On our second full day in Belgium, we took the train from Brussels to Bruges. Because it was December, they were offering a special "shopping ticket," which meant that our roundtrip tickets were only 11 euros each. Usually, I think they're closer to 20 euros per person each way, so this was a real bargain.
Bruges has been called the Disney World of charming European towns. It’s been well-preserved, it’s groomed for tourists, and it plays the part. All that being said, I wasn’t sure if we would dislike it because it felt fake and too Disney-esque and touristy, or if it would live up to the hype and we would really love it because it was so well-preserved and beautiful.
We began our time in Bruges at Minnewaterpark, which was on our way into town from the train station. The park was much smaller than I expected from my online research, but it was cold, and we had decided that since the forecast was warm (I think it was even up to 60 that day!), we only wore one coat each instead of our typical two, we didn’t linger too long.
After we left the park and made our way into town, we started seeing some of Bruges’ canals. The pictures I’d seen of the canals and the picturesque homes and buildings lining them was what sold me on Bruges (as well as the cheap train tickets!). I’ve mentioned it before, but if a town is along the water, be it ocean, river, or lake, I’m almost certain to like it. I was excited, as it seemed like we would be able to follow the canal into the main part of town and continue walking along it the entire way. However, this was not to be. The canals are infrequently lined by streets or paths, and are mostly surrounded with buildings. This is great for those with canal-side property, but it makes it impossible to follow the canal for any distance unless you’re in a boat.
We followed the crowds into Market Square, which is the main square in Bruges, wandered through the Christmas market set up around an ice rink, and picked out some lunch. We both chose something reminiscent of scalloped potatoes and ham. It was delicious and warm, and it fit our budget (typically five euros per person per meal). We ate it rinkside, and then got walking.
We walked across bridges, along canals, through squares. We were hoping to rent bikes and ride into the countryside, but the man at the shop that we planned to rent from said that he knew nothing about riding into the countryside, and could offer us no assistance in doing so, so we decided against the bikes as we didn’t want to just ride in the town. We enjoyed walking through different parts of Bruges and getting (unintentionally) lost – it really was charming.
We also visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is famous for being the home of very important relic: a vial of Jesus' blood. I don't know if you've ever visited a church that houses a relic before, but we have become familiar with this practice and how it can elevate the status of a church, as European churches are really into their relics. We tend to fall on the skeptic end of the spectrum when it comes to the validity of these items (i.e. Is this reallya piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on? Are these really the bones of Jesus' uncle? etc.) And even if they are/aren't, what difference does it really make? At least that's how we see it, so that meant that we didn't pay to see the vial, we just walked through the church and watched the people going through the line and peering at the blood.
It was around this time, I think, that Danny figured out that many of the chocolate shops in town give away free samples. Thus began many (brief) stops into as many chocolate stores as possible, feigning interest long enough to figure out if they were offering samples, and then going on our way. I'll admit, this was not my favorite part of the day, but it was the tastiest!
Our last activity in Bruges was a canal boat trip. The tour was about 30 minutes long, and it was a nice way to get a bit more information about the town and see parts of it that we couldn't by foot.
We finished up just as it was getting dark, at which point we walked back through town and took the train back to Brussels. I'm really glad that we decided to go to Bruges for the day. There were a lot of tourists, yes, but when we got off of the main streets we felt like we had the town to ourselves. And sometimes it's not so bad to have other tourists around - after all, we wouldn't have felt so brave getting all those chocolate samples if we were the only ones there! Finally, while there's plenty to do in Brussels, in the winter much of it is museum-oriented, and from what I can tell, many of those museums do not have the majority of their displays in English. So, due to the weather and the fact that we only wanted to go to museums with information in English, our choices were limited, and I felt that we'd already seen the highlights of Brussels - so heading to a new town for the day was perfect.
Bruges wrapped up our time in Belgium, which we really enjoyed. It was a great, Christmas-y start to our three-week trip, and we'd love to visit again at Christmas time. I suppose, if given the chance, we'd go anytime, but the Grand Place all lit up and with that massive Christmas tree in the middle...I'm just not sure it's as beautiful and magical at any other time. Next stop...Berlin!