Picturesque with a capital P

Jeannie, Richard and I set off early (well, reasonably early – well, that is, reasonably early for us – well, that is, well before lunchtime) for Bruges. Bruges is a marvellously historic town, full of historic buildings, museums, churches and packed to the brim with character.

We drove out of central Brussels, stopping for petrol and paying at at an ATM amusingly named “Mister Cash”. Then we found the freeway and zoomed along at somewhere around the speed limit of 120Kph towards Bruges. Jeannie and Richard reckoned there were virtually no traffic cops in Belgium, and certainly the people speeding past us at 30 or 40 or more k’s didn’t appear to think so.

It was a gloriously sunny day, and beside the freeway the endless numbers of neatly arranged farms and fields looked amazingly beautiful picturesque in a kind of undefinable Low countries kind of way. I was to discover that any attempts to take pictures of such things at freeway speeds invariably fail, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

We found the turn-off for Bruges, and drove slowly around the city centre down a maze of cobbled one way streets, looking for a carpark. Eventually we found an underground carpark, which may not be strictly keeping with the historic tone of the city, but probably helps the tone stay historic by hiding some of the cars away off the streets.

Bruges, 15/9/1998

Finding our way out of the carpark, we wandered down narrow cobblestone laneways and streets, towards the Market Square. Just before the Square, we made a miraculous discovery. More miraculous than the horses and carts passing us by with special poop chutes to stop the road getting covered in horse shit. It was the Tintin shop – yes, an entire shop devoted to everything to do with Tintin.

It was full of Tintin merchandise: books, posters, T-shirts, ties, shoes, jackets, towels, pillowcases… you name it, they’d whacked the image of Tintin and Snowy and Hergรƒยฉ’s signature on it. About the only Tintin merchandise I didn’t see was condoms.

Mind you, it all seemed to be good quality stuff, not the kind of fall-apart-ten-minutes-after-you-open-the-packet you usually get with cartoon merchandise. Expensive with it though, and I confined myself to buying a few postcards.

We took a look around the Market Square, and then decided to climb the bell tower. I quickly discovered that this is not a job for the faint-hearted, because although the steps start off nice and big and gentle and relaxed and civilised, as you go up they fairly rapidly become the kind of deadly steep narrow winding staircase normally associated with anorexic acrobatic lighthouse keepers. Perhaps that’s how people were when they built it over five hundred years ago, or at least people who worked in bell towers.

About halfway up you can see all the ancient machinery that works the bells. At set times through the day, this cranks into operation – wheels start turning, cogs start crunching, and the bells play various tunes.

If you manage to hold off the vertigo and dodge the people coming down, and actually make it to the top, a brilliant view out over the city can be found. It was very windy, but very beautiful, as we stood up there for several minutes looking around at the streets and buildings before us.

There was a deafening clang, and the bells began ringing, singing out a tune across the city. And all automated, without any hunchbacks having to lift a finger.

After making our way back down to terra firma again, we had a walk around the canals. To me, canals always look picturesque, it doesn’t matter where. Even the dumpy old Elwood Canal back home in Melbourne has a certain mystique about it. I could sit there for hours, watching the moored boats and the Coke cans bobbing up and down on the water. My sister and I used to throw in ice cream sticks and watch them race each other down towards the sea.

But these canals were even better: clean, filled with happy people in boats, and surrounded by buildings centuries old and cobblestone streets full of people.

Bruges, 15/9/1998

We found a charming restaurant with a great view of a canal, and were just about to order when we realised they didn’t take credit cards. Being a little short on cash, we decided to evacuate and find one that did. We ended up back in Market Square, stuffing ourselves with the most traditional of Belgian foods, pizza and pasta.

We tried out a change machine in a nearby bank. It didn’t recognise my Australian twenty-dollar note, but it was okay on the English money. But it became apparent that whoever designed it was very cunning indeed. It didn’t tell you how much local currency (after the bank’s commission) that it was going to give you while you were putting in the notes. And by the time it did tell you, you couldn’t cancel the transaction: it was like it or lump it.

Next we decided to inject a little culture into the day, and found the Groeningemuseum. As it happens, it doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with The Simpsons, but it does have a lot of historic artworks. And the thing about really fine paintings of this era is that you can only really appreciate the level of fine detail in them from seeing them up close and in person. Somehow they manage to show much more detail and emotion than the average photo.

Some of the Flemish primitives were pretty depressing, featuring gruesome torture scenes. Perhaps they were reflecting life back then, or perhaps they were just the horror movies of their time. Or perhaps a bit of both.

We found The Church of Our Lady and went in and gazed for a while at Michaelangelo’s Madonna And Child (no, not that Madonna, you philistines) which looked amazing in the candlelight.

Madonna and child

Then we made our way back to the car, and got thoroughly lost driving around the streets looking for a way out of the town. Eventually we found it and got back on the freeway and headed towards Gent.

Gent was a bit drizzly by the time we got here, and we drove around for a bit, doing that curious lazy-tourist thing of looking out of the car windows trying to see if there was anything that looked interesting enough to actually get out for.

Perhaps we were on the wrong streets, but nothing really leapt out at us, so we got back on the freeway and headed for Antwerpen, better known in English (for reasons that escape me – why on earth do places need names in different languages?!) as Antwerp.

Richard and Jeannie showed me the docks (cold and wet), the red light district (pretty quiet on a Tuesday night) and then we stopped right in the centre of the city and took a walk around. The humungous cathedral tower looked brilliant, lit up against the night sky.

We wandered around looking at restaurants and eventually settled on quiet one facing a big square, and stuffed ourselves full of ribs, as we chatted about life in Australia and Europe, and Richard and Jeannie told the full story of how they got together (which is quite a tale, but Jeannie would kill me if I related THAT to the world!)

Having consumed our own body weights in ribs, we staggered out of the restaurant and kept wandering around the streets in a futile attempt to work it off, while a fine mist of rain came lightly down among the old buildings, and the trams came screeching around the corners of the narrow streets.

We eventually made our way back to the car, and drove back to Brussels for a good night’s sleep.

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