In the flat plains of West Flanders, Belgium, Bruges was our first travel destination as expats in the Netherlands. We had been together a few years ago and while it is a town to enjoy as unencumbered adults, it was also a place that we were excited to show our kids someday. So when Jenn’s dad and step mom were coming into town and were looking for a halfway point between Paris and Amsterdam to spend a weekend on their way to Normandy, Bruges was an obvious choice.
There is a stillness to Bruges that even though thousands of tourists of every nationality descend upon its quiet streets every weekend you can still sense and see. Its town center dates to the Medieval times and the Belfry clock tower on the town plaza was built in the 13th century. One can only fathom the tapestry of time that tower has witnessed: the somber carts bearing victims of the black plague to the hinterlands, the heretics consigned to fiery judgment amidst the inquisition’s European crusade, and the Nazi footfalls that marked the occupation in 1940.. For my part, I imagined all of this while enjoying a Belgian Lager in the town center at 11 PM after the kids had gone down. A late summer open-air concert bathed the square in music, and the juxtaposition was unmistakable – Radiohead’s haunting “Creep” echoed beneath the medieval arches as I sat having the lager, where 20 somethings danced under modern strobe lights, their voices echoing the refrain, “I don’t belong here…” Did we, I wondered?
Our hotel was in a 15th century palace once home to the rich and famous of West Flanders and still can be recognized as such with its grand staircases, impressively high ornate ceilings and maze-like hallways. The kids were jazzed that they got to stay in a palace and best of all it was right by the center of town so to walk anywhere took just minutes. Bruges was around centuries before cars and one can immediately sense that driving was never meant to happen here, which is obvious when you try. In many places the cobblestone streets are so narrow foot travel the only practical option.
I’m not going to romanticize what it’s like being in such a lovely place with children… toddlers and six year olds have an uncanny ability to make an otherwise perfect afternoon suddenly turn into a nightmare: whether it be a faceplant on wet cobblestone, a sudden insatiable thirst after the water bottle ran out, or an inability to pass a trinket store without demanding something inside. But for the most part, we were able to get past this and to be in such a place as a family was unforgettable. Jacob loved the ubiquitous steamed mussels for which the town is famous, Owen (and everyone) liked the chocolates and waffles, and dad liked the beer. Combine this with it being the first time family was out with Jenn’s Dad visiting from the USA and this was the perfect way to try out traveling around Europe as pseudo-Europeans for the first time.
As if we had spent the weekend in Winter Park or Ft Collins, Colorado, we loaded up the car and headed home. The sun was setting on the horizon against the backdrop of farmland dotted with five century old windmills as we drove home. The whole scene seemed it could have been from a tourism brochure to visit the Netherlands, yet this was just our commute. I dropped the car share (courtesy of MyWheels) off a few blocks down from our house, Jenn put the kids down and we were ready to get back to our lives. What normally would have been a vacation in and of itself was a quick weekend trip from our new home.