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Published: December 10th 2009
Finally a chance to sleep in. At about 8:30 in the morning, I awoke from my restful slumber. The room had its own private shower so I scrubbed off yesterday’s filth in private and made my way to the room where breakfast was served. The cafeteria was littered with small clusters of older middle-aged hostellers quietly chatting over tea. (cheap pricks!) My morning fare companions were of the bearded class. They (and when I refer to bearded, I am not being gender specific) were of German or Austrian origin. Surveying the gaggle of lederhosen spendthrifts, I determined that this hostel would not rank high in the Lonely Planet: Partiers Guide to Travelling through Europe. Sitting down at my table, I decided to order the entire menu for my morning fare. I was a hungry young lad. Pouring myself a coffee, I complemented my first course with a slice of bread and was on my way. Yum.
Ghent is a nice place to spend an evening but it does not warrant a more extended visit. I just wanted to go stop there because I read about the castle in my bible. Regardless, I took a couple of hours to explore the city before heading to a town located on the coast, called Bruges. Gravensteen Castle, the aforementioned castle and place I saw the night before with the haunting lights was situated in the centre of the old city. It was my first, and interestingly enough, only attraction that I saw while in Ghent. Apparently, the castle was first constructed in the 12th century but has been built and rebuilt on several times throughout it’s’ history. Even as early as 50 years ago the castle stood in ruins. Thankfully, the castle was recently rebuilt to its' former glorious splendour thus giving me a reason to stop in Ghent.
Passing through the entrance to the castle grounds, I was immediately struck by one interesting fact. This castle employed only two people. Employee number one, a lady, sat in the ticket booth and collected money and the other fellow ran the castle museum. There were no tour guides, no security officers and hardly any visitors. It was just the castle and me. Therefore, with limited nourishment to feed my famished brain and an overactive imagination, immediately I transformed myself into ‘Markus William IV, Lord Protector, King of Ghent’. I toured my courtyard. Hordes of peasants chasing chickens scattered to and fro, desperately trying to steer clear of me as I surveyed my grounds. Passing through the marketplace, a sneaky squire tried to buy my favour by offering me a freshly stuck pig. I refused and ordered him to be pilloried for insulting my obvious superior position. As I passed the alleyway that lead to the festering sewage pit, I barely noticed some old hag. She/he was clad in muddied rags, smelled like death and sat on the dirt muttering to herself. I avoided the mess, scaled the stairs that lead to the walkway atop the castle walls and continued my tour. Looking out from between two turrets, I saw my people scurrying about their work. A stocky fellow shearing (not shagging…he is Belgian not Scottish) a sheep glanced upwards. I returned a visage of indignation that accented my rank. How dare he look at me, lest it be in wonder and amazement? In the courtyard, a young lady was being weighed to that of a duck. Afterwards she would be drowned in the bog after being declared a witch. I followed my tour to investigate both the torture chambers and the latrines. By this time of the morning the Belgian coffee I had scarfed back earlier was doing its job and I felt a sudden urge to take a royal crap. I neglected to complete the act of eradication as my royal wipers were nowhere to be seen. Following up the session in the Royal Crapper was a visit to my personal chamber. Oh…to remember the days where scores of mistresses and chambermaids visited my room to personally ‘pay their taxes’. Unfortunately, as the castle was deserted during my visit, I was unable to convince a visiting damsel join me in the royal chamber and re-enact the civil act.
Continuing down to the base of the castle, I left my imaginary kingdom, rejoined real life and promptly found myself in the mausoleum. Within the crypt I found the most interesting and unique of discoveries. Near the entrance, there I found the remains of a tomb. However, it was no mere tomb. Before me, a single layer of plexi-glass separated me from the grizzly remains of some dead guy. As I scratched away at the glass looking for an easy way to dislodge the bindings, the bones of an ancient king, queen or bog-witch eerily stared back at me. How strange? If I was able to break open the case, I would have taken a leg bone as a keepsake. However, that would be wrong and probably difficult to smuggle through customs. I left the crypt empty handed, continued to the exit and ventured back to the train station. Farewell Ghent. It was a slice. Now…on to Bruges! (Whatever and wherever that is.)
