2016 Barging Belgium

In Bruges – Again: 12/09 – 16/09

Ghent – Bruges

Back to Bruges

Anxious to get back to Brugges and share it with our guests, we cast off just after 9 am and made our way back out of Ghent and turned to starboard to head west on the Ghent-Bruge Canal. This was our third trip along this section, so we were pretty familiar with it. Of the big commercial canals, we think it is one of the nicer ones especially once you are past the industrial districts of Ghent.

A little over five hours later we made our way up past the entrance to the Coupure harbour, raised Andy, the harbourmaster, on the VHF, who was expecting us, and reversed under the bridge he raised and onto the end of the quay. We had the good fortune to be following a large commercial and we were able to follow him through all of the bridges on the way in. There are a number of bridges across the canal that surrounds Bruges and pleasure boats can wait several hours to be able to pass through. It really is just so the foot and road traffic is not too inconvenienced by being held up while a bridge raises and a boat passes. But if you are lucky enough to be following a commercial vessel, the bridge operators will usually let you pass through with the commercial. We always check with them on the radio and have not yet suffered any delays at all when travelling around Bruges. If it all sounds a bit routine – it is, in a good way. Some aspects requiring planning or technique to provide a challenge to exercise our growing skills, which brings a satisfied smile to our faces when it works the way we wanted. And some familiarity with routines and expectations.

As soon as Catharina Elisabeth was settled, we took the very easy walk from the Coupure harbour into the old city (last year’s mooring ay Flandria was a bit further from town, either a moderate walk or short cycle to get into the centre). Visiting Bruges together had long been a shared dream of Lisette and Gill and to say they were excited does give a fair measure of their good spirits.

A tiny fraction of the beer wall.

Our first real stop was the Beer Wall. We and others have talked about this before. It has grown even larger since we were last in Bruges, but previously we didn’t go into the pub for a drink. So what better time to do so than with Gill and Graham. Beer menus hang from the ceiling from long elastic strings, and you tug one down in the language of your choice and make your selection.

The beer garden is situated right on the canal against a deep stone wall, under the shade of massive trees. Perfect for a late afternoon tipple. We were delighted to find an outdoor table overlooking the canal and collected a selection of beers for, particularly, Graham to taste. Graham is a big fan of German beers (and we have previously toured his favourite, Wiehenstephan, in Munich) so we wanted to give him a comprehensive, liquid base for comparison. He and Gill were both soon converts to the delights of Belgian fermented barley.

Ray jumped from the hotel just about into the tourist boat on the right near the buildings

The initial impetus to for Lisette and Gill to visit Bruges together came from a fabulous dark movie starring Colin Farrell (Ray), Brendan Gleeson (Ken) and Ralph Fiennes (Harry), ‘In Bruges’.  You can see a lot of the iconic attractions in Bruges by seeking out the locations used in the film. Just around the corner from the beer garden, we checked out the hotel that Ken and Ray stayed at and from which Ray jumped into the canal to escape the wrath of his boss, Harry.

We  spent the next little while walking around so that Gill and Graham could get a sense of the old town and some of the wares for sale – particularly the chocolates (lace, beer, chocolates, lace, beer, chocolates…the shops stretch out side by side all along the narrow, cobbled streets).

By 9 pm, just as it was going dark, we settled down to a light meal then returned to Catharina for the night.

The next day we again visited the Historium, which we had seen before. This interactive display tells a story of the medieval history of Bruges from which we still gathered more information but the immersive virtual history exhibit was not operating, unfortunately.

There were also beers at the Historium.

We followed this with a cruise on the canals – crowded but they are well organised and the wait was short and the commentary delivered professionally. Heaven knows, they must get a lot of practice! These activities were squeezed in around some shopping and the occasional refreshing beer. We ended the day with a delicious meal in what was clearly a very popular venue (we had booked early in the day).

Having had two biggish meals out, the next day we elected to take a walk around the outskirts of town, through the lovely park and past the Beguinage of Bruges which is now a Benedictine convent.

