Bruges, Belgium • September 2017 • Length of Read: 12 Minutes
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Could you please stop what you are doing and give us your full undivided attention. I have a serious announcement to make…”
A silence fell over the cabin as a long pause ensued. We were about three-quarters of the way into the flight from Glasgow to Brussels Charleroi Airport and, ignoring the faint apology for our hour-long runway delay, it had so far been without a hitch. This sounded serious, though. I turned to the girl on my right and noticed that her face had faded to quite the shade of white. Even fake tan can’t hide a flush of nerves. On 22nd March 2016, three coordinated suicide bombs exploded in Belgium, and a Level 3 terror alert was still in place across the country. The UK Government travel advice website continues to issue the warning that ‘terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Belgium’, with the Belgian authorities indicating that ‘there is a serious and real threat’.
“We’ve gone a little bit crazy here today,” continued the pilot, his voice crackling back over the PA system. “But if you play your cards right, one of you could become very rich.”
Putting down my copy of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Texas Rangers come cattle herders, I began to fear a hostage situation.
“Ryanair are giving away free scratch cards,” the pilot then announced, his previously stern voice taking on an almost sing-song tone. “Yes, that’s right. If you buy five scratch cards for just €10 then we’ll give you a sixth one completely free. And if that wasn’t enough, if you buy €20 worth, not only will you get twelve scratch cards but I’ll also throw in my co-pilot’s mobile number. He’s single; enjoys long walks on the beach; can cook, and bends both ways, if you know what I’m saying? Want to be in with a chance of winning €1million? Then look out for our crew members passing through the cabin very shortly.”
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and re-opened the 900-page tome of which I was only a demoralizing 88 pages into. I’ve written before about how I regard budget airline carriers to simply be shops with wings, and this was a prime example. In addition to the scratch cards; foodstuffs; and gadgets, immediately prior to the seatbelt signs being illuminated for landing the cabin crew then turned master perfumers. Offering a seemingly larger selection of fragrances than the beauty section of a department store, they wheeled a trolley of incense sticks down the aisle, inviting each passenger to purchase exclusive smells such as Jean Paul Gautier and Dior at rock-bottom prices. It all smelled like a con to me, however, and I was delighted to finally disembark down the plane stairs at Brussels Charleroi Airport to a baking sun and blue skies.
I use ‘Brussels’ here in the loosest of terms. Even if you stretched the greater Brussels metropolitan area to its limits, Charleroi still wouldn’t fall into its municipality. In fact, it’s an entirely separate city, the fifth most populous in Belgium, and it took me ninety minutes on a combination of buses and trains to reach the centre of Belgium’s capital. How Ryanair can get away with calling this a flight to Brussels, I have no idea. But then, at least the airport knows. I once flew into Kuala Lumpur Airport only to discover that it was sixty miles, and a ninety-minute bus ride, to the city. That’s like calling Edinburgh Airport, ‘Glasgow Airport’.
I was taking a long weekend trip to the fairytale medieval city of Bruges, and skirting around the numerous armed and camouflaged military that had been deployed at seemingly every transport station in Brussels, I grabbed some dinner and hopped on a seventy-minute train towards my destination. By the time I’d arrived I was still only on page 166. Dumping my bag in the shared dorm I’d booked at St Christopher’s Bauhaus, a chain of dreary and lifeless hostels that are oddly popular across Europe, I headed for a dusk walk around the cobbled historic centre, the entire area a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. What I saw blew my mind.
The cult black comedy In Bruges is one of my favourite films ever and was the main influencing factor as to why, at that moment in time, I found myself wandering down Bruges’ picturesque cobbled lanes; following narrow brick bridges over quaint canals and across bustling market squares. Grandiose towers and church steeples give the city literal stature as they play big brother to their perfectly-preserved and colourfully painted sibling houses and taverns. Restaurant seating spilt out onto the pavements and the laughter of patrons could be heard over a diverse array of languages and clinked glasses. I slid into a bar called Snuffel and ordered a strong Belgian ale, so absorbed by my surroundings that it felt like I’d daydreamed myself back in time.
Five English lads crowded around a table at the other end of the bar and approaching them with some trepidation I made introductions. “Rangers or Celtic?” asked the shortest and scruffiest member of the group, picking up on my Scottish accent. It was a question I hated almost more than any other when travelling. Almost as much as ‘Where in Ireland are you from?’ which I seem to get asked in droves.
“Glasgow Warriors,” I replied, referring to my local rugby team. I pretended long enough as a teenager that I had a care for football so as not to alienate friendships, but as an adult, I’m happy to admit that it’s a monkey no longer on my back. Nip the conversation in the bud, and if they don’t like it they can piss off, that’s what I say. The lads were in Bruges for one night, having road-tripped through the Channel Tunnel that morning, and, unfortunately for me, piss off is exactly what they then did. Damn.
As the quintet went out to explore, I hung about the bar for a bit longer until I began to yawn. It had been a long commute to get to Bruges, but every step I’d taken so far through the oil-painting beauty of the city had been worth it. Unlike football, I’d honestly struggle to see how Bruges couldn’t be somebody’s cup of tea. Apart from Ray in the film In Bruges, that is:
Harry: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?”
Ken: “What I think Ray meant to say was…”
Harry: “Is the swans still there?”
Ken: “Yeah, there are swans.”
Harry: “How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?”
