Monday 15th October
It is an early start for us, we are up at 5am to catch the bus to Victoria at 5.45. It is still dark when we arrive at the stop, with a couple of minutes to spare. It takes 45 minutes to travel to Victoria Bus Station, and then we have a few minutes walk to the Coach Station. We arrive well before our 7am check in, and are surprised how busy it is at this hour. We are also surprised at the number of homeless who had been sleeping there overnight. At first we thought they were travellers wanting to get first dibs on seating, or perhaps wanted to save on a nights accommodation, but when check in opened they picked themselves up and moved on.
Check in was a bit unorganised, and we also expected that they would take our luggage then, but that was not the case. They were taking passengers from two different services, and we had to figure out which bus went to Bruges as both left at the same time. Our vouchers were exchanged for tickets and we were told which gate we departed from. There is more of a shambles there as both buses left from the same gate, at the same time, so there was a lot of confusion, and the gate area was very crowded.
Staff called for passengers on the first bus, not ours, but when we say “called” that was a bit of an understatement, the driver walked up to the door and almost whispered the destination, held up a card and walked back to the bus. A lot of people would have missed it, and a lot on our bus were mistaken and tried to board the wrong one, They were then berated for their error and told to wait inside for their service. If we hadn’t been near the front we would have missed what was said too. Someone went off to ask where the Amsterdam bus was and the staff were a bit rude, telling him it was late and it will be there when it arrives.
No one was telling passengers what was going on, the Paris bus left early and there was no sign of ours. There was another bus parked directly behind the Paris one, and eventually someone turns the lights and signs on, and we are called to board. We have to take our own luggage to the bus, which isn’t a problem, but the bus driver is directing where the bags go, and not loading the passengers. There is more of a bottle neck as people wait to board and get in the way of those stowing bags. People are all over the place, and staff are yelling at us to staying the immediate area of the bus because other vehicles are moving around. It could have been handled a lot better.
We are not that late getting away, leaving at 8.15, it takes 45 minutes to leave London, another 1 ¼ hours to Dover where we collect more passengers, and then on to Folkstone. Here we go through French border control to enter Europe. Tony has a problem with the camera, there is a lens error and it won’t focus properly. Not sure what has happened, but it is a nuisance. Hopefully it can be easily fixed.
With border control sorted we have a short wait for the next train through the chunnel, a large notice board lets you know the departure times of the next few trains. Tony wonders if there is no specific booking a time for the train, perhaps you buy your ticket and just take the next one to depart once you have cleared immigration? Passengers are allowed off to stretch their legs or use the restrooms. There are vending machines nearby for hot and cold drinks and snacks, but there are no cafes.
The bus is driven straight on to the train, as are the cars and trucks. That was so cool. Firedoors are then lowered within the carriage. Only vehicles with their drivers and passengers are aboard, there is no carriage for foot passengers. We are only allowed off the bus to use the toilets on the train, there is no café on the train. The trip takes about 45 minutes, around half that time is in the tunnel, not that we could see a lot inside or outside the tunnel, the few windows are too low to see much from up in the bus.
At Calais our clocks go forward an hour, and there is a pit stop for coffees, we got a free one as they messed up our order. Cynthea had ordered a hot chocolate, and they gave her coffee. Tony said it would be shame to throw the coffee away, and they gave it to him. The weather here is not that good, it is persisting down most of the way to Bruges.
We arrive around 3pm, and as it is starting to rain again so we look at getting a taxi, but at EUR20 we go back to the bus stop. The bus is a much more reasonable price, EUR1.20 each if you buy the ticket in advance, or EUR2 on the bus. We found out later that bus tickets are valid for an hour, but by then too late to use it again.
We had a map showing us how to get to the hostel, it showed that we crossed a big waterway after getting off the bus. We were at a small canal, so carried on, but turned back after a few minutes when we realised we should have taken the street back there after all.
