Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Held Captive in Bruges, Belgium

Map picture

Belgium may be a small county with a total population of only 11 million people, but with the Capital of the European Union being located in its major city of Brussels, it has a large importance to the countries of Europe.

Our ship docked at the port city of Antwerp, and from there it was only a 90 minute drive to Brussels. However, Brussels really had no appeal to us because along the West Flanders coast were some of the most historic cities in Europe, specifically the cities of Ghent and Bruges. So, for our first day off the ship, we took a private car and intended to head to the nearest of the two cities, Ghent. Once on the super highway while moving along at 122 km, Lisa and I became engaged in some substantive conversations with our amazing guide, and without realizing it, we flew right by Ghent and ended up in Bruges. To be honest, I completely forgot that we were even set to go to Ghent!

Our guide was a stately gentleman of some 64 years who as it turns out, had recently retired as CEO of one of the largest corporations in Europe. At that time, he was managing the interest of the third wealthiest family in Brussels. He had started with no education working as a blue collar worker, but by doing night school, he eventually acquired an Engineering Degree, an Economics Degree and eventually a Law Degree. On his way up the corporate ladder, he had travelled all over the world, and was fluent in 5 languages. Our discussion really started as he was describing the socialist system of Belgium and extolling its virtues. In essence, the government of Belgium through its taxation policies, redistributes income. Those at the top pay handsomely, while everyone is guaranteed a wage, and education to the best of their ability, free and timely healthcare, and eventually a good retirement. He made it sound almost idyllic, hence the intense conversation.

Upon reaching Bruges, I flat did not remember until we had dinner that evening, we were supposed to have gone someplace else! But wait – it gets even worse – within 10 minutes of seeing Bruges, I realized that Lisa and I had been there several years ago, but neither of us recalled that until then! Anyway, Bruges is the Capital and largest city in the province of West Flanders in the northwest of Belgium. It was first mentioned in the literature around 850, but came into its golden age around the 12th to the 15th century when it was a major trade center. Today it is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Indeed Bruges is one of the most well-preserved Medieval Towns in Europe. To walk around town is like visiting some historic old open air museum. Everywhere you look there is living history. We entered the city near one of the remaining Beguinage still in existence. These convent-like enclosures were similar to nunneries; however, a woman could choose to leave at some point, and still take her possessions with her. The last resident of this enclave died just a few years ago at the age of 93. From there, we meandered around the cobblestone streets, and across bridges under which beautiful swans floated slowly by. The atmosphere was surreal. Because we were having trouble walking, we took a 30 minute boat ride which covered the many canals throughout the city thus allowing us to see most of what the city had to offer from the outside. At this point, we sat down for a lunch in a quiet restaurant where our table looked out over one of the many waterways which was surrounded by castles and tall church spires. Before we knew it, the day ended as our spirited discussions from lunch continued in the car all the way back to the ship. But, there was one small – no make that one big problem – we were trapped in Bruges.

You see the medieval city was built in a circle, and it was surrounded by water as a means of protection. There were only five bridges which allowed access into the old area of town. The city itself has only a small network of very narrow roads, most of which are one way. The trick is to know in advance which way the next junction will go. So after working around and around in circles to get onto one of the roads which exited the city, we came to a sudden halt. As we were approaching the bridge over the waterway, it rose up in response to some vessel requiring passage. Before our eyes, slowly slid a very large barge which just stopped! After the longest time, we realized that it was stuck in the narrow bridge inlet, and could move neither backwards nor forwards. So, our bridge became impassable. In addition, the way in which their bridges are interconnected, the previous bridge also stayed open not receiving the necessary signal to signal that the canal was clear. This meant that 2 of the 5 bridges allowing transit to the city were closed. It was all we could do to get out of our line, only to join everyone else who was also trying to exit the city. Because the City had recently implemented a new traffic plan, neither our driver nor the GPS had any clear way out of this mess. We drove for what seemed like forever before accidently ending up on an exit road. Until then, and for the last hour, we were Captive in Bruges.

After a fun day, we had dinner with our son, his wife, and our granddaughter (now 20 years old – time flies.) It was at dinner when we were asked how we liked Ghent, that we realized that something was not right. Ah well; just chalk it up to old age.

The next day dawned bright at last, and while our ship had moved overnight from Antwerp to Zeebrugge, both in Belgium, in point of fact, we were still in the same area as the day before. So, this time we set out for Ghent, which would have us driving by Bruges – but it was only 30 miles extra to go all the way to the destination we should have gone the day before. Everyone got that – it still confuses me! On the way, our guide was excited to take us off the main roads to visit the small quiet village of Lissewege. Since we had already seen Bruges, when we got there, she assured us that this would be a new experience. Well, wouldn’t you know – we’d been there before – I mean, no joke. The only thing different was that the town church, which was built in 1225, was open this time for us to visit. Never-the-less, it was nice to see a quiet village still going about life seemingly oblivious to the outside world.

By this point, I fully expected to have been to Ghent before but to my surprise Ghent was to be a new experience. I am really proud that Lisa and I managed to walk all around this beautiful city, even stopping for a famous waffle. But when we could walk no more and called it a day, it was on the way home that we realized that we had not entered so much as one building or church – shame on us!

I do have some beautiful photographs of our trip so far, and I will let the pictures do the talking. Just as soon as I can, I’ll share my new web page with pictures of our trip.

Hope all is well,


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