My excitement for the day was not limited to pretending that I was a king nor to digging up dead folks. The train ride had some excitement intertwined into it as well. Once again, Mark, the absentminded tourist, took the wrong train. Due to the fact that it was a cloudy day, I did not own a compass and the maps in my bible were useless at best, I mistakenly chose the train that went south instead of west. Needless to say, once the train started to roll, I realized my error and the fact that I was heading the wrong way. I got off some obscure outpost station marked with an unpronounceable name and took a connecting ride to Bruges. It was here that I immediately determined to reverse my mistake and get back on the right foot. She was a beautiful young scarlet with long rich red hair that curled down below her shoulders, a slim athletic figure and an adorable, pretty face. The young lady spoke fairly good broken English and we conversed for almost an hour. As the Belgian landscape raced past, our meandering yet intimate conversation made for a wonderful journey…until it was suddenly interrupted. At a station down the line, the ‘friend’ she was waiting for, boarded the train. To be precise, the ‘friend’ was her jealous boyfriend. Needless to say ‘Mr. Insecurity’ politely indicated that he never wanted to see me in Belgium again. That was excellent news as I am not one to bat from the other side of the plate…so-to-speak. I was also not interested in running into him on some future visit, however, the young scarlet, on the other hand, would be an excellent reason to return to Belgium.
Upon arrival in Bruges, I located the bus that would take me to the Bauhaus International Youth Hostel. According to a pamphlet found in Brussels, this fine establishment was rated as one of the five best hostels in Europe. It had better be! I just came from the Ghent HI……which had, conversely, been rated one of the five dullest hostels in Europe. Eventually, I found the hostel tucked along a quiet street marked by upscale souvenir shops and chocolate boutiques. To my astonishment, while looking for a place to lay my head for the evening I found a place where I could fill my head with pints of beer! What a wonderful bout of luck! There were not one but two bars located right within the hostel. I could have easily spent the afternoon touring the results of the famous Belgian breweries, but as it was only early afternoon, I decided to take the room before heading out for a quick peek of the city.
The resident ‘bell-girl” directed me to my cot up in the attic where I was presented with my accommodations for the night. Ascending the stairs, I was greeted with the prospect of choosing my own bed from one of twelve lovely cots. How peachy! Scattered around me lay a newfie, a hoosier, a wetback and an outback. This place really had an international flavour. I made plans to meet up with them on the dinner hour but in the meantime decided to check out the sights.
Bruges is a fascinating place. It had much more personality than Brussels. It also had a few more years of history. The town dates back to the early medieval age. Following the lengths of Bruges’ many canals I suddenly found myself in the heart of the town. The buildings were breathtaking. Turning to my left, I was dwarfed by the Belfry Tower. It was an ancient structure that towered skywards. To my right, there was the Bruges Provincial Government building. It was a fantastic structure plastered with hand-crafted marble sculptures. Everywhere I looked; it seemed that I encountered another work of art. It was within this state of mesmerisation when I tripped over a gem. It was called the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
It was within the short time spent wandering the tiny halls of the Basilica of the Holy Blood that I consider one of those experiences whereby one second guesses their faith or lack thereof. How could I believe in no higher power when others have believed in so much? How can generation upon generations of ordinary people dedicate their entire lives and spend all their energy creating such magnificent shrines when I blithely choose to rationally dismiss their efforts as the splendid results of a fearful, repressed and deluded society? The experience left me feeling rather perplexed.
On the surface, the basilica is a tiny church tucked into the back corner of a crowded town square. The showpiece relic is a solid silver and gold tabernacle which contains a glass canister. Legend stipulates that within this glass canister lie droplets of blood taken from Jesus Christ as he was washed after being taken down from the cross. I really don’t know if this is true, however I am a tad sceptical. From what I can read, crusaders brought the relic back from the East in the Middle Ages. The tiny room was also adorned by a priceless series of paintings and carvings. In utter amazement I stood back, tried to capture the silence, breathed in the atmosphere, felt shame for the folks snapping off pics at the scared relics and slowly removed myself from the place of worship.
After leaving such poignant and important attractions, it is always difficult to easily transition to the rest of the tourist pabulum. Nevertheless, my next stop was the Bruges Stadd. This was their town hall. It has been used as a centre for local government for over a thousand years. Upon close inspection I decided that this civic purchase was a good allocation of tax dollars. Standing in the centre of the great hall I tried to make out the history of the region by examining the paintings and embroidered draperies that hanged on the walls. Eventually the exhaustion of the past few days got the best of me and I decided to take a trip back to the hostel and grab a little nap. Dinner for the evening was spent with the Yank from Indiana and the Newf from the Rock. All in all…another pleasant yet hectic day.
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