Why Black Mirror? Because we’ve literally just finished watching it. That show is crazy as f*ck. Real uncomfortable to watch.
I just worked out that I can drive to Belgium in the time it’d take me to watch six episodes of a TV show. When I think of all of the crazy-ass long Netflix binges I’ve had that have lasted all day, I can truly begin to appreciate how poorly I’ve used my time in the past. I mean, this opens all kinds of doors for European weekend travel.
Why is it that I get excited about the idea of driving to Belgium just for a short weekend when I balk at the thought of driving to Wales or Cornwall for a similar time? I hate the thought of driving for 6 or 7 hours each way in a weekend, just to STILL BE IN ENGLAND. That just sucks right?
So this is where I found myself. We left our house in Bury. St Edmunds on a Friday evening, about 5pm. We ferry-hopped over the Channel and arrived at our hotel in the delightful medieval city of Bruges just after midnight. Heck, it was already Saturday, but I didn’t even mind.
“Oh, I must tell you everything there is to do in Bruges,” the enthusiastic but kind hotelier offered as we arrived late at the Die Swaene — one of Bruges’ nicest hotels — but we were so sleepy and just wanted to go to bed. Luckily she picked up on our unwillingness to cooperate as human beings and pointed out a few things on a map, circling importantly the street of waffle houses, then showed us straight to our room.
[I need to do a whole damn review and blog post just to talk about the Die Swaene hotel. Honestly, it is so impressive. Situated alongside the beautiful Groenerei canal, the building is magnificent — tall ceilings, incredibly detailed plush tapestries, lounges that look like ball rooms with giant chandeliers and painted ceilings. Our room was luxurious and exquisite with a giant bed and antique furniture. Our almost floor to ceiling windows opened out canal-side. It was to die for and incredibly romantic for an anniversary weekend.]
The one thing we didn’t have the heart to tell the hotelier when she offered to expose just about all of her Bruges knowledge with us was that we weren’t actually spending much time in Bruges.
I had a 7.49am train booked to Gent and here we had a delicious and traditional breakfast at Cafe Rosario (one of Gent’s best breakfast places — be sure to check it out), visited Saint Bavo’s cathedral and stood on the infamous Sint-Michielsbrug bridge.
We pigged out at the neuzeke stands in Groentenmarkt square — there are only two stands that sell the exact same type of jelly sugar sweets, in direct competition, for the same price, and yet they situate mere metres from the other. Why, you ask? Who bloody knows. The sweets were yummy though.
A quick visit to Gravensteen ‘Castle of the Counts’ — getting snap happy taking photos from all sorts of angles. We didn’t go inside. It wasn’t exactly expensive, but we were already running out of time and needed to find food again (it seemed more important…). Wandering through the Patershol area we appreciated some of the oldest parts of the city — this city was predominantly destroyed during WWII so it was wonderful to see some of the medieval buildings still standing.
Before heading back to the station, we had an amazingly quirky lunch at Balls & Glory — honestly you can’t not eat at a place that has a name like that, can you?! Similar to many of the other quirky city places I’ve eaten at, there is no menu. You simply choose from a few different options of flavoured balls written on the board behind the counter. It was a great diner to eat at, with friendly communal tables — actually there’s several dotted around Belgium so it is worth looking up if you’re visiting! They have both meaty and vegetarian options — we tried the Champignon Truffle — which I later learnt was mushroom. There was also tomato & aubergine, masala and another one that I couldn’t make head nor tail of. They all sounded great, and came sitting on a wedge of carrot potato mash and a delicious gravy. Mmmmm!
We finished up with a perfect Biscoff cupcake from the infamous Julie’s House Cafe which offered views of the main market square. It was a wonderful place to people-watch.
It was 2pm and time to go. A train back to Bruges, we knew we needed to get some of this magical city in today. Problem was, Bruges actually has quite a lot to do, so some important prioritisation came into play.
A tour of the brewery was, of course, top of our list. Unfortunately we didn’t know we had to book in advance, so upon turning up we had to pay upfront and book for a later slot. Luckily this gave us time to explore some of Belgium’s busier streets surrounding the Church of our Lady on Mariastraat. We stopped off at some chocolate shops, buying presents for back home, and a tourist shop to buy a magnet (now a compulsory thing we have to do when we travel).
We arrived back at De Halve Maan brewery for around 5pm. A really fascinating tour of the brewery ensued — considering I don’t even like beer I found it pretty cool. Some of the large vats that they store beer in were open for us to peek inside — and I recoiled upon hearing that workers actually had to climb in through the vat’s tiny opening hole to clean each damned one. My claustrophobia surfaced and I need to get away from those vats pretty sharpish…
There are many stairs during this brewery tour. Up, up, up they go, to higher floors with even more bits of equipment and machinery. Finally, at the top, we were allowed to go onto the roof, and had amazing views across the city. At sunset too, which was pretty damn good timing.
Back down we went, some of the steps are so narrow that you need to go down them like a ladder. We had a free beer in the Brasserie tavern beneath the brewery. I opted for the weakest blonde, whilst the American went for a triple. It was a good beer, though being a total lightweight one was definitely enough, whilst Steven opted for two more.
On the way back to our hotel, we indulged in more Belgian beer at a great little bar, T Klein Venetie.
Being our last night in Bruges, we hopped our way over to the other side of town where La Trappiste was located — I’d read many great things about this underground bar and it lived up to expectations. The bar is set in an 800 year old medieval cellar and has the Harry Potter-esque cloistered-vault ceilings to boot. The American enjoyed several beers, whilst I found a great Belgian gin and we listened to the cool rock music and watched the groups of people revelling in Saturday night antics.
