This last Friday Beth (Wales), Whitney (US), and I (CAD, obvs.) rented a car to drive to Bruges in Belgium. Joining us were Whitney’s guests from New Mexico, Chris and Patty. I’m not sure what we had expected, but when I got to the rental car agency and picked up our BMW, I was definitely a little surprised. So were my travel buddies.
Scene: Picking up Beth at her’s.
Me: “What’re you doing? That’s not our car. Ours is parked ’round the back.”
Beth: “No way! Is that our car?”
“No way! Really?”
We then picked up Whitney, Chris, and Patty, then stopped at Kaufland, a grocery store, to pick up some snacks for the way (leave it to a Brit, a Canadian, and three Americans to schlep their way up to Belgium in a rented BMW eating chips and M&Ms, the nerve of them). Our route took us up north out of Trier towards Bitburg, from where we snaked out westwards, making a break for the Luxemburg border. From there I took us through the Ardennes near Bastogne in southern Belgium, that pesky forest that caused the French so much embarrassment some years ago.
Last time I was here I didn’t manage to drive in Germany, something that I had regretted. This time however I managed to cross that item off my bucket list. And while I didn’t get to drive on a proper, unrestricted Autobahn (which there are so few of, and most of them constantly under maintenance and therefore set with speed limits), I did take well advantage of the 130km/h speed limit. I was passing like the best of Germans, accelerating around in the right lane into the left, then back again, playing highway leapfrog (what is so hard about this that Canadians don’t get the principle? Keep right except to pass!). I can say nothing however against the quality of the Luxemburgish and German roads I drove along, absolut traumhaft.
Then we got into Belgium.
Jeez louise, the roads there weren’t as nice, and the drivers, let me tell you! Belgian drivers have a reputation for being a bit … off. Apparently there were no proper driving tests until the 1980s, and if this is true it shows. If it’s not true, it makes me doubt the competency of their road tests! We saw some very creative use of blinkers, which honestly wasn’t that bad, but what really got me were the cars sticking it out in the intersection in groups of three or four attempting to turn left, well after their light had gone red, and traffic from the opposite directions kept whizzing by. Add to this unexpected construction sites and random, half-finished round-abouts, and you have the fun experience of driving in Belgium!
Some of this unexpected construction hindered our planned entry into Bruges; luckily our helpful if annoying Navi guided us safely to our hostel. Getting there through the random suburbs of Bruges we found ourselves in was an adventure in itself, but nothing too difficult.
Me: “Hey look, a statue of a guy fighting a bird! That’s – OH NO TRUCK TRUCK ROUND-ABOUT OH NO”
We finally found our hostel, though we could only see it across the wide median from the wrong side of the street. A cheeky U-turn at an intersection soon solved that problem. Don’t worry, mom: U-turns are not only legal here, but necessary for successful, safe, and defensive driving! (I wouldn’t exactly call Belgian driving “defensive”, but then, we know what Belgian defenses are like…) Our hostel, the Europa Hostel International Bruges, was comfortable enough, even if the showers did reek of poorly drained water. Na ja, it had ample parking, a large, comfortable lobby, and was warm and dry – what more could we need? There was even ample parking in the yard and free breakfast – bonus! We were still a 15 minute walk from town, so we grabbed a free tourist map from the reception to take us in.
“I don’t get this map, guys. Where’s the hostel?”
“Is it down here somewhere?”
“I don’t know. This is weird. Where’s the city wall and the moat?”
“Um, this map very clearly says “Ghent” on the front.”
“Oooooh, I just picked it because it was prettier.”
With a proper map in hand we set off for the town. Soon afterwards the rain cut our touring short, forcing us into a Pizza Hut in search of warmth and food. Afterwards we did manage some more sightseeing, including kissing a bronze frog, seeing some underground passageways beneath a hotel (Chris found a hidden door behind a large painting!), and we ended the evening at a pub playing cards and congratulating the pub dog on how beautiful he was.
Bruges sells itself on romance, claiming or claimed to be the Venice of the North. I’m not so sure of this. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t on a romantic holiday, but I didn’t get that feeling. Rather, it struck me as more of a touristy Amsterdam with less trees. Indeed, the lace shops and chocolatiers, two things famous in Bruges, seem more touristy than romantic. Apparently it was also some sort of a Belgian holiday, meaning the streets were unseasonably packed with folk.
The next day the rain kept coming down in buckets, so we drove to the seaside. We finally stopped at the little town of De Haan, as massive dykes or dunes prevented us from seeing the North Sea from the coastal highway. It reminded me a lot of an English seaside resort town. Patty was pretty excited to see the sea.
As we returned to Bruges the sun finally decided to break through the clouds, and the city looked remarkably different in the bright colours rather than yesterday’s dreary greys. We went back into the city from our hostel to do some more sightseeing, doing our best to avoid the recklessly fast horse carriages. A brewery tour caught our eye: 6,50 Euro for a tour and a beer at the end, sorted.
Guests could take the tour in Flemish, French, or English. This might surprise you, but you could spot the cultural differences in the tour “waiting area” (read: the stairs and patio in front of the brewery’s tavern). All the French and Flemish speakers jumbled together in the middle, pushing and shoving, and blocking everyone else’s way. Meanwhile the English-speaking folk (largely American, it seemed) queued up like proper civilized individuals, without having to shout things like “Vive La Flandre!” Remember of course that Belgium is made up of two larger ethnic groups, the Flemish and the French. Canadians should find this split identity, and the identity crises it leads to, familiar (French Belgium being a lot like French Canada: a bizarre, odd place).
Having patiently waited our turn, the English folk finally embarked on the tour, lead by a sassy if dour Belgium woman who kept making very, very dry jokes. Along the way Beth took a fancy to the current owner of the brewery, the 8th or so of his line since 1856.
The next day we got up early and checked out of the hostel. We piled back into the car and, biding a final farewell to the friendly hostel cat, set out.
“Cast off there, fore and aft!”
“Stand by the halliards; raise with a will!”
“Man the capstan!”
“Anchor’s straight and dry for weighing, sir!”
All prepared, we set a new course for France, and Vimy.