Sunday, January 28, 2007

Daytrip: Gent and Brugge

200 people viewed this blog last week! No Lauren, you're not the only one posting. All readers, please feel free to post comments.

What a fantastic day we had Saturday! It was our first daytrip with the whole group of 30 JMU students, our Director of Logistics Mr. K, John, JieJie, MeiMei and me. Our destinations: Gent (Ghent, if you're British) and Brugge (Bruges, if you're a French-speaking Belgian).

We met the tour bus promptly at 9am at the bus stop on the Paardenmarkt (Horse Market). The Stroller fit beautifully into the baggage compartment and the driver was so sweet to the girls. Right away, JieJie asked if she could sit with a college student, and in the next few minutes, I got a glimpse of her as a teenager. I called out to ask who would like a seatmate, and JieJie put her hands over her ears and hid, totally mortified. I'll have to be more subtle. Anyway, she and MeiMei each buddied up with a 20-something and we were off to our first stop, Gent, capital of East Flanders. It was about an hour on the bus. The countryside is flat, lots of farms with little towns here and there. You'd think it would be more built up with so many people in relatively little area, but it's quite bucolic not far from the city limits.

Gent is BEAUTIFUL, historic, pleasant, people were friendly, and I definitely want to go back when we have more time. To prepare for the trip, I got an itinerary about mid-week to see if there were any parts of the day that wouldn't suit preschoolers. Mr. K had forewarned me that the major tour of the morning, of the Gravensteen, or Count's Castle, was not a good place for an accident-prone 3 1/2 year old because it's a real medieval castle with precarious stairs, no railings, and some steep drops if you lose your step. Also at the top of the climb there's an exhibit of medieval torture devices (how in the world do you explain to a preschooler that people would go to so much trouble to hurt someone else so badly on purpose????).

Anyway, looked like we'd have an hour to use as we pleased, so I read up on the other things to see. Luckily, the city center of Gent is compact. It's easy to see lots of things without walking all over the place. When we parted from the students and John, we decided to get a snack and then see the beautiful canals, bridges, cathedrals and guildhalls of Gent.

We walked into a tiny bake shop and the girls saw what they wanted: eclairs and Bismarcks filled with custard. I chose an eclair. We went back to the unheated lounge area of the Vleeshuis (Meat House, which used to be like a meat market but now features regional food specialties) and sat there with our jackets on, getting our faces full of chocolate and powdered sugar. It was JieJie's first eclair, a momentous occasion indeed. It was so quiet in that building, JieJie asked if people came there to pray!

From there, I decided we should walk along one of the canals and cross by St. Michaels Bridge, which is supposed to give one of the best views in the city. It was really easy to find the way, and we were rewarded with a beautiful view in every direction. We could see the wide canals where boats used to tie up in front of guildhalls for hundreds of years when Gent was a major trading center. The weather was perfect too--we really lucked out.
Here's one shot I took, of a tour boat going down the canal. We didn't have time to take the 55-minute boat tour, but that's something that would be really fun to do another time. The area around the canal was a good place for the girls to stretch their legs without worrying about traffic, but I'm glad I strapped them in The Stroller as we went down toward the cathedral - there's a major bus/tram transfer point and the roads are very busy.

We met up with the group to reconnoiter, settled on a meeting place and time, and then went into Cafe Leffe for lunch, just our family and Mr. K. The girls shared a Croque Monsieur (that's hot ham and cheese) and the rest of us had omelets. Our coffees came with something sweet on the side (this is the norm - if you order coffee, you either get a little cookie or a chocolate with it) and we shared those with the girls.