It was time for bed.
Up early on Sunday morning, we were delighted to learn that both locals and tourists alike apparently like their lay-ins. We honestly had the whole city to ourselves even though it was nearly 9am. As the sun was rising I took the opportunity to take plenty of photos of the surrounding streets in the warm orange glow.
As we head down towards our chosen breakfast place, the Gingerbread Tea Rooms, it started pouring with rain. We arrived before it even opened and took shelter in some shop porches.
Gingerbread is listed as one of Bruge’s yummiest breakfast places. We both opted for bagels which were amazing and really bulked-out with yummy fillings, though still had major food envy for those who’d ordered pancakes. On the clock, we downed our drinks (I had a fancy schmancy herbal tea) and headed back to the Markt square, to take in the last of the sights. We headed down a side road and found ourselves at an amazing bakery that were selling giant meringue mallow balls (and brought four). Taking a long detour back to our hotel via the awesome Het Brugs Theehuis (a must for those who love tea and teapots), we grabbed our belongings and pottered back towards the station where we’d dumped the car.
Good tip — if you drive to Bruges and want easy, cheap parking, the station is perfect. It is a 20 minute walk into the centre but I don’t think we paid more than £5 to park for 24 hours and it was in a secure car park with CCTV. Plus, we didn’t have to navigate the car down tiny cobbled streets.
It was 12 noon, and time to get out of the city. Heading south, we had a history lesson on our agenda. The gorgeous city of Ypres, and the Tyne Cot Cemetery (the largest commonwealth cemetery anywhere in the world), both insanely significant to World War I, were mostly on our way back to the ferry terminal. I’d visited both places the previous year and was keen to show my history-loving husband.
Stopping at Tyne Cot in Passchendaele first, we had glorious sunshine beat down upon us as we walked among over 11,000 graves of soldiers on the Ypres Salient (a third of which, heartbreakingly, are graves of soliders who couldn’t be identified). Behind all of the gravestones is the Memorial to the Missing — a stone wall listing the names of all of those who’s bodies were never recovered — the entire area of Passchendaele was known to be full of bogs of mud and unfortunately many were lost within it. Over 34,000 names are on this memorial, listed by regiment, and then by rank. There were many people roaming about the cemetery — most spending time at just one or two headstones. But the grounds are so big that you can literally feel like you’re the only person there. A lot of people come here to vist lost relatives. Deeply moving doesn’t even cut it.
Bringing ourselves back together, we left Tyne Cot in silence. We had one more stop: the town of Ypres, where it all began.
Ypres already has a part of history in its own right, playing a big role in the textiles industry and the Romans put it on the map after invasion in the first century. Starting as a prosperous town (and being one of the largest in the Flanders region), it became known for an entirely different reason in 1914 — not only because it stood in the way of the Germans’ invasion of France as they moved their way through Belgium down south, but because it became the first place where chemical weapons were used.
Ypres was so important because the whole area was on high ground and therefore provided observation for miles. The area saw some of the largest battles during the war, and there were over 500,000 casualties in total. Ypres was the location of the Christmas Truce in 1914 — a ceasefire took place and troops famously entered No Man’s Land on Christmas Day to exchange food, barter for cigarettes, play football and, importantly, recover bodies of fallen soldiers.
As at 1917, Ypres was obliterated. Years on, Germany paid reparations so that the town could be rebuilt. Some buildings were paid particular attention to, such as the town hall, to ensure it was as similar to the original as possible.
Ypres is a busy and touristy town now, and yet it has a ghostly and eerie presence. Almost like a dark cloud that hangs over the streets, never forgetting. It has become a place of pilgrimage for many families of WWI soldiers — indeed, my aunt and uncle visit every single year to pay their respects.
Ypres houses another ‘Memorial to the missing’ – the second of four in the Flanders region of Belgium. Commemorating British and Commonwealth soldiers who died before August 1917, the Menin Gate in Ypres is an impressive arch at the east exit of town. Walk from one side of town to the other, past the huge cathedral, past chocolate shops and little cafes, and you’ll come to the Menin Gate. Cars can drive through it. Locals walk past, going about their daily business. Amidst this are the droves of tourists who come to pay their respects, search for names and mourn.
The memorial contains the names of over 54,000 dead who’s bodies were never recovered. Those who’s names did not fit on the Menin Gate are at Tyne Cot.
What is most impressive is that tourists and locals alike gather at the Menin Gate at 8pm every single day, 365 days of the year, for a “Last Post” ceremony. The local fire brigade provide the buglers to sound over the town and the road running through the gate is closed so that people can stand within the gate and pay their respects. A minute’s silence is held and wreaths are laid — often by scout groups, army basic training recruits, charities and also general members of the public if requested. A Réveille bugle call announces the end, and then everyone leaves to go about the rest of their evenings.
After a long day in Bruges, Passchendaele and Ypres, it was time to head back and catch a ferry home. As we left Ypres, the rain stopped and a beautiful rainbow appeared behind us to wave us goodbye.
Driving north back up to Dunkirk and then following the coast all the way to Calais, we both had the impending knowledge of work the following day and yet the fact we’d just had such a wicked weekend eased the pain of the daily grind just enough to keep smiles on our faces.
I was exhausted – we’d not had a lot of sleep and had been on the go non-stop since two evenings previous, but, seriously, what a way to spend a weekend.
go west, my girl