1. Breakfast lineup in Charlie Rockets Bar, former scene of mayhem.
2. Titans in Burg square, Bruges.
3. Titans in front of Dumon Chocolatier, best chocolate in Belgium.
4. Guide at Vimy Ridge before we entered the subways.
5. Leaving Vimy Ridge Monument
OK, so Homer was talking about Germany when he said that, but Belgium is the real land of chocolate.
I still vividly remember entering Bruges on my first Europe trip – from the giant bicycle parking lots, to the tiny city gate the bus barely fits through, to the gabled 16th century buildings. It was great to hear the parents and kids immediately oohing and ahing as we drove through the cobblestone streets to our hostel.
Now this is an experience everyone will remember. As I entered the smoky, noisy bar to go to the reception desk and retrieve our keys, I found the way blocked by a portable stage with bass, guitar, and drums. One of the bartenders got our keys and while organizing all that, and trying to breathe in an atmosphere that was more smoke than air, the band (I think they were called “The Bollock Brothers”) started playing. It wasn’t the refined, classical music you might expect people who live in a town that looks like this would enjoy, it was extremely loud hardcore punk rock. I won’t repeat what the name or chorus of the first song they played was, but I was really glad the kids weren’t inside during that particular number. The bartender and I finished our business by screaming into each others ears, and we loaded the kids upstairs, thankfully not through the bar. But they still got a good dose of smoke and punk rock between the entrance door and the hostel stairs. This, of course, was Charlie Rockets, our excellent hostel from 2007. Even with blasting punk rock and some sort of street fight in front of the hostel at 2 AM, it is superior to the other two hostels we have endured in Bruges, Bauhaus (2005) and the Snuffel Inn (2006). Mr. Johnson and I were very fortunate to have the band members staying in the room next to us, so when they finished making noise downstairs (surprisingly early), they came upstairs and continued making noise through the paper thin walls until they finally went unconscious around 6 AM, just in time for us to get up. Not a lot of sleep for us that night, but I think most of the kids fared much better.
After breakfast in the now empty but still smoky from the night before bar, we walked down to the two main squares – the Burg and the Markt (that’s the correct Dutch spelling) and learned something about relics, church architecture, and Bruges history. It was interesting for them to learn that in the 1500’s, Bruges, a wealthy trading centre with a population of 200 000 was twice the size of London. After it’s economy tanked due to the silting of it’s main waterway, Bruges became a ghost town for a few centuries, thereby preserving its medieval character as no one had money to tear down and rebuild. “Rediscovered” in the late 1800’s during the Romantic era, when nostalgia for all things medieval ran high, Bruges has been a tourist destination since.
Our second thigh burning stair climb of the trip took place in Markt square as we went to the top of the 272 foot, 376 stair bell tower. We followed that up with chocolate and Belgian fries (essentially just really good French fries), just in case we had burned too many calories. Moms and/or dads awaiting a gift of the best chocolate in the world, know that this is only the 3rd day of an 18 day trip, and I’m not sure if the kids (and the chaperones for that matter) have the willpower to let that box of Madam Dumon’s finest sit unopened in their bag for the rest of the trip…
We finished Bruges with a quick peek at Michelangelo’s Madonna in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which translated from Dutch to French is Notre Dame, and I’ll let you figure out what that is in English.
We left Belgium and entered France to visit the Vimy Ridge monument, which was just reopened last April after several years of restoration. After attempting to visit the monument in 2005, when we didn’t realize it was closed, it was nice to actually bring kids right up to it to read some of the names of MIA Canadian soldiers and view its grandeur up close. A tour of the subways led by a knowledgeable Canadian university student enlightened the students about some of the harsh realities of WW I. The guide made it special for our group when she told us that the subways actually don’t open until May, but that they did the tour for us anyway. She said not to tell anyone. Almost all the visitors here are from Canada, and the land itself was given to Canada, in perpetuity, by the French government in 1921.
Right now we have just finished our “dinner packets” ( a couple of sandwiches – no mustard of course – an orange and a bottle of water put together by the friendly Charlie Rockets morning staff for us), it is 7:30 PM, and we are driving through alternating heavy and light rain towards the Family Home youth hostel in Bayeux. Tomorrow we take Normandy.