A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Bruges and Ghent

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We'd had a few complications with accommodation but we'd never come close to being unable to access our Airbnb so we took the calculated risk of driving straight to dinner in Brussels rather than checking into our apartment first. This made for a much more dramatic arrival as we drove straight into the center of the city from the east, passing major administrative centers of the EU as well as numerous embassies and gleaming skyscrapers. It was clear that we were now in a metropolis that surpassed Lyon and Zurich in terms of population and global significance.

Our dinner destination was Wolf Sharing Food Market, one of two food halls I had identified in the city. We usually try the food halls in any major city because it's fun and enjoyable to mix different cuisines, it's easier to get an idea of the quality, and it's logistically simpler with the kids than dealing with a restaurant. We'd struck out with Food Traboule in Lyon but we've been to so many food halls around the world that this one bad experience didn't discourage us. The immediate area around Wolf seemed to be a financial district that was rather bleak and abandoned on a Sunday evening. The entrance to the food hall was the only sign of energy in the area and the interior was bright, spacious, and welcoming. The developers had really nailed the food hall aesthetic with a large central bar surrounded by about a dozen small restaurants that served a variety of cuisines from different continents. Everything we tried was good but we were especially pleased with the African and Italian options. Wolf Sharing Food Market was probably the best European food hall we'd been to outside of Copenhagen.

Our Airbnb was north of the center in the working class residential neighborhood of Schaerbeek. It seemed colorful and had a significant Turkish and North African immigrant population. We found our apartment building and I was able to use the keypad to open the front entrance. The next step required us to access a room in the basement containing lockboxes to retrieve the apartment key, but the code we had been provided did not work. We tried it several times and then started attempting to correspond with our host through the Airbnb app. We were getting responses but only after about a ten minute delay and it seemed like the person on the other end didn't understand the problem we were having. They offered all kinds of solutions that didn't make any sense when the only thing that could help was the correct door code. Eventually I realized that we weren't even communicating with a human but rather some kind of an automated response system. We then activated our iPhone international plan and Mei Ling called Airbnb directly, since no phone number had been provided for the host. Meanwhile I started scrolling through booking.com to find a hotel for the night just in case. Soon after that an actual human contacted us through the app and provided us with a door code that worked. The entire process took a little over an hour but it seemed like much longer with the kids sprawled out on the luggage in the hallway trying to sleep. Once we got inside the apartment was fine but I was absolutely furious that we had been treated so carelessly and forced to waste an hour stressing out in a hallway. We've had some difficult arrivals but that was the first time we've faced the possibility of not having a place to spend the night.

There was no market on Monday morning so we drove straight to Bruges. Ghent was closer but Bruges was the more essential city and I wanted to make sure we had all the time we needed there. I also had a promising lead for a dinner restaurant in Ghent and the timing might work out perfectly if we left Ghent until the end. Driving out of Brussels was an interesting experience as it was often unclear to me who had the right of way at intersections. If I was lucky there was a car in front of me and I would just follow it through but in many cases I had to slow down as I approached the crossing and check for oncoming traffic. I didn't want to stop completely if I had the right of way and create a confusing situation so I would slow down and wait to see if the car coming from the side was stopping before passing through. I was usually on the more major street and cars coming from the side would stop but it was unnerving not to be able to see any signage making the right of way clear. I never did figure this out no matter how hard I studied the intersections for some kind of clue. Traffic in Brussels was also more hectic and disorganized in general than it had been in the larger cities of France and Switzerland. We always left Schaerbeek via the same route and over time we became used to the landmarks of the neighborhood such as a cafe with reproductions of Greek statues on the outer wall.

After an hour and a half we arrived in Bruges and parked in a garage quite close to the center. The old town of Bruges is surrounded by an oval canal that is fed by two long canals that extend to Ostend and Zeebrugge on the North Sea. Several narrower canals penetrate into the old town and divide it into seven or eight quarters. Bruges was originally a coastal settlement that grew wealthy and influential through ocean trade, but in the sixteenth century the Zwin channel to the North Sea silted up and became impassable to ships. Over the next few centuries Bruges steadily declined in importance relative to Antwerp. The medieval architecture of the town remained well-preserved and by the end of the nineteenth century the city was popular with British and French tourists. Extensive restorations in the 1960's and onward helped to establish Bruges as a famous travel destination comparable to Venice and Amsterdam. I hadn't researched the city very thoroughly but I came armed with a list of the essential buildings and squares to be seen.

