After two nights in Bacharah we were ready to move on, but we still had one night before our hotel reservation began in Paris. So, with the liberty of the eurail global pass as our guide, we looked at a map and settled on visiting Bruges.
Bruges (also spelled Brugge), is a town in Belguim. It’s about an hour north (by train) of Brussels. Honestly, we knew almost nothing about it, other than that it is old and has a bunch of medieval architecture, has canals, and can be fairly touristy. We learned these things from watching the gangster film “In Bruges” a few months ago.
We liked the way the city looked in the movie, and we had heard good things about Belgium from a guy at church once, so we figured it was as good a place as any to spend a day. So we went.
When we arrived in Bruges I was immediately surprised at how big it was. I had expected a small town like Cesky Krumlov or Bacharach, but Bruges felt more like Prague in that it has a historic core surrounded by newer areas. Also like Prague, I noticed a lot of high end shopping options and big businesses in Bruges. These weren’t nessecsrily negative things, they just surprised me because I had anticipated a town and Bruges felt more like a city.
After checking in to the B&B where we were staying (more on that later), we headed out to see the city. By this time it was fairly late and a lot of things were closing up. There were still a fair number of tourists around (in fact most of the people on the streets were tourists), but there weren’t any huge crowds.
One of the most strikng things we first noticed when we started exploring was Bruges’ town square. The sun was low in the sky and just hitting the white stones of the gothic and neo-gothic buildings, making them almost glow. As the sun set we ate our dinner on the steps of a fountain in the square.
The more we walked around, the more we liked Bruges. Its canal lined streets were as picturesque as Amsterdam’s, but generally had fewer people on them. Before long we had walked well out of the tourist zone and the city was very quiet. We had purchased some chocolates earlier (Bruges is famous for chocolates, apparently), and ate them on a bridge as the sound of distant bells ricocheted through the cobbled lanes.
The next morning we figured out what train we needed to take to get to Paris, and then spent the morning and early afternoon visiting places in Bruges that had been closed the evening before. To our surprise, however, the city we encountered was changed entirely. Though I had expected Bruges to be busier during the day, I hadn’t realized just how crowded it would get. Gone were the romantic bridges and quiet passageways. In their places were tour groups and camera flashes at every corner. It was as if we had stumbled into a different city entirely.
There were some good things about seeing Bruges during the day when all the other tourists were out. There were more chocolate shops open, for example, and we were able to visit some really interesting old buildings. We also saw an exhibit of “primative Flemish art” (i.e. medieval art), and one of the only Michelanglo sculptures outside of Italy (for free, no less).
Still, I’d take closed-down Bruges over daytime Bruges in a heartbeat. While I’ve been worried throughout the European leg of this trip that we’ve been missing things by not taking enough might trains and by occasionally arriving in cities late in the day, the two sides of Bruges that we saw made me think that perhaps we’re just seeing cities at their best, when they’re filled, but not overrun, with people.