Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

In Bruges

Ever since I saw the movie In Bruges, I wanted to visit Bruges, Belgium. Then, when I found out my Norwegian son, Eirik (who was our exchange student in Albuquerque) was now living in Ghent, I knew I’d have to make the trip. Ghent and Bruges are on a direct railway line from Brussels Airport, so I could fly in there, take the train direct to Bruges, spend a few days there and then entrain back to Ghent, spend a few days there and reconnect with Eirik, then back to Brussels Airport and home. Piece of cake.

And so, before the weather got too bad to enjoy the lovely little town of Bruges, I was off once again. I’d even have an extra bonus in that my landlords, Robert and Marie Kortenhorst, who live in Dublin, would also be in Bruges with friends during the same weekend I’d be there, so I wouldn’t have to eat all my meals alone.

The weather was still pleasant in Budapest when I set out that late summer (or early fall) day. My flight left at the sane hour of noon on Thursday, so I wouldn’t have to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night. It was an easy two-hour flight courtesy of Brussels Airline and I was suddenly in Belgium. I followed the signs through the airport to the train station. I recalled I’d been in this train station once before, when an acquaintance of mine and I caught the TGV to Paris; 200 kilometers per hour and we were in Paris in about 90 minutes. Amazing. This time it would be a slower version, and we’d get to Bruges in about 90 minutes. No prob.

I bought my train ticket from a young woman at one of the ticket windows. I told her what I wanted and she asked me if I was over 65, thus earning my eternal gratitude. Seniors get a major discount on tickets here – 50%! Damn. Only cost me 11 euro to go from the Brussels airport to Bruges. Flattered and happy – a good start to my Belgian adventure.

So I arrived in Bruges around 5 PM, which was just the time I’d hoped for. Taxis were almost nonexistent at the train station, but I finally managed to share one with a French woman who insisted she was in the nonexistent queue before me. We pulled up to her hotel and she paid the driver the entire 10 euro fare, leaving me to settle up anything else. The driver then pulled around the corner and there was my hotel! The Hans Memling Hotel, named after one of Bruges’s most well-known painters. I never did have to pay any more for the taxi ride, a fair trade for having to put up with a French woman, even for so brief a time.

On the reception desk that day was Maxim, a young Brugesian (Brugesite? Brugesarian?) of the more voluble sort, who gave me more info about the city in four minutes than any guidebook. He clued me in to several great pubs and restaurants and I was ready to go. As always, I dumped my suitcase in my nice little room and was off to see the city.

“Bruges (in Dutch: Brugge) is a town in Flanders, which is the northern part of Belgium. It’s noted as a quite cosmopolitan and bourgeois place, given its compact size. It is also widely touted as one of the best preserved pre-motorized cities in Europe and offers the kind of charms rarely available elsewhere. Bruges is a postcard-perfect stop on any tour of Europe.”
Yes, all of this guidebook hype is true, but what the books and Internet don’t tell you about Bruges is that it is one of the most touristy towns you’ll ever visit. I suppose it was the movie that did it, but literally every row of businesses on every street in the town center consists of: souvenir shops, chocolate shop, chocolate shop, souvenir shop, tiny restaurant, chocolate shop, tiny pub, chocolate shop, souvenir shop. Etc., etc., etc. I hadn’t seen so much tourist tat since Hong Kong.

But Bruges more than makes up for all the tourist places with its amazing buildings, architecture, art, cobblestone streets, and all-around beautiful ambiance. And that late afternoon light has to be seen to be believed.

My hotel was two short blocks from the main square, and I popped out from my side street into the wonder that is Bruges’ Market (Markt) Square. Words hardly do it justice, so I’ll just post a pic or two and let you decide when you’ll plan your visit.

After staring at everything in awestruck amazement for a while, and taking pictures of everything in sight, from every angle, it was time to seek out some of Bruges’ best pubs, so I checked my map and sidled down another side street to The Burg Square, maybe another 50 meters. And across from this smaller but no less impressive square I found Delaney’s Irish pub, glistening in the early evening dew and beckoning me from afar. I felt myself drawn in and straight up to the bar, where I ordered dinner of fish and chips and had the favorite local beer, Bruges Zot (only 6% alcohol as compared to my second beer, Jupiler, at 5%).
Next stop was the famous Druid’s Cellar, back across Market Square. Down a few steps and festooned with every sort of funky decoration one could imagine, dimly-lit and atmospheric, this was definitely my kind of bar. Owner and bartender Drew from Newcastle, UK, welcomed me to his humble establishment with a Steen Brugge Blond beer, followed by another Jupiler. I engaged in light conversation with Robert and Willi, two students back from studying in Ghent, along with a young woman seated at the bar next to me. Friendly people in Bruges pubs. On the way out I stopped at the men’s room and found the urinal was actually a small tuba (called, I think, a euphonium). It actually made a strange sound when I bestowed my blessing upon it. Another unique experience.