From there we sauntered over to one of the most interesting tours that we had during this visit, to a brewery. Why you might ask? Why not?

The ‘Half Moon’ brewery founded by Henri Maes.

Fifty years ago there were hundreds of breweries in and around Bruges, now only one of these originals remains – the Halve Maan Brewery (as an aside, the history behind the sailing vessel of the same name, and photos of it at ‘Sail Amsterdam’, are covered in one of our blog posts from 2015). So, right in the old town centre is a thriving modern brewery on the site it has occupied since its founding in 1564, with six generations of the current owners ensuring it continues to operate since the family took it over in 1856. Their main popular brand is ‘Zot’ with a premium brand designed for cellaring ‘Straffe Hendrik’ also available.

The reason behind the name of the ‘Zot’ moniker is below:

The tour was cheap, extensive, informative, interesting and in English. It took us ever up through the old building until we came out onto the rooftop. From here were marvellous views across the city with the parks and gardens and canals all laid out perfectly below us.

The guide told us how when ‘In Bruges’ was being filmed, Colin Farrell was often found sampling the beers and was apparently a most friendly and delightful visitor to the brewery. It ended, of course, with us tasting a beer fresh from the brewery all included in the tour – can’t ask much more than that and very highly recommended.

There are many displays and photographs, the only problem is to get a good look before the tour moves on.

We learnt or had reinforced several useful bits of information. Beer in Belgium is strictly regulated to only be allowed to apply to a beverage of barley, fermented with yeast and with hops added. No more, no less – or it’s not beer. The carbonation in most Belgian beer is produced in the bottle, by a small amount of yeast added at the end. Thus Belgian beer does not go ‘off’ but actually matures as time goes on. The Halve Maan brewery produces 10-12 million bottles per year – about the amount that Heineken does in a day.

And rather interestingly, we learnt that the brewery was soon to open the tap on its new and innovative means of transporting beer from the brewery to the bottling plant. Currently, while the brewery is of course situated in the old town, following its first fermentation, the brew is trucked right through the city to the warehouse for second fermentations and bottling.  In the interests of preserving the old city, this forward-thinking brewery has decided to pump the beer via underground pipes and cease using noisy, fume-spewing trucks to disturb the wonderful ambience that is Bruges’ old town.

Tunnelling experts were brought in from the oil and gas industry, and the pipeline was laid using computer-guided drills to minimise street digging. While this was well-received it did increase the cost of the exercise. So some of the money was raised through crowd-funding. Fascinatingly, a gold membership (Euro 7,500) earned the buyer a bottle of beer every day for life, and 18 personalised glasses. Why did we not know this?

The pipeline was opened shortly after we returned to Australia, pumping the equivalent of 12,000 bottles an hour a distance of about 3km.

Next stop, or climb, was the famous belfry. Surrounded by the town hall, the Belfort van Brugge is now 83 metres tall (366 steps). In the past, it has been taller, courtesy of spires on top – wooden spires. A construction material not well suited to longevity when lightening and oil lamps are features of the environment. So they have suffered on occasion:

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;

Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town

Belfry of Bruges: Longfellow

Well, now there is no spire, so 83 metres it is. Similar to the belfry at Ghent, and many others, the tower in Bruges was used for a variety of legal, commercial and communal activities apart from its duties in time-keeping and celebration. For example, one part, the treasury was used for storing important document and valuables. Ten keys were needed to open the locked casket and these were distributed to various important persons. Given the difficulty in assembling the necessary keys simultaneously in one place, opening the cask became a ceremonial rather than a business activity.

Great view, still a bit flat!
IMG 7945
Bruges Drum
The music currently playing at your local belfry.
Some banks could learn something from this caske.
Great view, still a bit flat!

Of course, there is another splendid drum and assemblage of bells to make up the carillon. Again, the four pieces of music are changed every two years at Easter time. While Ian was up there, the sound of a large, male, sort-of-choir drifted up across the square “Oy yay – Oy yay” they chanted. It was the supporters of the Leicester football club.

