Oops, missed the bus at Bruges…
Day-tours are quite enjoyable…structured, planned, with tips on must-sees, must-eats, must-drinks and must-buys, informative tidbits, juicy legends…a taste of nature, history, culture, architecture, culinary traditions and crafts, all rolled into one. Pied Piper takes you merrily along the destined path and you play ‘follow the leader’ meekly, most of the time that is.
Except when you naughtily sneak into a pretty by-lane or cheekily step into an enticing archway. Except when you lag behind enraptured by the cute window-sill laden with a fairytale group of ceramic gnomes or when you pace ahead, drawn by the half-open door of the next room in the mysterious castle corridor. Sometimes, you linger on for half a dozen more photos, and you miss the bits of the commentary, and then you hurry to catch up with the group.
Cute, huh? Mostly, yeah. Until you miss an important point. Like that time in Bruges, when we missed the bus back to Brussels, because we lingered too long, we didn’t pay attention to the guide’s instructions to find our way back to the bus, and neither did we bother to take one of the route maps he was handing out. “Yeah, yeah, we got all that. As if we’ll get lost”…I had muttered impatiently under my breath, while the rest of the group hung on to every word. He had spelt it out loud and clear: “The bus will not wait for anyone.” Over-confidence kills, we realised woefully later.
Time flew past…as we drank in mouthfuls of the tranquil beauty…picturesque canals shimmered as they flowed under arched stone footbridges, white swans skimmed gracefully over the waterways, flower-draped, quaint cobblestone streets curved past turreted manor houses with gabled roofs and and shops overflowed with antique treasures, vines draped down to touch the water of the Reine canal. Stunning Flemish brickwork facades blazed in the sunlight and I traced fine architectural details…wooden medieval doors, stone gargoyles, circular and teardrop-shaped windows with diamond-cut traditional crown glass, intricate lace curtains, reliefs on walls showing apprentices at work. All houses facing the water, not because of the views, but because that’s where prime business used to be…thanks to transportation on these waterways, brewing and textiles had reached their zenith in 14th-century Bruges.
At the Markt in the town centre, we immersed ourselves into the flawless medieval and Neo-Gothic architecture, the string of restaurants with outdoor tables overflowing with food and Belgian beers, the hypnotic clip-clops of horses’ hooves and the regular quarterly chimes of the manually operated 47-bell carillon of the square’s belfry. Little window-fronts of lace shops showcased home decor items made of the famed Bruges bobbin lace…testimony to the history of a painstaking, local skill dating back to the early Renaissance era.
It was the chocolate capital of Belgium, and we were literally smelling chocolate at Wollestraat, the chocolate hotspot of the town. Shops were packed shoulder to shoulder on both sides, and each enticing display of pralines, figurines, sweets and slabs were tempting us non-stop. We stepped into one chocolaterie after another, mesmerized by the delicious variety lining the glass shelves…classic milk to almond praline to pure liqueur filled gourmet delights…countless types from the simple to the intricate… each with their own sophisticated flavours and heavenly textures.
Traditional flavours to wildly experimental ones including black olive, tomato, wasabi, fried onion, bacon, curry, basil…the chocolate mecca was enough to drive anyone crazy with its piles of pralines and trays of truffles. Prices for chocolates were generally between 50 cents and 1 euro each and chocolate was sold by weight, starting with 100-grams. It is said that people of Bruges buy fresh chocolate like others pastry or bread. But we would stock up enough to last a few months! Vikas kept reminding me of the time, but each time there was ‘just one more’ chocolate shop I had to go into. Finally, I was done chocolate-ing and we hurried on towards the bus park.
Not only had we lost track of time, but our sense of direction as well! The guide had cautioned that the bus wouldn’t wait for late-comers and we were panicking because we would get left behind. A couple of wrong turns turned disastrous and we were stranded without transportation back to Brussels. Embarrassment, irritation and frustration writ large on our faces, we recalled the emergency return route the guide had mentioned in case anyone missed the bus. Vikas glared at me. I dared not utter a word.
It was a strenuous 15-minute march to the train station. The train ride cost us 6 euro per person…but we would have happily spent three times that to get a seat. It took us an hour to Brussels, standing in a compartment crammed with people like sardines in a can, we didn’t speak, we were tired, our legs hurt and the chocolate bags were heavy as lead. I swore never to be late again! We had been disciplined…the hard way.