Cities I love float on a continuous loop in my head, vying for a prime spot in my travel nostalgia. Sometimes, as has been the case with Montana, my sentimental yearning drives me to move there.
No matter what I may say later, it’s a sappy, sentimental ride from here on out.
Bruges sits in the mental spotlight at the moment—nearly a year ago, I walked those enchanting streets. And I don’t use the word enchanting to sound sappy or sickeningly sweet about it. The whole day, I walked around in a state of jaw-dropped, with castles, cobblestones, clocktowers, Christmas markets (oh mulled wine, how I miss you so).
After a battle with the Belgian train system a few days before New Year’s, stepping off the train at the Bruges (Brugge in Flemish) train station led me to blindly follow the sea of other Bruges-goers from the station, first stopping to snag a four euro travel guide to the city, culminating in the least research I’ve ever done on a place before arriving without a data plan or a real map.
On a trip through French-speaking countries with my non-French-speaking boyfriend, Bruges looked to be a welcome break from translating. As our host in Brussels had warned before we left, we should stick to English on the day’s jaunt since my French wouldn’t gain us any friends with the Flemish-speaking locals. What few locals there seem to be.
Bruges is a city of tourists, but like most tourist tromps, its filled with main arteries that a traveler can slip away from, down any alley or side street or canal, where the full beauty and age of the city stays steady without the flocks of other people. And the city is worth the fight for elbow room.
Founded as early as the mid-800s, every corner has another detail, something else that’s older than my imagination can really grasp. Reigning as the capitol city of West Flanders, Bruges could probably have more bookstores, but other than that I have no complaints.
To confess, the movie In Bruges is the only reason I heard about the city in the first place, the only reason I knew of a single Bruges landmark. But Bruges is filled with landmarks—on that four euro travel guide, it was an easy feat to trace a path from tower to tower to tower to tower. It was an utterly simple city to navigate because all we had to do was look up and pick out the next tower from above the tops of buildings. If we lost our way, we just had to meander back to a main artery and surf the crowds to a landmark.
In Bruges, I polished my now-time-honed travel technique of popping into a book shop every time I’m tired or cold, a strategy I highly recommend, if only for the athletic benefits of carrying ever-weightier bags around.
Working our way through a trail of happened-upon Van Gogh exhibits and antiquarian bookstores, we finally traced the path to the clocktower itself, at the head of a square stuffed with Christmas market. It warms my soul that European Christmas markets stick around a little bit after the day itself. Well, the mulled wine warms my soul, anyway. God, I love mulled wine. It made lung-freezing temperatures bearable while we strolled around the market square.
I sipped my mulled wine from a styrofoam cup, trying not to nibble the rim (that’s a habit that has to be bad for you, right?) while staring up at the clocktower—the In Bruges clocktower, of course.
In line outside to climb the winding tower steps, we laughed at the families behind us quoting from the film, as though we hadn’t been doing the same thing minutes before. The slanting wooden steps led to flying heights, but I relished the climb even more than the view.
As gangster boss Ralph Fiennes proclaims in the film, Bruges is a fairytale city, beautiful f*cking fairytale stuff, fitting in snugly with the season’s sparkling Christmas lights and frosted windows. It’s a city to wander.