I was feeling no pain as I wandered on to my next pub, the Le Trappiste bar, just across from my hotel. I read the chalkboard beer menu and realized I had to be careful in choosing my libations for what would probably be the rest of the night, as most of the beers in this place were 6-9% alcohol, with one as high as 10.5%.

I was chatting with my bar neighbors Simon and his wife when who should walk in but my Budapest friends and neighbors Robert and Marie, accompanied by their Irish friends Gabe and Eileen. We’d been exchanging texts all evening, so they knew where I was and tracked me down. The evening picked up from there. Simon and his wife stayed for a while, then when they left I spotted Robert and Willi across the bar; only in Bruges a few hours and already I had bar friends. Anyway, my party (except for me!) finally lost their battles with Bacchus and wandered off to their hotel. I stayed for a while and met a guy from Atlanta who sat down next to me. But finally enough was enough.
I seem to recall motivating up the stairs to the street to see if I could get into my hotel, which was literally just across the street from the bar. The Hans Memling is one of those hotels without a Receptionist after 8 PM, so to get into the hotel you are furnished with a code for a keypad on the front door. It only took me three tries after attempting to read the code on the card I was given, as after each attempt I spoke loudly and clearly into the keypad, “Open Sesame,” but to no avail. The third time I gave up and put my glasses on to ensure I had the correct code and suddenly, with a Star Trek whoosh, the door opened and I was in! I presume I got upstairs OK, as the next thing I remember it was early morning and breakfast was calling me.

Friday morning. I grabbed a quick and expensive breakfast at a small cafe near my hotel, then took the 30-minute canal boat tour to see what Bruges had to offer from a riparian viewpoint. We cruised in and out of several canals, listening to the Captain’s commentary and enjoying the cloudy and cool day. I only got splashed once by another boat going the opposite direction. It was another good start to what I hoped would be another good day.

Upon returning to our dock, I decided to do my self-guided walking tour that I’d found on the Net. Setting out from Market Square, I strolled through Burg Square and up and down streets near the canals I’d just seen on my boat tour. Lots of fascinating neighborhoods in Bruges, quaint, picturesque, charming and a few other adjectives one might throw into the mix. I finally found myself down at the Halvemann Brewery, where I had a hearty lunch of Flemish Stew (tender beef cooked for several hours in a dark brown beer sauce), Belgian fries and Belgian beer.

I considered the brewery tour, but, having been on so many in the past, decided not to go this time, especially as the tour included climbing more than 100 steps to the top of the building. My one “free” beer at the end of the tour wasn’t worth that much effort. So I took my time and strolled casually back toward Market Square, checking out side streets, interesting buildings and courtyards and generally taking it easy as I explored different parts of Bruges.

By this time I’d realized Bruges was quite a bit more expensive than I’d thought it would be. Probably double Budapest prices in too many areas, other than, at first glance, beer. Only 4 euro or so for a standard beer. But a look at the standard beer glass revealed it was only 0.33L, not even a full half liter. Another rip-off, although one must consider that with most of the beers having an alcohol content well above 6%, maybe the smaller sizes weren’t so bad after all.

On the way back to my hotel, I noticed a restaurant/bar across the street that advertised “live music.” I wanted to make a reservation for that night, but was told they only had the live music on Sundays; plus, of course, the restaurant was fully booked for that night anyway. Sigh.
I met up with my friends at their B&B around six-ish and we all went over to the Druid’s Cellar for a pre-dinner drink. Drew was happy to see us and poured us all some of that good Belgian beer for our refreshment. We wandered around nearby looking for a likely restaurant that still had a table open, which was rather difficult to find, until we came to the end of St. Armindstraat to the Brugge-Link Tea Room, which happened to have a table for five just inside the front door. Eileen squeezed in front of another group of five Swedes and grabbed the table. I decided it was time for another of the Five Main Things one must eat and drink in Belgium: Mussels! Starting with an appetizer of escargot, I then had a pot of at least 75 of the little shelled beauties, along with fries and beer.

