Our destination on this trip is the Belgian city of Bruges, or Brugge. We will stay at an hotel there for three nights and, we hope, visit a couple of other towns as well.
As you probably know, modern Belgium mainly consists of Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south. As a result of political tensions, these are now autonomous regions, each with its own official language, Flemish in Flanders and French in Wallonia. There are also a few municipalities in the Liège area where German is spoken.
Brussels, both the national capital and the home of the European Parliament, represents a linguistic anomaly: although it is geographically within Flanders in what is theoretically a bi-lingual area, the city itself and the surrounding area are mainly French-speaking.
The journey to and from Bruges is in two stages: first, St Pancras to Brussels by Eurostar, and secondly, Brussels to Bruges by local Belgian railway services. The Eurostar ticket covers further travel beyond Brussels to other destinations, as long as the second journey is taken within 24 hours of arriving at Brussels.
Our last trip to Belgium was in August 2008 when we went to Waterloo on a courier run. See A trip to Waterloo.
We got up bright and early with that energy that comes from the excitement of travel and the anxiety not to miss the train. Final packing done, we went to the bus stop.
It is a fine clear morning despite the chill, with an orange sunrise over the first buildings of City Road. There is already plenty of traffic on the main roads. The 214 bus is almost empty and we haul our luggage onto the empty rack.
At St Pancras, the Eurostar gates are already busy and I am glad I have the printed tickets ready. We shuffle through the gates and queue for the baggage inspection. Here we go through the demeaning process of removing all metal objects from our person, including belts with metal buckles and seeing our valuables slither away in a tray. At least they don’t make you take your shoes off here as they do in some places.
We dress again while queueing at passport control. The French Police des Frontières officer submits my passport to the machine, glances briefly at me and returns it.
After the expectation created by the check-in process, there is now nothing to do but wait. Our 7:34 train is still captioned. "Please wait in lounge", so I queue at Nero for coffee and rejoin Tigger and the luggage. At about 7:15, our platform is finally announced and we join the stream of people making for platform 5. There is no rush and everyone moves along calmly.
We have reservations in carriage 16, near the front of the train. Our seats are in the middle of the carriage, facing the rear. A woman’s voice emanates from the loudspeakers, first in English with the slightest of accents, then in perfect French and finally in Flemish, all with admirable fluency. The train pulls out into a bright sunny morning rendered slightly dusky by the tinted glass of the windows.
We passed through the Channel Tunnel while I was queueing at the buffet which, as usual, had already run out of nearly everything eatable. This is a continual failing on the part of Eurostar: how can you be out of food before 8am?
On arrival in Brussels, we disembarked and looked for the platform for Bruges. Tigger queued at the information kiosk while I looked at departures boards. Tigger won: our train would leave from platform 16 at 11:05. In fact, there was a last-minute platform change but we were soon on our way. I had my first conversation in French with a ticket inspector on the platform. He was "un petit rigolo", but at least I found out about trains and he was good enough to warn us of the platform change.
The train journey to Bruges takes about an hour. The station is on the outskirts and the hotel near the centre, so we took a cab. The cabbie turned out to be a Bosnian "new Belgian" and gave us some account of the town and of local politics. Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned a year ago but continues in office, running a caretaker government more or less in a state of paralysis.
The Flanders Hotel is posher than our usual hotel. We would not be staying here but for the reservation being part of an out-of-season package. We registered and went to our room which is small but quite pleasant.
We had a little rest, then set out on an exploratory tour of the town. Bruges is very picturesque and succeeding generations have taken pride in it and sought to maintain and enhance its beauty.
Because Flemish is spoken here, I would be at a loss here, not knowing anything of the language, except for an interesting and significant fact, namely that English is so widely spoken as to be almost considered a local language. So far, every native person we have met has spoken English fluently. Note too that the accent is, for the most part British and not American.
The reasons for this unusual linguistic phenomenon (which nevertheless reminds us of the similar widespread use of English in the Netherlands) include tourism and the presence in Brussels of the European Parliament and its associated institutions for all of whom English is the lingua franca.
Convenient and useful as this widespread competence in English is seen to be, concerns are being expressed about the degree to which the language, with its associated culture, is impinging on the Flemish language and culture. Official advice to those coming to live here is that they should learn Flemish but such "new Belgians" often complain that when they do try to speak the language, people answer them in English!
We had lunch in a small restaurant and this evening dined in a cafe whose main attraction was its low prices. While we ate, the manageress and three male customers engaged in amiable conversation, smoking all the while. This was a shock after smoke-free Britain. Moreover, as far as I know, they were breaking the law, because although smoking is still allowed in some places, it is banned where food is served.
After dinner we went for another ramble around the local part of town. In the dark with the lights, we were able to see another aspect of the city which we tried to capture with some night photos.
Our hotel provides a kettle and the makings of tea and coffee (a facility rarely found on the Continent in our experience). We have of course brought our own favourite teas with us and have rounded off an agreeable day with a brew-up.
Thus ends our first day. Travelling by Eurostar is easy, comfortable and convenient (as long as there are no tunnel fires or other problems!) and changing trains at Brussels was easy. Bruges impresses us as a pretty town, well cared for. Many buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries and have been preserved rather than modified and modernized. The typical stepped Dutch gable is seen everywhere but eventually comes to strike one as a cliché. I began yearning for some variety.