We make our way through the narrow cobbled, and sometimes slippery from the drizzle, streets to Snuffle hostel, located above a bar. We are in a twelve bed room, accessed through the bar and up a tight spiral staircase, and directly above the bar, so we can clearly hear the music from below. It is hard to get up those stairs with backpack pack on. To get to the unisex showers you need to go back down, through the bar and the kitchen, across a courtyard, and up a steep staircase.
The hostel has a great map available, much better than the one that the tourist info centre at the bus station tried to sell Tony. The map is double sided, Bruges by day on one side, and by night on the other. It is full of great information on what to see and do, and is a very tongue in cheek guide, we get a lot of laughs just reading it. We are told that the local language is a dialect that no one else understands, not even the Belgians. We also get given a BrugesCard, a tourist discount card that will give special deals for entry to attractions, as well as discounts at pubs, cafes and restaurants.
We headed out to explore the town, walking the short distance to Markt Square. It is cold and wet, and there is a lazy, chill wind. We had a snack of frites (hot chips) with curry sauce and Flemish sauce, made with beer and meat. There are two snack vans in front of the Belfry, fierce competition keeps the prices down, and the food of good quality. The owners change every two years, with the licence going to the highest bidders. Horse drawn carriage operators brave the cold, but there are not many people about to take a ride.
It was dark by now, and the weather was not getting better, so we did a bit of quick window shopping before heading back to the hostel. Around the square there id mainly restaurants, cafes, bars and fast food outlets. We expected to see a McDonalds, KFC and Burger King amongst them, but there are none in the immediate area. There was a very small Subway store, with a bigger shop further along past the square. There was a burger shop, Quick, and we tried them the next day. Not sure what “Quick” referred to, but it wasn’t the speed of service. The burgers were ok though.
Belgium rivals Switzerland for chocolate, and there were lots of chocolate shops here, with many different shapes on display, including X-rated ones! We are way laid by the temptation of a waffle on the way back. We had to laugh as we, and other customers, have to change our orders because the shop has run out of some supplies. Cynthea has to make do with a plain waffle as there is no cream or icecream.
Back at the hostel it is very noisy in the bar. We had a couple of beers at Happy Hour, they were just EUR1 each from 9pm, but only a local brew was available at that price. Still, it wasn’t bad, and quite strong, but they ran out every night, or so they said. There is also a “beer card”, EUR10 for five beers so you can sample some of the thirty different beers available. Tony looks at the bar prices, and only a few are over EUR2 a glass, so he decides not to bother.
There is plenty of tourist info, so we had at look at that while we talked to a few other guests before heading up to the room. We meet up with a few who are sharing our room, three Aussies are cooking tea and a couple of Canadians are in the bar too. There is a “free” walking tour of the centre city tomorrow night, and we put our names down for that.
There is a lot of noise in the room, mainly the base sounds from the music, but surprisingly it doesn’t keep us awake. Others come and go, and around 3am the Aussies roll in, pissed as farts, and the two guys got the giggles, it was quite funny, and they didn’t disturb us for too long..
Tuesday 16th October
Breakfast is included at Snuffle, a choice of cornflakes, muesli (with LOTS of chocolate in it, what a sugar rush!), toast and jam, hot drinks. We have a clear blue sky today, we hope it stays that way.
We walk to town for some more window shopping, and at the canal there are 30 minute trips available, around EUR6 each using our BrugesCard, so we take a ride. We are told that the town used to be much closer to the sea, but silt filled the canals and before long the shore was many miles away. The town was all but abandoned, but the government decided to preserve it, and Bruges was rebuilt. With the canals back operating it became a tourist town.
There are many different styles of buildings, especially in the gables. The bridges over the canals are very low in places, and with some that we approach we are thinking that the boat surely won’t go underneath, but to our surprise it does.
Back on the streets we pass a cannon planted upside down in the footpath, no one knows why, and many walk past without noticing it, we certainly didn’t notice it on the first pass. We find out that it was left behind by Dutch troops in 1631, but how and why it came to be upside down in the footpath, no one seems to know (or care).