As the day wore on and we walked around town progressively more blue and white bedecked supporters arrived. They were pretty well behaved considering and there were lots of club officials about keeping them under control. Still, it was a warm day and they were pretty well ‘lagered-up’. The section just outside the square where most of the singers were congregated had the streets not figuratively, but literally, awash with beer. They were in town for the Champion’s League match against Brugge, which, perhaps fortunately for all except the Brugge supporters, Leicester won 3:0.

Shopping for chocolates and beer mostly filled the rest of the day as Gill and Graham were leaving early next morning.

Chocolate Sushi

It was still dark when we walked them to the bus stop, but we still had one more day in Bruges and it would not be wasted. Our next (yes, seventh) set of guests was due in three days, and we were to meet them in Veurne.

So on another gloriously sunny day, we cycled into town again and headed for the archetypal Belgian museum – the Frietsmuseum.

Dedicated to one of THE Belgian national foods, it led us through a very comprehensive history of the origins of the potato, thought to originate from Chile and Peru, then via the Canary Islands, Spain and across Europe, arriving in Belgium in 1567. There are innumerable varieties of the humble spud, Lisette’s absolute favourite carbohydrate.

Some of many shapes, sizes and colours of potatoes.

One of the most appealing exhibits for Ian was what happens when potatoes are sliced into thin strips and deep fried. We thought the museum was excellent. The potato section was informative, well presented and with plenty of English. The frites section was similarly well laid out, with varied displays of the development of frites and how they became widespread first in lowland Europe and then across the world.

No knighthoods or Order of Australia in Belgium – instead ‘The Order of Fries’.

Thin sliced fried potatoes were an established food in the Belgium when the American soldiers arrived in 1915. The soon took a liking to them but as at the time, most of the officers of the Belgian Army were from Wallonia, the Americans were introduced to them by French-speaking comrades. Thus, when they returned to the US, they called them ‘French Fries’. Ironically, French fries are not big in France.

A miniature frietshop – complete with real fries only 1 mm by 5mm in length.

Of course, the basement had a small cafeteria where you could purchase a well-packed cone of frites and a drink. All in all, it was a quirky museum but fascinating and well worth the visit.

If you want frites delivered – perhaps the frietscooter?

Next stop was somewhere towards the other end of the cultural spectrum, the fabulous Groeningemuseum with its wonderful collection of Flemish and Belgian art – covering some six centuries of creativity. As with most art, there were pieces we liked and didn’t but the tremendous range mean there were many memorable pieces. A particularly famous piece is the Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele by Jan van Eyck. We were familiar with this piece, in some ways, because the walk-through experience of early Flemish life in Bruges that is a major part of the Historium is based on a fictional story of the creation of this painting.

Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele - Jan van Eyck (1436)

All in all, a fitting way to end our formal cultural exportation of Bruges.

We had planned to leave the following morning, but I realised she had not yet found the Lace Museum. How can one visit Bruges, and be prepared to buy the modern lace, and yet not explore lace as an art? So we agreed to spend just one more full day in this most beautiful of cities, and I wandered off to find the museum while Ian decided that he had better do a bit more blog writing (obviously not enough as this is being written nine months later!). I assured Ian I would write my parts of the blog later.

A shop in one of these little cottages opposite the Lace Museum provided Lisette with some antique lace and bobbins.

Off I went, only to find Google Maps saying the Kantcentrum (Lace Centre) was permanently closed. I chose to ignore this advice and continued on, eventually finding the place where it used to be. The advice appeared to be accurate because the museum was no longer there. Disappointed, but not ready to give up just yet, I entered the foyer of a beautiful church nearby to ask someone for advice and was delighted to learn that the museum had a new location, just around the corner, housed in the renovated old lace school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. Having tracked it down, naturally, it was closed for lunch, but I was happy to wait nearby in a little public garden until I could get in. The museum itself was behind a high stone wall, with a row of quaint houses opposite.

