In Bruges: Horse carriages, hot chocolate and a plastic whale

You don’t associate places with their most famous landmark. Those are for Lonely Planets. You associate cities with people, the food, and overall, the memories. Of course, this is a time when we have only memories to fall back on, given that Europe has bolted its doors for us Indians. So why not go back to some of the best memories.

Why I associate Bruges with some really good memories is pretty simple actually. The cobbled streets are straight out of an illustrated children’s book. The chocolate is to go back to the town for. And the people are some of the warmest ones you’ll meet in all of Belgium.

Through West Flanders. Photo: Author

So how does a town leave an indelible imprint on someone’s mind and sheer existence? To me, it was because Bruges didn’t come recommended. It was a town that I picked off the map while planning that Europe trip – my first solo trip – because the name reminded me of a dark comedy. In Bruges. It’s absolutely fine if you haven’t seen the film. In fact, it’s better if you know nothing of Bruges before you set foot in the town. Discovering it is an experience that way.

I took a Flix Bus from Brussels to Bruges which came for USD 8 (INR 600) and is heavily praised as THE mode of transport in Europe by fellow desis. The afternoon bus cut across Western Flanders and some very very beautiful locales. The two-hour journey saw a stop in Ghent and a few Indians deboarding. Then it got on the highway, stopping straight in Bruges.

The golden rule of travelling in Europe on a budget is of course travelling light. If you have heavy luggage, you have no choice but to shell out (a lot of) money. Thankfully I have learnt my lessons the hard way and now travel with a trolley bag and one backpack… and then stuff them with knickknacks I pick up in markets. But Bruges is different.

Bruges, truth be told, has nothing that other old European towns cannot give you. Photo: Author

For one, it’s not ‘known’. It’s off the beaten track unless you’ve seen that eponymous dark comedy that we began this piece with, and the song Chaar Kadam from PK. Now, with Sushant Singh Rajput gone, of course that song and the scenes are tinged with pain. That song is the first time a Hindi film crew shot in this tiny town. And why would anyone blame them. You could spend a lifetime in Belgium and not know Bruges existed, till the last decade probably. For us Indians, it will never hold the kind of charm that a Zurich or Paris does. Yash Chopra didn’t make his heroines dance in chiffon sarees by the canals in Bruges, and neither did Aditya Chopra set entire films in the town. It existed the way the lesser-known (to India) Europe existed. By not seeing a lot of Indians. And that also brings us to the unavoidable question: but what is there in Bruges?

Truth be told, nothing. There’s nothing that you’ll not find in the rest of old Europe. But again, it has something that you’ll not find anywhere in old Europe: peace. I’m talking of Fall 2018, and tourists were outnumbered by the locals there. Most of the tourists were at the most touristy place in the entire town: the Markt. The town square. Now this square has the Belfry which, if you take the some-hundred stairs right to the top after paying 16 Euros, is supposed to give you a stunning view of the town. I did not take the stairs. I’d already been through that panorama trap at the Atomium in Brussels and did not want to spend Rs 1,500 and take so many stairs up. But from what Instagram tells me, it does offer a beautiful view of Bruges. Like it is with every highrise that’s not in Noida.

The Belfry of Bruges (L) and the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck in the town square. Photo: Author

The best part about Bruges is the ease of walking around. You can spend days aimlessly ambling by the canals, hot chocolate in hand, and no one is ever going to say a word. They will smile at you, one of the friendlier ones might ask you where you are from, and that’s pretty much all. The restaurants in the town square also like leaving tourists to their means. There are no frantic calls, there’s no hawking their wares… once in a while you’ll see a horse carriage gallopping by and pinch youself to check if you’re in a dream. That’s what is special about Bruges. This dreamlike quality of existing in that space just beyond reality.

Autumn in Bruges. Photo: Author

The evenings are a painting. When the sun sets, the Belfry lights up a dark yellow. You can sit at the foot of the statue in the centre of the town square for hours and see people. No one is busy. No one has anywhere to reach. They click photos, they walk around, they talk and they leave. Some of them walk into a bar and jokes follow, I’m guessing. But the ambience is laidback. And slowly, you realise you’re entering a daze.

As night falls upon Bruges, it takes on the character of a fairy town. The empty horse carriages return to the square; passing by the canal. The stores down their shutters and people go home. The only sounds now are groups of revellers; some drunk on the Belgian beer, some on life. There’s a statue of Jan van Eyck. Find it.

Two years ago, a whale from the Pacific rose out of that canal in Bruges, right across that statue; but it’s gone now. Skyscraper, that whale, was made out of waste they found in the Pacific Ocean. It was there to spread awareness about water pollution. It served its purpose. In that old town, this was the only plastic that stuck out like a sore thumb. People took boats around it, right under its fins, and went back home to tell a tale of a whale in the canals of Bruges. After dusk, there’s barely any way to see the whale. Good for Bruges, some would say.

The Belfry of Bruges. Photo: Author

While I was walking back home after a day of doing nothing, I suddenly remembered an encounter from that evening; my first in Bruges. An Italian man had stopped his bike to ask if I was from India. Duh. He then took a photo – thanks to him, that’s the only proper photo I have in Bruges – and asked if I’d had Belgian beer. Then said let’s catch up later in the evening, once we’re done with our ‘sight-seeing’ business, for a drink. He made me take down his number. So once I was done with sight-seeing that night, I decided to buzz him. Turns out, the phone never saved the number!

And thus Bruges stayed in my memory. The ache of what could have been. The fulfilment of what had been.

(The writer tweets as @ananya116)

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Source – India Today