“How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing?”
And so on I rode on… French turned to Dutch, wine turned to beer – I was in Belgium now, and right away I felt that much more at home. First stop was Bruges (or Brugge, if you prefer) a lovely little medieval town stacked to the brim with tourists. Bruges most recent fame comes from the movie In Bruges, in which Colin Farrell says “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t” – a quote which is now used to advertise the Bruges free tour.
Outta the damn way tourists!
I guess I can tell how the idea for the movie came about – Bruges is a town begging for someone to take the piss out of it. Whenever anyone talks about Bruges, they seem completely incapable of doing so without using the word “beautiful”. It’s like that episode of Top Gear where they have to review an Alfa Romeo without using the word “passion” – Bruges is indeed so beautiful that it’s hard to describe it any other way. It’s so perfectly presented that it’s halfway to being its own theme park – it’s hard to imagine the town as actually doing anything besides tourism… that there are restaurants frequented by locals, or indeed locals at all.
Both nights it rained during dinner - it is really nice to sit, eat and watch the cobblestones glisten
One of the best things to do in Bruges is just pick a direction, start walking and eventually find that you’re completely alone and the streets are silent. It’s like this that Bruges is best appreciated – away from the crowds and the souvenir shops, just you and the beautiful streets and buildings. Some description I read warned not to expect Bruges to be a party town – I dunno which Bruges they went to, because given its location between Paris and Amsterdam, Bruges is party central for backpackers. Most big backpacker cities have a pub crawl where a couple of bars will give you a free shot. In Bruges, a woman takes you around and gives everyone a swig out of the various bottles of spirits she has in her massive handbag. The second day I was there, no one in my dorm was out of bed before 1pm. In spite of its austere beauty, it’s a messy place.
I don't have any messy photos, so enjoy this lovely canal instead
The other thing I enjoyed about Bruges was the various random attractions there. The Belgian government funds these great maps for young travellers that don’t have any advertising and feature interesting bars, restaurants and particularly cheap out-of-the-way things to do around the cities that they make them for. As a result, I spent a day doing things like walking around in the basement of Crowne Plaza checking out its medieval foundations and looking at weird museums with mannequins. I also totally met someone who used to be on Degrassi… which is not especially relevant to me as a 23 year old (why can’t I meet someone on Corner Gas?) but as far as I’m concerned I totally met someone famous on my travels… yes!
After Bruges I rode off to the Tynecot cemetary, which is a big World War 1 cemetary for Commonwealth soldiers. I’m not usually one to be affected just by being in a place, but I’ve got to say, this one did make me feel something. Not so much an overwelming sense of sadness or anything, but there’s something about the perfection of the arrangement of the graves as the sun beats down – it actually feels sort of warming, if anything, that these men are still remembered so well. Walking around the the graves is certainly a sobering experience – a massive proportion don’t have any name on them (“Known only unto god”). All of these people would’ve gone down as missing, their families forever wondering. The ages, too, really bring some of the reality home. Of course we all learn how young they were, but this is pressed home much more strongly by walking past grave after grave of soldiers aged 18 or 19. Old men played the political games that led to war, old men decided that the most effective way to fight was a war of attrition, and then it was young men who paid for these mistakes… in their hundreds of thousands. Horrible.
This being Belgium, it was another short ride to Brussels, where I only had a night to spend. I ended up checking out the Irish bar (cultural experience) where they had bottles of Duvel for 2 euros each! Bargain. Belgium has a lot going for it, but probably the most endearing thing is going into any bar (even the dives) and finding a beer menu far better than the Belgian Beer Cafe in Sydney, but for a fifth of the price. The bar turned out to be great – they had a live band that were absolutely killing it. If this were a Sydney bar they’d be taking up important poker machine room, but this is another country and they do things differently here. I also managed to check out the comics museum in Brussels, which probably would’ve been awesome if I read French or Dutch but seeing as I don’t, a museum whose whole point is letting you read old comics wasn’t really that great. Art was nice though. I must read some Tin Tin comics when I get back. Before I left I also had to go have a look at the giant atom that was put up as part of a world expo in the 50s and has somehow remained popular even as the idea of atomic energy hasn’t. I set up my bike to take a picture, and just as the shutter closed, the side stand dug a hole in the grass and the whole thing toppled over. Fortunately a kind Spanish man helped me pick it back up, and I rode off a bit embarassed. What better time to leave the country… next stop the Netherlands!
Up and Atom!
I realise that I probably should have spent more time in Belgium – it is a great country… to take the train around. Belgium is just not a great place for a bike trip – every major city is right next to the large major city and every road is arrow-straight and blanketed with towns and their associated 50km/h speed limits. I tend to get much less happy when I’m not covering any ground – the idea of staying around Belgium and riding like 200km in a week didn’t appeal to me at all. Belgium is, however, a lovely country, and one day I will return. With money for beer.