Bruges Part One: Overview

P&O Ferries, during the quieter months at the beginning of the year, do a fantastic two for one deal on minicruises to several European cities, so, four of us booked ourselves on a trip to Bruges.

The drive from Leeds to Hull was a little bizarre, with every variation of weather imaginable from bright sunshine, to hail and snow. This initiated some concern over the weather prospects for the journey, but as it happened, we lucked out completely and had glorious sunshine pretty much the whole time.
So far as the ferry trip itself, I was happy enough with it that I’d pay the full price to take another trip. The standard bunks are quite small, so anybody over six foot might have a squashed nights sleep, but they’re perfectly adequate for purpose. There is the option whilst aboard to upgrade to Club, which I believe offers slightly larger bunks and cabins, plus tea and coffee making facilities, amongst other things, for a supplement of around £25.
I had been expecting the drinks prices in the onboard bars to be a little ridiculous, but in fact they were fairly reasonable. A pint of draft beer ran at £3.30-3.70 depending on what it was, and individual bottles of beer cost roughly the same. There was a 4 for £12 offer running on a good selection of bottled beers, including Leffe Blonde and Brune, so after the first round, that’s what we did for the remainder of the evening. We knocked it on the head at around 11:30pm, with docking at Zeebrugge set for 8:30am, but of course, the time difference meant that we lost an hours sleep on top of the need to be up and ready well before disembarkation. As it happened, I woke up at just after 6am local time, feeling only slightly worse for wear, and after a large coffee, excellent croissant and a good wander around the outside deck, I felt fine. It’s amazing what caffeine and sea air does for a hangover.
After disembarking, and getting the connecting coach, we arrived in Bruges itself a little after 9:30am, giving us a full 8 hours to explore. I’ve heard from several sources in the past that Bruges is such a small town that it can be adequately explored in a day. Having now experienced it for myself, I would have to assume that anybody voicing that opinion is either spectacularly unimaginative, or didn’t venture very far from where they were staying whilst there.
Naturally, both chocolate shops and beer shops are to be found everywhere, and we certainly explored a few of each, but our first port of call was the Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery on Walplein in the centre of Bruges. Listed as the only family brewery still in operation in the town, the premises are presently undergoing reconstruction to expand their output potential threefold (if I recall correctly). Far from being a hindrance, the construction actually provided a point of interest, with the tour guide referencing some of the planned changes.
Without wanting to give anything away about the content of the tour, I’ll simply say that it is well worth the 7 Euros. The tour guide managed to strike a perfect balance between entertaining, humorous anecdotes, and factual information regarding both the history of the brewery, and the brewing process itself. It’s not overly in depth, but even as someone familiar with the brewing process in general, I found it informative and interesting, and the included beer at the end is delicious. Do be warned, though, that there is a climb up 240 quite narrow steps at the beginning, and a series of even narrower staircases on the way back down. Some were so narrow that it was necessary to come down them backwards, much like you would a ladder. The age range in our tour group was around the 21-60 mark, though, and nobody seemed to have too much trouble.

After the tour, we had a clear five hours, and no further time-specific plans, so after pretty much abandoning the awful maps we had, we just meandered through the streets, heading in the general direction of the main square, and the belfry tower. After some discussion, J and E decided to go up the tower, whilst M and myself elected to sit in a bar and ‘look after the bags’. It turns out that we’d have had to go in pairs anyway, as getting bags as well as people up the stairs in the belfry would have been a complete nightmare.

By the time we’d all regrouped, and more beer was had, it was approaching 4:30, so we thought it wise to begin making our way back towards the coach stop. After a brief episode of getting lost, we found the main road we had come in on, and despite overshooting the crossing by quite a way, got back to the station with enough time to have a quick wander around a local supermarket, for sustenance and final beer gathering.

The return trip saw much less drinking (and none for me), since we were all utterly exhausted. I think I fell into bed around 9:30pm, and was asleep by the time everybody returned from their single drink. It did mean that I was pleasantly refreshed, and awake at 6am again to have a walk around, grab some duty free, and enjoy the ocean air before making port.

A few points in closing.

  • Don’t drink too much on the first crossing – whilst I wasn’t especially hungover, I think a little more sleep would have prevented my very early night on the way back!
  • Take a decent sized bag or backpack. I took a shoulder bag which was a good size for just wandering, but once I’d bought a few beers and the plastic bags were disintegrating and cutting into my hands, I wished I’d brought a rucksack either instead of, or maybe in addition to. In the end, I was lucky to find a place selling quite nice fabric shopping bags, which took the strain off, but even so, a rucksack would have been a wiser choice.
  • Under no circumstances wear anything even remotely fiddly. I had a lace top on under a dress. Less than two hours in, I used a bathroom to remove it. Lace is not tour-friendly. Wear the absolute comfiest things you own, including footwear.
  • Layer! Instead of a big coat, I wore a few thinner layers, and added a mid-weight jacket and a scarf. Other than the ill-advised lace top, I did pretty well in this respect. If it’s warm, a scarf can be pushed into a bag or pocket, or even tied at the waist.
  • Everybody speaks excellent English (and from the sound of it, many locals are multi-lingual – we heard the proprietor of one shop speaking at least English, German and possible French to various customers.) I did have a few basic phrases saved to my phone notes just in case, but it wasn’t at all necessary.
  • Food from the vans in the square is insanely priced. There are plenty of little cafe takeaway places in the side streets, selling everything from fries and burgers to waffles and ice cream, at about half the prices of the vans in the square.
  • Take a decent map. We had downloaded a couple of maps to our phones, but they weren’t great. Even if we’d had full 3G access (and none of us bothered) navigating a strange place on a tiny screen is less than ideal. A decent paper map would have been handy at times.

All in all, we had a wonderful time, and are planning to return at some point in the not so distant future, to explore for a while longer.

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