Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Bruges

Working backwards. It has been busy.

I headed over from Ghent to Bruges, just 25 minutes by train.  I grabbed some breakfast, and the tram, and just barely made the train because it was thankfully delayed by a few minutes.  The train to Bruges was packed with foreigners, I heard German, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian on the train ride past lazing cows and bucolic Belgian countryside. 

We arrived to the train station, and I headed on with the hordes of tourists to the city center.  It was an onslaught.

I wandered my way into the city, and over to a hostel that was a meeting point for a free walking tour.  I went to the hostel, and inquired about the free tour.  The Romanian girl behind the counter just shrugged, it was her first week.  I laughed and smiled, and managed to find some confirmation that this was indeed the place. I had met some people in Brussels who had recommended the tour, and the tour guide Rachel.   I stood out front chatting with some Argentines from Cordoba about Antwerp and Bar Buenos Aires’ empanadas.

The curly-haired tourguide Rachel appeared with her adorable bulldog Aesop, along with her understudy Jimmy who had just arrived a few days prior.  We headed on a tour through this city of rich cultural legacy, and learned about when Bruges was a trading port to the world.  Bruges started trading with Genoa about a dozen years before the 14th century, and became Northern Europe’s port to the Mediterranean..  Within another two decades, it had one the most sophisticated Stock Exchanges in the epoch.

Bruges was one of the richest cities until around the 1500s when its harbor and passage to the sea dried up with sand.  It spent the next few centuries in gentle slumber until someone came up with an idea to turn the city into a tourist haven, and thus Bruges is reborn as medieval relic par excellence

We wandered our way over to Onze-Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of our Lady), which had its very own Michelangelo statue, one of the few outside of Italia.  I meant to go back to see Michelangelo’s handiwork, but events later on in the day made this not possible.  Across from the grandiose church was the Hospital Museum, once a hospital from the 1400s.  I could use a good leeching…

From there we headed over to the Cathedral of Bruges.  Two points for the Jew to know why a Cathedral is as such, and not a basilica (because an archbishop is seated there). 

We wandered past the smallest window and smallest bridge in Bruges, where a cellist was playing Bach in the sunlight.

Apparently, Bruges played a staring role in an assassin move In Bruges, staring Colin Farrell and Ralph (Raif) Fines.  I have not seen it, nor was aware of it, but will have to check it out.  The tour led us a beautiful canal that is the most photographed point of Bruges.  I grabbed Aesop for a photo, as well as my standard Namaste photo.

From there we headed on to the lovely Astrid Park, named for the beloved Princess who died in a car crash. Along the tour, we learned all about the foundations of Belgium’s edible nationbrand: frites, chocolates, waffles and beer. 

We wandered our way through the brackish fish market and on to the city center.  There was the city center, and an old church that reportedly had a vial of the blood from Christ.  In times of hardship and war, the blood apparently coagulates and becomes solid.  A relic brought back from the Crusades.  I asked about if there had been any carbon dating of the blood and tapestry with it, and apparently it dates back to around the era in question, and exhibits molecular traits of sangre of someone of the Hebraic persuasion.  Whether this long dead Semite is Jesus is anybody’s guess.  But interesting nonetheless.

And we passed the smallest street in Bruges, DeGarre (de-Xhar), a little alley home to a bar of the same name.  The bar serves a beer of the same name that packs quite a punch: 12.5 percent alcohol.  Most Belgian beers clock in at 8 or 9 percent, which is still significantly higher than the average American beer at 4-5 percent.  The bar DeGarre won’t serve patrons more than 3 of their DeGarre brew, and they give it to you with a bowl of cheese (the fat in cheese helps defray the alcohol intake).

We wandered on to the Belfry, the clock tower and guard of the city.  If the city was invaded, the riches were stored up in the tower, at the top of the clockwise stairs (something I learned: stairs are clockwise in towers as to give the defenders an advantage in swordplay).  From there, our tour concluded on to the end, our tour concluded.  The tour lived up to reputation, and was indeed excellent.

After the tour, I headed over to the tiny DeGarre alley, to the tiny DeGarre bar and had the potent DeGarre beer.  I hung out with a fellow named Owen and a fellow named Blake, a Jew from Florida who had been on a Birthright tour and was now touring around Europe after. Owen bowed out for a beer tour, but Blake and I sat around the small bar, drinking the limit of DeGarre as we ate lil cheese squares.  I liked Blake enough to try to connect him with my lil sis.  I don't meet too many 6'6" Jewish guys who are cool, and I don't usually play matchmaker for my sis.  We both felt we could have had a fourth if allowed, but we didn't push.

We wandered back out into the sun-lit square, chatting politics as the throngs of tourists passed by.  Then I declared, "Less politics, more waffles."  A girl passing by erupted in giggles.  We got the delicious building blocks of Belgian gastrodiplomacy covered in chocolate sauce and chantilly cream, with a tiny lil Belgian flag sticking up.

We wandered through the alleys, chatting and passing little fairs and fun, until we reached Blake's hostel so we could have a drink and he could grab his stuff.  It was around 5pm when we sat down.  We had rounds of Straff Hendrick and honey beer, and chatted the day away.  We propped up on some picnic tables in the hostel courtyard, and got chatting with a Greek PhD student named Vasilys who was there for a conference and was now staying longer because he met a cute Belgique who worked at the hostel.    The Greek was shocked that this 'murican knew Gramsci.  He looked at me sideways, and said, "I have never met an American who has heard of Gramsci."

After a few hours, Blake headed off to catch a train onward.  I sat at the picnic table and we were joined by a second Greek, also named Vasilys.  We talked politics until the night came, and I realized that I had to head to the train station, or I would be stuck in Bruges.  I left and hoofed my way through the cobbled streets, past the moon-lit city of charm, and back to the train.  I caught perhaps the last train back to Ghent.

I got back to Ghent and realized I still had not had dinner- just an afternoon of liquidity.  I grabbed a doner kebap, at the same place as the night before since I can't seem to realize that there is no late food in Belgium like there is in Paris.

But Bruges lived up to reputation as a lil gem of medieval beauty, and it was a grand day in Bruges.

PS: Since visiting Bruges, I finally saw the movie "In Bruges," which was fun, a lil weird and quite good.  It was also a nice memory of the city.

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