My time in Bruges, the Venice of the Nort

Sam Tarter

Nowadays, filmmaker Martin McDonaugh is most known for his most recent directorial effort, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a film that—while failing to win big at this year’s Academy Awards—won over the hearts of many and saved Searchlight Pictures from another box office dud. But for years, I have known him, along with actors Brendan Gleason and Collin Farrell, for the dark-comedy independent masterpiece “In Bruges.” I don’t remember what made my family and I watch it many years ago; I think it was a rainy summer day and my Mom saw “comedy” under the Netflix description, along with a poster featuring a young and dashing, Collin Farrell, and she was sold. I didn’t expect much, since I was young and didn’t understand or appreciate much about the art of filmmaking at the time (usually, if a movie didn’t have superheroes, my thirteen year-old self wasn’t interested). But instantly, I was transported into what I now consider one of my favorite films. The dialogue was superb, realistic, and genuine. Having now taken two semesters of Screenwriting, one of my favorite things to write is dialogue. I used to dread it, but this film (along with the guidance of my incredible teacher) taught me that all you need is to base it around the characters and their environment. And what an environment to put your characters in: described as the Venice of the North, Bruges is the most well-preserved Medieval city in Belgium. Various characters throughout the film describe it as “a fairytale town,” or that being in Bruges is like being “in a dream you don’t want to wake up from.” So for years, it’s been my dream, to visit a city I fell in love with through film, and to explore one of the best uses of “on-location” sets I had ever witnessed. I’ll save you all of the boring details of how I booked what and where I found certain tours and opportunities. Half the fun of Bruges is discovering the mystery of it for yourself, and taking it in as you get there, not reading/learning about it before you go. However, I will tell you some must-sees, must-dos, along with my story of how this trip almost didn’t happen, but why I’m so grateful that it did. If you read anything about Bruges, you’ll hear the same things every time: climb the Belfry Tower, take a river tour, walk around the city as much as you can, and eat as much Belgian chocolate and fries as you can handle. All of this, to no surprise, is true. The Belfry is, in my opinion, the most beautifully designed structure in the city, and without questions will give you the best view of the great city, either in the early morning or towards sunset at night. The only way to buy tickets is online through the Brugge Musea website, where you can not only get a student discount, but also select which time you want to climb (time slots are available every 15 minutes). Boat tours are found everywhere in the Main Street, so there’s no need to reserve online. For the last three highlights, however, I do have some options for the best experiences you can find. For walking around the city, there is a guided historical tour provided by the Legends tour company. Known for their red umbrellas, tourists can find this tour option in the main market square (or online), and the best part is that it is totally free! This tour company understands how many young college students are traveling to so many great places, and how tight their budgets are, so their belief is that anyone, of any budget, should be allowed to explore Europe, Bruges included. I won’t spoil the tour, since it was truly a delight that taught my friend and I about various Bruges mysteries and showed us a multiple of hidden gems, but there is one specific highlight that I want to acknowledge, that being the Begjinhof. Absolutely, hands down, visit this “city within the city” even if you can’t go on this tour. A tour guide will explain its story and history, but just be prepared for the most beautiful flower field in Belgium, and the coolest church you’ll visit in Bruges. Speaking of Churches, right next to the Holy Blood Chapel (known for a relic which supposedly houses a drop of Jesus Christ’s blood) is a small chocolate shop simply entitled Chocolaterie de Burg, which in my opinion had the best chocolate in the whole city. Always fresh and known for its melt-in-your-mouth consistency, Belgian chocolate was never better than at this little shop run by a very kind owner with free samples and tons of great suggestions. If you’re looking for something more filling, the Casa Patata (which translates to Potato House) will not only give you some delicious Belgian fries, but some incredible toppings and a great lunch view that you can’t anywhere else in the city. Obviously, feel free to select your own variation of the classic Belgian dish, but my personal favorite (and the restaurant’s #1 seller) is the beef stew option, topped with fresh braised beef, gravy, garlic mayonnaise, freshly shaved onion, and parsley. Is it a lot? Yes. Is it messy? Absolutely. But, with how much you get for less than ten euro, and the view of the Rozenhoedkaai lookout point right behind you, you can’t beat the experience. My friend and I ate Belgian fries while sitting on an ancient bridge, looking out at a beautiful river and an incredible medieval church. If that isn’t heaven, I don’t know what is. Lastly, I want to leave you with some honesty: Bruges is not easy to get to. Unfortunately, its not next to an airport, and whether you fly into Brussels or Charleroi, you’re still a couple hours ride away either via train, bus, or shuttle. However, it’s worth it, and if me gawking over it isn’t proof, maybe this brief story will be. It took me two days to get to Bruges. Yes, two whole days. Should it have? No, absolutely not. I was supposed to leave on a Thursday and arrive on Friday morning in the great city. But, train strikes were scheduled on the day of my arrival, and my flight wasn’t refundable or able to be switched for an earlier time. So, I left on Wednesday night, spent about 24 hours in Manchester, flew to Charleroi, spent the night in Charleroi, and then finally left for Bruges via train that Friday morning. By the time I arrived, I had already been traveling and sitting around for 48 hours. I was exhausted, upset, and all I wanted to do was just be there. I could have, and probably should have, taken an easier way to get there and back. I would’ve saved time, gotten more sleep, and been a lot less stressed. But when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. In the end, I got there on time, I got back to Harlaxton safely, and I didn’t get lost or bankrupt because of it. Because when I look back on my time in Bruges, the three days that I spent there, along with the three days it took getting there and back, I’m not gonna remember everything. God only knows the name of the restaurant I went to on my first night or the amount of Belgian fries I ate. The departure and arrival times of my train and plane tickets are long forgotten, like the receipts I threw in the trash the second I arrived back in my dorm at Harlaxton. Even if I tried to think back on it now, I couldn’t tell you what was so special about Belgian chocolate, only that it tasted amazing. With how much I accomplished in 72 hours, a multitude of memories will be lost to the oblivion of time; that’s inevitable when you backpack across Europe. But I’ll always remember how out of breath I was when I got to the 366th step of the Belfry tower, and the pure sense of awe shone across my face when I saw the entire city I had dreamed about for years. I’ll never forget the tears of joy that started to form in my eyes once my friend and I walked upon the Main Street, taking in the smells of waffles, the sounds of vendors and cyclists, and the sight of the most beautiful architecture I had ever seen. My heart will forever yearn to walk across the ancient bridges that go across Reie River, and my tastebuds will always long for the best arepa I will ever have. Most importantly, I’ll never forget the utter joy, the bliss and jubilation, of having a destination, a goal of a lifetime, and making it work. Sure, upon arrival I was tired, sweaty, and more stressed than I should have been for a vacation. All I wanted to do was take a power nap and rest my feet that had been walking upon train platforms and rough cobblestone sidewalks for more hours than I had slept that day. But instead, once I was in the heart of it all, all I could do was gawk and admire everything around me: the Belgian language, the incredible views, and some of the most friendly and inviting instances of culture I’ll ever experience. To get to say to myself, in spite of train strikes and last minute changes, that I made it; in the end, that was more impressive than any building I saw or any historical fact I memorized. Did it mean I was fastly approaching adulthood? Sure, but for once, this was a moment to be proud of that, and not to dismiss it. So, if you get the chance, take a couple trains, a bus or two, and a round-trip flight to my city of dreams. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

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