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Published: March 30th 2018
It was not long after our arrival in Bruges that we became aware of the horse-drawn carriages transporting gawking tourists through the historic sections of the city. The rhythmic "clip-clop" of the horses hooves striking the cobblestone streets is a constant, and unmistakeable, background noise to which we soon became accustomed. So this morning, despite our initial reluctance to spend 50 euros ($65) for a "buggy" ride, we decided to give it a try.
The carriage rides start and end at the Markt Square, after a 30-minute circuit that winds its way south from the square, past many of the historic landmarks, before reaching the Begijnhof. Here passengers (and the poor horse) get a short break before making the return journey to the Markt. The weather this morning was mostly sunny, although a bit chilly (mid-40s)--hardly ideal, but better than riding in a one horse open sleigh!
Our driver, who turned out to be most congenial, described the major sights as we trotted past. The herky-jerky motion of the carriage made photography virtually impossible, but I managed to take a few photos when the horse slowed his pace, or came to a stop. During our pit stop at the
Begijnhof, we had an interesting chat with the driver, while our hungry horse gobbled his oats and drank some water.
It turned out the driver is 48-years-old, and has been driving his carriage for 30 years, after taking over the reins from his father. Much like the gondoliers in Venice, or even taxi drivers in NYC, the license to own and operate one of the limited number of carriages in Bruges is closely regulated by local authorities--including the fares, as all must charge the same rate. Our driver also explained that the well-mannered horses, which seem to know the entire route by memory, must undergo a 6-month training course before they are turned loose on the streets.
After returning to the Markt, we decided to walk back for a closer look at the Begijnhof, thinking we would have lunch at one of the many restaurants we'd seen on Wijngaardplein, site of the so-called Horse Head Fountain, a short distance from the entrance to the Begijnhof. Quite by chance--a "happy accident", perhaps?--we stumbled upon Malesherbes, a little French bistro in a narrow, nondescript pedestrian portion of the Stoofstraat, not far from the Walplein Square.
A small table for
two, and a menu board, set-up in the passage are the only visual cues of the bistro's existence. As I gazed at the menu board, I noticed one of my favorite French specialties--"cassoulet", a duck stew usually served with sausage, white beans, and some vegetables. We decided to give it a try, and were not sorry we did!
The tiny dining area, capable of seating 10-15 diners at most, had the authentic ambience of a classic French bistro. We were greeted by a very pleasant Dutch woman (in her 50s) who, as we subsequently discovered, acquired the bistro from a Parisian chef who had employed her for many years. Today, she and the younger Dutch chef she has mentored, now run the place with no other help!
The menu, although limited, included dishes such as sea bass, lamb, the duck cassoulet, and a salad served with scallops, which Dee ordered. Of course, I had to try the cassoulet, which was absolutely delicious! Over the years, I have eaten this dish many times in Paris, but never before have I encountered duck so tender that it literally fell of the bone with a fork! It was cooked to perfection,
as were the grilled sausage, white beans, snow peas and haricots vert.
We thoroughly enjoyed our meals, including the delicious apple tart, served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, that we shared for dessert. It was also nice to chat a little with the owner and her younger assistant, both of whom we complimented profusely about the food and atmosphere at their establishment; it was like a short visit to Paris!
After lunch we walked a few minutes to reach the Begijnhof (aka Beguinage), an idyllic complex where lay religious women (Beguines) have lived for centuries, without taking vows or retiring from the world. Originally, the Beguine institutions were convents, an association of Beguines living together, or in close proximity of each other, under the guidance of a single superior, called a mistress or prioress.
Although they were not usually referred to as "convents", in these houses a small number of women lived together, as small, informal, and often poor communities similar to others that emerged across Europe. In the first decades of the 13th-century, much larger and more stable types of these communities emerged in the region of the Low Countries. Dee and I
had visited the Beguinage located in Amsterdam several years ago.
Large Beguinages were sometimes formed, which consisted of several houses built around a central chapel or church, where religious activities took place, and often included buildings such as a brewery, a bakery, a hospital, and farm buildings.
Several of these Beguinages are now listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Today, single religious women continue to reside in the small homes of the Begijnhof, as well as a group of Benedictine nuns who live in a separate building on the far side of the property.
The grounds in and around the Begijnhof are an oasis of peace and tranquility, complemented by the picturesque canal and small lake full of white swans. We walked around the quaint and tidy homes of the residents, and then visited the small church on the premises, before returning on foot to our apartment.
Dee's comments: I know this sounds "touristy" -- we took a buggy ride this morning! But it was very informative, and our driver very nice. And I can't rave enough about our fine dining experience at the cute little French restaurant in an alley!
Another great day
in Bruges--looking forward to a canal cruise, if the weather is nice tomorrow!
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