DAY 0 – Easter Sunday 2011
Our United nonstop flight from Dulles International to Brussels was scheduled for 5:50 p.m., but we sat on the tarmac until 8:20 to wait out thunderstorms flashing around us. Once in the air, we made up an hour of that time, touching down in Brussels at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning. We had a comfortable flight in Economy Plus.
DAY 1 – Brussels to Brugge
At the Brussels Airport, we bought our train ticket to Brugge, which required a transfer at Bruxelles Nord station. The train schedules were in holiday mode because it was the day after Easter, which is a national holiday. Our train was packed with school kids, families and couples taking day trips from the city. We both dozed some during the 75-minute ride. At the Brugge train station, we had a cup of coffee and called the VRBO apartment’s housekeeper to meet us.
A five-minute cab ride into the city center brought us to the Brugestheloft apartment, our home for the next three nights. The building on 13 Zilverstraat, a couple of blocks from the Markt, was brutally modern and nondescript, especially compared to the beautiful architecture of every other house on the street and most of the other center city buildings. However, the apartment itself was gorgeous, and very comfortable, with two bedrooms, one and a half baths, full kitchen, dining room, living room, gas fireplace, and terrace. The refrigerator was stocked with bread, butter, jam, meat, cheese, eggs, juice, and champagne, and there was also 4 bottles of wine, exquisite chocolates and coffee – it didn’t leave much shopping for us to do! The apartment was €125/night.
By now it was noon, and we had a late breakfast of toast and jam, then DW rested for a couple of hours while I went exploring. Many stores were closed for the holiday, but the streets were full of tourists. I walked through the shady Simon Stevenplein (Steven’s statue in the square looked “explorer-ish”, with a globe and sextant in hand …. perhaps Steven was a Flemish Magellan?), and through the busy Markt, with the famous medieval bell tower dating from the 13th century. The Markt square was set up for the holiday with children’s carnival rides, and tourists lined up across the cobblestones for horse and carriage rides. I walked on to the other historic square, the Burg, with the ornate City Hall and the dark and diminutive Basilica of the Holy Blood.
It was 2 p.m. by now, and I had happened to come to the Basilica at exactly the right time. The famous relic of the church is a crystal vial said to contain Christ’s blood, which had been gathered by Joseph of Arimathea and was given to a Flemish soldier by the patriarch of Jerusalem during the Second Crusade in 1150, as thanks for rescuing the city from the Muslims. The Holy Blood vial was on display starting at 2 p.m., probably because it was a holiday and during Easter. (It is usually brought out only on Fridays and also for the Holy Blood Procession on Ascension Day.) It was very moving to be able to participate in the veneration. A priest greeted each worshiper, who could touch, kiss, and pray over the vial. He then gave us each a prayer card and reverently wiped down the vial for the next person. The Church’s interior belied its dark outer walls. It was light-filled and beautifully painted in jewel tones with gorgeous stained glass windows. The church’s Lower Chapel was heavy Romanesque, very plain after the lush Upper Chapel.
I returned at 3:00 and woke DW. We made a sandwich for our late lunch, then got out of the apartment to explore together.
I had to show DW the Basilica first, though the relic was no longer on display, then we wandered further afield, crossing the inner canal ring into the eastern Sint-Anna quarter. This neighborhood, full of small, tidy houses, was a very poor area for hundreds of years, but is now a quiet, residential area where we were able to shake off the tourists and be among the Bruggians enjoying their holiday. The Sint-Anna’s Church was opulent in dark, ornately carved wood, copper, and enormous paintings, but suffered by comparison to the beautiful Holy Blood Basilica. We walked down to the outer canal ring, where four 18th century windmills remain on what were once the outer ramparts of the city. The long, narrow park along the canal was full of sunbathers, running children, and dogs. After visiting two of the windmills, we returned to the apartment.
We had earned a beer by now, and walked literally around the corner from the apartment to the venerable ‘t Brugs Beertje, with more than 300 Belgian beers available, each in its specialized glass. I had a dark, hoppy Moinette Brune, at 8.5% alcohol, DW had the smooth and sexy amber Dikke Mathile, at 6%.
We stepped across the street to the restaurant The Hobbit, recommended by both our guidebooks (should have been a tip-off), for dinner. What a strange meal! The Hobbit specializes in barbequed ribs, served completely dry. When we asked for BBQ sauce, we got Chinese sweet and sour sauce. My meal also included Japanese spice nuts, paprika soup, and an absurd bright-pink sweet cocktail. Oh, and the breadbasket came with a choice of garlic butter or tartar sauce. A weird and disappointing dinner but the beer was good – Orval for me, and Westmalle Doppel for DW. The Hobbit is NOT RECOMMENDED. In retrospect, I wished we had left the tourist zone for dinner and trekked back to the Sint-Anna neighborhood which was full of inviting looking local dining places with better food and better prices.
After dinner it was back across the street to ‘t Brugs Beertje, which was increasingly loud and convivial. We sat at a common table with two other couples, talking travel stories, and tried two more beers. DW went with the Brugge-brewed De Halve Maan Zot Dubbel (at 7.5%), and I enjoyed the oak-aged Special Reserve De Dalle Brouwers, a 2009 beer weighing in at a whopping 13%. I was ready to stay for hours, but DW was fading, so we bid a goodnight to our new beer hall friends, and walked the mercifully short block home to bed by 10:30 p.m. What a terrific first day in beautiful Brugge!
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DAY 0 – Easter Sunday 2011