I felt at home there even as I wheeled my suitcase from the train station. The mid-August sun was setting behind the rooftops on Züdzandstraat, the crow-stepped gables that looked like stairways to the sky.
“I think there’s an error in your booking,” the hotel owner said in crystal-clear English, her finger on the open register. “It says here 16th to 21st.”
“Yes. Is there a problem?
She looked up at me, puzzled. “No problem. It’s just that nobody stays six nights in Bruges.”
I sighed. “I work all the hours God sends. I’m exhausted. It’s my first holiday in six years. I just want to be somewhere for a few days, get to know it, and just rest.”
I thought I saw something soften in her pale eyes. “I understand you. I’ve been running this business for years, then I was diagnosed with two ulcers and my staff told me they would leave unless I took a holiday.”
A wave of deep solidarity swept over me like the warmth from a hearth. Yes, I will be comfortable here, I thought.
I climbed the creaky stairs of the old, tall, narrow building, a smell of old timber filling my nostrils. This is the kind of place that could be a character in a story. My room was all white and blue, with a nautically-themed decor, a welcoming bed with crisp, white sheets that smelt of cleanliness, and a large window that took in a lot of sky. I could already see myself sitting by it, scribbling, gazing at the stars before going to sleep,
A reputable restaurant was attached to the hotel. Dark red walls covered in sepia portraits, bottles with dripping red candles, dimmed lighting, small, dark, glossy wood tables and chairs, polished to perfection.
“Goedenavond, spreekt u Engels?” I had memorised a few phrases in Dutch. I don’t like to be the Anglophone tourist who assumes everyone must speak English.
“Good evening,” the tall Flemish waiter replied with an inscrutable expression (I later realised that just about everyone in Flanders speaks English). “Just one?”
“Where would you like to sit?” he said, indicating the half-filled restaurant with a sweep of the arm.
I was taken aback by his question. In Italy and France I had automatically been relegated to tables by the toilets, next to the kitchens, or behind doors, waiters keen on hiding from other diners the awkward sight of a woman eating alone.
The Flemish waiter didn’t wait for my answer. “How about that table by the window?”
I followed him, barely believing my luck. It was a table for four, in full view. This really is I country I could easily get used to.
I ordered a baked potato with salad and that was to be my third surprise of the evening. It was far removed from the dry, waxy jacket potatoes you get served in England, where the skin could be used for re-soling your shoes, and which I usually leave in my plate after scooping out as much unevenly cooked flesh as I can. This potato was creamy, runny with tasty butter, generously filled with rich dressing peppered with mustard seeds. The bed of salad – everything crisp, fresh, chopped small and full of flavour, included a vegetable I immediately liked and have been buying ever since: Brussels lof, or endives. It was drizzled with just enough vinegar to make it suggestive, dusted with just enough black pepper to bring out the various textures. This was the jacket potato and salad to shame all English jacket potatoes and salads.
After dinner, I ventured to the city’s main square, Markt. It was flooded in white and amber lights and dominated by a mediaeval belfry, the bells chiming like a carillon. I stood in the centre of the cobbled square and began turning on the spot, awe-struck by the architecture. I had never seen anything like it. It looked like something from a book of fairy tales. Tall, narrow, buildings with steep gables and picturesque weather vanes and roof decorations – a siren, a snail, a cat arching its back – trimmed with details that looked not like the modest brass we see in England, but gold leaf. There was a comforting sense of industry, opulence and pleasure. I’ve always liked that in a city. This is a place where you can dream.
The first thing that struck me when I strolled down the empty streets early the following morning was the overpowering smell of chocolate. It seemed to permeate every brick and cobble. Brugge, the city of chocolate and lace, of pleasure and precision. I’ve always liked precision. This precision mainfested itself in everything I saw: in the exquisite bas-reliefs on the façades of the buildings, in the young, delicate Madonna I passed every day on the corner of Kemelstraat; in the quirky mascarons and consoles; in the breathtakingly beautiful, complex bobbin lace patterns; and even in the impeccable presentation of the food served in cafés and restaurants. After spending much of my adult life in a country where, unless you frequent expensive, exclusive establishments, tea comes in pots with stained spouts, spoons carry watermarks, glasses have smears and sandwiches are unexplainably served on top of the napkin on your plate, I couldn’t get enough of holding glasses up to the light, not a single speck on them, and enjoying my daily kaffee verkehrt in a gleaming receptacle on an immaculate saucer, and stirring it with a spoon so brilliant it practically glowed in the dark.
Every morning, as I came downstairs, the hotel owner would suggest places to visit. At dinner time, she’d ask about my day. I discovered that the tall waiter had a deadpan, sharp sense of humour. It didn’t feel like a hotel but a second home. On my last evening, the landlady offered me a glass of beer on the house. “After all, you stayed with us for six days,” she said.
The tall waiter asked me to choose one. “You choose for me,” I said. “I like dark beer, so bring me whatever you recommend.”
I was served a rich, smooth, comforting trappist beer with an amber glow and a hint of caramel and spices, in its own special glass, as is customary in Belgium. Each beer is honoured with its own distinctive receptacle. Belgians treat beer with respect.
One sip and I was converted to trappist beers, and have been unable to touch English beers ever since.
(To be continued)