Every street of the town oozed charm. It was a city where we immediately regretted not spending more time. The sharp “click-clack” of horses’ hooves emanated from the black cobbled rows of streets as buggies passed with tourists. While it was a popular place for tourism, it did not feel like “too much” as other overrun cities felt along our trip. The pace in the city seemed slow and the demographic of visitor seemed older. This suited us just fine since we also enjoy supper at 4:30PM, ballroom dancing, reading, and the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra.
Bruges is a city of towers. Church belfries or building spires were almost constantly visible as we traversed different sectors of the city. The city played an important role historically as it was a cloth trading hub due to its ports and coastal proximity. Foreign traders frequented the medieval Belgian wool markets of Bruges. Remnants of the time dot the city including a 13th century Hospital of St. John which was later used as a convent and monastery, and is currently a museum. Near the city hall, the Church of the Holy Blood contains a purported relic of Christ’s blood collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought back from the crusades by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.
The sweet aroma of Belgian waffle vendors, chocolatier stores, and Speculoos cookies wafted through the beautiful avenues of Bruges. We stopped into Dumon, a chocolatier. With a stooped back and smile etched by lessons of years past, the older woman carefully explained the chocolate truffles upstairs were all full of nuts and fillings, and downstairs were all along the pure chocolate bar based. She shakily held out a serving tray with a small piece of chocolate broken into pieces for sampling. It was a bar, so I expected the usual chocolate texture, but I was wrong as it seemed to immediately melt to cream within my mouth. It was hands down one of the best pieces of chocolate I had ever eaten. We grabbed a few small pieces for dessert and our coin purse rattled lighter as we walked home in the rain.
Speaking of holidays, Hannah LOVES Christmas: decorating for the holiday, looking at lights, and anything associated with it. She started to get a bit sad with the realization that we would likely be spending Christmas alone and not accompanied by the usual decorations. With our itinerary, it would be spent in Azerbaijan, a predominately Muslim country that does not celebrate Christmas quite like the United States. Bruges, thankfully, boasted at least 3 large, intricate Christmas stores that she was able to get lost in and reemerge fit and ready for the challenge. Even from my perspective, the stores were beautiful and some of the best décor I encountered. Inspired, we took part in a small shopping exercise. Belgium offered decorative tapestries and pillow cushion cases that caught our eye. Hannah picked a small one with Santa postcards and a lace wall decoration depicting autumn by way of a large orange pumpkin. They would be fun reminders of a favorite city and placate my wife’s holiday fix, for a minute. They were also two of the few souvenirs we’ve been able to buy on the trip and were only permissible because they lay completely flat and take up very little space.
The British and many Europeans are apparently flabbergasted that Americans do not regularly own kettles or teapots. Hannah and I have come to appreciate them along the trip. The biggest benefit is that an electric kettle can boil water in about 90 seconds, and takes up little room. We made ramen noodles, instant soup, tea, and coffee at various times. Tea became a wonderful soothing treat at the end of many days. In Bruges, there was a store with intricate, hand-painted teapots that Hannah and I loved. Unfortunately these were neither flat nor small.
I found myself looking forward to running in Bruges. The falling leaves, vibrant autumn colors, and weather were perfect. A string of 4 windmills stood in a row along the riverfront trail as walkers toddled by and cyclists rolled. At this point in the trip, I was running about 20-30 miles a week on average and had lost 44 pounds (20kg). I was rolling all my pants, and my one jacket and several shirts started to look like dresses as they hung to my knees. Good health is invaluable.
The city itself reminded me of the golden age of the medieval period where the patrician class generously funded the cathedrals and communal squares for the masses. Little did they know that their legacy would thrive centuries after. There were no wool markets nor steel-armed crusaders wielding Holy Land relics, but I cannot help but think the same charm still lingers.