While the museum itself covers a rather small area there was a history of lace making from audiovisual images right through to an interactive display that let you practice making knots on a computer screen. There were some fabulous examples of the many different types of lace and the provenance of each piece displayed was most interesting. As I was leaving the exhibition, I noticed that later on there would be a meeting of lace makers and you could watch them work and ask questions. This brought back very warm memories of my mum. In 1967 we left England for Australia, travelling by cruise liner. One of the stops was what is now called Sri Lanka, where for the very first time I saw women making torchon lace. Some years later, my mother and I were members of an Embroiderers’ Guild and we very much enjoyed learning different techniques, among these was how to make torchon lace, complete with lace bobbins and little sawdust pillows. My gentle foray into lace making was left in the dust as I watched these women of Bruges whipping the bobbins around at warp speed and creating the most beautiful pieces. Mum would have loved to see this.


Having spent a wonderful afternoon having my craft needs met, Lisette returned to Catharina, for our last evening in Bruges. The weather was closing in, but we were very happy that we had enjoyed fabulous sunshine for days. So Lisette was preparing dinner and Ian was tapping away on the computer, intermittently gazing out of the window. The bridge was up and a boat was entering the harbour and he saw an Aussie flag pass by the salon windows. In a flash, he leapt up yelling “Aussie boat, an Aussie boat!” and dashed up the stairs into the wheelhouse towards the stern deck. So excited he forgot to duck.

Wham! His head hit the top of the wheelhouse door. Legs continued forwards, but the top half crashed to the floor of the wheelhouse. Later, when questioned if he had lost consciousness, Lisette was able to assure them that she heard the bang and the unbroken and voluble stream of curses that followed it. So, no, she was pretty sure he hadn’t been knocked out.

Undeterred, Ian struggled to his feet and staggered onto the deck to wave and greet the new arrivals who were staring at this bloody apparition “Hi Aussies! Welcome! Nearly killed meself!” Doubtless perplexed, they continued on to moor further down the harbour, wisely ignoring the wild man cavorting about on his aft deck with blood pouring down his face.

While we would not identify the boat until much later, it was in fact Sojourn an Aussie cruiser, a fellow Canal Caperer , we had passed a week or so ago travelling in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, Lisette had arrived to see what all the fuss was about. Although Ian had wiped the blood out of his eyes, she was not at all impressed with his treatment suggestion – to wash the blood out in the shower. Recalling the admonishment of the doctor in Tournai – we were on a three-hour countdown to see if stitches were needed. With no vet handy, a hospital trip was in order.

Very kindly, the harbourmaster’s wife, Helen offered to drive us to the main Bruges hospital. Once the blood had ceased cascading off the top of Ian’s head, they set off, and without too much delay, the ever efficient European hospital system had him in a room for treatment. Well, not until we had been asked to call and talk to our travel insurer, and hand over 300 Euros (all but €20 they refunded us eventually) – in all our previous emergency department experiences (and there have been quite a few) in the Netherlands and Germany we had only once been asked to pay anything upfront, and that was only 50 Euros. Maybe it would have progressed faster if Lisette had not washed away so much of the blood. Then again, maybe not.

Stitches were required – well staples anyway. “This is going to sting” the rather unsympathetic doctor informed Ian. As they trimmed some of the hair around the wound, Ian joked that he had meant to have a haircut, but that would not now be necessary. We suspect that they had been dealing with soccer supporter injuries over the last day or so and any English-speaking patient was probably regarded as another careless drunk. Chunk, chunk, chunk – “Are you OK?” came the enquiry. Ian was, but Lisette was feeling a fair bit queasy. Chunk, chunk, chunk – and it was done. They were happy that it was clean, so no other treatment than to be cautious when showering and have the staples out in ten days. This meant we would have to find a doctor in Diksmuide, just before we were due to fly home.

We took a taxi back to the boat and Lisette went to thank Andy and Helen, to let them know all was OK and book a time when we could make a quiet, demure, early exit next morning. All that rubbing of monkeys and princess statues clearly represented false and misleading advertising.

It may be thick with tourists but Bruges is a wonderful tourist city – staying right next to the centre of the old city, just a couple of minutes walk away, was a fantastic way to experience the attractions and ambience.

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