medieval Bruges / Brugge and chocolate insanity

I have found Belgian Tallinn! Or to be more precise, the Belgian version of Tallinn’s Old Town. The shape is more or less the same and probably even the size, but instead of being surrounded by ancient town walls, this one is surrounded by canals. I’m talking about Bruges (or Brugge in Flemish), a small town near the western coast of Belgium.

Since my previous Sunday was free, I found a travelmate and went on a day trip. Bianca is a total sweetheart, a Finnish Swede who is spending some time in Brussels as an au pair. We both loved the tiny medieval town to bits, despite the insane amount of tourists and some grumpy locals who hated tourists. Our “favourite” was a shopkeeper who stared at us for half a minute or a minute while we chatted and tried to decide what we should buy and then asked sharply whether we plan to buy anything or we just want to chat. She looked so pissed off! After that we of course didn’t want to buy anything from her, so we just left and stared at each other in disbelief for a moment. So rude! Sorry for interrupting your precious alone time while you’re at work…

We didn’t let that ruin our day, there were plenty of other chocolate stores around. In fact, we weren’t able to walk even for five minutes without seeing another shop crop up! Bruges is a total paradise for someone with a sweet tooth! We definitely do, so we kept on squealing and pointing at amazing things in stores and telling each other we should skip that one and not spend any more money. Well, that failed miserably. We didn’t buy any of the generic Sinterklaas / Christmas sweets, but we did get some pralinées and amazing dark chocolate and rock candy and… Soon we had big paper bags with sweet stuff.

(This photo of me staring at the sweets was taken by Bianca. Go and check out her blog! http://biancasoderlund.blogspot.be/ – it’s all in Swedish, but she does have some awesome photos that you can check out even if you can’t speak a word of Swedish.)

We got really lucky with the weather. It was pouring down in Brussels in the morning, but by the time we reached Bruges, the skies were almost clear and the sun was shining. Perfect weather for being a silly tourist and taking a ton of photos! Some shots even ended up looking so nice and warm that I could have sworn I was enjoying Estonian summer. The only distracting thing was my thick coat and a hat, but at least I didn’t need gloves! I can’t remember a November day in Estonia where I would have been able to leave the house without hiding my hands in warm gloves first.

In addition to buying some rather expensive chocolate, we also stepped into a nice café that had tons of delicious-looking cupcakes on display. We decided to be cheapskates though, so we only took one cupcake each and even refused any drinks. Why would we take a drink if it costs as much as an already overpriced cupcake? So we just sat in the cosy café and chatted over the cupcakes, the perfect break from walking around and ogling at every chocolate store on the way. Ignoring all the delicious stuff in stores and walking on was so much easier after getting something sweet in my stomach.

For some reason Bruges confused me a lot. I kept thinking that I was in a tiny town in England, some things reminded me of my trip to Cheddar. At the same time it could have been somewhere in The Netherlands as well, I was already accustomed to seeing canals in Dutch towns and I had only seen one measly example in Brussels during my two months in Belgium. But you should never tell a Belgian person that their hometown looks like something in The Netherlands. I’m pretty sure you’d get beaten up or at least subjected to a deathly glare.

After enjoying the chocolate stores and canal views for a while, we wanted to find the central square of the old town. We actually walked through it without realising it was actually the square we were looking for. I had been expecting something grand and beautiful. Instead we found a square where you could barely walk since the middle was built full of some roofed thing where people were selling their paintings and jewellery. It was so disappointing that I didn’t even bother taking a photo of that. We went and explored some more canals instead.

As it started getting darker, we tried to find a place to eat. We had almost decided on a nice-looking restaurant where you could get soup + lasagne + créme brûlée for 11.50€, but we got scared away for a creepy-looking man smiling and waving at us, trying to invite us in. We returned some time later, hoping he would have finished his food by then… only to find he was actually one of the waiters. The food there was amazing, but the waiters seemed a bit creepy, discussing us in Italian half the time and calling us pretty little ladies. I do like compliments, but those guys crossed the line a bit.

After eating, we wandered around for a bit more, but we had seen most things we wanted to and the sun was nearly gone, so we headed back to the train station to take our hour-long ride back to Brussels. The day was a total success – we saw a beautiful town, got some Christmas / Sinterklaas shopping done and found a lovely companion. I’m meeting up with Bianca again tomorrow to bake together and eat some dark bread. My parents sent me a package that (among other things) included some actual rye bread! I’ve been missing it so much. Since Bianca is also a fellow fan of mint (and especially mint chocolate), we’ll have dark bread and mint chocolate and cake tomorrow. Sounds like a wonderful morning to me!

After that morning food orgy, I have to start working again to do another 10-hour day. But that’s the last of the four very long workdays this week, Friday is free and then I’ll be on my way to Nijmegen to see Matthijs, play board games and go to gigs. Ewert and the Two Dragons is playing in The Netherlands this week and I’ll be there!

Brussels in photos

Brace yourselves, this is going to be a photo-heavy post. I had my first visit to the centre of Brussels and of course I took my camera with me. I popped out of the metro in Saint-Cathérine/Sint-Katelijne station. My only source of amusement on the metro was to say the names of the stops in my head in both languages. Most signs and advertisements in Brussels are in both French and Dutch and occasionally there’s German and English added to the mix, especially in the centre.

