I had to be in the office early the next morning but I was still awake. News articles refreshed on my computer screen as the events from Brussels unfolded. The suspected terrorists from the Paris attacks had been found and had a shoot-out with the police. Three officers and a civilian had been injured, two suspects were on the run and the city was in lockdown.
While checking how many hours sleep I would be getting, I got hold of Lauren to discuss our options. We were to travel to Bruges in two days with a short stopover in Brussels. We monitored the situation the following day and decided to proceed with our trip. Terrorists could not prevent us from living our lives.
We wandered around the Brussels train station and found what appeared to be a train heading through Bruges. After an hour on the train, we emerged from the station and followed one of the roads to the city’s centre. Busy highways and industrial estates transformed into quiet cobbled streets with quaint houses. Tourists strolled in the light drizzle, looking at their maps. Lauren had forgotten our map so we stood on a corner with an attempt to get our bearings. Turns out that we were half a minute from our place.
The apartment we had rented was perfect. It was a duplex with a living room and kitchen on the ground floor and a bedroom with an ensuite upstairs. The window gave a spectacular view of a tower, which looked even more magnificent at night.
After dropping off our bags we immediately went to explore.
The city itself is tiny with a population of only 117,000 residents. The buildings and houses had a Gothic feel with monster towers sprouting from the urban inhabitant. A common feature of the city was the chocolate shops. You could not walk for a minute without passing one. These shops were not just for kids either. The ‘chocolatiers’ took their craft seriously with elegant displays of their products. They reminded me more of high-end jewellery shop than a place to sell sweets. It was the best season to browse, as the Easter egg ranges were in full force.
Before heading back to the apartment we needed to find a supermarket to stock up the duplex with some supplies for the next few days. I tried to dust off my tourist French but the locals spoke Flemish, as a tourist you can easily get by with English anyway. After a few loops we found a Carrefour supermarket. I discovered Sweet Chilli Bugles crisps that I became addicted to for the remainder of the trip.
Later that night as we were cooking, I switched on the TV that was set on the Belgian news channel. Through the images and my limited French it appeared that the main suspect for the Paris attacks had been wounded and apprehended. I finally felt more relaxed about being in Belgium.
The view from our courtyard was beautiful. Branches from a blossom tree hung over the wall from the Old St. John’s Hospital. The building had history oozing out of it (not literally). It started off as a spiritual centre of Europe where travellers and pilgrims came from all over to have their souls healed. Word spread and soon doctors joined the ranks and the place transformed to a centre of both spiritual and health care. Old St. John’s Hospital is one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings.
The main hall, where we walked down through aisles of historic displays,once hosted rows of open beds where doctors worked tirelessly on suffering patients. After viewing the doctors’ instruments from the time period, I was grateful to not be around to be operated on with tools that should have belonged on a construction site. I learned that this was the place where Ambroise Pare worked. He was most famous for his work in surgery and pathology. He also discovered that bandaging wounds was the most effective way of letting them heal rather than alternative methods such as using a hot iron to sear them closed. Thanks Ambroise.
In between sightseeing we treated ourselves to waffles. I was not going to go a day without having a waffle. Especially when enjoyed by the side of a canal. Lauren found the best flavour of the trip, strawberry and white chocolate.
We were never far from the main square of Bruges. The square was bordered by historic buildings with the centre being a snapping ground for tourists. There were horse drawn carriages being deployed every few moments though I would refuse to take one as the horses did not appear to be rested enough.
There were also many ‘Tea Rooms’ on offer, that were small cafés. I tried my best to avoid these tourist traps that looked like settings from Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. We were fortunate to find great places to eat in the evenings. A swanky burger joint called Ellis Gourmet Burgers and a homely Italian called Vincenzo. I recommend both, especially the Kiwi & Lime Lemonade.
The trip would not be complete without a climb of the famous Belfry of Bruges. The tower is the city’s most famous landmark but I know it best from the Colin Farrell movie, In Bruges. Definitely not the reason I picked this city to visit.
I took on the 366 steps to get to the top. We passed a girl on the way of spiralling staircase who was frozen in her tracks. “I can’t go any further,” she told her friend. Towards the top, the stairs narrowed and out of nowhere appeared a rope to help with the ascent. After pulling myself up, I took in the view of city. It was worth the climb. As Ralph Fiennes character put it so eloquently, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f***ing thing?”
Less than 24 hours after I left Brussels, terrorists carried out three attacks in the city. Targeting the airport and a metro station, their bombs killing 35 people and injuring many more.
My initial reaction was not that of horror or of my own safety but of deep sadness of the continuing waste of life by extremists. People are murdered to strike fear in our communities. Yet despite this, they will never win.
We must keep striving for better strategies for the war torn areas of the world. Once these regions become more stable, the breeding grounds for radicals will dry up. Brussels, Paris, Turkey, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Syria…the list of places being hit continues to grow but our resolve remains. To honour those who have lost their lives, we must live ours to the fullest and without fear.
Je suis Belge.