Just returned from my 1st overseas trip which basically started with a few days in Bruges. Actually flew from Seattle to London Heathrow and had a previously booked ticket for the Eurostar from London's Waterloo station to ABS (any Belgian station), available with a quite deep discount for any rail pass holders which I also had prebooked. Had one train change at Brussels Midi station which went seamlessly - with about 10 minutes between trains that left me just enough time to stop at a cash machine to procure some Euros and go to the next platform. Had I missed that train however, there was another in about a half hour. I found the stations to be very well signed in English and easy to navigate.
The Belgian tourist office had mailed a great free info packet which arrived within a few days (!) after I ordered it. Included was a map of Bruges. I would highly recommend using a compass as well to negotiate the narrow winding streets which may not be marked with street names as often as one might like! After getting off the train with my bags a kind gentleman helped me to find the correct bus (directly outside the station) which stopped near my B&B; after which I got hopelessly lost! Despite all of my carefully reseached info I was unprepared for the maze of streets which are Bruges. Some of the streets are what I would consider alleys or even footpaths from my frame of reference. Please don't get me wrong, that is exactly what ultimately charmed me the most about Bruges - but at the time, carrying my bags over the cobblestones, approaching and then passing 9 PM, being tired from overnight flight, etc...well you get the picture! After wandering about for half an hour I found a bar which was open and the barman very kindly helped me out. If I had it to do over I would have a) taken a taxi from the station, or b) taken the bus to Market Square and walked the 10 minutes from there. Anyway, when I walked into this bar there was a very drunken couple as the only other patrons. Not being a beer drinker I asked for a coke, and the woman started laughing at me, and saying something I couldn't understand to her partner. I was feeling pretty stressed out and that put me almost to the point of tears for some reason. But that nice young barman was SO kind and began to tell me about his trip to the US so that I felt much better after my inauspicious start. At some point the woman dissappeared for a long time into the toilet - my hope is that she was violently vomitting, as she was really drunk!
At the B&B I checked in and found the host helpful and friendly despite my late arrival. I hauled my bags up 5 flights of stairs of this lovely old building. Then I recieved my payoff. The view of the bell tower lit up at night framed in the window of my top story room...shocking in it's beauty it was a dramatic vision to walk into. The birds were settling in for the night making their little noises, the streets were deserted- just a beautiful moment in time. Took a long soak in the huge deep bathtub before turning in. Was staying at the Hotel Asiris, 50 E/night single ensuite - spotlessly clean, very recently updated, breakfasts with many choices.
Up early the next day for some reason, no jet lag at all that I could tell of. Set out walking, very quiet and peaceful, lovely late April weather, so many wonderful photo opportunities early morning and evenings without the crowds of tourist groups. First stop when things started opening for the day was the bell tower, where I bought the Museumkaart ticket, huge bargain at 15 E for 5 museums. Climbed the 266 steps to the top and treated to the views and the carrillon which was very impressive at such short range!
Next stop was Memling Museum at the old St. John's Hospital, which was in existance since the 13th century as a civic organization, becoming a religious order in the 16th century. The nuns wore the same style habits until the 1960s! Stopped at Our Lady's Church; incredibly peaceful with more artwork including a Michelangelo sculpture Madonna and Child that must be priceless and a most impressive carved wooden pulpit. The Groeninge Museum of Flemish art talks of different periods of art which I know nothing about. But decided I liked the 15th century art the best, before they really had a handle on the whole perspective thing. Many bizzare animal-monsters and devils, personifications of traits - I liked "Ignorance" as a jackass-man being killed! At the Gruuthouse Museum, a 17th century home, what impressed me the most was the kitchen. The hearth must be 15 feet wide, huge cauldron to heat water, many kitchen utensils and ceramics. Also an impressive silver and goldsmithing display. Most of these museums offer an audioguide with admission, so a real bargain. It seemed such a shame to have to cram in so many great museums in such a short time, could have easily stayed a week or more. In a general way what was most incredible for me was the architecture of course; it is truly a time capsule that makes it that much easier to imagine what life was like for people in the middle ages. Anyway, ended up stopping for a burger and fries of all things and went "home" to put my feet up for a while. Later in the evening walked over to a green as still light out at 9 PM, took some photos of some huge old-fashioned windmills. Still got a little lost at times, but much easier to figure things out with a map and compass by this point!
The next day I went on a tour of Flanders Fields wishing to know more about WWl history. Nathan, the tour guide was very personable, knowledgable, albeit maybe a bit disorganized. I chose this tour because of the emphasis on WWl and a stop included at the Ypres museum. It was a nice small group including an American couple, a British couple and their daughter and myself. We were picked up and dropped off at our lodgings. Ended up learning a lot and saw some beautiful countryside. Ypres was amazing, it had been leveled during the war and it only took the people 40 years to rebuild to what you would swear is original condition. The museum is housed in the Cloth Hall, there is a fantastic website by the way. What a time the Belgians had during the Great War and how resilient they must be after the centuries of wars and power changes. There were several other most interesting stops on the tour, but will spare the details for brevity's sake. Was dropped at lodgings about 6 PM, had a pancake supper supper and some cider, walked about a bit more. Caught 4 children with violins and a cello playing Pachelbel (? sp) in Burg Square, brought a tear to my eye! With the carriages clip-clopping by, the City Hall, Bruges is a very special corner of the world.
The next morning I hauled my bags to Market Square, caught a taxi (6 Euros) to the station and stored them (2.60 E) in a locker and bought a ticket to Amsterdam. Then walked back to Burg Sq. where I stopped at the Renaissance Hall where there is a gorgeousely carved wooden mantelpiece with 5 life-sized figures of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, King of Bruges (?Phillip), and his Hapsburg grandparents. The whole mantlepiece curves up extending to the ceiling. There is an inset carved alabaster section just above the fireplace that tell a Bible story (Judges). Also a cast iron backing, everything highly decorated beyond description. Stopped and bought small box of chocolates at Dumas (6E/250 gms). Began walking back toward train station with little detour to Minniewater Park. Went into the Beginuage, lovely naturalized daffodils in bloom thruout courtyard beneath huge trees, ancient stone buildings. Near there is a spot where the carriage horses stop for feed and water-grain in big leather feedbags, water trough has water running from the mouths of bronze horse heads. Caught the 2 PM train to Amsterdam. SO sorry for the too-long post, hope someone will read this and benefit from it. Many thanks to Amboseli and others' helpful pre-trip advise!