In Bruges and Ghent and the Misdirection of Belgian Trains

August 31 – September 3, 2017

For the next 2 days we were in Belgium which would make that days 26, and 27…sort of. I was done with my major biking although I still had my bike with me which would make for some thrilling train mishaps which I will tell you about shortly as well as our continued splitting up to and from the train stations.

This was not my bike but it was a very picturesque Belgian bike scene. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

This is me and my actual bike in front of one of Bruges many city gates. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

Church in Bruges.

Our first night in Bruges I got in pretty late due to my 65 mile day but we had just enough time to catch dinner before the oldest bar in town, Cafe Vlissinghe, closed at 10. It was very quaint filled with dark wood and Jesus figures and their house beer was pretty tasty. When we got back to the hostel we lucked out by having the room all to ourselves.

This was a Hoegaarden not the house beer but my rosy cheeks say that was done already.

The next day we walked around a bit before getting waffles and checking out one of the many elaborate stone gates that are at almost all of the entrances to Bruges. The city is completely surrounded by a canal which must have made it a pretty secure medieval city (as well as annoying for cyclists in the rain re: yesterday).

“Secret” community garden. “Enter at your own risk.” Apparently the building could fall down at any minute but there so no roof so it was safe?

Then we went to this “secret garden” that was an old falling down building that community members had reclaimed as a space for an urban garden.

Every so often I would hear a thunderclap and I knew that rain was in the possible forecast so I kept urging V to go to our next destination or at least have a covered place nearby in mind to duck into but we continued to dawdle. Finally leaving the garden and discussing our next moves it started to drizzle but I knew that wasn’t the end. V still seemed unconcerned but I started to walk faster. And then the sky opened up once again. We managed to hop from a not really covered area to a doorway that had a real ledge just before it started hailing.

We waited it out in this doorway and I like to consider it romantic rather than annoying but as soon as there was a semi break we skedaddled toward town and settled on checking out the frite museum as it was nearby and we could spend some good time inside there.

Cheesin’ at the frite museum.

Contemplating the evolution of the modern potato.

It was pretty hilarious. We learned all about the history of the potato and how French fries for their name. “Good thing they weren’t called Wallonia fries or there could have been some trouble!” one of the labels read and if you know or read up on some Belgian history that might be amusing.

All this studying made us hungry so we had some sausages and frites at a place V’s family claimed had the best fries in Bruges. V sent pictures and they were jealous. I got to try some Andalusian sauce as the museum had suggested as eventually mayo you get everywhere gets old even though I love it.

Making traditional bobbin lace.

Amazing lace maker Germaine De Ruyter at work. Google her and watch a YouTube video. I promise you will be impressed.

Lace making tools.

Our last stop of the day was the lace museum. Bruges is famous for its handmade lace and it was V’s number 1 stop for the day. We got to hear legends about the beginnings of lace, practice various stitches on a touchscreen, see a film and several beautiful clothing items such as 17th century collars, skirt trimmings etc. but the real highlight were the demonstrations. A small click clack of sounds came from the room full of women, mostly older. Each held a large rounded padded thing that held the pins and bobbins that they skillfully weaved in various patterns. One woman (Germaine De Ruyter pictured above) was so fast I could barely watch her hands move without getting dizzy. She talked to Vanessa for quite awhile and it was fascinating to hear about how she learned as a young girl from her mother. Another woman learned at the academy there and told us that while some of her pieces took quite a long time the pink one she was working on now was fairly simple. It would only take about a month for 4 or so hours a day…

Satiated with Bruges decorative arts we decided to head to Ghent, an equally old and beautiful city but with more nightlife. Also Amanda and Sara were there, the couple I stayed with at the beginning of my trip, and I wanted V to meet them. Amanda was the one who had told me there wasn’t really anything to do in Bruges after a certain hour and we laughed heartily as we read a Bruges guidebook that argued not to let anyone tell you that very thing, “…especially someone from Ghent…” There must be some rivalry there. We just found it hilarious.

Cuberdon nuezen candy nose.

But we did have a nice night of sampling Belgian beers and multiple locations and walking around the city center. We also went back to Dreupelkot which was much busier and more crowded than the afternoon I had been there before. It was worth it though. This time we both had an almond flavored shot and really I want to try some many more (not one to have a shot before noon, If at all, we tried to go back the next morning but it was closed).

The Graslei in Ghent.

On the canal tour past the monastery where you have to be quiet.

Gravensteen castle from the Middle Ages.

The next day we knew we wanted to get back to Paris but we did want to see a little of Ghent. We took a mellow canal tour and then walked around the center checking out all the old buildings, especially the castle, before trying a candy particular to the area called cuberdons or neuzen (noses). Apparently the 2 street vendors whose carts sit right next to each other have had fist fights and now have to behave until penalty of a €1000 fine. We weren’t big fans of the candy but the story was a good one.

