Searching for Sunshine in the Benelux - Part 3

We see lots of Windmills in Kinderdijk and then visit our old friend, Bruges

Tuesday. August 31

We checked out of the very nice hotel in Delft, and I suggested we drive to a place suggested by all the guidebooks, called Kinderdijk. It wasn't too far away, but to get there we had to drive through Rotterdam. Rotterdam is a major sea port. We passed many highways, barge canals, trucks, overpasses, cloverleafs, warehouses, factories, office buildings, and container loading cranes, lots and lots of container loading cranes. We drove a seemingly random path through all this industrial infrastructure, until we finally came to what looked like a pristine marshland. It wasn't natural marshland, however, since it had been reclaimed from the sea. Kinderdijk is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites, and contains 19 old windmills! We took hundreds of windmill pictures. No maybe thousands! We wandered around the area marveling at them. We realized that many of them were being lived in. Finally the rain caught up with us. I don't know why people find windmills so fascinating. Maybe because they are old. Maybe because they look unique. Maybe because they are attractive, and yet practical. We loved looking at a whole bunch of them, almost as far as the eye could see.

Back in the car, we looked at the map. I suggested heading south, to try and get away from the bad weather. I though it might be interesting to drive down a road that went along the western sea coast of the Netherlands, and then cross into Belgium, and maybe go to Bruges. Donnie agreed, so we headed that way. We spent a few hours leisurely driving down a small highway, until we reached the port town of Vlissingen. (It turns out that the English translation for Vlissingen is Flushing! New Yorkers will recognize that name.) Our map (a Michelin map I had bought on my previous trip here, 15 years ago), showed a ferry from Vlissingen to the other side of a large bay, near Belgium. We drove around and around through Vlissingen, looking for signs for the ferry terminal. We saw no signs. We finally drove to an area that looked promising, with lots of boats, and found a train station, and signs that said ferry parking, but still no ferry itself. We stopped at the train station to use the restrooms, and then I suggested checking the building next door. Sure enough it was the ferry terminal. However, we found out why there were no signs directing drivers to the ferry. The ferry terminal had a sign with little pictograms on it: a picture of couple of people, a picture of a bicycle. a picture of a motorbike, a picture of a motorcycle, with a big red X through it, and a picture of a car, with a big red X. No cars or motorcycles were allowed on the ferry! Well, now we would have to drive very far inland to get around the bay before we could head further south. Donnie noticed on the map another indication of a ferry, about halfway to the end of the bay. She decided to ask at the ferry terminal whether this other ferry took cars. She went to the ticket desk and had a rather lengthy conversation with the ticket lady, and came back smiling. No, the other ferry didn't take cars either, but there was a good reason. Not far from where we were was a tunnel! We learned a lesson at that point - don't depend on a 15 year old map. We drove to the tunnel, drove through the 6.6 kilometer long, spotlessly clean tunnel, and after a little while ended up in Belgium. Donnie was now a little upset because we had no map of Belgium. She always likes to know where she is. Anyway, by following signs, instead of a map, we made our way to Bruges.

We had been in Bruges about 7 years earlier, but had only seen a little bit of it because Donnie had become ill. We wanted to see it again. We drove into town, and parked the car. We were going to find a tourist information office, to try and find a hotel, but we discovered that the tourist information office was far away, near the train station. We were a bit concerned, since it was late afternoon, about 5 p.m. We had no hotel reservations and no map of town, and now no real idea of how to find a hotel, and I could tell that Donnie was tired. Well we wandered a block or two, passed two hotels, one a very expensive looking place, clearly out of our price range, and one next to it that looked a bit seedy. We walked another block and were just on the edge of the main market square, the most famous place in Bruges, when Donnie perked up and said, "Follow me. I remember where to go". Sure enough, she walked us about 2 blocks and we came to the very nice Hotel Navarra, which we had stayed in 7 years previously. The hotel was still there, and still quite attractive. We went in, and with trepidation, asked if they had any rooms and how much they were. They had a room. It was very reasonably priced, in fact, I think it was cheaper than when were were there before. They had their own private parking area. They could let us have the room for 3 nights. They had an elevator. They had free wifi. They were two blocks from the main market square, the center of old Bruges. Perfection!

We checked in and went to our room for a few minutes, and then went to bring the car from where we parked to the hotel parking lot. Donnie had gotten a map at the hotel (Hooray!) and assured me that it would be easy. I said that even if we got lost, we should just remain calm. She assured me that we would not get lost, that she knew exactly what turns to make. We walked to the car, and drove out of the small parking lot, and when we reached the first street to make a turn according to Donnie's plan, the street was blocked to cars. Well, Donnie, the trooper that she is (with built-in GPS!) , quickly figured out an alternate plan, and got us to the hotel parking lot without another hitch. After bringing in our luggage, we went out to take pictures in the beautiful early evening light.

While taking pictures, Donnie was checking out places to eat. After a while she suggested going back to a place we had passed, saying that she wasn't too hungry and just wanted a snack. I wasn't so keen on the place, because I had thought that it was just a snack bar. It turns out that she was right and I was wrong. Donnie ordered something called Waterzooi, a famous Belgian dish, which was like a stew with chicken and potatoes in a creamy sauce. It came out in a huge bowl (some snack!). I found that they had a special three-course menu which sounded interesting, first a cheese Kroket, which was like a mixture of cheese and mashed potato, deep fried, which came with a small salad, and was delicious, then for my main course, Flemish Beef stew in a sauce made with beer, and finally some home-made ice cream. Oh yes, my beef stew also came with Belgian Fries. Most people are unaware that the French did not invent French Fries, the Belgians did. And they know how to make them better than anybody else. My fries were piping hot, crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, tasting of potato. The best fries in the world! (In fact, it would later turn out that these were the best fries we had on the whole trip. And we had a lot of fries). Oh yes, they serve them with mayonnaise.

