Tuesday, November 15, 2022

I left my sock in Bruges

When it came to deciding on a honeymoon location, N and I were in swift agreement: Bruges. It had to be Bruges.

We’re both fans of the darkly, bitterly funny film, In Bruges with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, which also contains one of the finest comedy gangster performances you’re ever likely to see Ralph Fiennes deliver.

So we set ourselves in the direction of the “fahkin’ fairytale” medieval cobbled city at the end of October. I’d booked a medieval (there is a theme in Bruges) cottage right next to the canal and then booked the Eurostar so we could feel all green and smug. A feeling that quickly evaporated when we realised we were seated facing backwards and my sea sickness (so much worse now that the perimenopause has kicked in) took a fierce grip.

But we made it. 7 hours of travelling, 4 trains. Green with sickness and smuggery, one of us at least, we staggered from the final station with one wheelie suitcase and one partly wheelie (it lost a wheel en route) case that had to be carried, and straight into a town more well preserved than David Dimbleby. As we passed along the streets, the lights became dimmer. The walls of the houses were punctuated with niches in which sat Mary and Jesus in various states of decoration and decay, looking down as we cringed at the sound of our own approach. Mullioned windows blinked the subdued streetlights at us as we and a handful of other brave souls headed for our respective staying places.
The sound of a dozen wheelie suitcases making their way over the Bruges medieval (that word is going to get a lot of use in this post) cobbles is like nothing you’ve ever heard. Not even the thunder of hooves at the Cheltenham Gold Cup comes close.

The house was beautiful (although there was a noticeable lack of tea bags and milk on our arrival – this is the very last time I use Air BNB) and only a few minutes’ walk from the very centre of things: the Markt, the tower, the museums, the churches. There are a lot of churches – this is a deeply Catholic country. Our longest walk was on the 1st day when we went to see the Jeruzalemkerk* to the north(ish) of the city. This was one of the film spots, but also, just somewhere I wanted to visit because I have a passion for old churches and N is kind enough to tolerate that. Or at least lean against a wall outside looking up nearby battlesites while I go knock myself out.
The cobbles did an absolute number on my poor arthritic feet and I watched with jaw dropped in awe at the oh-so-chic women swinging along in heels and camel-coloured coats, apparently unaware that the ground beneath them was chronically unstable. They would sweep past, all dark glasses and shiny hair, speaking rapid Flemish into their phones, casting glances of disdain at the giggling couples** and pouting singles taking selfies along the canal wall.

Houses in Bruges can go for over 1 million euro, the chap leading the canal boat tour (yes, we did). Leading you to wonder where the real people are when they are not selling us postcards, taking us on carriage rides (no, we didn’t) or serving us terrible beer (much head, little liquid, for god’s sake don’t complain or ask them to top the glass up…they really don’t like that, keep quiet, order your moules et frites and make a mental note to only drink wine for the rest of the trip).
The coffee was delicious. Short little cups, drained in 3 gulps, but rich and aromatic, served with cream not thin and unsatisfying milk. Hot and revivifying in a way I had forgotten coffee could be. Everywhere it is served with a little speculoos biscuit – that lovely caramel, slightly spicy biscuit – apart from one memorable occasion where it came with a little dish of nougat and marzipan made on the premises. A marzipan made with real almonds, not a whiff of essence in tastebud reach, it was a completely different beast to the sort we cover our claggy fruit cakes with. I brought quite a lot of it to take home.
We saw extraordinary art – Bosch and van Eyck and Memling. At the Groeninge, halfway through, there is an extraordinary painting in the chiascuro style, of a young woman and her lover, the candlelight giving her a luminosity that made me cry. I brought a print to bring home where now, in the lamplight, it glows again. At the St-Janshospitaal, there was a splendid exhibition on the assumption of Mary as depicted in art through the ages. There I found a wonderful olive wood carving and Books of Hours that were rich with colour and devotion. The Gruuthuse Museum was full, packed to the gills with interesting things, some of which dated back to the Iron Age. At last! Something older than medieval! There is a surprising lack of natural history in Bruges. It’s like nothing happened here until God moved in.

Speaking of which, there were many, many churches, of course. I do wonder myself at my complete irreligious self so liking churches. At the Helig Bloed Basiliek, there is a phial of (allegedly) Christ’s blood that (supposedly) liquefies every now and then. There is no entry fee, but you are invited to pay due REVERENCE by way of a donations box right in front of the phial, guarded by a stern woman who looks like she probably ignores safe words. It felt…cheap. Lacking in taste. I mean, charge me an entry fee, sell me a postcard and some holy socks but don’t put the donation box right in front of the bloody exhibit.
In another church (by this time, even I’ve forgotten the names), there was a decidedly graphic reliquary with a bit of a saint’s arm bone in there. I wondered if that waved every now and then.
In between, I would make N pause for more coffee and a break from the cobbles, and he would fill me in on the tour we were taking in the middle of the week, which battlefields, which war memorials, which cemetery for the war dead with their rows and rows of graves that saturate you with sadness. 9am to 6pm that tour. It is safe to say he made me pay him back for the churches.

Our final night, we ate at the little tavern 2 doors down from us where we had made friends with the pub dog and the food was cheap. Drank a final glass of wine (on Belgian soil anyway), chatted to the owner and tried not to think of the 7 hour, 4 train return journey.
And the sock? A casualty of packing light so I could bring back ALL the chocolate. I’d had to do a wash halfway through the week, draping the wet socks on the radiator to dry. 4 hours later, I knocked it down the impenetrable back of the radiator. I like to think of it slowly becoming at one with the house. Or hooked out by the puzzled owner with a long arm, an even longer piece of wire and a growing collection of odd, foreign socks.

*I’m currently posting this with no WiFi due to complicated BT-engineer-based reasons, so I’ll add links another day
**We took precisely 1 selfie because otherwise, how would we prove we’d been there? But there was absolutely no giggling. Serious selfies befitting of our Great Age (personal age, I mean. There is nothing great about this political age).

Winner of this year's "Nicest Pub Dog with 
Silkiest Ears" award


  1. Bruges is one of those places I would love to visit but I know that my husband would absolutely hate. He doesn't like anything vaguely cultural. I am reading a book about the Dutch at the moment and had no idea about the history of Holland and Belgium and how it was one country once and how it became two.

    I guess if you have walked on cobbles all your life you would get used to them, high heals and all?

    Hope your feet have recovered now, your honeymoon sounds wonderful.

    1. Ah yes, the culture. It's a bit inescapable there. And everywhere, to be honest. I once had a 'lively' debate with someone about how even football was culture, but I'll spare you that!
      It was wonderful, thank you :)


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Of the Before and the After

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