The weather is staying nice, and there are lots of tourists about. The horse drawn carriages are doing a good trade, there are quite a few about. Bicycles are popular here too, and you have to keep you wits about you, especially when crossing the road. There are not that many cars on the road.
There is a lot of lace sold here and there is even a Lace Museum. In fact they have more museums than you can shake a stick at, for all sorts of things – chocolate, frites (fries), lamps, folklore and diamonds, to name a few.
The Chocolate Museum - Choco Story, is based at a local factory. It costs EUR7 each to visit, but with our discount card we get a combi ticket for EUR9 each, and we can also visit the Frites Museum. The building is quite old, dating back to 1480, and is unusual in that it is four stories high, so there are lots of stairs. In the entrance there is a giant chocolate egg, with the opening date of the museum in it. We assume the egg has been there since then, when it opened in 2004. There is also supposed to be a life size chocolate Barak Obama, but he is not to be found. Did someone eat the President? The tour gives the history of chocolate through to present day. We are told how the Mayans and Aztecs used it as an offering to their gods, and also as currency and a drink. One display shows the different types of chocolate (milk, light and dark), and the vast difference in how much sugar is added to each one. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar has been added.
Towards the end of the tour it feels a bit like an advertisement for the company, much like Cadbury does with their tours. At the end there is a demonstration of chocolate making, and we arrive at the end, just in time for the free samples, so we have to stay on to watch the next one. A different presenter, and different types of chocolate, so the show obviously varies through out the day. You see through into the factory itself, but being near the end of the day there is little to see as they are cleaning up. There is a shop to visit on the way out, but it is quite expensive, as we have found these places tend to be. Our tourist map tells us the best priced chocolate is at CarreFour - the local supermarket.
Instead Tony heads off for a walk to the windmills, there is supposed to be a good high point there for some photos, with luck he will make it before sunset. He does, but the gates are shut so he cannot get up to the view point. Still, it was a good walk, and the sunset was great. Tony gets back with about half an hour to spare before the walking tour.
There is a good crowd going on the “free” tour, and the guide is a hard case. Kai warns us that he is not “pc” and if anyone is going to be offended because he says “f*ck” then maybe they would be better not coming along. His aim is to be as silly and entertaining as possible, and promises it will be like no other guided tour, especially the “umbrella” style ones.
No one leaves the tour, and we head off to see Bruges by night. Kai tells us he plays a game with the other tour groups, when we see an umbrella tour a couple of people in our group are to point at nothing in particular, we are to all say oh and ah, and wow, how interesting, before moving on. Kai gives directions to one of the girls and tells her she is pack leader, while he introduces himself to each and every one of us. Everyone wants to see the “In Bruges” movie locations, but we haven’t seen that yet, so that side of it doesn’t mean too much. However we will get the movie out at some stage and watch it. Tony is appointed tour leader, and he immediately goes to the front and holds up his umbrella.
We take a route around the canals, behind the Belfry (star of the movie “In Bruges”). Tony asks if the tower is on a lean, and is told it is, by about a metre. We walk through the park and past a number of churches before heading to Markt Square.
We are standing looking at the Belfry, when a couple of people walking past stop and point, and say wow that is so cool. Haha, they have obviously been on Kai’s tour or are his friends. Tony is looking up and sees the International Space Station gliding past, and tries to point it out, but a few of the others think he is taking the mick out of an “umbrella” tour group.
It is a fun and interesting tour, we covered a lot of ground over the next 2 ½ hours. We visit, of all places, an Irish Bar. Druid’s Cellar (it is in a basement) has their own brew, a nice drop, and rather strong, as are many beers here. Kai gives us all discount cards as we tour around, with tips on good (and cheap) eating places. We thought we would remember it all, but there was a lot to take in, along with a few beers, so when we caught up with him the next day we needed a refresher!