We staggered away down the street again, finding a local band playing Irish music and songs in front of the Druid’s Cellar, and listened to them for a while. Everyone else finally took off for their flat and I decided one more visit to Le Trappiste Bar was in order. It was heaving, as is apparently the case most nights. I climbed up on the only stool left at the bar, luckily next to a lovely young blonde woman, who turned out to be – are you ready for this? From St. Louis, Missouri (my long-ago birthplace in the US), a CPA working as an external auditor for a large accounting firm (I was an internal auditor for many years) and had recently been transferred to Amsterdam as an expat. We had a brief but intense chat and I gave her my business card, hoping maybe she’ll turn up in Budapest someday. One never knows, do one?

Saturday morning I tried the hotel’s buffet Continental breakfast and, for 9.50 euro (around $12 US), it was anything but a value. More ways to gouge the tourists. Anyway, I went looking for the weekend flea market and found exactly nothing. I really like those Saturday flea markets and was disappointed, to say the least. I thought there might be some bargains there. I did finally chance upon a mini-flea market along one of the canals, but it was pretty sparse and failed to yield up any gifts of note.

I stopped in briefly at the Friet Museum (Fries Museum!) and considered a tour to learn the difference between Belgian and French fries, but at 7 euro per head, decided I could just ask someone on the street (which, by the way, I did; it turns out French fires are fried once and Belgian fries are fried twice, a process which apparently results in some pretty nasty aftereffects, so best to stay away from the Belgian brand).

A little more wandering and exploring and it started to rain just lightly, but since it was lunchtime, I stopped in at a small Italian place for some spaghetti and vino. Hey! Comfort food! As I sat slurping up my pasta, the skies opened up and there was a thunderstorm outside, lasting at least 20 minutes. Good thing I was warm and cozy with my wine.

I headed out when the rain let up and explored a touch more, but it turned out there really wasn’t all that much to see in Bruges besides the main square and its immediate surrounding areas. I caught a few Zs in preparation for what I hoped would be another fun night out. Around six PM or so I headed back to Delaney’s and learned they had a live band that night; not Irish music, but what the heck. I sat at the bar with my newfound fantastic Belgian beers and talked with bar neighbors Simon and Paula from the UK. My group showed up around 10, which was when the music was to start.

The band was, to say the least, anticlimactic, as it was too loud and played lots of songs I’d never heard. Another beer or two and I was ready to make it an early night, so I headed back to my hotel around midnight. A good night but not a great one.

Sunday was checkout day in Bruges, so, after another unsatisfying breakfast at my hotel, I took a taxi to the train station around 10:30 AM and caught the next train to Ghent at 11, arriving around 11:30 (Hey! It’s only 40 kilometers away!).


So it was upward and onward to the next major stop down the rail line: Ghent. As often happens, a place I choose to visit as sort of a secondary stop turns out to be much better than anticipated. My primary reason for visiting Ghent was to connect again with Eirik, our Norwegian exchange student when Morgan and I lived in Albuquerque. He’d visited me in Budapest a couple of times and I’d visited him in Oslo some years back, but it had been quite a few years since we’d been in the same city and it would be good to see him again. Actually, I had visited Sandnes, Norway, the previous year, which is where Eirik was from, even though he himself hadn’t been back for at least 15 years, after he’d moved to Oslo.

I called Eirik and he came to meet me at the station. We took a tram to the downtown area near the three major cathedrals and the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers, both of which are pretty small. Eirik took me for lunch to one of his favorite places, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a funky little bar and restaurant right on the river, across from Gravensteen Castle. We sat in the bar area and had some great little snacks: cheese, sausage and liver pate, accompanied (for me, anyway) by a Klokke Roland beer. A really tasty amber beer, cold and refreshing, light and just right on a cool afternoon overlooking the Scheldt River. Of course, it was 11% alcohol, and the menu firmly stated there was a limit of three per customer. After drinking one, I could understand why; three would have put me on the floor.
As it was then around 3 PM, my hotel’s check-in time, Eirik walked me over to The House of Edward, a couple of blocks from the Vrijdag Markt square, another large open space ringed by restaurants and bars. I’d be visiting some of them later. When we reached the hotel, wonder of wonders, my pre-sent access code worked just fine and the outer door opened to admit us. My room was on what the hotel referred to as the Ground Floor, even though it was one flight up. I wondered what the bottom floor was called.
Even though there is no reception desk at this hotel, the day man, Frank, was on hand to help out if I needed anything. My door code also accessed my room, which meant all was in working order; based on my past encounters with high technology, I was just waiting for something to go wrong. My room was big and airy and light, with four almost-floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking lot of Edward Anseeleplein Square. A large queen-size bed took up a lot of room, covered with a thick, soft duvet. A medium-size round table, a small round table and two chairs completed the furniture, along with a flat-screen TV on the wall. Minimalism run amok.

