Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dark Travails: In the Chocolatiers Guild

Location: Bruges, Belgium
Duck Organization: Maverick Warlords

April 23

Dawn sees us up and at the proverbial “em,” at least to the degree that the shambling dead could be described as such. We have a two-stage train to Bruges leaving from Gare du Nord, and it would surely disappoint the Gods of Punctuality if we were, you know, late. That fantastical metaphor works both ways, really.

Train #1 to Brussels is just peachy, though due to a slight delay our platform-hopping changeover in Brussels is a bit more hurried than we would like. To make matters less bon, our InterCity train to Bruges has been severely overbooked. You know the kind of overcrowding when you start praying for a new Black Plague? I mean, I would say that I was so frustrated that I pantomimed punting a four-year old child off the train, gleefully chortling as he went spinning into a chocolate windmill or something (which I did, indeed, mime), but honestly it doesn’t take a whole hell of a lot to drive me to that point. Anyway, we are forced to stand for most of the hour-long ride that we (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) paid through the nose for in a train car brimming with snot-nosed, apple-throwing toddlers and teetering old ladies in equal measure, designed with such sublime disdain that baggage storage is a children’s prank gone awry, leaving me to straggle my backpack the entire way. This city had damned well better be worth it.

And boy-Belgian-howdy, is it ever. To fully understand the Sherlock-Holmes-esque, D&D-riffic nature of Bruges, you have to know its history. Way back in the day, Bruges was the capital of Flanders, and a very powerful trading city dealing with chocolate, fine fabrics, and other luxury goods (they just barely missed out on the slave trade, but I’m sure it would have been all the rage… better luck next time, guys). However, at the peak of its popularity, two disasters struck. First, there was an untimely death in the ruling family. I don’t have information on how exactly it happened, so I choose to believe the royal in question was beaten and hanged by a brutally vengeful and rather politically-active Cheshire cat, who tried to make the whole thing look like a suicide but failed, generally incensing the local populace in the process. Second, the harbor silted up. I’m not sure exactly what this means. I mean, I know it means that the harbor was filled up with sand and shit, making it unusable, but I’m far too poor and oceanographer to understand how that actually happens. Does the harbor just wake up one day and go, “being water sucks, I want to be mud now”? At any rate, usable harbor now becomes screwy harbor. So, people are now both sad and poor (surely two conditions never found side by side anywhere else in human history), and the town goes into ruin.

As such, Bruges never got touched by anything after, say, the 15th century. I mean, not really. The entire place looks almost like it must have then, except for the electric lights, modern plumbing, and automated green-laser defenses (it’s an Imperial city, if you want red Rebel lasers, haul your ass somewhere else). The irrepressible quaintness of the place eventually drew visitors, who showered the locals with bundles of fat cat foreign cash and demands for “authentic” and “historical” crap that everyone was only too happy to provide. Thus, the modern city of Bruges is born.

Say what you will about the touristy-ness, which is, inarguably, intense, this town is gorgeous. Starting about 45 seconds after we walk out of the train station, Mom and I are agape at the sheer pleasantness of the place, all pretty cobblestones and pretty trees and pretty churches and pretty people and pretty horses and PRETTY! PRETTY! In Bruges, if the pretty don’t fit, you lose your shit.

Our hostel, the Lybeer, is really very nice, built high and tight in the local land-is-a-precious-commodity custom. We hang there just long enough for a phone call from Jen and analysis of local sights/eateries, then we’re out, seeking lunch as oh-so-many Americans do. Lunch is an excellent three-course at a local café, sautéed hake washed down by Hoegardden (oh Jake Goldman, oh Jake… the Hoegardden). It’s freakin’ delicious and we enjoy a pleasant hour and a half there.

After that it’s the wandering ticket for us, just kind of soaking things and up and getting the lay of the land. We wander - crossing canal and dell - all the way up to the Markt (not a misspelling), the central square of the city, which is dominated by one huge friggin’ belfry and more of the same. Oh, there was a stop for delicious Belgian chocolate in there, as one might expect. I’m just thrilled with it, one amazing taste sensation after another, although Mom is not (she prefers solid chocolate to all this fancy stuff). Take my word for it, Hershey is just as full of crap as Disney, Sesame Street, and Tinkerbell; this Belgian stuff is good. It melts in your mouth the way a perfectly cooked steak would, if it were made of delicious chocolate.

