Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ladies who Leffe and Charles Jardine


Half term and the lady who sleeps on my left and myself depart for continued exploration of the Polders, and surely Mole’s muse for his writings, several of his works sprang to mind throughout our brief stay “Lo! the flat hills of my homeland” “Sparg from Kronk” and “The White Van” to name a few.


We were bound for Bruges but had time to kill so headed to Ghent for lunch, parking at the university and walking through the student quarter to the centre which also seemed to be part of the student quarter. Stunning medieval architecture mixed with a tangle of tram lines as we made for the river that runs through the centre and a picnic lunch amongst, you guessed it, a thousand students. Take away the tourists and Ghent has the feel of a university campus about it, we dined on salad and cake washed down with some potent Belgian beer and ignored the whine of europop eminating from a plethora of student beat boxes. Leaving Ghent we headed for Brussels before a highway epiphany that it was actually Bruges we were due to visit.


Dumping the car at the station we shuffled into town to find our apartment, just off the cobbles on the top storey of a three storey building. Opposite was a medieval pile with the date 1672 writ large across its frontage which we thought was quite old until we broke out the walking shoes and headed into town, where ninety nine percent of the buildings are of a similar age and no two are the same. The buildings are stunning, and intricately constructed, why chuck up an easy wall with big blocks of stone when a Flemish twist can be added that involves diddy little bricks andthree times as much work and head scratching.. It’s a UNESCO special site and an easy place to wander about for three days getting lost in its higgledy piggledy lay out.


Chocolate and beer featured highly throughout the stay, some good some bad, there are plenty of chocolate shops several selling what can only be described as tourist tat, but a long established non descript store three blocks down from our base made them in the room at the back and were the best we had all trip.


Beer is a funny one, most are super strong and too full of fruit and gloop for my sensitive palette, this gentleman certainly prefers blondes, but the locals lap it like water at any opportunity with no obvious effect. We encountered two toilet attendants emboldened by a steady supply of Stella, and for Ladies who lunch, read Ladies who Leffe, these three were taking their “ first of the day” during a break from the market in Markt square at 10.15am while we struggled on with coffee.


Mannequins are a must in the Polders, our first encounter was on the motorway where a six foot C&A special was stood at the roadside clad in high viz and holding a flag to warn us of impending roadworks, (beats a digital screen I suppose) the second was a striking blond, who would not have looked out of place in a window in the Amsterdam red light district, who provided customers to a coffee shop with a wonky handed greeting. Some stores had run out of heads and substituted footballs while a grinning Humphrey Bogart stood guard at the door to a bar. There were many more, including various body parts strewn hither and thither but it’s a curious one, that’s for sure.


A boat trip was taken and like a smuggling craft running from Africa to Europe was packed to the gunwhales with people from many different countries. The multilingual skipper took us to see the smallest gothic window in Bruges, which drew a Whoop and a “go gothic window” from the stern, we were then treated to the ex-scottish consulate that has been turned into a primary school and was much photographed by many on their tablets and then on to see a dog that looks mournfully out of window at the bloody boats below who was photographed by myself.

As we made for the shore, the captain drew his cutlass, and issued a reminder in many languages of the Belgian maritime tradition of tipping the skipper on disembarkation, a trip that was a steal at ten euro per head and provided me with a valuable opportunity to inspect the back of an Italian’s head for almost twenty minutes.

There are fish in the canals, lots of eels and some quite nice carp, but impossible to fish for in the day time due to the constant and chaotic traffic of boat trips. Might be worth a go at night though in a backwater canal.


Chaos caused by day trippers extends to dry land. Two hundred yards down the road from our apartment in a small square outside a church with a tower that contained a Michaelangelo, the crocodiles gathered, hundreds of trippers bussed in for a day long Bruges experience formed long lines behind guides holding signs above their head and miked up to their earplug wearing audience. Elbows out, we barged through on more than one occasion having stood for five minutes while a slow moving train of people crossed our path. Bruges and Brussels have claimed Christmas as their own, goodness knows how busy the place is when the Christmas markets are on.
On our second day we came across a school crocodile stuck in a small alley, after a little greasing they popped out like a cork from a bottle and made straight for Mdme who they identified as an educator and could she runs a quick eye over their maths homework. While she went to work with her red pen, I was quizzed by several as to why I had come to Belgium, which to my mind, hinted at a national identity crisis.

Disinterested on the subject of Great Flemish painters of the past (many of the buildings depicted are still standing) we opted for a small museum with a couple of rooms of twentieth century stuff. The highlights of which were a few pages from Rodin’s top shelf sketch book, some drawings and a ceramic by Picasso, we arrived late and were admitted for half price as they closed in half an hour, which was perfect because the two rooms and a corridor don’t occupy much more time than that.


And then there are the statues. Bruges plays host to a Michelangelo, purchased by some Flemish merchants hundreds of years ago and placed in the church of our Mary, or something or other for the people of Bruges. Emboldened by their good fortune in the statue stakes, they have since gone to town with statues placed in the most unlikely of places and some of the newer installations are not very good.

This statute took centre place in Zand square, we scratched our heads for a while before internet enlightenment informed us that the ladies depicted the Belgian towns of Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and Antwerp, which was obvious although we were unsure as to which town had water piped through the nipples and why it didn’t qualify for a bird on its head.


Having done the “boat” experience we eschewed the offer of a tour in a horse drawn buggy, although thousands didn’t. I swear I saw Charles Jardine driving one, which suggested the Mayfly fishing at home had yet to get going.

Apart from buildings the highlight of our stay was the food. The lady and myself are keen followers of Trip Adviser and have had some fantastic food in recent years by opting for restaurants that feature in the top twenty of restaurant ratings for that particular city. On our first night we visited a small cafe and opted for Asparagus with a Flemish twist, which was superb. A jolly couple from across the pond sat down at a neighbouring table and eyed our food enviously, before asking us how it was and what was the “Flemish twist” Unsure of our Flemish cuisine we informed them that it may be the square plate, which seemed perfectly feasible, until their asparagus arrived on a round plate, at which point we exited stage left.


The following night we had slow cooked duck with sausage lentils and beans that raised concerns over IBS but in the early hours never actually shifted the duvet. Moules and frites for Mdme on the last night while I opted for Flemish stew, which proved to be very similar to Boeuf Bourguignon. Beef Casserole, Irish Stew, Beef Kleftiko, and a Portuguese dish that I forget the name of. In these days of the single currency and all things European Union, isn’t there a case to be had for standardising slow cooked beef with onions and red wine and applying a pan European name that crosses all borders?

We picked the car up, paid the 10 euro charge for three days parking and headed home. Bruges is a Beautiful City, busy and bustling with some crack pot statues and magnificent food, and great place to stay for a few days.

Polders box ticked, move on.

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