Truly, I have saved the best for last. Friday morning we boarded a train from Frankfort to Brussels and then a second train to Bruges. When the planning for this trip began, several months ago, my friend Kath had requested the stop in Marburg, so the last city on our itinerary was my choice. After seeing the movie In Bruges, I had been very intrigued by it’s eight hundred years of architecture. It was a bonus to find that it is also a Mecca for chocolate lovers.
We arrived in the late afternoon on Friday and caught a taxi for the ten-minute ride to our hotel. The old part of the city radiates out from the central market square, which is dominated by a huge bell tower.
The bells, all forty-seven of them, ring out in a beautiful bouquet of mixed tones, marking the quarter hours from morning till night. Our driver found our hotel on a tiny alleyway just two blocks off the market square. We checked in, unloaded our luggage and set out to explore.
Over the next twenty-four hours, we learned a lot about this city by simply walking about. When Bruges first developed, it was a major trade destination, owing to the canal system that linked it to the sea. But, the most amazing thing today is that every building, whether it is eight hundred or two hundred years old, has maintained it’s original façade. If you look closely, you will see a system of braces that have insured that every building stands straight, the original chimneys are in tact and all colors are original. On the exteriors you will see what appears to be a wrought iron S shaped rod, about three feet long, mounted on the building at the spots where another story has been added. These pieces will follow the floor line and the roof pitch, being placed evenly, about every ten feet. On the interior of the walls and floors rods have been strung from one brace to the opposing brace on the other side of the building bringing new strength to these antique structures. We saw several buildings that were in the process of renovation. This meant that we were looking into a shell. Only the exterior walls were standing. So, you now have an ancient city with every modern convenience neatly tucked away, out of sight of the tourists.
On Saturday morning, we took an hour-long bus tour of Bruges. The bus only seats about twenty passengers at a time. Anything bigger and they wouldn’t fit through the streets. This is a city where it is physically impossible to drive over fifteen miles an hour (in my opinion!), over the cobbles, through the maze, avoiding pedestrians who must walk glued to the sides of buildings. In addition there are hundreds and hundreds of bicycles, a few motorbikes and dozens of horse drawn carriages. There is no logic to the twists and turns of the streets and alleys. Some streets run into market squares, some along canals and some only join two alleys for no reason at all.
Following our bus tour, we decided to retrace part of the tour route on foot. At one edge of the city we had seen three original windmills and decided that they needed a closer look. Following a street map is almost impossible. My eye could not read the street names, most of which contain multiple double vowels and ended in “djkt”. We simple aimed our feet in the general direction of the windmills and began to weave our way about, snapping photos as went.
It is nearly impossible to get lost in Bruges because all you need to do is look up and spot the bell tower, using that as your beacon to the city center. Thus, we found the windmills and we found our way back to the market square.
The weather was fairly mild, and we found that a sweater under a light jacket was all we really needed. But, Kath had arrived without gloves. I had brought a pair of fingerless gloves that I had knit and I also had a second pair of gloves Amy had left with me. Since Kath had none, I gave her my fingerless gloves. These I had knit out of lovely Malabrego sock wool in the color Archangel (my knitting friends will understand this). As our windmill walk-about was ending, we were again back in the market center. After a few more stops at chocolatiers, we were ready to head back to our hotel before dinner. We were now retracing our steps from the very beginning of our afternoon’s journey and stopped at a street corner to wait for a break in the bicycle traffic before crossing. There, on a window ledge was one of the Malabrego fingerless gloves. Someone had found it during the day and parked it on the window ledge, exactly were the rightful owner would find it. Coincidence?
No report would be complete without mention of a meal. Friday afternoon, I enjoyed, possibly, the finest lunch I have ever had. We found a tiny little establishment on a side street and noticed that there were diners sitting in the window on the second floor, overlooking the foot traffic below. The first floor was only large enough to accommodate a wee little tea shop and a lunch counter. We asked to be seated for lunch and were directed up the stairs. The stairs. Imagine a brass fire pole with little steps wound so tightly that only one person at a time can go up because you are in danger of putting the top of your head into the bottom of the foot of the person ahead of you. When you reach the top of the stairs, you must spin around and step into the loft that is the second floor. We found a table in the window and ordered our lunch. My tea arrived in a little cast iron pot with loose tea leaves in a strainer. Now, that’s a cup of tea! We both ordered the salade d’Medici. This salad is nothing short of brilliant. The base was a lovely collection of greens. Forming a crown on the mound of greens was warm broccoli. Now, I love broccoli, but am not a great fan of that lightly steamed version that is still way to crisp and still too crunchy. I like it soft and tender allowing me to easily cut it with the side of my fork. So, there was the centerpiece of my salad made from perfect broccoli. Forming spokes from this center were the loveliest pieces of lightly grilled bacon. Not crumbly, dark brown, salty, sulfide laced American bacon, but an Italian version that is more like prosciutto. At the ends of the spokes of bacon were paper-thin rounds of spicy chorizo. Between the spokes were alternately shredded carrot, shredded red cabbage, sliced eggs, and tomato (pronounced toe-mah-toe) wedges. I know this all sounds delish, but I have one more thing to add. Under the warm, perfect broccoli I found melting cubes of Gorgonzola cheese. Lots of melting cubes of lovely Gorgonzola. You are probably asking, “How can this salad be made any better?” Well, I will tell you. On the side was severed a tiny little pitcher of dressing that can only be compared to a fresh béarnaise sauce. Lemony, creamy goodness. Five stars to the Medici salad!
Friday evening we walked more, as though we couldn’t soak in enough of the magic. Christmas lights were lit, window decorations twinkled, lively horse drawn carriages were clip clopping down the streets, the air was filled with the smell of chocolates and pastries, and always, the bells were ringing.
Saturday was moving day again, but we were able to squeeze in a forty-five minute walk around the town. November mornings always seem to arrive in a frosty fog, which burns off around noon, only to arrive again in the late afternoon. On this Saturday we were treated to some sort of Boy Scout celebration that was marked by a band that played and marched all around the square. The band was made up of scouts and adults in red uniforms, playing It’s A Long Way To Tipperary. And, in the center of the square men with hoses were completing work on a huge outdoor skating rink as the band played on. Very festive!
Then, off to another train station. We were heading through the Chunnel and back to London for our final night of this adventure. After checking into our hotel, we faced the crowds and made a final pilgrimage to Harrods. Kath had never been and since it is an iconic Christmas shopping destination, we felt it was worthy of our last night's entertainment. We browsed about for a bit because real people can't afford to buy much at Harrods! We could, however, afford a cup of tea and a dish of sorbet in the cappuccino bar. As we were leaving the store, we were treated to a powerful and highly professional youth choir of about forty voices singing in an outdoor walkway. We stopped to listen for a bit but left as soon as they started passing out leaflets explaining how they had all been saved.
I’m at the end of my trip. I have found two women that I would travel with any time, assuming they would have me. Each of us had a strength and we took turns being the smart one. Thank you Amy. Thank you Kath. But, I really am looking forward to being home in a few hours. I have missed Mike.