Following John’s post Remembering Great Granddad George, I am filling in some gaps and sharing a few more pictures of our ‘expedition’ to our European cousins.
Yes, I have wanted to visit Bruges for quite sometime, long before I saw the Colin Farrell film In Bruges. For many Chinese tourists, if they only have one chance of a Grand Tour of Europe, the itinerary will normally cover must-visit French cities like Paris, or Italy’s gems of Rome, Florence and Venice, followed by German tourist attractions and now many Eastern European countries. Some routes will probably include Brussels, the Belgium capital and nerve centre of the EU.
Bruges, a relatively small but fabulously preserved quaint city, of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It reportedly had the first stock exchange in the world in the beginning of the 14th century. Like many cities in the world, it has been through expansions, declines and revivals.
My first impressions of Bruges was good, despite the rain and strong winds which greeted us. The city reminded me of Amsterdam in Holland, and Venice, due to its many canals and close proximity to the sea, as well as fabulous architecture. The colours were vibrant even on a foul day for photos.
As John noted, Bruges thrives on tourism, and everything is geared to appeal to tourists. The couple who ran the hotel we stayed in were very helpful. Hans showed us the map of the city and where we should go and what we should do. As advised, we took a boat trip, and enjoyed seeing the world pass us by in a cool breeze, and took in sights that could only be appreciated on the water.
Instead of working the horses who are fed and trained to take tourists around the city, with their rhyming click clack on the cobbled streets, we hired a tandem and worked our legs, passing holy churches, cathedrals, cafes, chocolate shops, with sweet smells permeating the air, tempting us to stop. We eventually did, and enjoyed a three course lunch menu by the canal, with Flemish stew and Belgium fries – I had no idea why they are now called French fries, but I guess back then, the borders of many European countries were fuzzy, and Bruges itself was part of France and then the Netherlands. It only became an independent country in the 19th century.
From Bruges, we headed to Ostend where we visited the “Western Wall” open-air museum, a powerful reminder of history with modern fortification. During WWI and WWII the Germans constructed underground trenches, bunkers and batteries, observation points and gun sites, many of which are well preserved along the Atlantic coast. Until I saw it, I did not realise that it was a defence wall stretched all the way from Norway to the French-Spanish border of 5,300 kilometers. The audio guide was informative, added further insight into the background of construction and maintenance. It was a grey day and I could almost hear the roar of the ocean below, picturing what it would have been like, had the Allies chosen to attack in that part of the Wall instead of Normandy.
Our last stop was Ypres, another ancient town soaked in history and blood, where two battles of Ypres took place. It has a magnificent Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing which commemorates millions of the British Commonwealth soldiers who died in WWI. We saw a couple of military cemeteries en-route, and checking out some of the names proved to be a truly touching moment, especially when John found one missing soldier, with his name carved: J.Kirk.