Our garage was just south of the central canal Dijver. I had chosen to visit Bruges on Monday in the hope that the crowds would be reduced but there was still a sizeable number of people roaming the streets at ten in the morning. I could only imagine what a zoo the city must be on the weekends. One of the highlights of Bruges is the views from the countless bridges over the canals that pass through the old town.

The first towering edifice of Bruges we came across was the thirteenth century Church of Our Lady, a Gothic masterpiece in brown and grey brick. The belltower is apparently the third tallest brick tower in the world. We had seen some impressive architecture on this trip but this church stood out as particularly majestic and intimidating.

As we moved deeper into the old town we were amazed by block after block lined with exquisite brick buildings, many displaying the classic crow-stepped gables that originated in Belgium in medieval times. While some elements of the architecture were consistent there were countless variations in the color of the bricks, their patterns, and the design in the masonry. The stories I had read about the beauty of Bruges were no exaggeration. This was the most remarkable city we had seen since the old town of Prague.

We followed the flow of pedestrians to the most iconic spot in Bruges, Grôte Markt. This market square is over a thousand years old and is ringed by unique and magnificent buildings such as the neogothic Provincial Court and the rectangular Bouckhoute House, a Renaissance era residential building topped by a golden globe that was used to synchronize the town clocks with the sun. Looming over the square is the intimidating mass of the Belfort, a thirteenth century tower that could be the home of an evil wizard from a Tolkien novel. Unlike most of the other tall belltowers we had seen on this trip the Belfort was never associated with a church. It has always been a municipal building that once housed the city archives as well as the bells that kept the residents apprised of the time. The octagonal upper stage that confers such a foreboding appearance on the tower was added in the fifteenth century.

For some reason we couldn't find a single restaurant in the center that opened before noon. To take our minds off our growling stomachs we wandered around the network of pedestrianized streets in the center. It began to drizzle but that didn't stop the people lining up for boat rides at the wide junction where the Dijver and Groenerei canals meet at a right angle. The most famous of the alleys is Blinde-Ezelstraat which passes under an ornate Baroque passageway that joins the city hall with the courthouse. The name of the street translates to Blind Donkey which is apparently derived from an inn that once stood there.

Lunch was a strange interlude with a rather eccentric waiter who brought us a complimentary bowl of boiled shrimp and proceeded to grab one and break off its head. Perhaps they had issues with tourists attempting to eat them without removing the shells first. After decapitating the shrimp he held it aloft and looked down at me triumphantly. For a moment I considered opening my mouth for him to drop the shrimp into but the moment passed and he set the crustacean back down into the bowl. Afterwards we wandered to the northern part of the Burg Quarter where the Spiegelrei Canal deadends at Jan van Eyck square. A statue of the early Renaissance painter on a tall pedestal looks out over the square that is named for him. This area was less commercial and touristy which made it easier to appreciate the authentic, peaceful character of Bruges. We browsed the enormous selection of Belgian beers at Bacchus Cornelius but I didn't find it as tempting as I might have when I was twenty years younger.

I knew if we walked further the quarters to the north and east would be almost entirely residential. Instead we turned back towards the center and soon found ourselves back in Grôte Markt. We made sure to study the square from every possible angle and then we walked through the archway of the Belfort into its rectangular courtyard. We completed our Belfort experience with waffles from the truck parked in front of the entrance.

We took a different route back to the car which took us over the charming St. Bonifacius pedestrian bridge. Here we were close to the opposite side of the Church of Our Lady with a great view of its classic Gothic flying buttresses. Our time in Bruges had passed very quickly and I could happily have spent several more hours walking around the town but we were already down to the bare minimum of time available to see Ghent.