Wednesday, September 1

We woke up, got ready to go out, went downstairs to a lovely buffet breakfast included in our room price, and went out to greet a beautiful, sunny day. We walked to the main market square, which amazingly, on Wednesdays, contained a market. We had read that there would be a market there the night before. I had expected this to be some tourist-oriented market, with souvenirs and snack bars and cheap chinese t-shirts, since this was the main tourist area of Bruges. Wrong! This market was clearly for the locals. There was lots of fresh produce, wonderful looking (and smelling) cheeses in a huge variety, breads and pastries, sausages, meats, both raw and hot off the grill, fish, you name it. Even though we had just finished breakfast, the market made my mouth water. There were many local people carrying shopping bags, and standing in front of the stalls buying things.

We wandered around the market for a while, taking pictures, of course, and trying not to buy something delicious, since it was too early for lunch. We then left the square and did something we rarely do, but which we thought would be fun. We wandered aimlessly around the streets of Bruges. It was fun! Bruges is a lovely place. Even after you leave the touristy parts, the rest of the city is lovely.

Bruges was a medieval city, surrounded by a wall and a moat. The wall is gone but the moat is still there. More importantly, many of the medieval buildings are still there, and those that aren't have been replaced by ones that look old. The streets are full of beautiful old architecture, with no modern glass-and-steel office buildings to deter from the beauty. Even the residences are old looking. We both agreed that we would love to live in Bruges. Even though it is supposed to be a tourist Mecca, we love Bruges. Maybe as much as we love Venice. (maybe a little bit more).

After walking around for a while, and having a little snack in an outdoor cafe next to the moat and a windmill, we walked back in the direction of the center of town and the main market square, to head back to our hotel for an afternoon rest. I insisted, however, that we make a slight detour to stop at Dumon. "What is Dumon?", you ask. Only a tiny, tiny little old shop selling the best chocolates in the world. Inside is Madam Dumon and her daughter selling the most incredible chocolates. The place has been recommended by travel guidebooks, TV networks, magazines and newspapers from all over the world. We bought a 250 gram box of dark-chocolate-covered candied orange peel (one of my favorites, which was also one of my mother's favorites) and another 250 gram assorted box. I wanted to go somewhere and buy an empty suitcase and bring it back and fill it up. In fact, there was an English couple in the shop finishing their purchase when we were there. They bought 6 kilograms (12 pounds!) of chocolates, costing over 130 Euros. Bravo!

Thursday, September 2

Today we thought about having an easy relaxing day, and not doing too much. We got up late and had a leisurely breakfast, and figured we would only see two things today: the Lace Center, which is where there are women making lace by hand, and the "Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard" which was supposed to be one of the most tranquil spots in Bruges, and a UNESCO world heritage site. A Beguinage, we found out, is like a convent for women called Beguijns, who were like Nuns. It was supposed to be beautiful and tranquil, and it was. It was a very lovely site, and very quiet and tranquil (well, they did have a bunch of signs all over the place saying "Ssshhh"!).

It did take us quite a while to walk to and find the Beguinage. On the way, we passed so many Chocolate shops, I decided to start a photo essay of just pictures of Chocolate shops in Bruges, but soon I realized that I didn't have enough camera batteries and storage cards for that. We sometimes counted 5 or 6 on the same block. Donnie suggested we buy some Chocolates in each shop we passed so we could do a scientific comparison. I heartily agreed, but somehow we never actually did that, a pity! Anyway, by the time we got to the Beguinage and saw it and started walking back in the direction we needed to go to get to the Lace Center, it was mid-afternoon. Then Donnie discovered that her camera battery was out of juice. I suggested we take a detour back to the hotel to get another battery, and then head to the Lace Center. We headed in that direction, making one slight detour. We stopped again at Dumon chocolates and bought another 1/2 kilo! We walked another block and a half back to the hotel, but by the time we got there, we decided we were too tired to walk all the way to the Lace Center. We rested in the hotel room for a short while, and then Donnie said that we really needed a map of Belgium. There was a travel bookstore back in the Markt, so we went out again and walked a block and a half back to the Markt and bought a good map of Belgium.

By this time, Donnie was hungry for dinner. She really wanted to try the "Moules et Frites" (Mussels and fries, the Belgian national dish) at a restaurant she had found on the Internet which was supposed to have the best "Moules et Frites" in Bruges. We had tried to go there the night before, but they were closed on Wednesdays. We had settled for another place, which had been a disappointment. We walked through the Markt square to the restaurant, and found that it wouldn't be open for another hour, so we walked around a bit and sat on some park benches and waited until the restaurant opened. We shared a special fish soup. Donnie had mussels in a Provencal sauce, and I had fried mussels in butter and garlic. We shared some Belgian fries. Everything was delicious.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Bruges. That will be sad. Bruges is one of our favorite places. We are very glad we came back. We'd love to stay a long time (preferably within walking distance of Dumon Chocolates!).