Tag Archives: Bruges

Wandering your way

Walking is an integral part of traveling. Even if you’re on a tour bus or a cycling tour, you will still do your share of walking, let alone if you are a true backpacker or a pilgrim of some sort.

For those of us who live at home in suburbs, or rural areas, with cars the main means of transport, staying in the middle of the ‘old town’ of a European city and walking everywhere is a pleasant novelty.

I grew up in a hilly area and find there is something I dislike and even distrust about flat country. I want to be able to get a view out over the countryside (maybe it’s some throwback military instinct to look out for enemies from high places). However I have to admit that flat places make for easier, although ultimately less rewarding, walking.

Wandering is a special sub-set of travel walking. At home when I walk I don’t often just take a meandering path and wait to see what kind of people, places or events I can stumble across – when you’re at home you don’t tend to want to just wander until you happen to come across a hairdresser, supermarket or train station – but when I travel I often wander. Of course you can do research and plan out your route ahead of time, or you can take the more risky route of the wander. The wander may mean you miss meeting times, see dud ‘attractions’ – and fail to see major ones – or that you suddenly find yourself in a ‘seedy’ part of town. But you may also meet helpful random strangers, discover surprising sites and be forced to use your initiative and problem solving skills to get yourself out of a situation.

I’m a fan of the fantasy genre novels that involve some kind of quest where a motley band of would-be heroes must walk together across varying terrain to save a friend, confront an enemy or find a treasure that will prove their royal pedigree or fulfill their destiny. In The Legend of the Seeker, the TV adaption of Terry Goodkind’s novels, The Seeker travels with his Confessor and Magician: they flee enemies, save innocents and seek treasures that they believe will confirm their own roles and help tip the scales in favour of good. These heroes don’t exactly wander, but all the action of their stories comes from the people & places they encounter on their travels.

Growing up we were partial to the TV series Monkey (1978-1980) and avidly followed the questing but wandering Monkey, Sandy, Pigsie & Tribitaka (Monkey did have the advantage of being able to call his cloud and travel that way at times. As kids we used to practice trying to call the cloud – but sadly failed).

Bruges has a great (flat) old city in which to wander. You can wander along paths by the water ways, over bridges and always come across museums, churches, fabulous doors, a lolly shop, somewhere you can drink cherry bear and random happenings, such as art installations. While wandering a few years back I came across a Polish group of friends who thought I was a local and asked me for directions. We ended up having an informative discussion about Ghent and they showed me some videos (while standing in the pathway). Luckily for them I was also able to give them directions. Unfortunately I’m yet to make it Ghent, but it was a nice random interaction and I was travelling alone at that point, so the people contact was welcome.

Once on the Japanese island of Ojika I ended up going for a long day’s wander along roads, past rice fields, and came across the shrine to a very round stone in a hole by the sea. I also came upon a lone rural vending machine at the crossroads of the rice fields and accidentally ordered a daytime G&T in a can due to a language misunderstanding.

I also (probably ill-advisedly) took a road down to a supposedly nice beach. The route turned out to be quite long and steep and not all that scenic and as I laboured back up a local woman stopped her car and offered me a lift to the top. I’m not a usual hitchhiker but she seemed genuine so I gratefully accepted a ride. Had I not been meandering, I may not have exposed myself to the need for the kindness of random strangers (who thankfully weren’t also random serial killers).

When we travel with a very fixed itinerary, our expectations of what we’ll see and do each day are high. Inevitably attractions sometimes disappoint and we can’t fit in all we wanted to do and getting lost frustrated us as we miss our goal (the opening hours of a museum or cafe). When you wander l, experiences tend to come to you as a bonus, whatever you discover, and you come across things you may have otherwise missed. Of course you can also encounter bad situations (and there are countries and places where you would definitely not be advised to wander), but a wander in a relatively safe space with your wits about you can be spontaneous and special. As many of us live highly scheduled lives, I heartily recommend engaging in some travel wanders.

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To gaze on the art alone

 One thing invariably happens when I travel: the places I was most looking forward to going end up being somewhat of a let down, while places I never dreamed of, or never meant to go to, end up being trip highlights. The best people, places and experiences are often literally stumbled across.

On on my recent trip to Europe there were art galleries I planned to visit, and most of my planned visits were worthwhile, albeit involving jostling elbows with others. However some of my best art experiences were ones where I ended up in galleries alone.

I stayed in the Belgian city of Bruges (Brugge) for three days and the first day I just wandered. I hate looking too much like a tourist and so I was hat-less and map-less (which actually resulted in me being asked tourist information by a group of Polish people, and led to an interesting conversation in which they were trying to persuade me to visit Ghent and look at a website containing aerial photos of Ghent – but I digress!).

I saw a sign to exhibitions of the art of Picasso and others and wandered into the Site Oud Sint-Jan (old St John) hospital site. While I was buying a ticket to Picasso, I saw they also had a Chagall exhibition on and so went for the ticket combo. It turned out my Chagall ticket had a door keypad combination attached to it. It took me a few goes to work out how to gain entry to the Chagall exhibition via the keypad – things are never simple when foreign languages, other cultures and even non-language specific symbols are involved (what is that supposed to be a picture of?).

Once I gained what now felt like privileged entry to the Chagall exhibition, I felt like I had entered a sacred space. 