After lunch, JieJie wanted to stay with her daddy and MeiMei wanted to come with me. We ducked into a chocolate shop and got a treat - mine was made to look like an acorn and it had hazelnut filling. Hers was a chocolate covered cherry. We got extras for John and JieJie. Since we were right by the big cathedral, we went in there to see it and it is truly magnificent. We lit a candle together (she said her usual dinnertime prayer) and then went around the nave. The sculpture around the pulpit was most impressive. Above the priest is a "roof" and above that is a depiction of the tree of knowledge from the garden of Eden with a voluptuous golden snake entwined in the branches, and a golden apple hanging from one spot (at least I think I remember the apple!). Seems a clear enough message. There's a famous tryptich in there by Jan van Eyck but there wasn't time to see it on this trip--another reason to go back. Mr. K says he prefers Gent to Brugge because it's a working city, not so much a tourist destination. I'm inclined to agree, though Brugge is enchanting.

We gathered everyone together to head for Brugge, another hour or so on the bus. I had prepared for the ride - you never know the girls' frame of mind that time of day, so I had some sticker books for them to play with and they each chose a college student to help them find the pages where each sticker was supposed to go. I had time to look out the window and daydream. What a lovely way to travel, and the girls were truly great--interested in things, willing to try all the different foods, and good about the time on the bus.

We arrived at the Brugge bus let-off and met our tour guides. With such a large group, we split into two smaller groups for the city tours, and John hit it off with our guide right away because this guide teaches American history as well! The walking tour of Brugge was great, though I missed about half of it because I needed to keep the stroller at the periphery of the group. No matter - the city speaks for itself much of the time. We walked down streets no wider than the hallway of our apartment, and strolled out into magnificant plazas with stunning architecture. Much of Flanders and The Netherlands has a style of roof called a "step gable" - I have a photo of a street in Brugge that shows it fairly clearly - you can see how the facade comes to a stepped point at the top in the row of buildings at the right.
After the formal tour concluded, John joined us for a walk to a museum called Choco-Story ( where we learned a little about the history of chocolate, how it grows, what people have made from it, even different types of beautiful serving and storing containers called bonbonnieres. And of course you get to sample some chocolate along the way. The girls got this little sticker game to play as we went through, so they'd have to watch for different important things in the different exhibits. It was a great way to keep them looking really carefully at things, rather than just heading straight for the samples!
We had time to kill, so we strolled around the compact historic center of the city and wound up at the Markt, a great big public square with spectacular buildings on all four sides dating from architectural eras spanning the last thousand years or so. Maybe that's what's so impressive about both Gent and Brugge (and Antwerp for that matter)--seeing so many different aesthetics and building materials/methods right up against one another, distinct yet harmonious.
Dinner filled me with trepidation. We had hoped the girls would nap during the walking tour but they didn't. This meant that they could be at the very end of their energy for the day right during dinner...yikes.
We took up most of the restaurant, the 35 of us, which helped a bit. The girls had some buttered bread to start, and then a tomato cream soup arrived in little turreens--it was absolutely delicious. The main course was salad, steak, a baked potato AND frites (french fries) with ketchup or mayo. Mayo is the Belgian way. The girls actually did pretty well, and when they wanted to get down and wander between courses, which we normally don't allow, it worked because they just wanted to go sit in college student laps. The students were really great with them.
Dessert was called Dame Blanche, but it's really vanilla ice cream and whipped cream with hot fudge sauce. Mind you, in this case it was the best chocolate sauce I've ever had. Mr. K says it won't be our last Dame Blanche, that it's a pretty common dessert here.
We walked to the bus, girls fell asleep in the stroller and we thought for sure they'd sleep all the way back but they woke up as soon as we got on the bus and stayed active the whole time. Luckily there were several students who were interested in showing the day's photos from their digital cameras, sharing music on ipods, or just playing patty-cake games.
We got home and fell into bed at 9pm - what a day! Sunday we did little to nothing - most things are closed anyway. We watched some cartoons, hung out in our pj's, and did a late afternoon walk around the deserted Meir shopping street, where the huge TOTALE UITVERKOOP (everything must go!) signs are now being replaced by a sales term I need not translate: NIEUW COLLECTION! The fashion for spring seems to be, in no particular order, ruffles and more of the layering, with dominant colors being white and khaki. Blah. I may have to sit this one out.

No comments:

You can search FTJ for past posts, e.g. China info...