November 1 and 2 is the All Saints holiday in Italy, so we had off that Thursday and Friday. As with any break, it was time to travel somewhere. I chose to visit Bruges, Belgium to see one of my favorite cities in the world as well as good friends I met over 11 years ago.
This was my 9th visit to Bruges . . .10 if you count 2002 where I visited twice during one long backpacking trip. There has always been something extremely magical about this fairytale city, a step back in time and a break from reality. A place to wander and imagine.
While studying abroad in England in spring 2001, my friend Mike and I booked a mini break to Brussels, Belgium. We were looking for something different and new, and figured this would be a nice three day escape. Our travel agent in Banbury said, “Oh, you must go to Bruges. It’s very special. Canals, swans . . . you must go.” Mike and I kept that in mind. After wandering around the beautiful yet congested streets of Brussels, we returned to our hotel and saw a poster advertising a day trip to Bruges the next day. We signed up, and the next day, we arrived for a big surprise.
I knew nothing about Bruges except the swans and canals. I was not prepared for the sights that had me spinning my head in all directions like my cat when we throw too many catnip mice at her. We oohed, we ahhed, we wandered, and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures — beauty everywhere. Extremely ornate baroque architecture, with intricate details on every piece of moulding and wood, from houses to churches. The carillon bells chimed throughout the day, a live organist playing sweet melodies for us at the top of the Belfry, the centerpiece of the quaint, picturesque cobbled square. The square was lined with restaurants, horse-drawn carriages, and tourists happy to discover one of medieval Europe’s best kept secrets. Back then before the release of the movie, who knew how beautiful things were In Bruges?
Bruges is considered one of the world’s largest outdoor museums. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. How did it stay so well-preserved? Bruges used to be on the coast, an important port city, an epicenter for trade and Flemish art and architecture. But when the water receded, Bruges was no longer on the coast and the city was abandoned, almost forgotten for centuries. In the 1800s, when travel became a leisure activity, Victorian tourists “re-discovered” the beauty, putting Bruges on the map for the Grand Tour. Though filled with tourists, and tourism certainly has increased after the release of the 2008 movie, people do live here in this very special place.
During our walking tour, we wandered down a cobbled back lane, and I peered at the lace-covered windows, wondering about the lives inside. What would it be like to live here? I’d like to live here. I need to come back. I was absolutely mesmerized, and then I tried the food. Fries like I’d never had in my life . . . crispy and flavorful, served in a white bowl, mayonnaise on the side. Chicken in a delicious cream sauce. I don’t know the name, I’m not even sure what else we had — I just remember the sensational flavors. This was so early on in my world travels, just my second time in Europe — and I was overwhelmed with sensory ecstasy.
We took a cruise along the canals, dipping below low bridges, gliding past more intricate buildings and past the majestic swans, undulations trailing them. We sampled the rich chocolate truffles, watched some lacemaking, then we stopped at a convent for cloistered nuns. I sat amidst yellow tulips and imagined a life cloistered amidst all this beauty: thinking, praying, writing, reflecting . . . how peaceful. I envied the nuns a little bit.
We boarded the bus and left the magical city, the spires disappearing in the distance before we entered the highway back to chaotic Brussels. I began to regret not staying in Bruges instead. I didn’t know. But I knew I’d be back.
I had no idea it would be so soon. That was March 2001. That summer, my best friend Anna announced that she was going to be studying abroad for a month in . . . BRUGES . . . as she was working toward her culinary degree at Johnson and Wales. My heart pounded with excitement for her and a tinge of jealousy because she got to stay in that city, to experience life there like I had dreamed while wandering the streets. She invited me to visit after her studies. I had just returned from life abroad and was already dreaming of being back in Europe. My parents said, “We’ll buy you the ticket as your birthday present. You just pay for the hotel and incidentals.” I did not hesitate and booked my flight for that July, just two months after I had returned from England.
Just before my 21st birthday, in low pigtails with a bright lifeguard tan, I boarded the plane for my first international trip alone. Oh yes, I had the travel bug big time now, and this trip launched the next phase of my adventures. I met Anna at a hotel in Bruges, and we rode bikes into the countryside, discovered a beautiful park, stumbled across a festival at a beer garden, and enjoyed summer beauty. Before heading to Interlaken, Switzerland, we ventured out to her favorite bar, Bras, located in another square by the fountain. I threw on jeans and my royal blue Superman tank top, and we were out the door. I remember being a bit tired that night but knew that I’d have a good time if I could just make it out.
At Bras, I had my first Belgian beer. I usually involuntarily made “bitter beer face” every time I tried to have a beer when out, and instead opted for mixed drinks like vodka and cranberry. Anna ordered me a Duvel, and it glided right down with a pleasant aftertaste. Smooth. No headache. Nice buzz. We sampled different beers that night, including Hoegarden and Stella, enjoyed the music, talked to the bartenders that Anna knew well, and then . . . magic.
A guy came up to me and said, “What do you think of that guy over there?” He pointed to a very attractive, tanned, athletic Belgian. “He’s cute,” I said. Shortly afterward, he came over and in his good but not practiced English, we began talking. And then . . . kissing. We kissed so long that the bartenders sprayed us with tap beers. We barely noticed. Anna said she had to make new friends.
