I went to Bruges for two nights last weekend (February 2012) primarily to see whether Colin Farrell was justified in describing it as a “shit-hole” in the movie aptly titled In Bruges. As it was freezing cold, that everything seemed to shut at 6pm and the city’s main (and arguably only) tourist attraction the Belfort (which Brendan Gleeson did something at the top of in the same said movie) was closed until March for refurbishment, Mr Farrell may have had a point.
It is undoubtedly very pretty. If you are considering whisking your loved one away for a romantic weekend for two … and Paris, Rome, Venice, Clacton-on-Sea etc are all booked up … then the lovely, clean, picturesque canals of Bruges will not disappoint. However, trying to walk along these waterways during a sub-zero blizzard certainly didn’t fill me with flames of passion (which I could have done with just to keep me from developing hypothermia).
En route I entered the beautiful gardens behind the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerkhof church. Yet, for all its beauty it wasn’t the delightful timber-facaded houses surrounding it, nor the tranquil waterway banked by perfectly manicured lawns, nor the most romantic view of the Belfort so far that took my breath away. That accolade went to what my trusted guidebook described – with an enthusiastic exclamation mark – as possibly “the smallest Gothic window in Europe”. And indeed, standing on the Bonifaciusbrug (bridge) and looking up at the walled building before me I saw the most ornamental air brick I have ever seen in my life. The fact however that my guidebook suggested it was only “thought to be” the smallest in Europe, almost set the challenge for me to find the undisputed one. (Please note, I wish to stress the word ‘almost’ in that last sentence).
I ploughed on through the wintry storm, coming across a group of teenage school-trippers suitably dressed for a warmer climate and gaily dancing in the Markt singing “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” Not feeling quite as joyous under the circumstances I gave them a purposeful look of displeasure.
This was however not my only encounter with the belated Christmas spirit, for not only is there a shop just off the Burg specialising in Victoriana Christmas decorations – and appearing to be doing stable business six weeks after the event has passed – a fair few Brugian residents seemed to still have their Christmas decorations up. Hopefully, this wasn’t because these houses held the undiscovered bodies of Brugians that died during December and have yet to be discovered. Nor I hope, on the premise that most stores will probably be opening their Christmas 2012 departments in April (as they seem to do so earlier and earlier every year), that most Brugians just didn’t see the point then in taking them down. A lot of the festive wreaths I saw had crude paper hearts pinned to them, so I guess, being in the dire economic state that we’re all in of late, this was the Brugian frugal spirit shining out, making Valentine’s Day decorations out of last year’s Christmas ones.
As with all my trips, I always send a postcard back to my mother. In preparation for this trip I had been brushing up on my broken French for a number of weeks (as I think it is only polite to at least attempt to speak a few words in the local language). Exhausting all that Bruges had to offer by 2pm, I entered the main post office in the Markt to buy a stamp. It was here, amongst all the posters, displays and directions that I realised Brugians don’t generally speak French but rather Dutch, a language I have no knowledge of whatsoever. So the past three weeks trying to memorise my Latinate tenses was all in vain. I approached a counter, and for some absurd reason I decided to ask the Flemish speaking assistant whether he spoke English, in French. Somehow in my head that made sense, rather than just asking him the question in English. To make matters worse, my bilingual training completely escaped me in my sudden state of shyness so that rather than asking “Parlez-vous Anglais?”, I said “Parlez Anglais”, which as some of you may know is the command to “Speak English”. Was this subconscious? I’d like to think it was just nerves, and thankfully the assistant before me interpreted it the same, replying back to me in the most perfect English.
At least my hotel was very comfortable and warm, apart from the constant piped musak played throughout the building, permeating through my bedroom door so it was like listening to the murmurs of a neighbour’s radio a few doors down the corridor. I also noticed that the Fire Prevention notice on the back of my door requested that residents “should not snoke in bed”. I would be interested to find out what snoking is, but will probably refrain from practicing it anywhere, and certainly not in bed.