September 2, Tuesday
We were all packed and ready when our friend Lynne Carlson arrived at 10:30 in the morning to take us to the airport. When we got there we had her take the documentary picture that we were on our way.
That was about the last good thing that happened for a while. We wanted to make sure that we arrived early enough, so we had time to grab a bite to eat. The chicken tenders and fries were pretty bad and neither of us finished them.
The flight started out ok, but as we approached Atlanta a couple of hours later the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that they were having severe thunderstorms in Atlanta and that we would be circling till it cleared. This dragged on and he came back again and told us that we had to land in Knoxville and fill up our gas tanks. That’s a half hour away and while they were fueling, someone got the great idea that passengers who were going to Knoxville anyway might just as well get off while they were there. This gave the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms fits and by the time they finally gave their permission, another hour had passed. By the time we spent the next half hour flying back to Atlanta, our flight to Brussels had departed.
They do have procedures in place for situations like this. We went to their service desk to get things fixed up and while standing in line we noticed that one of the clerks was WAY slower at getting things done that any of the others. Just take a guess which one we got. He didn’t seem to be able to get anything done by himself and was on the phone on hold practically all the time. It soon became obvious that since we weren’t the only ones in this predicament that all the available flights to Europe had been snapped up. Our only choice was to take the same flight we had been scheduled on, only 24 hours later.
We got our new boarding passes and an unexpected but appreciated voucher to spend the night at a Comfort Suites motel, complete with shuttle service. After checking in, a short walk took us to the Cancun Mexican Restaurant where we had our next mediocre meal.
I decided to go to sleep early but in the middle of the night I woke up with a stiff neck caused the oversized, over-hard pillow. I decided to try the inflatable airplane pillow that we bought for this trip. Perfect. I snoozed away and only woke up when Karen started using the hair dryer after her shower.
We grabbed the complimentary breakfast and jumped back on the shuttle, ready to spend the next 7 hours at the airport cooling our heels for the next chance to miss our flight to Brussels. At least I got a chance to write this blog while waiting. Up to this point at least.
September 3, Wednesday
We got the shuttle back to the airport by 11:00am the next morning but had to wait around till 5:50pm for the flight to actually take off. While we were waiting I noticed it raining a little bit and thought, “Oh boy, another delay”. But that didn’t happen and we took off on time.
The plane we were on was configured with 2 seats on the left, 3 in the middle, and 2 on the right. I have figured out how to put the aisle armrest up so I get an additional 2 inches of seat room, plus whatever I can hang over the edge. The only problem with this is that the stewardesses tend to bang into you with the dinner cart every time they pass by. I was surprised by how often they came around with drinks, dinner, snacks, etc. They also announced that we could have complimentary alcoholic beverages. So over the length of the flight I had a couple gin and tonics, with Bombay Saphire no less.
All the seats were equipped with a little TV in the back of the seat in front and there were all sorts of movies, TV shows, music, and video games that you could watch to amuse yourself during the flight. I wasn’t much interested in any of that and mostly had the display set to the trip progress screen that showed a little airplane taking the great circle route from Atlanta to Brussels. That was until I figured out how to turn the screen off altogether.
I had a digital book to read, but that didn’t appeal to me much either. What I really wanted to do was get some shut eye. To no avail. Even the inflatable airplane pillow that saved me the night before was no use. When we got there we were pretty tired.
Even though customs and immigration took a while, we didn’t have any problems.
September 4, Thursday
By this time it was actually Thursday morning, even though it was one continuous day to us.
There is a train station in the basement of the Brussels Airport so we went downstairs and got a train to Bruges. We had hoped that it would be a non-stop one, but we had to change trains at Brussels Nord. When we got on the train to Bruges, it must have been rush hour and we only just fit on the train at all. We had to stand up and it was shoulder to shoulder. Very unpleasant! Bruges was about the fifth stop on the journey and an hour from the airport. We hoped and hoped that enough people would get off at one stop or another and we could sit. It didn’t happen. We had to stand the whole way in the hot, unairconditioned vestibule. Later, we were able to worm our way into the carriage proper. It was airconditioned at least and so was fractionally better, but that didn’t help our sore feet.
When we got to Bruges, our hotel was only about 6 blocks from the train station, but we got turned around, exited on the wrong side and added about 3 additional blocks of walking by the time we arrived at the Hotel De Barge.
We were exhausted. We lost a day in Bruges because of the delayed flight. All in all, our vacation was not starting out well. But stay with me, the fun really does begin here…
After arriving at the Hotel De Barge Karen had a shower to get refreshed and feel better while I lazed around and checked my email. To my joy they had a fan right there, just waiting to be turned on. The only problem with it was there was a shortage of electrical plugs around the room and I had to plug it in in an inconvenient place. But a fan is a fan. A white noise generator and manual CPAP machine is never to be looked on with scorn.
Later, we talked to the concierge and found out where the bus stop was and took a bus into the central market or Grote Markt. It really is a lovely place. We took pictures of 3 sides of the square but somehow neglected to take a picture of the fourth side, the side that was featured in the tower scene in the movie “In Bruges”.
