Bruges to Brussels: Week 3. Youth Travel in Europe
Posted on: June 30, 2014, by Jill Murwin
Our bus from Paris to Bruges snaked through the French and Belgian countryside in the thick of the night, and by the time we arrived it was nearly three in the morning. Foggy-eyed and sore from the ride, we took a twenty-minute stroll through the cobblestoned streets along the canal, in the shadow of gothic edifices that stretched their spired necks to the moon.
The streets were empty once the other passengers had dispersed and the bus had disappeared into the night. It was silent, and even the cold gusts didn’t seem to shake the trees’ leaves or make any noise at all.
When I woke in the morning there were people in the streets, but the city was still quiet. Not in a dull way but in a peacefully muted way, like nothing needed to be said. Still a bit groggy from our time in Paris, I welcomed the quiet and decided to let my two travel companions sleep while I toured Bruges alone. Known as the “Venice of the North,” Bruges features a main canal that encircles the city center in an egg-shape, so I followed it for two hours until it brought me back to the hostel. Along the way, I absorbed what I can confidently say is one of the world’s most beautiful and humble cities. I could go on for pages about the historical significance of Bruges, its panoramic vistas, eclectic architecture, authentic cuisine, and multiculturalism, but that can all be found on travel brochures. The only way to complement Bruges is to be brief and maintain its authenticity. What I will say is that it’s a rare place. It’s a city that not only understands but embraces its past without pretense.
The majority of my time in Belgium was spent in Brussels, the nation’s capital as well as the seat of the European Union. In stark contrast to the stoic cobblestones of Bruges, Brussels is a city with a bustling underbelly. Though its bones are still towering stone cathedrals and pre-renaissance guild houses, Brussels is a city for the young. Craft beer, chocolate, live music, quirky and affordable cuisine, and friendly people… what else does a person need? From the Grand Place any street in any direction will lead you through a uniquely Belgian enclave, whether it’s the comic district, musical instrument museum, St. Catherine’s bar district, or the city park.
While we were in Brussels our focus was, once again, to watch the world cup in an electrifying environment. Luckily we were in Brussels for Belgium’s opening match against Algeria, and the Stade Roi Baudoin was hosting a massive watch party. Strewn about the grounds surrounding the stadium were open-air bars, dance floors, massive projection screens and thousands upon thousands of flag-waving Belgian fans. Amidst the chaos Mats, Hank, and I bounced around enjoying steins of Trappist beer and dancing with whomever whirled our way. The game was close, but (perhaps because of the fervor of the crowd) it seemed that Algeria never had a chance. When Belgium came back from a one-goal deficit to equalize, and eventually win the game, the city erupted from its museum-like shell into frenzy.
We followed a massive river of fans back to the Grand Place where flags waved, cars honked, fans climbed the pillars, and flares soared and sparked. I couldn’t believe that a city with such a humble aura could be so fanatical. But it struck me the next day, when all returned to normal, that the common thread in Belgium is a sense of self. The people know who they are, they have a strong national identity without imposing it on others, and when their team plays they support them with unwavering passion. Cheers Belgium!