The far wall opposite the bed was a long, black wall with no decoration. I found out why when I noticed the handles on the “wall,” which were attached to doors that opened up into several stalls for toilet, shelves, kitchen and shower. Very modern, convenient and efficient. The bathroom sink was to one side of the wall, right in front of one of the windows. The only way to achieve privacy was to pull down all of the blinds, which also sank the room into a sort of semi-dusk. But it was fun and different and interesting and I loved it.
Eirik took off and left me to my own devices. I unpacked quickly and went out for an orientation stroll. My first stop along the river was a cart selling Belgian waffles, which I quickly ordered – with chocolate sauce, natch. A light rain started to fall, so I hurried back to my hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Eirik called to meet him and his partner Veroniek at the Keizershof Restaurant in Vrijdagmarkt at 7 PM. We all arrived at the same time, to find out the restaurant was closed on Sunday night. Veroniek then took us across the river to the Patershol area and a long street filled with eating places. Most of them were fully booked, but we finally found a place that had a few seats left for us: t’Konninghuis. We chatted and drank some local wine and had dinner (I had the Wagyu burger along with an appetizer of Monks Balls – don’t ask! - and fried onion rings). It was a good, cozy evening, getting reacquainted and being brought up-to-date with Eirik and learning a little bit about his lovely partner Veroniek. Since they both had to work the next day, it was another fairly early night, although we did stop briefly on the way back at the really tiny local bar called Velohe, notable for its cramped interior due to all the old bicycles hanging from the ceiling.

Even with the blinds pulled down all the way, the early-morning light woke me up around 7 AM. I stretched and opened one eye first, then finally rolled out of that soft, soft bed and padded across the light blond wood floor to the first enclosed stall in my black wall. Soon thereafter, my morning ablutions complete, I headed out to see what I could see of Ghent.

First things first: breakfast! I crossed the river again and walked down the Patershol area toward the main part of town. I found a small café, t’verschli, in the Graslei district, near the river, serving various sizes and styles of morning meals. I chose the Americano breakfast, consisting of hot tea, OJ, and cheese and bacon on top of a Belgian waffle. Hmm, interesting. It turned out to be pretty good after all, and the thick waffle would definitely hold me until lunchtime. Plus, a touch of nostalgia: the waitress was wearing one of those old-time coin changers that American bus conductors used to have back in the 1950s, with which she made hard change as needed. How great is that?!
Then it was off again, down past the cathedrals and on into the university quarter, where I hoped to track down the university store and some of those T-shirts my daughter loves to have. Did I find them? Ask my daughter around Xmas time. A nice walk nonetheless. Back again to discover other interesting parts of Ghent of which, admittedly, there weren’t many. But the main part of town was old and interesting, with lots of baroque buildings and unique architecture. While many of the buildings had been cleaned and undergone minor renovations, most of them had been left in their original state, covered with the soot and grime of 8-9 centuries. Lots of character. I did manage to stop in at St. Bavo’s cathedral to see Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one panel of which is still missing from WWII.

Once again in the Groentenmarkt area by the river Scheldt, it seemed a boat tour of the rivers and canals was in order. I was drawn in when I noticed the standard price for an adult was 7 euro, but seniors got a significant discount to 6.50 euro; such a deal! I soon realized the deal was so good because the tour, lasting 40 minutes, wasn’t anything to write home about. Really, all there is to Ghent is the downtown area around the meeting of the two rivers, the three large cathedrals and another square or two, but at least it’s nowhere near as touristy as Bruges. In fact, there was actually a dearth of souvenir shops and only a very few chocolate shops. A nice change from the in-your-face tourist feeling of Bruges. It was actually difficult to find any souvenirs in Ghent!
After my brief boat tour, I craved a cold drink, so stopped at the small Galgenhuis for refreshments, when who should come upon the scene but Robert and Marie and Gabe and Eileen. They’d just arrived on the train from Bruges and had taken the tram into town and were looking for lunch before their brief walk around town, after which they’d catch the train to Brussels Airport and home to Dublin. Another small world story.