I was charmingly awoken at the unrespectable hour of 5am the following morning by the beeping alarm clock of the Jesus-looking Israeli guy in the bunk above me. Causing earthquake-like tremors as he jumped off his bed to the floor, he then flicked on the light and proceeded to rustle around plastic bags like he was at a supermarket checkout. Well, that was me up for the day.
I was meeting a friend for lunch and wanted to do one of the free walking tours and cross off the main sightseeing attractions before catching up with her. Making my way along the corridor at Bauhaus towards reception, a waft of stale piss emanating from the communal toilets, I inquired with the young girl behind the desk as to where the meeting points for said tours were, their timeframes, and what ones came recommended. She rather unhelpfully couldn’t answer any of these questions. Instead, I found myself browsing around online for the necessary details. It didn’t strike me as too unreasonable a line of questions to ask someone working in hospitality, and I really racked my brains to come up with a reasonable explanation for her lack of common knowledge. I couldn’t find one. She was clearly just disinterested and shit at her job.
The fresh morning air cut right through me as I left the Bauhaus, sending a chill down my spine as I ventured along the now deserted streets. The birds were chirping, the skies were clear, and it was sure to become a scorcher of a day ahead. The rush hour morning commute consisted of a nun bustling past me towards the convent and the hooves from a horse-drawn cart clicking their way along the cobbles. There’s something empowering and inspiring about having a city completely to yourself. You have nothing but your thoughts as company, but at that moment it’s the best conversation you could ask for.
I found my way through Bruges’ canal-lined maze to the Market Square and Belfort bell tower. Probably the focal point of the city, the Belfry, as it’s called in English, stands at a slanted 83m and formerly served as an observation post for spotting dangers whilst housing the city’s treasures and municipal archives. The steep, narrow, winding staircase has 366 steps. I paid my €10 entrance fee to climb them and, before setting off, nodded towards the overweight American tourist limbering up and stretching his calves out at the bottom. Having marvelled at the view of the spectacular morning haze that leeched over the city from the top, I again passed him on my descent, still not even a third of the way up. This was his Everest.
Our extroverted walking tour guide was a Puerto Rican called Kai. Having initially come across to Europe on a backpacking trip, he’d fallen in love; learned the Dutch language, and now been calling Bruges his home for five years. As a group of misfit tourists gathered around him in the Market Square, Kai began the tour by explaining that the gable-stepped architectural roof features found on a large portion of the buildings were not just status symbols of the wealthy and powerful, but ergonomically designed so that chimney sweeps had easier access for their cleaning duties back in the day.
The following two hours were a continuum of quirky facts and little-known tales from the city’s rich history, which Kai delivered with the performance of a Broadway actor. Some of the more interesting and important points Kai mentioned included:
- Bruges is home to dozens of churches, but only one cathedral; the reason being that cathedrals act as the seat of a bishop and each faith only permits one cathedral per city.
- The medieval spiral staircase in the Belfort goes clockwise because most people are right-handed. This direction allows defenders facing downwards a greater range of movement when wielding their swords against enemies.
- The best Belgian waffles are served from the van parked in Burg Square.
- A café at the northern end of the city, where old windmills stand atop a grassy hill, serves vegetarian fries that are not baked in animal fat (vital, I know).
- Apart from snacks and desserts, traditional Belgian food is not much to write home about.
- In 1488, the people of Bruges executed Pieter Lanchals, the bailiff and counsellor of Emperor Maximillian of Austria. ‘Lanchals’ means ‘long neck’ and the Lanchals family crest featured a white swan. Legend has it that Maximillian punished the city by forcing the people to keep swans on their lakes and canals till eternity. Whether this is true or not, Bruges is covered with them. Crobs Abroad fact: A male swan is called a cob, not a cock. Never give a swan a knob.
- Many houses have missing windows or even fake, painted ones. Back in the 19th-century people had to pay taxes on the amount of windows they had in their house, and since Belgians have a reputation for being masters at evading taxes a lot of people bricked up the windows just before the taxman came by.
- Café Vlissinghe is famous for half a millennium of hangovers, having been serving alcohol to patrons for over 500 years. The oldest bar in Bruges, it is almost completely in its original condition.
Grabbing a flat white at the lovely Vero Coffee just off the Market Square, Ann-Sofie soon entered and welcomed me with a big smile. We’d met in the northern Thailand hippie town of Pai earlier in the year whilst both backpacking through Asia, and when I’d mentioned to her that I was thinking of visiting Bruges she immediately offered to take time out of her weekend to show me about her homeland and catch-up. Having studied at Ghent University she was now working in the charming little coastal town of Ostend, twenty-five minutes west of Bruges, and with a summer sun basking over Belgium that weekend she suggested we head out of the city and to the beach. I agreed, and we were soon hammering down the freeway in her hatchback. Despite having working cruise control, the air conditioning was broken, so the journey was pleasantly smooth but unpleasantly warm.
The view along the boardwalk in Ostend is a poster for a permanent vacation, and it felt therapeutic to walk along with a good friend, licking ice-creams and discussing life. Children splashed about in the sea as their parents sunbathed on towels laid down on the golden sand; kids raced along the pier on scooters and bikes, enjoying the last bit of freedom before school started back, and couples held hands as strolled along, embracing their romantic vacation. Staring out to the ocean, it dawned on me that the landmass just out of sight was Britain. Never had I been so close to home, but felt so far away.