Wednesday 17th October
Another sugar rush breakfast before heading to Markt Square, and with it being Wednesday there is a huge market in the square (hence the name, we guess!). The stalls have been here since the early hours, and will be gone by early afternoon. There is so much to choose from, we don’t know where to start. Lunch turns out to be a delicious cold roast chicken.
The Wall of beer is just that, over 300 different beers, and some related souvenirs, are on display as you walk down the alley to the bar. We aren’t sure how many beers are actually for sale at the bar, but you can bet your boots there are a lot. There is even a couple of wee scooters, decorated by beer labels.
We go to the Belfry, the medieval bell tower in the market square at the centre of Bruges. It was built around 1240, and formerly housed a treasury and the municipal archives, and served as an observation post for spotting fires and other danger. A narrow, steep staircase (366 steps!) leads to the top of the 83m high building. Tony goes to get a ticket to go to the top, but he didn’t have enough cash on him. He had his discount card, but the information on the website was wrong and the discount only applies if you buy a three day multi visit ticket to other attractions, and we wouldn’t be able to use it much. So much for that idea…
We visit the Frietmuseum, the first, and only, museum about fried potatoes. The Belgians are quick to point out that they invented fries, they are not French! It seems some American soldiers called them French Fries because the Belgian cooks spoke French. The museum takes us through the history of the potato, we never realised there were so many varieties. A feed of fries is included in our entry, so after a quick snack we head out to revisit some of the sights we saw last night.
We stop at Zucchero, a candy making shop, and see how they put the words into those sticks of rock. “Pulling the sugar” is a very labour intensive job, the guys cannot stop for a moment, and the candy also has to be kept warm to remain pliable enough to mould. It takes nearly an hour to produce thin sticks of rock with “Happy 2013” inside. When forming the words, the letters are about 25mm high, so by the time it is ready for the machine you have quite a thick piece of candy. A machine with rollers then stretches the candy until it is much smaller, about as thick as your thumb. As the candy snakes out of the machine it is cut into lengths. Not a lot is wasted, smaller bits are kept and bagged up too. Cynthea buys a bag of smiley face rock pieces.
Next stop is a visit to the Pablo Picasso exhibition, where more than 100 original works by are on display. We only have an hour to spend here, but we felt it was enough. Our combi ticket also allows us entry to the Salvador Dali museum tomorrow. We view engravings, lithographs and original illustrations, covering the beginnings of Picasso, the Spanish tradition, cubism, the African influence, surrealism, ceramics, portrait art, simplicity and his commitment to peace. Works by his peers are also displayed, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and Georges Braque.
After all that culture it is beer o’clock, and we head back through the square to a narrow lane called De Garre, where we will find a pub and a beer of the same name. You really need to be on the lookout for this place as the cobbled street is so small you will miss it if you blink. But it is worth the effort, and you can’t help feel like you have gone back in time (it dates back to the 1700s) a bit when you walk in the door. The place was quite full, we got the only spare table. A few would have been locals, but many tourists are here too, and nearly every table has a glass of Garre Tripel, the house beer that is so strong (11%) that you will only be served a maximum of three in one sitting. Our beer was bought out in large glasses that could have doubled as a goldfish bowl, and we had a small plate of cheese to accompany it. There seemed to be an awful lot of head in relation to beer, but it soon settled into a decent glassful. We just about floated back to the hostel.
On the way back we couldn’t remember what Kai had told us about the special offers, but as luck would have it we run into him. He gives us a quick run through, and we decide to try Merdard again, though we have not been able to get in previously. The first time it was full, and when we next tried they had shut after lunch even though the sign said they should have been open. There were a lot of people in the café, but it could have been a private function. We gave it another crack, and they had closed early. We were disappointed because a number of people said it was great food at a great price, and that the owner looked like Freddy Mercury.
We meet up with others from the hostel in the bar, it seems everyone had a great day. Gustavo and Tony decide to work their way through a few beers, and the happy hour special ran dry again.