Typical Belgian beer shop. And yes you can walk all around town drinking your beer. Photos by Vanessa Friedman.

Proud of the noose, proud of the beer.

Lastly I had to have a strop beer before heading out of town. Really I wanted every beer in that small but well stocked shop but beer in glass bottles is heavy and I definitely didn’t want to be day drink for the journey I was about to experience. But this one has a history with the city and I couldn’t leave without trying it. To wit:

Gentse Strop owes its name to the proud people of Ghent who are nicknamed “stroppendragers” or noose-wearers. In 1540, the people of Ghent refused to pay an additional war tax, with the result that Emperor Charles V had the ringleaders parade through Ghent with a noose around their necks, as a sign that they deserved to go to the gallows. Still today, the noose continues to symbolise proud resistance against any form of tyranny and misplaced authority. Gentse Strop is a tribute to anyone who feels a sense of pride in their soul.

My kind of beer to be sure.

Anyhow it was time to make moves so we headed off to the train station (separately once again) but found each other easily. The woman at the international train counter was very nice and explained everything (or so we thought) about our somewhat complicated 3 part journey. “Everything we do in Belgium is complicated,” she said, “why do them the simple way when you can do it this way?” Because I had a bike we could not take the Thalys through Brussels and I guess she just assumed she wanted the cheaper French trains instead of the Paris direct (unless she didn’t have access to certain SCNF schedules. I guess we’ll never know) so we would be taking locals from Ghent to Lille, Lille to Amiens then finally Amiens to Paris.

Things seemed ok at the platform. We found the bike car and the conductor there asked where we were going and seemed fine with our answer of Lille. But I started to get worried when we stopped in Kortrijk for too long. It showed the next stop in Dutch and it seemed like it was going west not south. But this was a local train and we were still supposed to have another hour. But when the conductor finally looked at our tickets (this is several stops in mind you) he gruffly told us we were on the wrong train before walking away without another word. We didn’t really know what to do but figured we should go to the car behind and get the bike off as soon as possible. The door to that car no longer opened and the pit already in my stomach began to sink even lower.

But Vanessa grabbed the conductor who at first really didn’t seem like he wanted to help us and started making an American lady scene so finally we determined that the train had split without any indication (at least in English or from our ticket agent) and the bike was on its way to Lille while we were headed to the middle of nowhere in southwest Belgium. Vanessa badgered him into staying with us until we had to get off to go back to Kortrijk and made sure where we were supposed to find the bike.

For a nerve wracking couple hours we were separated from Ponyboy while we took two Belgian trains back to where we had come from and then that same tricky splitter into Lille. We watched the split happen this time with little fanfare but we made sure to get on the right car.

At the Lille train station finally reunited with my bike but our journey was far from over. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

There was so guarantee that my bike would be where we thought it would be but it was right there in the information booth when we got to Lille. The agent made me tell him what was in the front pouch before handing it over, which was probably a good safety measure even though I’m not sure how many hysterical American girls looking for a bike there could be.

Then we boarded our incredibly full train to Amiens after showing our tickets to the French conductor who barely looked at them proclaiming, “Oh these are Belgian. Too complicated.” People were sitting where the bikes were supposed to go and a French woman who also had a bike asked them to move but they declined her so we basically stood in the hallway with our bikes. Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker that we couldn’t understand but everyone was clearly unhappy. Our new English speaking bike friend told us the driver wasn’t there and the train would be 40 min late (at first I thought she said 14 but I knew that was wishful thinking). Our day’s foibles had cost us time already so I had a sneaking suspicion we might be bumping up against the last train to Paris if we got in that late. I checked the SCNF app and I was right. When we asked a conductor who barely spoke English and he said they might hold the train for us but once again no guarantees. There was a train direct to Paris that left from a nearby station in half and hour but our tickets wouldn’t work there so we would have to ask to change. I was starting to weigh the options of being stuck in Lille vs Amiens.

Vanessa ran to The ticket office to check our options and luckily the woman there was very nice and spoke great English. It would just be €90 to change…but as V started to gather her monies I asked if we would still have to pay since it was their lateness that was causing the necessary change. Glad I did because she called her supervisor over to waive the fee. This was great but we were getting closer to the departing time and still had to cross a very busy Saturday night plaza and get to the other station. The other train charged for bikes so I had to pay just a little bit extra and also had assigned seats so we couldn’t sit together but in the end we made it after much rushing and finally were safely aboard. We did our last separate journey from Paris Gare du Nord to Sarah and Scotts and our gracious hosts still had some dinner waiting for us.

Alls well that ends well…I guess…

2 thoughts on “In Bruges and Ghent and the Misdirection of Belgian Trains”

    1. Despite our train mishaps I really did like Belgium. Ghent was both historical and so fun and I think I made some real friends there (hi Sarah and Amanda!) at least I thought they were super smart and interesting. I would go back for sure.

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