Anyway, Galgenhuis was a snacks-only place, so Eileen marched us all off to a nearby real restaurant called Godot (I’ll skip the obvious jokes that I know you were waiting for). It was a touch pricey, but quite good; I had the seafood linguini, which was wonderful and chock full of seafood. An Orval beer was the crowning touch.

The group then hurried off to see what they could in the time they had remaining, and I went off to find my by-now-standard afternoon siesta. Evening saw me on a pub crawl of places I’d found on the internet and also ones recommended by Eirik and Veroniek. First off was Dulle Griet on the Vrijdagmarkt Square. This bar serves a special beer in one of those half-yards-of-beer tall test tube beakers, set into a wooden stand with handle. Apparently, many customers in past times made off with these “souvenirs,” so, to keep them from disappearing, anyone ordering one had to give up one shoe, which is placed in a basket and hauled to the ceiling. Return the empty glass and holder and get your shoe back. Cool.

My hiking boots were too awkward to tie and untie, so I passed on this beer, but did have a local Dulle Griet Blonde, which was just as yummy. Next up was the Trollenkelder (Troll Cellar), where I also had some cheese and sausage snacks along with my Jupiler beer. The oldest bar in Ghent was calling me, so I strolled through a light rain over to Den Turk, which had been there since 1228 CE. Their menu said “Jazz – Blues” which, to any normal bar habitué, implies live music. Nothing of the sort; it was all piped in recorded music. I really am getting tired of the false advertising I find in bars like this, that offer something to draw in the customers and then fail to deliver.
I returned to The House of Edward to relax and watch some TV news. It was, as usual, all bad, but I was entertained mightily by the ads for catheters. I watched the main ad guy absolutely beam over his choice of wonderful men’s catheters on offer from his company. I slept the sleep of the fully satisfied.

Tuesday morning I was out at 9 AM again, back to t’verschli for a bigger breakfast of croissant, OJ, tea, ham and cheese and a semi-hard-boiled egg – served in an egg cup! Been a while since I’d seen one of those. I took a few photos from St. Michael’s Bridge then walked over to Gravensteen Castle to see if it was worth the 8 euro (discounted to 7.50 euro for seniors). I did the tour, which wasn’t too bad, although I did have to climb all the way to the top up those narrow internal spiral staircases. Another walk around the area to check out the Missy Sippy Blues Club (once again, live music only once a month or so) and to indulge an afternoon snack of one of those yummy Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce. Way too good!

I met up with Eirik again Tuesday evening, although Veroniek had to work and couldn’t make it this time (she’s a psychologist, so her working hours have to correspond with her patients’ off-work hours). We finally had a meal at Keizershof Brasserie. I chose the meatballs with salad, fries and a Tongerlo beer. It was a nice night, cool and cloudy but without rain, and after dinner we walked back over to Velohe to see if the local crowd had shown up again. I guess Tuesday wasn’t their night, as it was pretty empty, but we did have a couple of beers to celebrate anyway.
Wednesday, October 4, was my last full day in Belgium and, since my plane didn’t leave until 9 PM, I had virtually the entire day to do and see anything I hadn’t already done and seen. Turned out there wasn’t really much. So I slept in until 10 AM or so, abluted and went looking for brunch. A steak sounded really good about that time, so I had my almost-midday meal at Brasserie Borluut, near St. Michael’s Bridge. Along with the ubiquitous Belgian fries, very nice. I walked around for a while dragging my small carry-on suitcase, but there really wasn’t anything else I wanted or needed to see.
So, around 2 PM I headed to the train station and caught a later train for Brussels Airport, arriving around 4 PM. Still five hours until my flight. But since I was with Brussels Air, part of the Lufthansa team, I could check in early, which I did. Thus having access to the airport shops and restaurants, I checked out the clothing and souvenir shops, stopped to see if the book stores had anything I needed, and finally had dinner at one of the small cafes near my gate. Read my book until flight time, and then it was off to Budapest, arriving around 10:45 PM. Hustled out to the airport bus and home by 11:30. Piece of cake.

Another fun travel adventure to be immortalized in this blog. No immediate plans for a next trip, but I can only hope it will be somewhere worthwhile and interesting. I’ll do my best. Until then, “Hasta la vista, Baby!”