Day 9 - Team Beck in Bruges (and Dunkirk, so not a movie)
Team Beck had originally planned to drive from Hardelot through Bruges to Amsterdam on Saturday 19 August, but thanks to previously unforeseen levels of complication with dropping off the rental car in another country (grmph – EU my foot) we decided rather to drive to Bruges on Friday and return to Hardelot via Dunkirk. We had heard so much about what a pretty town it is, and some of us had seen the film In Bruges with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, but frankly hadn’t remembered much other than what a lovely place it looked to visit.
For background on how we got to Day 9 (intact), have a look at the posts listed at the end of this article.
Team Beck flips out at the borderless border crossing
Hey, we’re from Africa. We’re not used to a border crossing being anything less than a Nollywood production, with stacks of papers needed for all people and equipment in the car, and the car needing more papers than the people just so it can put its tires onto foreign soil on the off chance it might commit some car sin, like getting hit by another car.
Humans must be herded through multiple lines on each side of the border, once to get out and once to get in, and their papers (of which there are usually many, with the same information recorded in quadruplicate) must be stamped – hard, by officious, passive aggressive clerks – using stamps that long ago forgot what wet ink felt like. One wrong move at an African border crossing and you’re toast, doomed to hours of purgatory and recycling between form stages.
Okay, it’s possible I might be exaggerating just a bit, as for what it’s worth, the only time I’ve ever had difficulty crossing land borders in Southern Africa – and I’ve crossed most of them – was when travelling with an important World Bank person who made the mistake of showing impatience and pointing out her passport was diplomatic, as befits an important World Bank person. I ended up with hours in a back room, a hefty fine and a cancelled residence permit thanks to that helpful intervention.
So perhaps I digress, but suffice it to say we were not prepared for a sign on the highway basically saying “you’re in Belgium now”. How anticlimactic. And delicious. We thought this Europe thing was pretty cool.
Team Beck hits the tourism information centre
Total pros at this tourism thing now, we Google mapped our way to a decent parking spot not far from the Tourism Information Centre, convinced the parking meter (which as I recall had instructions in Flemish) to give us two and a half hours of parking, which would take us to about 3:00 in the afternoon. @tim-beck Google searched the Information Centre so we’d know where to go, while I admired the huge, two-storey lighting shop window across the narrow cobblestone street from us, with its modern and traditional light fixtures displayed to great advantage. We set off down the street, armed with Madame Google to tell us how to get where we were going, passing beautiful flower boxes (one I particularly noticed had a profusion of delicate white flowers dancing in the breeze) adorning the houses and shops lining the street.
Here's an idea of what those streets look like - three-storey buildings built close to the street, a mix of residential and commercial.
Reinforcing my heritage at the Molenbrug
A couple of blocks’ stroll got us to the Molenbrug ("Mill Bridge"), where I learned my ancestors the ververs had plied their dying trade (my last name is Dyer, and few believe me when I say my ancestors must have been into textiles; maybe this will finally convince them).
Bruges is really good at telling you in multiple languages the history of what you're seeing. That signboard is on the middle of the Mill Bridge.
In this case I was far more interested in the fact it was talking about Dyers - my ancestors! Now I know my name is Ververs in Flemish. Or Dutch. Or something. 😜
By this time, we realised the streets were quite a maze. Clever us – thanks to Madame Google, we had total confidence in where we were going, but wouldn’t necessarily remember where we’d come from. We pinned our location in WhatsApp and shared it within Team Beck. Now we wouldn’t get lost on the way back!
We got good info at the Tourism Information Centre
Given that we had only a couple of hours and had learned from the near-starvation trauma experienced earlier in the week that it’s wiser to feed all Team Beck members between breakfast and dinner, regardless of how late breakfast has been consumed, we asked the ultra-professional yet down to earth, sweet young woman behind the counter for two specific recommendations – where to find a good, affordable Belgian lunch nearby, and what to do in Bruges in under two hours, minus said lunch time. Oh, we want to see beautiful bridges, we added.
Her recommendation: walk around, see the beautiful sights, if you’ve seen the movie I suggest you go here, here and here, she said, expertly circling spots on a handy “In Bruges” map of where Colin and Brendan played out their hapless hit man tale, and here’s a restaurant I go to on Fridays which isn’t too expensive. They usually serve fish on Fridays, she added.
They really have maps showing where “In Bruges” scenes took place! You can probably even do a tour, if you have more than two hours, and don't need lunch.
So yes, lunch. It turned out the hotel was not a tiny, local hole in the wall, but a strategically placed international chain.
