Cities / Towns Visited: 8
Countries Visited: 4
Steps Taken Today: 19,888
Steps Taken Around the World: 591,647
As you can imagine when travelling all year, you are bound to have days that fall on special occasions, and today was one of those days. Today was our 4 year anniversary, officially the longest relationship either of us have ever had, and in planning for this we had arranged to try and have a special day to celebrate. Thus we awoke, and after eating our last hostel breakfast in Ghent, packed up our bags and travelled to Bruges. Travelling on a budget can become tiresome, there is only so many uncomfortable beds, noisy roommates, and low quality cheap meals you can handle before you occasionally have to splurge, and so for our anniversary we had decided to book ourselves into an expensive B&B next to the canals as a treat. After lugging our suitcases over cobblestones for 20 minutes to reach the place, we were exhausted to say the least, but as we opened the door to the room, all the annoyance washed away. The room was huge, with an unbelievably spacious and comfortable bed, a rain shower, and a massive bath; we were in heaven.
Enjoying the room to its fullest would have to wait for the evening though, as we had a new town to explore. Now cobblestones are the bane of your existence if you are vainly attempting to wheel a suitcase over them, but sans suitcase, the whole town, cobblestones and all, really is picturesque. Seemingly all of the people who actually live in Bruges do so in the area surrounding the old town, as I imagine it is much easier to access and much cheaper, but the historic centre is like something out of a fairytale. I half expected to see a Disney princess come round the corner with a menagerie of woodland creatures in tow. Meandering along the canals, drinking in the scenery and letting it recharge our weary souls, we moved through the town square, with its grand old clock tower, until, on a whim, we veered suddenly to the right, entering a small chocolate shop with an extensive selection of handmade goodies. We assured ourselves that being in Belgium and it being our anniversary was a perfectly acceptable reason to buy a box of chocolates. By the time we left we’d managed to snag a box of 17 different flavours which we had picked ourselves, for the bargain price of €10. We would eat them later in the bath, we reasoned, as we carefully placed them in the backpack.
We continued onwards, until we finally arrived at the Begijnhof, an old community from 1245 which once was home to widowed or single women, who chose to live chaste and pious lives, without taking the same vows as nuns. It is now home to Benedictine nuns, and a few Bruges women who have chosen to remain unmarried. As soon as you walk through the gates it is clear that this is both a historic, and a tranquil place. Quaint houses from the 1700’s, and a small chapel for the nuns, surround the beautiful inner garden, full of shady trees and a carpet of daffodils. The place really does make being single look like an appealing lifestyle, but as I smiled at my partner and he squeezed my hand, I knew that it wasn’t the life for me. Although on leaving I thought to myself, that when I finally settle down I will endeavour to create a quiet space in my home where I might have a little bit of peace in the hustle and bustle of our modern lives.
As we wandered towards our next attraction, we quickly ducked into another chocolate shop which makes flavoured hot chocolates (just read that as cup of hot milk with your choice of flavoured chocolate on a stick that you mix in until it melts). My partner opted for Cointreau, whereas I selected a Speculoos flavour, a spiced shortbread style biscuit popular in Europe; both were delicious. Powered by sugar and contentment we arrived at St Jaanshospitaal (St John’s Hospital), an old hospital from the 1200’s which only officially closed as a working hospital in the 1970’s. It now houses a few displays of old medical implements, a few reliquaries (I still don’t understand displaying random finger bones of saints), as well as a large collection of the religious art which once adorned the building, most notably a number of pieces depicting Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the patron saint of nursing (amongst other things). Most of the pieces are by Hans Memling, a Netherlandish painter. It was all very beautiful, but not being religious, it was hard to be truly stirred by the works.
The hospital ticket, however, came with something I was highly interested in; entrance to the old pharmacy, which used to service the hospital from the 1600’s. The pharmacy has been kept the same as it would have been during its use, with giant mortars and pestles for grinding herbs for tinctures, large ceramic pots and jars, as well as the locked cabinet which held poisonous substances. The room next door was used for teaching, and still holds the portraits of the tutors who once taught the nuns and other carers how to treat the sick and wounded. Much like my fascination of mental asylums, I find it fascinating to see how we used to treat the sick, before the advances of modern medicine; the tinctures and concoctions we used to administer, many of which we now know caused more harm than good. It does truly make you thankful for medicine of today, and although we like to sook about all of the diseases we have not yet found a cure for, I think sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture and appreciate the fact that, unlike hundreds of years ago, if you get an infection or the flu the mortality rate is incredibly low in first world countries.
Our last activity for the day was, of course, a boat cruise through the canals. They are the arteries which bring this city to life, and if you ever find yourself here, I would beseech you to travel upon them. We, and 28 other tourists, tumbled into the boat before being whisked away by our rather eccentric captain who switched between Dutch, French, and English commentary so seamlessly that we sat literally gobsmacked. This rather rugged and disheveled looking seafarer, who appeared like something out of a cartoon, was multilingual, to an envy inspiring extent. As we ducked under bridges, and weaved through the city he showed us all of the important landmarks, including the two we had already visited. Pointing out a few famous locations from the Colin Farrell film, aptly named, In Bruges, the captain evoked a few oohs and ahhs from those on board who had seen the film, neither of us being of that group. Travelling is good like that though, it inspires you; to watch certain movies, read certain books, delve deeper into certain historic events. I would encourage all of you to go forth into the world and be inspired.
Feeling fancy, we dressed up in our best and headed out for some hearty traditional Flemish food, to celebrate our anniversary over dinner. When travelling it is important to try and eat the foods of the region, eat local, taste the history of your temporary home. I will never understand those who travel across the world only to eat McDonald’s, or, as I heard one lady suggest in London, go out for Thai food in a country half a world away. After entering the quaint little restaurant we ordered Flemish style white asparagus to start, then traditional Flemish rabbit stew, and mussels in white wine. This all came with an endless stream of fries which simply get topped up by the waiter when you’re running low. It was all delicious, and although it was expensive (like almost all restaurant food in Western Europe) we left fat and happy, walking it off as we weaved our way back through the warren of streets to our awaiting bath.
Our night was completed with a soak in a bubble bath, coupled with the relaxing powers of peppermint tea, as we tucked into our chocolates. Shout out to the passionfruit caramel one for being best in show. As we let the warm water sooth our weary muscles, I took a moment to appreciate the man who has put up with me through all of the ups and downs, through my depression and anxiety, for the past four years, and has done so with patience and kindness. A man who will say sorry first when I struggle to, will forgive quickly when I err, and will endeavour to bear the weight of life when my shoulders falter. A man who sacrificed a lot to pay off his debts and save to come with me, and make my dream of travel come true. A man who I am grateful to have by my side as I explore this beautiful planet. We would go to the ends of the earth for each other, and here we are. Be thankful, all of you lucky enough to love and be loved in return; it is one of the greatest, and most precious, gifts you will ever receive. Do not take it for granted, as you will be separated all too soon; time cares not for the desires of the heart.