We’re baffled at one point by a church of awesomeness (another Our Lady church), which all signs assure us it open but to which we are unable to find an open door. Conclusion: try again tomorrow.

By this time we’re worked off lunch and want to try some dinner. Consulting our quite knowledgeable hostel workers, we find a restaurant called The Hobbit, reputed to have excellent ribs. ….ribs. I haven’t had ribs since September. And I have needs. This place is just as good as they say, a wood-sheathed bung-and-barrel type bar and restaurant decorated in light neo-Lord of the Rings. The ribs are all you can eat, peppery and served with several dipping sauces. I go for local beers, Bruges Zot and Kreffe (not sure about the spelling there), which are both excellent, if very different. We’re there until the place starts to close, me having rocked through four and a half servings of ribs, much to the - I suppose - annoyance of our waiter.

After that we’ve got a little walk around, just enjoying the perfect nighttime weather, talking, and such. As a city primarily populated by the elderly segment of tourists, at this time of night it might as well be a ghost town. So much so, in fact, that the most we notice any form of life was a single duck paddling his way down the very center of a large canal, as if to declare himself the alpha duck and challenge all web-footed comers to a mighty, quackish battle royale.

The last episode for the day is a bit of an unusual one. You see, our hostel does not have 24-hour reception, and to ensure that guests can come and go as they please the employees provided us with a 4-digit code to punch into a security panel on the door if we come back too late. This is an important thing, so naturally we forgot about it as soon as we checked in, and certainly did not bring the slip of paper with us when we went walking. So imagine our consternation when we arrive back at the hostel after midnight, happy and exhausted, and discover that we can’t get into our room. The scene that unfolded was pretty hilarious, really. We tried everything from rattling the door to trying various combinations of numbers to throwing rocks at the windows to wake up guests who might be inside, to no avail. I thought that I might have remembered the code from glancing at the sheet once, but it was not to be. After about half an hour we’re starting to wonder if we need to sleep in a park or something, or perhaps vainly try to find another open hotel and pay for that for the night. As often happens, though, we were saved by the college student’s first dictum: When in doubt, trust the person in charge of the booze. In this case, the bartender at the Napoleon Bar, right down the street. When Mom questioned her, she new the code to the hostel right off the top of her head (and probably to other hostels as well). So, never let it be said that bartenders never saved anyone’s ass. It’s just not true.

April 24

Navigating in Bruges is almost painfully easy. As a port city constructed around a system of canals, one might fear that it would suffer the same nightmare-inducing rat-maze effect that Venice does (NOTE: neither Bruges nor Venice employs municipal workers who actually dispense cheese upon successfully leaving… must fix that), but Belgian city planners apparently lack the Venetian love of dead ends. Plus, the city’s normally low skyline is dominated by three enormous spires, two of them belonging to churches and the third being the town belfry, and one is never far from a vantage point in which two, if not all three of these towers are visible, allowing for very simple landmark navigation. It’s the same principal that Orthanc and Barad-dur were going for, but they placed their towers too far apart and substituted cute Belgian canals with rivers of elvish blood, so it didn’t work as well.

This is our only full day in Bruges, so we have to make it count. We’re out relatively early, but not so much to hurt the brain. Our first stop is the “Our Lady” church that had foiled us so handily yesterday. This time around we manage to find the entrance in short order, applying the time-tested heuristic of ‘follow the old people who paid for the guided tour.’ The church is quite neat, especially since it’s been partially turned into a museum. Most European churches end up being museums of a sort by default, but the actual effort to collect stuff there adds a little zip. The piece de resistance is Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child,” his most famous statue that you couldn’t pick out of a line-up. It’s neat, and we go for the accustomed photo-op, though after a bit of internal wrestling I decide not to flip this one off (I’ve already hit 3 or 4 of Michelangelo’s works, and there’s only so much you can give the bird to one guy’s stuff before it just gets trite).