His name was Jasper and he had a fun, cute friend named Dave. I found out he had lied about his age when his mother kept texting him to come home. They were only 18, just having graduated from high school — about to enter college. I was about to turn 21 in a couple of weeks, about to enter my senior year of college. Oh well. Jasper scrawled his email on a bar coaster and the next day Anna and I woke up without hangovers and were off for an amazing adventure in another one of my favorite places, the Swiss Alps.
At the end of that trip, Anna headed to Greece and I was back in Bruges for just a few days by myself. I emailed Jasper, he met me at Bras again with Dave, and a long friendship was born. Dave said, ‘We noticed you because of your Superman shirt . . . we thought that was so cool.” And then when they found out I was a lifeguard, I had to explain that, no, I did not know Yasmin Bleethe.
We emailed throughout the year, and I visited the following summer while backpacking throughout Europe on my own for 3 weeks. This was my two visits in 2002 . . . and well, I guess you could also say I had two visits in 2001. Maybe 11 visits to Belgium depending on how you count it. 🙂 Bruges was the 2002 Culture Capital of Europe, so there were even more museum exhibits and cultural activities than usual. I explored Van Eyck paintings, I learned more about the history, I shopped on the quaint streets, and I ate well. Of course, I met up with Jasper and Dave at Bras and met some of their new friends and introduced them to some friends from Fordham that I ran into serendipitously on a back lane on the outskirts of town. I also visited Ghent University, where they were now studying in another beautiful canal-laden city with grand architecture. And then life happened. Emails changed and we lost touch. But we never lost the fun memories.
In 2005, I received an email from my friend Charlie. The guys had posted a comment on his blog because he had mentioned my full name. I guess they were searching for me and they said, “this may be the Kristin we met in Belgium some years ago.” He asked if I knew them and said yes, and then we were back in touch.
We kept in touch with emails, but I did not get back until 2006 when I was in Belgium with my entire family . I had to show them how beautiful it was.
I’ll never forget the family’s faces as we walked to the market square at night on my birthday, August 11, 2006. Sweet 26. All lit up and a surprise feast for the eyes. Then an absolutely amazing meal at one of the restaurants, facing the belfry. Cheese croquettes. Delicious meal in various sauces. A special beer called Kwak that required it’s own wooden holder to keep the hourglass shape from tipping over. Bubbles and a bubbly mood. Have I ever been this happy? It was the only time our whole family traveled in Europe together, and we were in one of my favorite places. On a whim, I emailed the guys, and then we met at the fountain, just like old times. My brother met them and we were all fast friends, enjoying the music festival in town, talking in the bars until 4 am each evening, and just savoring the moment. They told my brother, “You are our hero.” Did I ever laugh so much? Good Times and Amazing Memories.
Life got in the way again, but I was able to return in the summer of 2009 on a grand tour with my father to Switzerland and Belgium. Dave took me to a friend’s birthday party, then we met Jasper in Ghent for some beers and fun. I was back that winter to experience New Years’ 2010 in Bruges with my friend Krista. Partying till dawn and making new friends, it was another of my favorite experiences. I really enjoyed wandering the Christmas markets, sipping mulled wine, and peering at all the lights and Christmas decorations — one of my photos made it to the cover of my Christmas cards the following year.
Summer 2010, Dad and I were once again traveling through Europe, and once again returned to our favorite city to wander the streets and savor the food. This time, I didn’t get to see Dave who was out of town, but Jasper and I met up a few times for good meals and good conversation. I also met up with Kai,Tobi, and Simone, friends I met at New Years. And my friend from NY, Josh, was backpacking in town that weekend, so we all had drinks together.
Summer 2011, yup, I was back in Europe again. I spent a week in Italy with mom and Aunt Minnie, then flew to Brussels. At Dave’s new apartment in Ghent, he popped some champagne for the three of us to celebrate 10 years since we first met in Bruges. Anna said, “I wish I could have been there. And who’d have thought that you’d still be in touch all these years later?” We were grateful for the friendship, and I said, ‘Here’s to the next 10 years. Hopefully I’ll come with my family one day and our kids can all play together.” .
This year, as always, it was great to see my friends. Thanks to facebook, I know everything that’s going on in their lives, and it’s so easy to just pick up where we left off, chatting, laughing, wandering. We had some good beers in Ghent. We ate delicious fries and bitterballen. We watched Dave’s soccer game and met his teammates and their friends and girlfriends. Everyday Belgium.
The trip was quick, but there was plenty of time for a visit to Ghent and plenty of wandering around Bruges, beautiful even in the cold November rain. I was heartbroken and upset after all of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction in New York. I was feeling far away and alone, and this trip ended up being at the perfect time. The beauty and magic of the city soothed me as always. The long walks cleared my head while I traveled back in time. The conversations with my old friends were special as always, and I enjoyed meeting more of their friends. I ate well, laughed much, and soaked my soul in beauty. I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving as always, and I am very thankful for the many, many happy memories I’ve had in Europe over the years with friends, family and new friends. More about this particular trip in the photo essay.