We selected our spot on the outside terrasse just off Castle Square, ordered our set meal (delicious carrot soup and, yes, fish for the main course) at a most reasonable price, which motivated us to add some local beer and wine to wash down the food. The waiter brought us bread in a little paper bag, a new experience for us.
Some delicious fish with a velvety sauce the waiter said was made with pickles. My Moulinex has an attitude which keeps it from making sauces that smooth.
The tables all had these simple but lovely decorations.
A Belgian beer, downed.
Red wine is good for the heart, they say.
From this spot we watched the horse-drawn carriages clop-clop past us, carrying tourists from around the world on more formal tours of Bruges while we enjoyed the delicious meal.
Walking tour of Bruges
Now adequately fortified, we set out to walk the streets of Bruges. Here are a few photos from our short but most enjoyable walk.
Castle Square, I think
This link gives you a good idea what everything actually is. We just walked around and took photos of things we thought were beautiful, which turned out to be pretty much everything.
This is the Town Hall.
Emma and me in front of The Chambers.
Worth another shot, because the building is so beautiful.
The canals and bridges
I mentioned horse-drawn carriages - they move at quite a clip. Apologies to the horse for cutting off his face.
Some stunning details
This town was a treasure trove of details. Here's a small sample.
Have a closer look at the top of that building across the canal.
...our coach was about to turn into a pumpkin
We checked our watches. Five minutes to 3:00! Quick! Who knows what these Belgian authorities will do to tourists who overstay their parking meter welcome? Team Beck’s risk management sub-committee wasn’t willing to contemplate this.
We were so glad we’d pinned our location in WhatsApp. Girded by Google Maps and cheap data, we hotfooted it back to where we’d parked our car, storming past an impressive two-storey lighting shop window on our right, then some lovely flower boxes, one with a profusion of delicate white flowers swaying gently in the breeze, on our left.
When we got to the Molenbrug, it dawned on us that we’d walked straight past the car, which was parked between that lighting store and the pretty windowbox. Technology is no stand-in for thinking!
Next stop – Dunkirk, or Dunkerque, or Dunquerque, or….
Really, we English speaking people spell it really wrong. It's a French name.
We headed back to France on the same highway we’d come in on, this time completely missing the sign saying “Bienvenue en France” or whatever it says – we don’t know, because we never saw it. The border crossing is that innocuous.
The Tourist Information Centre
But you knew that by now.
We stopped at this extraordinary Tourist Information Centre, housed in an old belfry, of all things, across from a lovely cathedral, and picked up some essential info on what to do in Dunkirk.
It's in a belfry, no joke.
The Tourist Information Centre sits across a square from a beautiful cathedral.
This is a detail from the entrance to the cathedral
And this, oddly, is basil growing in glassed-over recess in the sidewalk in front of the Tourist Information Centre. I have no explanation.
We headed towards the beach. @tim-beck and I had prepped for this by watching the recently-released movie of the same name, so I’ll admit I was expecting romantic, narrow, cobblestoned streets not unlike those in Bruges.
There’s a spectacular inner harbour area, which has clearly been the object of significant investment, and what looked like a good museum to give us an overview of the events of late May and early June 1940 (see links here, here and here to get perspective on the evacuation – but do yourself a favour, if you haven’t seen the film, do go and see it).
A tall ship in the refurbished harbour.
Emma and me in front of the tall ship
We arrived half an hour before closing of the museum, so opted instead to head to the museum at the bunker at the edge of town. The exhibits there are pretty tired, so we decided to head up to the top of the bunker, where we’d been assured we’d get spectacular views of the beach and be able to imagine for ourselves the landing of the hundreds of little British civilian craft.
The access was closed for the night. So much for that. We tried walking around the dunes to get to a proper vantage point, but every dune we mounted had another dune in front. Finally, in disappointment, we decided to head back into town and at least see the famous beach there.
The beach in town
Perhaps it was just where we parked, but the stretch of beach we found when we walked past the nondescript, rather seedy 1960s/70s buildings between the parking lot and the sea reminded me more of New Jersey than anywhere in Europe.
The beach itself is spectacular.
The wind was howling, scouring us with fine beach sand, and Team Beck rapidly reached consensus that this was unpleasant, and we’d rather be in Hardelot.
Return to base and dinner
Back to Hardelot we drove. Dinner was an odd French tapas (read bar food) combo with cheese at the bar area of our hotel, as we were too pooped to try to go out to dinner. No photos of food here, just some interesting chats with our charming waiter Benoit, who was delighted we remembered the words please and thank you, which he insisted were gone from the vocabulary of other guests. Our day ended with us at least hoping we’d done well for South African tourists who would follow us.
Other posts to date on our trip:
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