At seven o’clock there was blue sky and sunshine but it had turned cooler with a stiff breeze from the sea blowing across the fields and into the garden of the gîte. We were driving to neighbouring Belgium today to visit the town of Bruges in the north of the country and by the time we had packed the car and set off there were big spots of rain falling on the windscreen. This didn’t last long and it was one of those days when there were different weather conditions in all directions and it was a bit of a lottery about what we were likely to get. It was about a hundred kilometres to drive and on the way we passed through a variety of different weather fronts so we were unsure of what to expect when we arrived.
We needn’t have worried because as we parked the car the sun came out and the skies turned a settled shade of blue and without a map we let instinct guide us down cobbled streets towards the city centre. I had visited Bruges before in 1981 so I thought I knew what I was looking for but over the years I must have got mixed up because the place looked nothing like I remembered it. I knew that we were looking for a large square and I had in mind something classical like St Marks in Venice so I was surprised when we reached the famous market square to find nothing like that at all.
Belgium became an independent European State on 4th October 1930, the Year of Revolutions and Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. In the middle ages, thanks to the wool trade, it was one of the most important cities in Europe and the historic city centre is an important UNESCO World Heritage site because most of its medieval architecture is intact. The Church of Our Lady has a hundred and twenty metre high brick spire making it one of the world’s highest brick towers. The sculpture Madonna and Child, which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo’s only sculpture to have left Italy within his lifetime and the most famous landmark is its thirteenth century belfry, housing a municipal carillon comprising forty eight bells where the city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis. The Carillion is a feature of Northern France and the Low Countries and the Belfries of Belgium and France is a group of 56 historical buildings designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. The city is also famous for its picturesque waterways and along with other canal based northern cities, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands; it is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”.
We really needed more time to appreciate all of this but the price to be paid for convenient close to the centre parking was that we were restricted to just two hours. Even though I didn’t remember it quite like this the city square was delightful, fully pedestrianised except for the odd horse and carriage and surrounded by bars and cafés all around the perimeter. We liked the look of the Bruges Tavern which had tables surrounded by pretty flowers and a vacant table with a good view of the square. The official language in this part of Belgium is Flemish, which is similar to Dutch and the man who came to take our order identified immediately that we were English and spoke to us in that delightful lilting sing-song voice that Dutch and Belgian people have when they speak English. He made us feel welcome and we enjoyed a glass of beer sitting in the sunshine.
The girls wanted to shop again so whilst they went off in the direction of the main shopping street we finished our drinks and then took a leisurely walk around the square overlooked by brightly painted houses with Dutch style gables and facades and then disappeared down the warren of quiet side streets that had something interesting to stop for around every corner. Making our way back to the car we stopped in another, more modern, large square for a second drink where the service was slow and there was an amusing exchange between a flustered waitress and an impatient diner. ‘Alright, alright, the food is coming’ the waitress snapped when she was asked a third time when it would be served. Our beer took a long time to come as well but we thought it best not to complain.
As we left Bruges to drive back towards Boulogne the sun disappeared underneath a blanket of cloud and we drove through intermittent showers along a road cluttered with heavy trucks all making their way to and from the Channel ports. This was not an especially interesting journey through a flat featureless landscape and although we had taken our passports with us there wasn’t even any real indication that that we had passed from Belgium back to France except for a small EU sign that that seemed hopelessly inadequate and could be easily missed.