Friday, May 11, 2012
Europe Part 3
Another good sleep tucked away on the 7th floor of our hotel in Brussels left us feeling refreshed and excited to begin the big cross continent tour - well, at least we began the drive from Belgium to Denmark in our baby blue Mercedes A320. Still, it was a feeling of excitement as we loaded up the car, pulled out of the underground parking, went past the building were the EU leaders meet and headed out of town northward aiming for Bruges.
Belgium is one of those countries that seems divided; the southern part is mostly French influenced due to its proximity to France's northern border, while the northern part has a Dutch influence; the language spoken shifts from French to Flemish, a mixture of true Dutch spattered with local lexicons. In a way, just by travelling north in the same country, it seemed like we were leaving France and driving into Holland.
Once we got out of the city, the driving was a little simpler, as now I didn't have to try and figure out where the traffic lights were hiding, and we didn't have to watch for partially hidden routes signs saying "Turn here now"! We were on a 4 lane highway heading north, and we didn't have to worry about getting off the highway for another hour or so....easy peasy...
We past our first set of tall wind turbines, our first of many that we would see over the next few weeks. It's amazing to hear all the fuss and farting around the various Canadian governments do when it comes to putting up wind turbines, yet they seem to be very common in most of the countries we visited. No idea what the problem is on our side of the water....
After playing tourists sightseeing as we drove, and fiddling with the satellite radio on the car which we used to tune in stations that either seemed to play electro-techno pop or local flavoured music, we began to get alert as we started to see the road signs stating we were getting close to Bruges. We were flying along the highway when we see a sign stating "parking for city centre", so we flew off the freeway onto the off ramp that went underground and hit the brakes pretty fast as we suddenly realized we were in an underground parking lot, under the city, we think, somewhere close to where were supposed to be, we think.
I was going to pull out of the lot and continue on, but we had to go upstairs to the machines to pay before we could exit...crap..crap....well, hell....might as well park and go figure out where we are and where we gotta go. So we park the little Mercedes, find the stairs to the open air plaza above, and come out right next to the tourist information centre! Well, that's just like it was meant to be !
We talked to the staff in the centre, got a local neighbourhood map, and found out that we are only 3 blocks away from the hotel...I turn to Annette and say "hey, not bad huh"? "No maps, a smattering understanding of the French on the road signs and almost nothing of the Dutch on the road signs, and I could still find may way across the foreign land to get us just 3 blocks from our hotel..damn if I didn't live up to my reputation of finding my way around any where, any time"! Annette just rolled her eyes and walked away...I think she was secretly impressed but she was working hard not to let on.
We retrieved the car, got back in and rode back up to the surface world looking for the small side street we needed to take to get into the heart of the "old city". We passed a cobblestone alley and Annette says " that's the street we need", I say. "street, that was no bigger than an alley"? She says, that's it, that's the street...so we circle the block and come back around and take the street as advertised; here was our first lesson on streets in old European cities....they are really small, usually have cobblestone surfaces, and are not back alleys!
We go down this street a short block or so, then we see some street signs that we can't read but they look like NO ENTRY signs, and the street looks like it dead ends into a wall half a block away, so I turn right off the street onto another small street and Annette says where are you going"? I say, I can't go down there the street dead ends...she says...it takes a sharp right and then a sharp left and goes past our hotel."
I say really? Well, OK, I trust her navigation skills, so back we go past the NO ENTRY sign - (probably means its a dead end street), and I figure at worst I can pass off my poor driving skills as a being just a dumb tourist. We go a hundred feet or so, and realize that the road does indeed turn, then turns again, and there is our hotel! Well, son of a gun!
Our hotel is old world awesome! A white faced building built in the 17th century as an elegant mansion, it's tucked away in a private courtyard with a small parking lot out back for their guests. Annette picked this hotel mainly for the car park, as there aren't many in the old section of Bruges, and the fact it was a heritage building. The small cobblestone street it was on lent itself to more old world charm, and the small pool in the lower basement seemed to be carved out of rock; the blue of the water played over the white washed walls of the pool room, and I was blown away by the serenity of the room, and the romance the room inspired...made you want to get a couple of glasses of wine, a dozen red roses, sink into the warmth of the pool, and feel the like you couldn't have been in a better place or a better time then you were then.....
The hotel was on the edge of the old city, which itself was only about 6 blocks wide by about 10 blocks long; quite a small area really and you could easily see the whole thing in a day....but you would miss oh so much. This town requires a slow walk, hand in hand with your loved one, meandering in and out of the small shops along the street..that is until you hit the chocolate stores. Chocolate stores? Yes, plural, and don't forget you are in the land of the famous chocolate known as Belgium chocolate....makes your mouth water just thinking about it.
In one store, we dropped $120.00 on chocolate for family and friends..we just had to....
The town is also criss crossed with small canals, harking back to the days when guild merchants realized they needed to transport their goods within their city, and to other cities as well. The most cost effective way was by water, so canals were built through most of Belgium, and smaller ones covered the cities; we took the option of riding on one of the canal tour boats to get a water level view of the city, and it was incredible. Being at water level, you notice all the doors on buildings at water height designed to accommodate water deliveries. Plus you get to see old houses and older buildings obviously built when the front door was on the water, not the land side. Sorta reminded me of Venice....
We tried something new as well, we went on a Segway tour! We were lucky as it was a slow time, so our entire tour participants consisted of Annette, myself, and our tour guide. He was an older Dutch guy, with a great knowledge of little corners of the old city that we would not have found ourselves. And he provided good historical insight into the city and it's older generations of inhabitants.
I would go back tomorrow, just to spend a couple more days there and let the gracefulness of it all wash over me in warm comfort.
Click here to see the video full size on my YouTube channel