It took us less than an hour to reach Ghent and we were still a little dazed from the perfection of Bruges. We weren't expecting much more than a punctuation mark from this less heralded city, but when we saw what lay ahead of us as we crossed Saint Michael's Bridge into the old town Mei Ling and I looked at each other and laughed in amazement. Ahead of us was a jaw-dropping array of massive Gothic buildings that outshone anything we had seen in Bruges. There were innumerable towers and spires of every conceivable shape and design, elongated windows in the stone walls, and parapets with ornate balustrades. I never could have imagined a scenario like this outside of a movie set and now we were about to walk right into the middle of it.

The canals that pass through the center of Ghent are fed by channels and rivers that extend to Bruges, Antwerp, and Temeuzen on the Scheldt estuary. We could see beautiful exemplars of crow-stepped gabled houses along the promenades on either side of the Leie canal that passed under the medieval stone bridge.

Heading towards the center from the bridge three incredible structures were arranged in almost a straight line. The vast, grey Saint Nicholas' Church dominates an open area that was created when the surrounding buildings were demolished at the turn of the twentieth century. Just to the east is Ghent's own Belfort, more conventional and less formidable than Bruges' version but still an imposing tower. Finally there was Saint Bavo's Cathedral which is the seat of the Diocese of Ghent. It was amazing to be able to walk between these three tremendous medieval towers in the space of just two minutes.

Wandering randomly around the old town we came across Werregarenstraat, known locally as Graffiti Street. Local legend has it that the authorities tolerate graffiti on this one street in order to spare the rest of the city from defacement. As a native New Yorker I know that no self-respecting vandal would allow himself to be compromised so easily. I think the true reason for the pristine condition of the old towns of Bruges and Ghent is that the local population takes too much pride in the beauty that surrounds them to seriously consider selfishly damaging it. Graffiti Street is well out of sight of the medieval quarter and presents a colorful and whimsical counterpoint to the stoic religious bastions a few blocks away.

We crossed back over Leie for the last historical sight in Ghent that I had on my list. Gravensteen Castle is older than any of Ghent's towering churches and has been restored to its original magnificence. We had so little time left that we decided not to pay the steep entry price for the museum but apparently the rooftop terrace provides for excellent views over the old town. We were content to admire the beautiful masonry of the exterior walls of the castle from outside.

The tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and elegant brick buildings just west of the castle is called Patershol. The area has become known for a high concentration of ethnic restaurants but it was too early for them to be open and we were practically alone on the tranquil streets. It was easy to see why many consider this historic yet spirited neighborhood to be their favorite in Ghent.

At this point we had a tough decision to make. We could stay in Ghent until the restaurants opened and eat in Patershol or we could hustle back to Brussels for the weekly market at Place Van Meenen . I only had shaky information about Place Van Meenen which seemed to be a conventional market until about seven but supposedly remained open for drinks and snacks until the late evening. If we went back we couldn't be sure if there would be a market at all, or if there was if there would be food substantial enough to make a dinner out of. It was tempting to stay in Ghent and absorb the evening atmosphere but we couldn't turn down the possibility of a night market. Some of our most rewarding travel experiences in China, Taiwan, and France have come at these kinds of events. Place Van Meenen was in the center of Saint-Gilles, a separate municipality just south of the city center. We were relieved to find that the square was filled with food trucks and market stalls even though we were arriving after seven. It was a beautiful location with the ornate Saint-Gilles city hall on one side and classical, ornate townhouses lining the other three sides. It may not technically have been Brussels but the atmosphere was the same. The market was quite crowded and boisterous so it was quite difficult to find a place to sit although Mei Ling soon located an undersized table in the shadow of a food truck. Most of the produce stalls were closing but we had time to pass through once and see that there was nothing extraordinary in that department. The food trucks were a mixture of French and international cuisines and we were able to do quite well feeding ourselves and the kids. The barbecued skewers were a big hit and of course there was inexpensive wine to wash everything down. The best part was the people-watching as there seemed to be a good mixture of locals and expats. We might easily have been the only tourists there. As the evening progressed the square became even more crowded and the wine flowed faster. It seemed like the party would be getting rowdier and we had already had a long day so we drove back to the Airbnb in Schaerbeek and fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:19 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family brussels family_travel travel_blog bruxelles tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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