It was time for a day trip. We have four days in Brussels, and while there is plenty to see here everyone raves about Bruges. We had bought our ticket the other day, so we picked the train we wanted to catch - as a commuter trip there were no reservations - and made to the station in good time. As the train rolled into the station, we discovered an issue: the carriages were packed. The doors opened, a few people exited, but there was basically no space. Every aisle was filled with people standing, and the entryway was a melange of bodies and baggage. Not far from an Indian commuter's ride, from what I know.
We squeezed on, mostly because we'd wandered to the very end of the platform while most crowded by the front. Others couldn't make it. Bear in mind that this is an intercity route - over an hour at the very least. Not a three minute subway ride before a big transfer station. We stood awkwardly in the throng for the eighty minute trip. It wasn't entirely awful, but I certainly wasn't expecting it. Oddly enough, I felt vaguely motion sick, something that doesn't normally affect me, mostly because I couldn't see too much out the windows which helps anchor your balance.
All that was forgotten when we emerged in Bruges. It was another brilliant day, with clear skies and a balmy twenty-seven degrees. The station there is very modern and cool, but once you exit into the open air and cross the road, you immediately feel like you've travelled back in time. Cobblestones, long winding canals, ancient buildings from the 1300s and horse-drawn carriages. We strolled for five minutes and wandered into an old, but still occupied, monastery. The church bells rang, and inside the nuns slowly, silently, walked towards their positions at the altar. Outside, white-painted cottages hemmed a beautiful, wild park.
We strode on over a canal, past countless historic houses and shops, and a cathedral. After a while, though, it started to become a bit surreal. It was kind of like walking around in Disneyland. You began to wonder if it was actually real. Do people still live here, or is it all just a front? Where are the shops people need; a pharmacy, a supermarket, a doctor's surgery?The place was overrun with tourists, at least at the big sights. On the fringes you could grab moments of time alone, in a quiet street, but the same can be said of a theme park too.
I had spotted something on the map I thought Sam might like: a museum about the history of chocolate. Needless to say, he just about flipped. The four storey complex walked through in surprising depth the Aztec and Mayan histories, with pottery and other relics that demonstrated their fascination with the substance. It then charted its introduction into Europe as an elite, exclusive drink of the proletariat and its gradual trickle down into the commoners' hands as manufacturing methods improved. To cap it off, the place was an actual chocolate factory, and we watched a worker make praline-filled shells in a live demonstration. She handed out samples on the way out. Sam bought an "I love Bruges chocolate" t-shirt, or something similar.
We had eyed a 4:35pm train for the return trip, with a 5pm option as a backup, just in case what happened on the out way happened on the way in. With an hour until it left, we decided to attempt the belfry climb for a view of the town. It's 366 steps, but despite the normal 'steep climb, no people with heart problems' warnings, we figured they were being typically overcautious. Not so. We've climbed a fair few cathedrals, spires and towers in our time, but this was the most difficult. Tall steps, tight and winding staircase, few handrails and fewer landings. When people were coming down, you had to squish against the wall to let them past. We staggered onto the top to admire the view, which, honestly, didn't dispel the Disneyland feel. And then we realised we were up a tower in the centre of town at 4:05pm.
Down we flew, twirling around the staircase in a flurry of downward momentum. Several hundred steps in five minutes. Out into the plaza, full of prams, buses and tourists. Hard to move with pace in a crowd like that.Through tiny, weaving streets and no straight lines. It was inevitable. We were going to miss it. Fifteen minutes and an entire highway to travel. We had the backup, but still, if that was full, we had no options until late at night. Down to a roundabout with five minutes left, but to pass under it we actually needed to head the opposite direction to get to a pedestrian underpass.
Two minutes, and we were at the front of the station - could we still make it? What platform? We ran through the throng of people and up the escalator. The train was still there. Leaping onto the carriage, we threw down our bags and exhaled. "Brussels?" I asked of the crowd of people in the entryway, and to our relief, they nodded. It would have been too bad if we'd been wrong, for the train was already moving. Fifteen minutes and one station later, our crouched positions against the door were upgraded to actual seats for the first time that day.
It's strange to look back on. We spent maybe five or six hours in Bruges, and it was an impossibly picturesque, historic, quintessentially European town. However, it also felt utterly disconnected from the world, existing in some sort of parallel tourist reality of lace shops, boat tours and chocolatiers. When we visited Strasbourg, admittedly a larger town, it felt like we got a taste of the lives of the people that lived there. Bruges, for all its charms, felt oddly soulless. There was no culture underpinning it, no accessible community.
During dinner, in which Sam relented and let us sit outside in the beautiful evening for the first time of the trip, I was hyperaware of the way people attempt to frame they way the world sees them. But, hey, if everyone agrees the emperor is wearing clothes, then what harm is done? Sometimes, shared avoidance of a mutually known truth is easier than facing it head-on. Bruges might not be a real place in any substantive sense, but if you choose to accept that, it's quite a town.