The first thing that happened outside the metro was not too pleasant, I do not enjoy getting dirty comments from random men. And it was just because I was wearing yellow shorts with (thick and grey!) tights. I will probably make a separate blog post about street harrassment some time later, it’s shocking how common it is in some areas. Anyway, continuing with more pleasant things: the following photo was the view just after stepping out of the metro station.

I already know that there is a special ice-cream parlour on that street, Comus & Gasterea has flavours like carrots, wasabi, basil, caviar… and for those who don’t feel quite as adventurous there’s also normal flavours like caramel, coffee, speculoos and apples. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll definitely pop in and give it a go, picking some of the craziest flavours. This time I was hurrying to a youthful information centre named Use-It to get a free map of Brussels. The lovely young lady behind the counter gave me some nice tips and even drew me a route for a nice walking tour in the centre. The first stop was at Place du Beguinage to take a look at Èglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste:

The next step on the suggested route was a parking house, because it was possible to get a nice view from the rooftop. Since I don’t know Brussels that well yet, I can’t comment on the buildings seen from there. So, photos without any comments:

And no, the last photo is not crooked – the buildings are upright. To finish off the parking house mini-series, have a photo of the roof where I was walking around:

The walk continued through an area that had a lot of eastern influences. There was a Japanese restaurant named The Ninja House, a lot of other restaurants with all kinds of foreign cuisine, supermarkets with all kinds of awesome foods from far east… in one of those supermarkets I got my bags searched because the security guard thought it was suspicious I didn’t buy anything. He did send me off with a smile though when he realised I had only a bag with maps and a camera bag with me.

As some of you may already know, there is a fountain with a peeing boy in Brussels. Manneken Pis is the symbol and mascot of the city. Before seeing the famous boy, I saw another peeing statue: Zinneke the dog.

Every street I saw in Brussels was completely different from the previous one, at least as far as buildings go. I don’t think I have seen two buildings next to each other that look the same, it’s as if everyone looked at their neighbour’s house before building theirs and thought “how can I make mine look nothing like that house?”. No two buildings have exactly the same height, colour, style, roof, windows… I could continue the list but you get my point.

Another thing I have noticed in Brussels: lots of graffiti. Some of it just scribbles, some as proper art installations. I am yet to find the proper gold mine of awesome graffiti, so have this while I’m still searching:

The route continued towards the centre of Brussels, past Beurs / Bourse, the Brussels Stock Exchange. It was built there after the river Senne had been covered up. There used to be a river in the centre of Brussels, but it got heavily polluted as the city grew and in the end the river got directed underground with big boulevards and fancy buildings standing where the river once was. The river got covered up in 1865 and a few years after that the grand stock exchange building was erected in its place.

On my way to Grote Markt / Grand Place (the central square of Brussels) I spotted a guy sitting on the street and making jewellery. Some tourists were taking a photo with his hat that he gladly gave to them for that purpose. (They did return the hat later.) I ended up having a nice conversation with him and found out he has a friend in Estonia. We both agreed that Estonian winters are insane and I left after buying two dragonfly earrings from him. I’m sure I’ll check his jewellery out again when I go through that street.

The big square was not as impressive as it had seemed from photos. Perhaps it was because there were some stalls around that blocked the view to the impressive houses around the square, perhaps it was the weird weather… but I was left underwhelmed. Better luck next time.

After Grote Markt / Grand Place, I had to go through a street full of the amazing smell of chocolate and fresh waffles. Fighting my way through hordes of tourists, I managed to see Manneken Pis and have an awesome waffle for just 1€. Since I had tips from the Use-It tourism office, I went for a Liege waffle to get the proper experience. It had sugar inside and despite being nearly disgustingly sweet, it was delicious. Most people took the extreme tourist version with whipped cream, strawberries, bananas, chocolate sauce etc. I decided not to be a silly tourist and took a plain waffle, which was a good choice.

As the waffle and all the walking had made me thirsty, I headed to a nice cafe pointed out by the tourism office girl. I had a delicious fresh mint tea there and rested my legs a bit before taking on the last bit of the walking tour. The cafe was situated on a fancy shopping street that had a glass roof covering.

Next stop was Beenhouwerstraat / Rue des Bouchers. It’s a narrow street, full of restaurants and waiters who try to lure you to their place to eat. I said no to all the waiters, eavesdropped on random Estonian businessmen having lunch / early dinner at one of the terraces and took a look at another peeing statue: Jeanneke Pis. The peeing girl was locked up behind bars for some reason and I didn’t bother taking a photo of her, it was too dark.

Last stop before heading back to the metro station was the chocolate heaven. There’s a lot of fancy chocolate stores gathered around one square a little bit south of the centre, so of course I had to take a look there. I got three nice-looking ones from Marcolini, peeked in some other chocolate stores and accidentally crashed a mini-movie-shoot in one of them, got recommendations from the store owner in Godiva and I think he pointed out a place where I should be able to get amazing minty chocolate. But exploring that was left for the next trip to the centre as it was getting late, so I took a photo of the Godiva store with a random tourist in green and left for the metro station.

There’s not much to say about the metro. It’s not overly impressive and occasionally it can look a bit scary, but it’s nowhere near the dystopian-looking one in Milan. I end this post with two random shots from the metro: