Yesterday we returned from Belgium, where Sarah and I enjoyed an absolutely delightful weekend. In Knokke we met up with former LSE students to have a nice reunion. We then travelled to nearby Bruges, which amazed us with its beautiful World Heritage Site class town centre. Sarah and I stayed one day longer in Bruges to enjoy a little more of its romance.
Friday we took the train from Tilburg. Via changes in Roosendaal, Antwerpen, and Bruges we arrived around 7.30pm in Knokke. One of our Belgian friend’s parents have a seaside holiday house. This friend took us from the station to this amazing, charming house. Sarah and I were offered a spacious bedroom which had its own bathroom. After having chatted for a bit, we left for dinner. Our friend took us to Restaurant Beaufort. It was clear that Knokke is, to a large extent, a place for the, let’s say, a little bit richer. The food (we got filled tomatoes as an appetiser, after which I had a salad Croque Special) was certainly good, but a litte pricey for unemployed recent graduates. I also got to taste one of the famous and good local beers, which typically have an elevated alcohol level compared to more mainstream beers.
Satisfied, we left for the house again, where we met some of our former classmates from LSE. We caught up over a couple of beers, after which we left for a local pub called Tracks and Tr@vellers. We played some rounds of pool. I was, by far, the most decisive player. In the first game, I pocketed the black ball (at the right time), but unfortunately the white one as well (i.e. my team lost). In the second game I was confused, and I pocketed some solid balls, whereas I should have been aiming for the striped ones (i.e. my team lost). In the third game I was on a winning streak, putting away 4 or 5 balls in a row, regaining some appreciation of my teammates. Then I accidentally sunk the black one – too early. My team lost.
We did not stay up very late. The next morning we went out to arrange breakfast for the coming two days. We then left around 1pm or so for the centre of Knokke. It was pretty cold, around zero degrees Celsius. The strong, relentless sea breeze made it feel a lot colder. We walked along the straight and central Lippenslaan, and quickly decided to hide from the wind and get an extensive lunch. Food is pretty important to Belgians – more so than to the Dutch – and it showed. Most of us, including me, ordered the daily special lunch menu, which included leek soup with bread and butter, and a main serving of escalope, something that seemed similar to spaghetti, and salad. All in all, we sat for what seemed to be at least two hours, enjoying the good food and ourselves.
Later on several more former LSE classmates joined us, so that the group was now comprised of 4 Belgians, 1 Swiss, 1 German, 1 Italian, 1 American, 1 Dane, 1 Czech, and 1 Dutchman. Wonderfully international. Those who came later packed away their stuff, while the rest caught up over, again, some nice Belgian beers. We ordered some Chinese food. Belgians surely treasure and appreciate eating, but gosh, they also know what to ask for it – at least in and around Knokke.
We had wild plans to go out in some of the nearby towns, but we happened to have stayed in. That doesn’t mean it was a dull night – I still have cramps in my stomach of all the laughing! We played games around a big, oval table, as I image people did a lot more often before the advent of the TV and the Internet.
The first game was the Post-it Game (I tried to Google it and find the game’s name, but there doesn’t seem to be one), where one gets a post-it note stuck on his or her forehead with a name of a famous or well-known person or character written on it. By asking questions that have to be answered by yes or no one should find out the name written on the post-it. Some hilarious questions were: “Am I a horse?”, “Am I edible?”, “Am I hairy?”, and “I am an animal, thus I must be the Beast?” After this, we played another game called “Mafia“. I was not particularly good at this one. As a matter of fact, for some obscure reason the people at the table didn’t think I was able to be one of the Mafioso.
The other day we travelled to Bruges, a mere 15 minute train ride from Knokke. Time was short, because everyone else had to get on a train to Brussels, some because they had to catch a flight to Switzerland or the Czech Republic. We walked straight to the main square, the Grote Markt. We bought tickets to enter the Belfort van Brugge (Belfry of Bruges, a.k.a. the Halletoren). We climbed the 366 steps up the narrow staircase of this 83-metre-high tower. The tower has a history dating back to the 12th century. Its fame, however, experienced a significant rise only in recent years, after it starred in the 2008 movie In Bruges as the background of some rather bloody scenes.
Afterwards, we walked around a bit and chose another place for some food. After a rushed, late lunch it was time for saying goodbye. We all went our separate ways again. It was unbelievably nice that so many of us actually managed to come all the way to Knokke and Bruges for our reunion. After having spent a year in each other’s company in London, everyone pursued his or her career somewhere else, and will probably continue to do so, but I hope we can manage to keep meeting each other every now and then. Perhaps the next time in Amsterdam, if and when Sarah and I have moved there.
Sarah and I decided that we wanted to stay one more day in Bruges, to see a bit more of this beautiful and peaceful small Belgian city. We first took our luggage to St Christopher’s Inn – a Bauhaus hostel in the Langestraat, at a 10-minute walk from the city centre. For me it was the first hostel experience in a very long time, the last time being several years ago in, if I recall correctly, a hostel in Paris. This hostel was cheap, and offered clean beds and bathrooms. Although I don’t and didn’t mind it much, I found it a bit weird that bathrooms and showers were unisex.
We decided to rest for a bit, after which we took a walk through the now darkened city centre. Most buildings were beautifully lit up with soft yellow lights. Restaurants often weren’t, but they still added to a cosy atmosphere, because they showed friends and families enjoying Flemish food, sheltered from the wetness and cold outside. Walking in this cold, with our collars up to fend off falling snowflakes, we felt warmed by sights as the one in the picture below.
We walked over the Burg Square and the Grote Markt, and took a right turn onto the Vlamingstraat. We took another right turn, and walked towards the canals, which we had somehow managed to miss during the day. We agreed that we would be perfectly happy living in a little attic room, somewhere on the Spiegelrei or Spinolarei. Too bad Brugge doesn’t offer any interesting jobs we might be interested in.
Having seen many cosy, warm restaurants, we decided it was time to visit one ourselves. We walked back to our hostel, and decided to try its restaurant called Sacre Coeur, since we got vouchers promising us a 25% discount. I only looked a few seconds at the menu before I made up my mind: “Flemish Specialty of the House”, it read somewhere. Wherever I am, if I get a menu and I see that they are offering specialties either specific to the region, or perhaps even to the restaurant, I stop looking. That’s what I want – regardless what it actually is. On many occasions I truly didn’t know what to expect, but so far I have never been disappointed. Neither would I be disappointed this time. I had a delicious Flemish stew, which went down with a nice, strong beer called Straffe Hendrik, which is one of the very few remaining beers actually brewn in the city of Bruges.
The atmosphere in the restaurant was amazing, with its dark and brown colours, books and mirrors along the walls, and with the typically very different and thus interesting groups of people (we overheard some French, American English, Dutch-Dutch, and Scottish snippets of conversation). Too bad that the prices were way too high (e.g. 11 euro for a small burger on old, white bread and some hardly green leaves of lettuce), that somehow we were not allowed to use the vouchers (which we were promised we could use), and that (even to our extremely low standards) the service was slow and inaccurate – otherwise I could have certainly recommended it. We ended the evening by watching part of a movie (Good Will Hunting – “How do you like them apples?“) in the lounge area, together with some travellers from Scotland.
Monday, yesterday, we started with breakfast. It was included in the 16 euro price per night, and I guess that one should therefore not judge too strictly on the quality. But, goodness me, that black something wasn’t supposed to be coffee, or was it?
During the day we sauntered through beautiful Bruges, enjoying the picturesque sights of its old houses, bridges, and canals, and the many chocolatiers and shops selling hand-sewn lace. We visited some of the spots which according to our map were “the best places to kiss”, but we refused to kiss the frog.
We sauntered, but still kept a relatively sturdy pace, which allowed us to visit most of Bruges’ landmarks and must-sees in a couple of hours – except for the ones who happened to be closed, such as the Crowne Plaza Hotel (one is usually allowed to set eyes on the foundation walls of the St Donatian’s chuch in its historic cellars – for free), or the Church of Our Lady (in which one can normally behold the Madonna of Bruges, a marble sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary with the infant Jesus).
We did, for instance, visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a Roman Catholic minor basilica originally built in the 12th century. It is known for that it houses a venerated phial which is believed to contain a cloth, which in turn contains some of the blood of Jesus Christ, and which was allegedly brought from the Holy Land some 800 or 900 years ago.
We saw and experienced a lot more, but in this case I think that pictures convey more than my writing ever could. Therefore, scroll down for some additional pictures of Bruges.
And if all of this wasn’t enough, while strolling through the streets of Bruges I got a call. My training paid off: a job offer! Wooohooow!