DAY TWO: Wandering around a UNESCO World Heritage City with camera in hand.
First things first, breakfast. Whilst Posh and Becks were getting some much-needed beauty sleep, The Purley Queen and I headed off in search of some fuel. Our initial foray indicated nothing was open on a Sunday, so we eagerly dived into the first establishment we found that had a sign saying ‘breakfast’. It was just off the old Market Square so, as to be expected, it wasn’t cheap, but beggars can’t be choosers. It was probably the most luxurious place I’ve ever had breakfast. I can only describe it as how I would imagine the dining room in The Ritz would look. Looking around I would take a wild guess and say we were probably the only ones not paying with American Express. In fairness though, whilst I would argue that charging €13 for an omelette should be punished by being shot in the face with a ball of your own shit, it was probably the best omelette I have ever tasted. I have no idea what herbs went in it, but it was top of the (free) range.
Immediately opposite was a small Carrefour Express. By coincidence, we had recently marked the anniversary of the opening of Carrefour Caerphilly in 1972. The first ‘hypermarket’ in the UK and one of only three outlets ever opened by the French chain in the UK. They have long since retreated back to their side of the channel and this is the first time I have set foot in one since.
We buy some basic groceries and head back to our cottage to find Posh and Becks still sleeping. We have a cup of coffee and they eventually get up and we discover that their beauty sleep hadn’t worked. Knowing them as well as I do, I knew that if we waited for them it would be dark when we went out, so we headed back out for a reconnoiter around the canals near our house.
Bruges, as Ralph Fiennes famously said in the film In Bruges, is “like a fucking fairytale”. It is an incredibly picturesque city, untouched by the modern world, or at least religiously maintained to ensure it looks untouched. EVERYTHING looks hundreds of years old. Mainly because it is.
There is a beautiful network of canals that inevitably brings to mind Amsterdam. We wander, marveling at the beauty and snatching photographs. We explore the streets, sit outside a cafe watching the world go by for a while, walk through a street flea market (which we later discover stretches for 5km), roam past more canals and eventually land back in the Market Square. By this time the city has well and truly come to life and many of the closed cafes we saw earlier are now open. The square is positively bursting with tourists.
Posh had booked us all on to a free walking tour at 2pm. After having us wondering if we should go on the walk without them, they rock up at 1:59pm… I point to the guide Posh should check in with. She then tries to check us in to a German speaking tour, then a Spanish tour, before eventually going to the guide I had first pointed out.
Our guide was a friendly young history teacher with an easy manner and a dry sense of humour. He proceeds to walk and talk for almost three hours, taking in some of the sites and giving us the history of the most interesting buildings.
We learn about a bloke who killed a bear, several bust ups with the French, a guy that had the monopoly on one of the ingredients for making beer, the second oldest hospital in the world, one of the first ‘safe spaces for women’ in the world, some clever bell ringing shit, a statue by Michelangelo that the Pope didn’t like and a piece of cloth with Christ’s blood on it. And loads more genuinely fascinating stuff. All made more entertaining by his occasional subtle digs at the Americans on the tour.
Five hundred years ago the city pissed of the Habsburg Family, so they punished the city by chopping off their mayor’s head, making them look after some swans and cutting off their river links to the sea. As a result, what had been one of the most prosperous cities on the planet stagnated for four hundred years, untouched by modernisation and the industrial revolution, till someone invented tourism. “Oooh look, this is cute” someone said, which is why it is so well preserved today. Even the Nazi commander that held the city during the great unpleasantness in 1945 refused to defend the city from the allies, because he could see what a crime it would be to smash the place up.
After tipping the guide for our free walk, we dived into a Mediterranean restaurant and had a delicious meal (except for Becks, who was not impressed with there being half a chicken on his chicken couscous). The place confirms what we thought the first night, the restaurants in this city are amazing.
More wandering followed till we found what was allegedly the oldest pub in the world. We were unceremoniously thrown out of the pub because of our behavior, although in fairness, so was everyone else because, bizarrely, it closed at 7pm, just as the night was starting. We did manage to discover a dark beer rocking in at 11% abv whilst there though, the knowledge of which served us well when ordering in the Happy Trappist, or whatever the next pub was called, before we finally retreated to the ranch.
Ralph was right. This place is like a fucking fairytale. And unlike many other European cities with beautiful ancient old towns, remarkably free of stag parties. Write this one down large on your bucket list folks – but don’t come here, you’ll only spoil it.