By the time H. and I managed to tear ourselves away from work long enough to organise a much-needed holiday, all the hotels were booked up or too expensive. The fares had also gone up. So our plans to go to either France or Italy had to be reconsidered. We were determined to go abroad. We hadn’t been out of England since before the pandemic. Our ears were starved of other languages.
We were both exhausted, overworked and stale. We needed a different country, but, given the sweltering heat, didn’t want to spend yet another holiday sightseeing and socialising. “Where can we go that we already know?” I said. “Somewhere we like, that’s walkable, beautiful, where we can just be and recharge?”
“How about Bruges?” H. said.
We’d both been there a couple of times, together and separately, were familiar with the city layout, liked the atmosphere. And you don’t need to ask me twice if I want to go to Belgium, Flanders especially. I don’t care for the climate or the pale, half-hearted sky, but the architecture and the people more than make up for that.
“Shall we stay at that little hotel I told you about?” I said. “The one where I stayed in 2009?”
There was a double room available, reasonably priced, and the website suggested the hotel had changed ownership and decor. Its famous restaurant, however, remained untouched.
“You’re staying ten days…” the young man at reception says. Not quite a question but not a statement either.
We’re handed keys and remote control for the air conditioning, and we drag our suitcases up the stairs. I am suddenly worried that I may have oversold the hotel to H. What if the room is dirty or smelly? Unlikely in Flanders, but you never know… And if so, it’ll be on my head for a whole ten days. Whatever happened to the time when you could check into a hotel without booking weeks ahead or committing yourself to a set number of nights, stay as long as you liked, then, once you decided to leave, go down to the reception desk the night before and just inform the receptionist that you’d be checking out the following morning?
Fortunately for us, the room is lovely, spotlessly clean, with the widest bed I’ve ever seen. Moreover, it’s on the same side of the building as my room in 2009, so has more or less the same view, with a lot of hazy, pastel sky.
Since H. and I both know the city quite well, our relationship with it is relaxed. Neither of us sees it through the eyes of the other, the way you do when one of you is the guide.
There is something special about becoming intimate with a city you love: as it learns to trust you, it reveals details you failed to notice during your first or second visit. And so one architectural detail leads to another, and you are guided down unfamiliar streets where you discover treasures that don’t feature in glossy tourist books: the mascaron with a grumpy woman that could be me on a Tuesday morning, once I’ve realised that, this week, too, I will fail to achieve everything on my to-do list. Above a brasserie, a terracotta man holding a something we can’t make out. A lantern? A bell? I focus the zoom lens of my camera on him. It’s a tankard of beer. Of course, what else? On top of a gable in Jan Van Eyckplein, a stone cat holds a fish in its mouth. And, on our way to Dammerport, I come across my own favourite discovery: in the distance, a weather vane, as beautiful as many other weather vanes in Brugge, but with a difference – I can’t tell what it represents, even through my zoom lens. Human figures, one holding a child, perhaps – the other one kneeling? – a cross, a spear. The next day, I go in search of the building on top of which it stands. It’s a church on the grounds of the College of Europe. Private property. I appeal to a resident walking her dog. “Please,” I say, “may I come in just for a few seconds to take a picture?” She lets me through the barrier. “What does it represent?” I ask, but she doesn’t know.
We dine in the hotel restaurant most evenings. The special is mussels cooked in white wine with celery, served with fries. I don’t like seafood, but these mussels are fresh and skillfully prepared. The fries are in a different league to the chips we’re accustomed to in the UK. They’re crisp, fried twice, and soft inside. We compliment the chef, who is the father of the Flemish family who now own the hotel. “You’re the guests who are staying with us ten days, right?” he says with a broad grin. “Thank you! I’m glad you enjoy our food.”
His wife and children are also very friendly and efficient. They all speak fluent English and French beside their native Flemish. I hear the mother converse in German with some guests. “How many languages do you speak?” I finally ask.
“I also speak Spanish. My Italian is only basic, but I can get by.”
I stare in admiration. In London, you’d be hard pressed to find hospitality staff who speak more than two foreign languages, unless it’s in a four or five-star hotel.
Once again, I find myself admiring Flemish resourcefulness and hard work. Before I ever came to Belgium, a British man who had spent several years here once told me, “These are people who have fought the sea for their land for centuries. The sea. That tells you how strong and determined they are.”
On our second day, when we return after a day out, we find our bed still unmade and the towels unchanged. We go downstairs and ask the elder son of the family when the rooms are cleaned. “This is a two-star hotel,” he explains, “so technically speaking, we don’t have to clean the rooms every day. Most people only stay one or two nights anyway, so it’s not a problem. But you’re staying with us for ten days. No one has ever stayed ten days, so we’re not sure how to operate.”
“Fine,” we say. “We’re sure we can work out a modus operandi among us all. Just let us know when you’ve decided what’s best for you.”
