In Bruges (and Mons).
It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve posted on here but don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. Unless being sick and watching TV is your kind of thing, in which case you’ve missed a lot.
We have been in the midst of Snowmageddon 2013 in London, busy finding out how much a few inches of snow can disrupt a city. My already not ideal commute of 45 minutes / 1 hour turned in to a daily 1 1/2 hour / 2 hour battle each way. Other people at work just called it quits and didn’t even try to get in when the snow was really coming down.
Meanwhile the snow was actually quite a nice change especially for me having only ever spent the odd few days in snow and still enjoying the novelty. Dayna and I have both been battling colds/coughs along with the rest of London so the cold, snowy weather also gave us an excuse to curl up and do nothing on the weekends. Luckily we were feeling better by the time our first trip away for the year rolled around – our trip to Bruges and then Mons to visit Dayna’s cousin Carrie.
The train ride to Brussels on Eurostar was as good as ever and we even got to enjoy a nice sunset before rolling in to Brussels and switching trains to get to Bruges.
Arriving in Bruges we had only a loose idea that our accommodation was about 15-20 minutes’ walk away so I was thinking we might struggle to find our way in the dark with no maps.
Luckily they light up the Belfry tower & steeples around Bruges and since the rest of the town is flat, it was pretty easy to steer ourselves in the right direction.
I had done a bit of research in to where to eat and drink in Bruges so we set out right away to the first restaurant on my list – Cafe Rose Red. This place was number one on Trip Advisor for Bruges when I looked it up so I was pretty excited. However, in what was to be a recurring theme of the next couple of days, the restaurant was shut for a few weeks in January and we were out of luck (the same thing happened with 2 other places we went to).
We were saved by a nearby bar that was also on my list called Bierbrasserie Cambrinus and here we got our first taste of Belgian beer of the weekend. I told Dayna that she couldn’t come to Belgium and not try some beer and to her credit she managed to get through quite a few different versions of Kriek Bier over the weekend. This beer is usually cherry or raspberry flavoured so wasn’t too much of a stretch – I think drinking a Guinness in Ireland will be a bit more of a challenge for her.
I struggled to choose from the huge beer menus so usually opted for the 4 beer tasting option. After all, what’s better than a nice cold Belgian beer? (4 nice cold beers!)
We didn’t spend all our time in bars though…
We braved the cold icy streets and snow to do our own little walking tour of Bruges. The canals were frozen over along with the lakes which just added to the beauty of the place. As Ralph Fiennes once said, “it’s like a fairytale town isn’t it?” (don’t worry, that will be my last ‘In Bruges’ quote)
We went to the same place for breakfast each morning which had amazing bread, meat, cheese, croissants, pain au chocolat, and homemade jams. When we started running low on something the lovely owner filled up our platters so we definitely got our moneys’ worth there.
The service was the best part of it though – it felt like a mum making us breakfast so if you’re ever in Bruges, give Bittersweet a visit. They also had amazing Hot chocolate made from a large chocolate tulip (flower shaped chocolate, filled with more chocolate) dropped in to hot steamed milk. Dayna told me off a little for not getting a photo of it before I dropped the chocolate in but it looked too good to wait.
After a few days in Bruges we still didn’t manage to figure out the language at all (Flemish, Dutch, German, French…I don’t know). In the same sentence I would start off thinking someone was speaking German, then they would throw out some French then a bit of English before switching back to German. It was weird anyway and I reverted to pointing and smiling as my main form of communication until someone asked a question in English or I was ordering something off a menu.
We took on the steep winding staircases of the Belfry Tower to climb 366 steps fuelled by a heaping pile of Frites and mayonnaise beforehand. I didn’t take well to eating fries with a fork (as the locals do) and ended up destroying the little plastic fork and having to fish out a bit of plastic from the back of my mouth before I choked on it. I made do without the fork from then on.
The view from the top was worth the effort of our climb but turned out the walk down was harder. My legs were feeling a bit wobbly by the end – I need to join a gym…
We left Bruges with the snow really starting to come down. Amazingly, in Bruges snow doesn’t appear to stop trains in their tracks and before we knew it were on our way back to Brussels before heading on to Mons to meet up with Dayna’s cousin Carrie and her buddy Max.
Carrie was a wonderful host to us but Max really took it to the next level. He was so friendly that he was soon climbing in to our laps trying to kiss us.
My longing for a dog is now even worse than it was…
After our introduction to Max, we ventured out and took a slightly scenic route getting in to the Grand palais area of Mons. We were introduced to the quirks of Belgian traffic lights and Belgian drivers who appear to like abandoning their cars (still running) in the middle of the street. After a nice meal out, we headed home to plan out our little road trip the next day to visit some of the Canadian and NZ war memorials and war cemeteries.
A great thing about going for a Sunday drive in Europe was that we crossed the border in to France without even knowing it.
Our first stop was the Caterpillar valley cemetery which along with holding the graves of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers, also commemorated the 1200 odd NZ soldiers who died in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, and whose graves are not known. I always find it crazy reading the ages of the soldiers who died there and was hard pressed to find any that were older than me. A good way to make you appreciate life more and appreciate the sacrifices these men made.
As we were gradually making our way out of the cemetery Dayna found a particularly special grave site. This was the grave of the unidentified New Zealand solder who was moved and laid to rest within the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Wellington in 2004.
Our next stop was Vimy Ridge, the place where Canada’s four army divisions fought together as one for the first time and won a famous victory over Germany.
The trenches have been rebuilt and maintained and you can see how ridiculously close the two sides were when they fighting. The surrounding areas were fenced off as there are still unexploded ordinances around and you can see the effect on the landscape of the artillery shelling with little craters everywhere. The area is actually quite nice with trees everywhere now so it is hard to imagine it with fierce fighting everywhere over the flat, treeless landscape that was there during the first world war.
After the trenches, we visited the huge Vimy Ridge memorial nearby. Carrie continued to play tour guide and let us know that one of the memorial’s biggest fans was somewhat infamous – Adolf Hitler. Hitler apparently issued strict orders to protect the memorial during World War 2 and even put S.S. guards there to protect it from both Allied forces and the German army.
A nearby café had a Canadian theme so it seemed the obvious place to stop for lunch. It was a tiny little family run place and they didn’t really speak English so we relied on Carrie to ask if we could eat there. The waitress/owner had to go in to the kitchen to see if any food was available before confirming to us that there was steak and chips available. So one meal of steak, chips and a huge, weird onion salad later we were on the road again to the last cemetery we were visiting, the ANZAC cemetery in Sailly-sur-la-lys.
One of the striking things of all of the cemeteries was that they were so well looked after. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission do a great job.
We made good time on getting to Lille to catch our Eurostar train home so asked if we could switch to the earlier train – and as easy as that it was done at no charge. Couldn’t have done that if we were flying!
And so we ticked off number 31 from our 100 Things List – thanks again Carrie for being such a wonderful host!