The room had high ceilings, sun and classical music playing. I’ve seen a number of Chagall’s paintings before, but never his prints; his lithographies. Something about the space, the art and the fact that I had the art all to myself filled me with a sense of joy and wonder.

If you’ve never seen the art of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) before, there is a strong sense of character to his people, who are depicted in an expressionist, semi-naïve art style that stirs the emotions. The combination of their expressions and the vibrant colours tells a story with minimal use of line, richly coloured tonal areas and shading. Some of the lithographs were of biblical figures, like David playing the harp (to King Saul), his head turned to one side, in profile and looking down, and his arms encircling his harp, holding it close. His one visible eye and protective posture capture a poignancy. Often his figures are floating, along with plant and animal life, untethered from this earthy plane and gravity. His work has a minimalist charm. 

I remember looking at the works, and then returning to each work that spoke to me, under the spell of these speaking pieces. The sun shone down through the tall six-pane windows into the charmed space and I was in a state of awe and wonder. 

Eventually other people could be heard punching in the doorcode, with its accompanying beeps, and getting frustrated when it wasn’t letting them in. But after a while the space no longer belonged to just me. The spell broken, I went on to see other works, and share gallery spaces with other people (and an Afghan wolf hound at one stage). I can’t quite recapture it, but I still remember the state of grace that was that gallery experience. 

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Filed under A reflective life

A Bruges visit brought to you by the letter ‘B’


1. Belgian chocolate

All I’ve had are a couple of samples, and they were nice, but I hate to tell you I don’t actually really like chocolate. I know it’s shocking to admit, but I prefer the fruit fillings and other ingredient to the chocolate that surrounds them. However, for those who like chocolate, there is every possible product, many packaged like the attractive rows of Bruges houses. A novelty favorite are the chocolates made to look like rusty tools, bolts and locks. Although I haven’t indulged in a chocolate , I have eaten marzipan that was supposed to taste like lemon and nougat studded with ginger and apricot. 

2. Beer

Another Belgian favorite, but again I’m not really qualified to advise on the many types or their taste. I had my first beer in Belgiam tonight at a Pizza Hut and it was cherry flavored. I’m sure all serious beer aficionados are shuddering right at this moment.

3. Belfort

If you visit Bruges and you want to climb the Belfort tower to the very top of the belfry, get there as early as you can. They only let 70 people up at a time (which is a mercy considering the necessity of passing people on the increasingly narrow winding stairs). I was lucky enough to only have to wait for one person to exit. The relentless 366 stairs climb is nicely broken up by mini floors with information displays and samples of bells. After the long climb the breeze at the top and the view were much appreciated. However ear plugs are probably recommended for when the carillon starts playing while you are up there as the sound of 47 large bells is somewhat deafening!

4. Breeds of dogs

I don’t think I’ve seen any dog breed more than once, apart from the fact they are often in pairs of the same breed, but I have seen a lot of dogs, including sharing my visit to an art gallery with some sort of Afghan hound and his owners. Large dogs don’t tend to be very light on their feet on wooden floors. This may be the only time I get to appreciate Picasso in the company of a canine. Perhaps Picasso would have approved: he was certainly unconventional. The only cats I’ve seen in Bruges are the ones on the plentiful tapestry products in the shops. If cats inhabit the city, they must be safely tucked away in their residences. 

5. Break-neck speed

This is the speed of the many cars that hurtle around Bruges’ cobbled streets with seemingly little regard for the many cyclists and absent-minded tourists meandering the streets where ‘foot path’ is a matter of opinion.

6. Boats and birds

The open boat canal cruise is a popular option and even in the rain they seemed to get a good turnout. People also happily queued in the rain for the boats. The main on-water competition for the boats is the iconic white swans. They are beautiful to watch floating along in formation in a swan flotilla. Swans, ducks and other birds all enjoy the canals. 

7. Bicycles

Bike hirers seem to be doing a roaring trade and many tourists and locals traverse the flat streets. There are ample bike racks in a number of squares and many bikes can be photographed leaning against walls in picturesque locations. I’ve done on all my wandering on foot, but a few blisters later the bikes are looking like a good option. 

8. Bridges

As Bruges is a city encircled and criss-crossed by canals, there are many small stone bridges that enable canal crossing. Some have a single inverted half circle opening, while others have three. These openings allow the burgeoning canal boat ride business to prosper. Many of the bridges also seem to be home to various plant life. One bridge is even overlooked by the patron saint of bridges. 

9. Bewildering streets

It seems to be quite easy to get quite lost in the meandering streets of Bruges – or maybeIm just directionally challenged. There are certain landmarks, like Markt and the Burg or the various churches, but because all the streets are constrained within a large oval shape, most streets don’t just run north-south or east-west. However this is all part of the charm, as you never know what new experience you’ll come across, but try finding your way back to the same place twice, when you never saw the street name, and it can be a challenge. 

10. Bilingual

Bilingual was handy because it begins with the desired letter, however the truth seems to be that many who work locally are quad- or quin- lingual (is that a word?). I presume most locals speak Flemish, and they can also be heard conversing pretty fluently in Dutch, French, German and English. Most menus are also printed in 4 or 5 languages, making it a very easy place to travel. The range of visitors seem quite broad and I’ve interacted on a minor or more sizable level with people from USA, Spain, Poland, Japan, France and overheard people speaking English, German, Mandarin, Dutch and Eastern European languages. 

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