to find a cabbie who agreed to drive us all the way back to our Hotel in Brussels …ultimately reaching there well past 2 am !!!

The series of events that transpired that night were completely unpredicted…..and there was no way we could have avoided them !!! It did seem like the whole Universe was conspiring against us …………but then, if that meant getting to set foot on 2 extra cities in Belgium, ……who the hell cares about conspiracies 🙂

As they say, “All’s well that ends well” !!!

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One Response to Belgium 2 – the Bruges saga !

  1. santosh says:

    Nice post dude.. different from your other posts..

    the unplanned adventure is really exciting… 🙂

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