Monday, October 7, 2013

Biking in Bruges

 Fall is, by far, my favorite season here in Europe. One of the best aspects of living here, especially compared to Texas, is that you (generally) have actual seasons. Even though spring came quite late this year, summer was beautiful and the autumn is proving to fair just as well. We still get our stints of rain, but each week we have had some very lovely days as well.

September was just a blur of activity with the kids heading back to school. It has been especially busy at ISL. The school celebrated the grand opening of the new Lower School building, significant upgrades to the Upper School, as well as the start of its 50th anniversary year. Being a part of the PTO, this has meant an endless stream of Back to School festivities and a slightly altered school year - the lower school students started back a week later to allow the teachers and staff to get moved and settled into the new building. Now that we have finally reached October, things are settling down a bit. Therefore, we found the first opportunity possible to take a long weekend and venture somewhere new!

Although we have been to several places in Belgium (Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, etc.), we had not had
City Center of Bruges
the chance to make it to Bruges. I had heard so many enchanting stories about how beautiful the city is - had even seen the movie - but had just not quite managed to get there. After hearing so much about it, I knew I had to cross it off my list this year. So, last weekend we finally made it. It took some creative planning as Joe was returning from a business trip in the US, but we planned ahead of time and routed Joe's return trip through Brussels. The boys and I picked him up from the airport Friday after lunch and headed straight on to Bruges. I had rented an apartment that was located just outside the main square, close to parking and several lovely shops and restaurants. We spent our first day walking around and exploring the city. We also took a carriage ride around the city (something that several friends had recommended), and really enjoyed learning more about the history and folklore from our carriage driver.

Sign on the Wall of Beers
One of the MANY
chocolate shops
As with any city in Belgium, the emphasis always seems to be on chocolate and beer. Any street you venture down, you are guaranteed to see at least a handful of chocolate shops and numerous pubs and restaurants serving the various Trappist Monk beers the country is famous for. Joe and I aren't much into beer, but when in Belgium... I stuck to the flavored ones (cherry, apple, raspberry), while Joe took in some of the Trappist varieties (Orval, Leffe, etc.) The kids made sure we returned to Luxembourg with a collage of chocolate truffles. Every window we passed had an amazing display, making it that much more difficult to choose.

On our second day out, we spent more time walking through the city. As you may guess, Bruges is best experienced on foot. The joy of the city is being able to venture down small, narrow, cobblestoned streets and losing yourself in the moment while appreciating the past. We often find ourselves using a Rick Steves guide for many of our European walking tours, just so that we can read through the pages and learn a little history as we make our way through the tiny and often not-well-marked streets. He gives a great overview of most European cities, and his books will generally allow you to take an abbreviated approach to touring ones when you have limited time to explore. We also took in a canal cruise, allowing us a different perspective of the medieval city. Some of the canals used to be part of the moat surrounding the city during the medieval period. The canals have tremendous historical significance, given that Bruges, at one time, was one of the largest cities in Europe, full of wealthy textile merchants and tradesmen. Now just a quaint town that thrives off tourism, Bruges is still a gem with fantastic architecture and a vibrant shopping district with many upscale restaurants.

Riding over the bridge into Damme
On our final day, we decided to book a bike tour. Rather than focusing more on the city, we chose a tour that ventured out into the countryside. We chose an early tour with The Pink Bear biking company, also recommended by Rick Steves. Our tour guide was great - friendly and helpful, both with the  booking and the tour itself. We had one other American couple who joined us for the tour. They had been in Europe for about a week and were passing through Bruges on their way to Amsterdam. Both were in their, maybe, late 40's or early 50's, and had not been on bikes in quite some time. After a slow tour of the parking lot, the husband seemed perfectly fine on his bike, but the wife was another story. She admitted to not having been on a bike in over 15 years, but I would venture to guess it had been longer than that. In all honestly, it had probably been at leasst 10 years since I had been on a bike myself, but thank goodness I managed to keep up with the boys and not be intimidated by the traffic getting through the city. Our tour mates - not so much. They started the tour in front of us, the wife weaving back and forth and always looking as if she were going to tumble over at any given time. The first time she encountered car traffic from her right, she screamed bloody murder and almost fell off her bike right in front of the car. Minutes later, as we worked our way out of the city towards the small town of Damme, the wife veered straight towards the canal we were riding next to and came within inches of falling right in. (Thankfully, it was at the beginning of the canal which had a railing that kept her from diving in.)
Windmill near Damme

Things never really got better for her. The couple finally moved to the back of the pack in an effort to keep from holding us up. However, the tour guide was getting more than a little frustrated. She had been under the impression that all of the riders present that day could manage the trip and had hoped to return a little early in order to meet up with her out-of-town guests for lunch. (The bike tour on the website clearly states that the tour is "really easy" or I wouldn't have booked it myself!)

All in all, I think we counted 6 times this poor women fell of her bike. Her last fall was literally on her way back into the small parking lot where the garage for the bikes was located. Our tour guide said (jokingly, of course) that the woman should do a victory lap around the parking lot to celebrate her accomplishment of finishing the tour. The woman quickly turned the offer down as she slowly began her final fall from the bike. Like a slow-motion scene out of a movie, the wife slid off her bike, onto the hard concrete (with the bike on top of her), while her husband frantically searched for their camera so that he could take a picture! I am sure the wife was hoping to purge the whole tour from her mind as soon as possible, but the husband was determined to capture the finale! The husband never did come over to her to offer her a hand up - instead, Joe rushed over to help the poor woman while the husband clicked away with his iPhone. While they finished returning their bikes to the tour guide, our family quickly left, partly because we were starving, but mostly for fear we would not be able to hold back our giggles for much longer. Bless her heart - I doubt she will be taking a bike anywhere, anytime soon!

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