Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series.
The hotel I booked at a frugal price turned out to be quite far from the city center. It also had a strong cigarette stench in the room, besides other deficiencies. Too late, I learned I could have booked a room for a similar price close to a train station. Lille’s claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle.
The trip back to the city tourist office took over an hour for an unexciting short tour of the city center. Later, I purchased a 24-hour pass for all public transportation so I could see different areas of the city, such as monuments, historic buildings and art museums, but my enthusiasm for the city was marred by the unfortunate train delay.
I returned to Lille’s Grand Place for outdoor dining and had to cope with heavy smokers everywhere. I ordered a combination of the area’s typical fares, including beef stew cooked in beer, a rabbit dish and bread with turkey and a slice of their famous cheese, Vieux Lille, whose nickname is ‘stinking pickle.’ Starting with this dish, I brought it to my mouth but the strong cheese stench almost made me vomit before I even put it in my mouth. I lost my appetite and could not even try the other dishes. So much for the usually excellent French food, but it fit the whole day’s experience, and I could not wait to leave for my next destination, Bruges, the next day.
I had purchased a Eurail pass and learned I could go without reservations on any train except high-speed ones. As the conductor checked my ticket, I asked whether it was direct to Bruges as stated on the printed schedule. It was a good thing I asked because he said no and I had to get off at the second stop and take another train. He said a French security system required this change and all printed schedules were incorrect. I had only five minutes after getting off to find the correct new train and board it. No wonder so many independent travelers get frustrated and stick to guided tours.
My reservation was at an ETP hotel that is like the Motel 6 of Europe with a convenient location close to the train station, very clean accommodations and free Wi-Fi, but the beds were rather hard. It was just a short walk to enter the main tourist area of Bruges, a world UNESCO site with a population of about 22,000 in the historic area, but more than 110,000 in the surrounding region. To give you an idea of its popularity, it receives more than 1.2 million visitors a year.
I am frequently asked if I get lonely on my solo travels. Usually, the answer is “no,” because there are advantages such as being able to adjust to quick schedule changes, using frugal accommodations without worrying about someone else’s comfort or the inevitable frustrations that occur. However, Bruges is one of the most romantic places to visit with its picturesque medieval village, cobble stone streets, canals with boat rides throughout, restaurants overlooking squares or canals and walks around Lover’s Lake. It would have been nice to share this experience with someone.
A walking tour ticket purchased from the tourist office included a visit to the Crown Plaza hotel. When they started to excavate for an underground garage, they discovered an old church that Napoleon had sold in order to enlarge a square. A good restoration job with many exhibits is located underground here. Another stop at Church of Our Lady, Bruges, which dates back to the 13th century, is the tallest building in town at more than 122 meters (400.3 feet). Its brickwork is said to be the second highest in the world. Inside the church there are three sculptures of Madonna with Child. One of them was made by Michelangelo and is the only one outside of Italy. When Michelangelo was first starting out, an Italian nobleman commissioned him to make a Madonna and Child. It is said that the nobleman refused to pay for it because the Child was naked. A visiting Belgium businessman heard about it and purchased it from Michelangelo who was in need of funds.
Another popular church to visit is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is located above the Chapel of St. Basil and reputedly contains a rock crystal vial of Jesus’ blood that was obtained during the Second Crusade. The blatant suggestion to donate has put off many secular visitors with a donation box prominently displayed before entry. I heard if you make a significant donation, you would receive a certificate attesting to your devotion.
I discovered there are a few tours from Bruges to World War I sites and had I known, I may not have gone to Lille. The tours were not running on Mondays, so I decided to visit the town of Ghent that is a short train ride away. I arrived early at the train platform. Shortly before the scheduled arrival, I noticed I was standing alone. I checked the signs and discovered that a change had been made and the Ghent train was coming to a different platform. I heard no announcement and a passing conductor never said a word. I had to hurry to locate the correct location. It was a local train and was late for arrival so got on board on time. I was not at all impressed with Belgium train service.
Ghent is a fairly large city of 250,000. I had the address for the tourist office, but could not find it. Passersby had no clue where it was. It had moved with no sign indicating new location. It was supposed to be near St. Bavo cathedral, where a side chapel contains Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I finally located the office. I had spent considerable time walking to locate it, but enjoyed viewing the unique buildings and the Het Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts). If one wanted a medieval castle model this would be a good choice with its turrets and high walls. There are canal rides allowing one to see many places in comfort but the English narration was very short compared to other languages. There were many museums that I was unable to visit because of time limitation.
I returned to Bruges to savor some other famous Belgian dishes. I ordered a thick Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. It was OK, but I’ve had better at home. Another highly touted item is moules-frites that is mussels accompanied by Belgium fries. I first tasted mussels in France and enjoyed them. However, I had tried them three times in California and became violently ill. The first time was eating paella and did not suspect the mussels. The second time was a small portion at a sushi restaurant and thought it could be caused by other dishes. The third time, I was pretty certain it was the mussels. Since I had enjoyed mussels in France, I wondered if there was a difference. I took a small bite for taste but my brain screamed “stupid!” I stopped and munched on a few pieces of fries but I had lost my appetite. The waiter kindly offered to get me something else so I had some pizza, but I was still worried. I was offered dessert, but decided to return to the hotel. It was now two hours since my bite of mussels so I thought I would be fine. It was a good thing I was in my room because I began evacuating from both orifices for the next few hours. Exhausted, I fell asleep not wanting to miss my tour to Ypres and World War I sites scheduled early the next day.
I booked Quasimodo Tours (Quasimodo.be) for an all day Flanders Fields Battlefield Day Tour that included Passchendale, a preserved battlefield, a German cemetery, bunkers and craters, restored trenches, the town of Ypres and the Menin Gate with the eight-hour tour costing 65 Euros (less than $90 at an exchange of 1.37 Euros per dollar). Some of the highlights on the tour included seeing unexploded shells that are almost a century old still being uncovered by farmers and the site where Canadian military surgeon John McCrae wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Field.” Red poppies still grow in profusion here. The Canadian government has erected a monument commemorating the original site. A nearby cemetery contains the youngest British soldier to die in the Great War, Pvt. John Condon, at the age of 14.
There is some dispute as to his correct age and whether he is actually buried here. At any rate, young schoolgirls frequently leave flowers and other memorabilia at his tombstone.
The year 2014 will be the centennial year for World War I, the ‘war to end all wars’; so large crowds will be visiting these sites. I enjoyed visiting the area before the official start when crowds and prices escalate. Sitting in the comfort of home, I can recall my visit here while watching and listening to the news events.
Las Vegas Tidbits
If you are a fan of magic shows like I am, I highly recommend the Jeff McBride Wonderground Show (vegaswonderground.com) that is put on every third Thursday of the month at Olive Mediterranean Grill & Hookah Bar, 3850 E. Sunset Rd, LV 89120, phone (702) 451-8805. There is a bargain price of $10 for admission. Doors open to at 7:30 p.m. for seating and the early stage show starts at 8 p.m. Close-up magic in an adjoining room begins at 9 p.m. and the late stage show starts at 10 p.m. Many magicians perform and each show is different. The Olive is a Mediterranean restaurant with good food that can be eaten in the main restaurant or ordered in the section for magic.
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.