We decided to have our first real meal of the vacation and stopped in a nice little restaurant right on the square, the Huyse De Maene, Bistro-Brasserie Grand-Café. Most restaurants that we saw while we were there have an outdoor area and tables inside as well. The outside tables all have chairs with arms, making them too narrow for my wide-load deriere. But most of the inside tables have armless chairs so we could eat inside or get them to swap a chair out if needed.
We had our first Belgian beers too. Karen had a Brugse Zot while I had a Straffe Hendrik. They make it real easy for you to remember what you had, if you take a picture. They pour the beer you order into a glass with that brand on it. I was afraid that Karen would not care for the beer too much, but from the very first glass, she was sold and had many different kinds during our vacation.
We ordered off the prix fixe menu. Both of us had pâté for the starter. Karen had fried fish and I had delicious roast chicken that was on a bed of pureed peas and cheese sauce. Both of our dinners were accompanied by the ever present frites, or French fries. I have to say that the fries were good, but no better than any served in a nice American restaurant.
Our waiter was attentive and we liked him a lot. When we were in France five years ago, I only took two pictures of people. Those were two of my most favorite pictures from that trip and I was resolved to do better this time. I asked our waiter whose name was Yves if I could snap a shot of him. He not only said that would be fine but said it would be better yet if he was by Karen.
After eating we walked around the square and did a little browsing and bought our first Belgian chocolates and also a selection of macarones. Very delicious.
The jet lag was starting to get the best of us so we headed back to the hotel and went to bed early.
September 5, Friday
This was our son Lance’s 45th birthday.
The Hotel De Barge is a houseboat in one of Bruges’ main canals, the Kanaal van Gent naar Oostende. Like all but one of the places we stayed, it had breakfast as part of the price of the room. It was very nice with lots of selections to choose from. I probably overdid it a little and in the future days I limited myself to a lighter meal to start my day. There was a nice breeze coming in the open window and ducks were swimming just a few feet below.
We were going to take a bus to the Groeninge Museum, but when we got to the bus stop we discovered that there was construction going on and the stop had been relocated who knows where. Against my better judgement we decided just to walk the rest of the way, which turned out not to be as bad as I had feared.
We had crossed the canals a few times and decided to take the boat ride before the museum. We really love boat rides. And while the things we saw were very interesting, the boats were tiny and were packed to the gills. I had hoped for a lot of photo opportunities but there was hardly any room for me to turn around and Karen ended up taking most of the shots we got. Still it was worthwhile.
On to the museum. There were lots of interesting paintings and some sculptures. Most museums allow photography, but only without flash. This is the rub. It means that with the low light, many of the pictures suffer from camera jiggle. After we had been snapping away merrily, we realized that most of our shots were blurry. We took a lot fewer after that.
Just a couple of blocks from the Groeninge was the Gruuthuse Museum, also on our list. We had a hard time finding it, but when we did, it was closed. Dang! We walked into the main courtyard to discover a street musician playing the cello. Great acoustics and lovely music. There were also several interesting sculptures in the neighborhood. Among them were the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and two lovers that seemed to be covered with a flowing shroud.
During our wanderings we shopped a little and snooped a little and frequently stopped for the occasional refreshing beer. You know, because we were thirsty from the walking. I had a Leffe Ruby Beer that had cherry flavoring in it. Karen’s favorite turned out to be Leffe Bruin.
At one place Karen looked up and noticed a shop that she rrecognized from a Rick Steves recommendation, The Chocolate Line. We had to have some of those.
Karen wanted to take a carriage ride. I highly recommend them. They are a little pricey, 39 Euros for the whole carriage, but they cover a lot of area and let you see things you wouldn’t otherwise if you had to depend on walking to them all. We passed a church that was the one that had the Michelangelo sculpture in the movie “The Monument Men”. We had been right by it earlier without realizing it and now it was too far to go back to.
We did see the old, old town square, called the Burg – it was the one before the one that is famous now. It was only about a block from the new one so we went there. On the way back I saw a motorcycle that was just like the one I have back home. We also saw an old lady sitting in her doorway making lace with all the bobbins. Later, when we stopped in a shop to buy some post cards, there she was on one of them. We bought that for Wendy.
Karen had been hankering for the famed Belgian Waffle so we stopped to have one of those. Her verdict was it was just delicious.
On another corner we noticed this bronze sculpture of a man in 19th Century clothing. People were gathered around it and I could hear them dropping coins in a bucket in front of it. When a coin went in the bucket, the statue came to life, like autoanimatronics. He was a clever street performer. Karen went over and put a coin in the bucket and was rewarded with a little show. I noticed that the more coins that went in, the longer the performance. Karen didn’t get a whole lot for her one or two Euros.
We headed back to the Hotel and had dinner on board that night in their restaurant. I had escargot for the starter and rabbit with prune sauce for the main course. Karen had lobster soup with Armagnac and for her main course, duck a la orange. I told them I didn’t want any onions on the rabbit and the chef had a fit saying it wouldn’t taste right. Well, it tasted about a thousand times better without those lousy, stinking onions.
After dinner we checked our email for the day and got all packed up in preparation for an early start in the morning.