Next stop is the belfry, which is notable both for being tall and having many stairs, two facts that I’m told are linked by something called the laws of physics. This is one of those really cool center-of-town towers built for the local duke or whatever to be able to address his minions in grandeur as they huddle in the town square wondering what basic human rights he’ll be taking from them today. It contains 366 steps to the top, which I tried to reason out into some sort of ‘days of the year’ symbolism, but I’m forced to conclude it’s just happy coincidence, at the summit of which you are greeted with a pretty spectacular three-sixty degree view of Bruges and the surrounding countryside. Our climb was made all the more interesting by hordes - hordes- of terrible, screaming schoolchildren. We’re not sure exactly what the deal was, but this little 11-year old rug rats plagued us from top to bottom, side to side, and other directions throughout the day. Presumably this was the date agreed-upon for all Flemish school field trips. Either that, or the Revolution truly has begun.

Fun fact: Did you know that when you’re in the top of a belfry, right next to the bells, and the bells start ringing, that it’s fucking loud? There’s a reason that sound reaches for miles. We’re talking a couple of dozen bells rocking out “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or something else about little girls and sheep, with all the style and grace of a 7th grade percussion section. On the plus side, the views are nice, and there is a collection of artifacts like a big treasure chest. And if you know me, you can imagine why I would love a big treasure chest. Mmmm…. Gold pieces.

After the belfry we head to the next natural Belgian attraction: a chocolate museum. And I know what you’re thinking, yeah? “It’s just like Willy Wonka’s, right?” You’d think that, wouldn’t you? But it ain’t. And let me tell you, no amount of arguing will convince these people to give you your money back upon discovering that there’s no chocolate river (and schoolchildren make a terrible substitute for Oompa-Loompas). Even given that disappointment it was pretty neat, mainly for the demonstrations of how to make various chocolate goodies. There is a certain amount of energy here that must be devoted to bemoaning the fate of cocoa bean farmers and their painstaking, unappreciated work, as well as marveling over what a big deal chocolate has been since the beginning of, I don’t know, The Godiva Temple at Manchu Pichu. Did you know, for instance, that chocolate has in the past been prescribed as medicine? I’m not sure what it’s supposed to cure, except maybe anorexia, but it gives me high hopes for other things (cross your fingers for medical Mountain Dew).

About this time we’re starting to get a little hungry, despite bellies full of chocolaty goodness. However, the canals beckons, so we put our hunger on hold for about half an hour as we jump into a little motor boat for a canal tour. It’s a pretty standard tourist trap setup, but quite enjoyable in that regard. There’s not a whole lot that the tour guide regurgitates that’s of surprise or interest, but for sheer cuteness there’s no better way to the see the city. There’s something soothing about being on the water on a bright, hot, sunny day, you know?

After that’s done it’s really time to go for the food. We managed earlier to track down the location of a local fondue restaurant, which I feel sure will be delicious because, hey, it’s fondue. Unfortunately it doesn’t open until the dinner hours, which we’re short of by about two. A bit frustrated, we hit a local sandwich shop for hold-us-over food that ends up being rather delicious despite being simple sandwiches and such. After that we make our last stop on the great Bruges tour of the day, namely the Basilica of the Holy Blood, so named for containing what is supposedly some of the coagulated blood of Jesus Christ. I don’t buy this for a second (the “Holy Blood” was recovered by a crusader in the 12th century… if you can still tell whose blood it is over a thousand years after his death just by scraping around, then I think you’re the right guy to track down all my lost socks and sunglasses), and I don’t think most Christians would either, but the Basilica is undeniably cool, simultaneously crazy-ornate and gilded while keeping a very dark, earthy feel to it. We hang around there for a few minutes before jumping ship.

Back at the hotel, we take a bit to recuperate and get in the mood for dinner, after which time we sally forth in search of fondue yet again. This time the thing is open, and we take a table out on the street where we can enjoy the evening and watch the folk go by. The cheese fondue is nothing short of excellent, and the whole meal is just plain fantastic.

This is a good time to mention that one of the primary sights to see in Bruges are the horses. Not horses on their own, but the overpriced carriage-pulling variety. They’re everywhere, although who is actually silly enough to shell out 35 euros for 15 minutes in a horse carriage, I don’t know. There are many that pass us having dinner, particularly of the larger draft horse variety pulling huge 16-person wagons. If you’ve never enjoyed white cheese fondue and Belgian beer while watching an 1800-pound quadruped slug down a medieval cobblestone street and trading banter with your mom, let me tell you, it’s a real treat.

And that’s our time in Bruges.

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Can't wait for you to get back, buddy - nice to read about your continued exploits!

-Aaron

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