The towels are changed most days, we make the bed some days, they do it on others. One morning, a mosquito bite leaves a smear of blood on the pillow case. It’s unsightly, so I turn it over before we go out. By the time we come back, although the bedding hasn’t been changed, the pillow case with the blood stain has been replaced with a fresh one. Nice touch.
A trip to Brugge requires at least one meal at Cambrinus, on Philipstockstraat, the restaurant-brasserie named after the folklore character personifying beer. There, the beer list, which features a couple of hundred varieties, is listed in a heavy, leather-bound volume. White beers, blondes, dark, amber, and Trappist concoctions. We discovered Cambrinus on our first trip to Brugge together, in 2014. It’s where we first sampled the exclusive, astronomically expensive Vestvleteren, another nectar manufactured by Trappist monks (whatever one might feel towards the Church, we owe them much good art and good drink). Given the price, we shared a glass between us and sipped it slowly, savouring every mouthful. As far as I’m concerned, Vestvleteren is certainly overpriced, but not overrated. It’s delectable, cold beer in your mouth one moment, warm cognac caressing your oesophagus and stomach the next.
One morning a week, the hotel family take time off, so breakfast is served in a nearby café instead of the hotel restaurant. H. and I look at the menu and ask the waitress what we’re allowed to have. She smiles. “You’re the English people who are staying ten days, aren’t you? The owners of the hotels told us to serve you anything you like and as much as you like.”
“Do you suppose there’s a picture of us in the local paper?” I say to H.
When you become intimate with a city, its residents seem to sense it. They, too, start disclosing details normally unavailable to tourists. Seeing us take photos of the bas-reliefs on the Stadhuis in Burg, a young woman tells us that the figures of Adam and Eve have the faces of the sculptor who worked on the restoration of the sculptures after the bomb damage during the Second World War, and of his wife: apparently a small act of rebellion after the city failed to pay him his due. There, now you have to see my discontented face whenever you pass the building.
I strike up a conversation with a lady in a tapestry shop. She describes to me the Flemish character in a nutshell. “It’s all work, work, work, money, money, money in Flanders. No lunch break, just a sandwich, because you have to make money. In Wallonia, it’s: On prend un apéritif, ouais? Long lunch with wine, then dessert… and it’s time to go home.”
I ask if she is Flemish. “Yes. No. Yes, I was born in Flanders, but we’re all mixed, all part Walloon, part Flemish. We’re Belgians. None of us is 100% one or the other.”
I think of Brussels and its street names in both languages, of its mainly Francophone population and bon vivant attitude, and as usual, have to remind myself that Brussels is actually geographically in Flanders. Wonderful, eclectic, quirky, dirty, charming, lovable Bruxelles/Brussel.
“You’re staying with us ten days,” the lady of the house mentions one morning in the restaurant. “You can’t eat the same thing for breakfast every morning for ten days. I’m going to make scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. Would you like that?”
I accept with thanks. She is as good a cook as her husband. The eggs are creamy, the smoked salmon sliced wafer thin, the way I like it. There’s just the right amount of black pepper, enough to bring out the other flavours, but without drawing attention to itself.
On the Saturday, we go to Brussels for the day, to see some of the old sights again, visit the Saint-Gilles district, where we used to live, and have lunch with a couple of fellow translators. As we get off the train on the way back I feel I’m back home again and wonder if I would be happy living in Brugge. “You’ll go stark mad within a month,” H. says. “You’re always complaining about Norwich being too small.”
Good point. Perhaps special places are special precisely because they feel like home, but aren’t.
We come into our room to find a large, colourful bunch of flowers in a vase on the windowsill. Reds, purples, white and even a glorious sunflower, bright against the pastel sky. The next morning, I thank the lady of the house. I assume it was she who placed the flowers in our room. It’s the kind of thing a woman thinks of. “It’s market day on Saturday,” she says. “The flower man always brings a couple of bouquets and I thought you’d like one.” She doesn’t add because you’re staying ten days.
We tell her about Norwich, about the connection between our city and hers, thanks to the Flemish weavers and the cloth trade. We, too, have a few crow-stepped gables, and there is a church near Cringleford, with the weatherbeaten statue of what looks like a bear. I wonder if it’s the bear seen all over Brugge, a symbol of the city. The white bear killed by one of the Counts of Flanders in the Middle Ages.
On the eleventh day, the family offer us a lift to the station, but we prefer to walk. We want another look at the cobbled streets and the crow-stepped gables. I tell H. I want to come back. “Let’s make this our go-to place when we need a break and can’t travel far,” I suggest.
“We’ll stay at this hotel again, if they have vacancies,” H. replies. “Let’s write a glowing review on Tripadvisor when we get back.”
“Sure,” I say. “But let’s also send them a card from Norwich. A card with a picture of Elm Hill, with its medieval cobbles and gables.”
He agrees. Ten days. That calls for a handwritten card.