So far, we had travelled all over Europe by MegaBus – not always the most comfortable option, but certainly the most economical. As opposed to other bus lines and trains in Europe, MegaBus sells the first few tickets for every trip, for just one pound or one dollar or one euro. The ticket prices go up as more tickets are sold, but it takes a lot of tickets being sold for the prices to really go up. For our journeys to date, we paid the following:
Philadelphia to Boston: $5pp
Edinburgh to Stirling: $3pp
Stirling to Inverness (Scotland): $8pp
Inverness, Scotland to London: $17pp
London to Paris, including the ferry crossing: $60pp
Paris to Brussels: $8pp
Brussels to Amsterdam: $1pp
All good things come to an end though, and Amsterdam is currently the end of the line when it comes to MegaBus in Europe.
Our first taste of train travel was the 1-hour ride to Bruges from Brussels. Ironically, the cost to travel just one hour by train between these two cities was more expensive than most of our international bus trips had been. On this train, we learned something else interesting – they often don’t check to see if you have a ticket. They also don’t check to see that you’re in the correct car, and we didn’t realize until we arrived in Bruges that we were accidentally in the first-class car. Oops. (Although to be truthful, we later found out second-class was just as nice.) We now know that a train car with a #1 on it indicates first class. We’ll need to be careful as we take on more train travel, as we’ve also learned that train cars in Europe can actually split off the rest of the train at various points in a journey, so if the name of your destination is not on your train car, you may end up in a different city altogether!
Someone on Facebook commented that Bruges looks like a fairytale, and they could not have been more accurate in their description. We stepped off our train, began walking from the station into town, and couldn’t believe our eyes. This tiny town comes complete with charming medieval buildings, several beautiful squares, winding canals, and a wonderful lack of cars. As if that isn’t enough, there is a large population of swans that hang out in the canals. We felt like we were in a town of “Little People”, something like Who-ville out of The Grinch that Stole Christmas. Stephanie kept questioning, “Do people really live here?” It feels like a town that Disney created to take you away from the “real world.” In fact, we spent most of our time in Bruges just wandering around taking everything in.
As we wound our way to the city center, the famous Belfry began to rise into view. This 13th century tower was built simply because they could. Bruges was a wealthy city then, and wanted to make sure everyone knew it. It stands on Markt Square (sic) – one of two gorgeous squares that form the nucleus of Bruges.
In several cities we’ve visited in Europe, there are bicycle stations where you can rent a bicycle very cheaply, ride it as long as you like, and drop it off at any other station. Depending on the city, these bicycle rental names very slightly from “Velo” to “Villo” to “Velib” and so on. To Stephanie’s complete dismay, these bicycle rental systems seem to be limited to those holding a European address-based credit card, and no matter how many cities, stations, and credit cards we tried, we could not rent them.
Fast-forward to Bruges, where bicycles are also plentiful. Here it seems bicycles are not just popular to rent for short rides from the Villo stations, but most locals own a bike and use it regularly for transportation. On our first full day, we rented bikes and followed the scenic, tree-lined canals to Damme – the next town over. Seeing the countryside by bicycle like the locals is a fabulous way to experience Belgium. It only took about half an hour to get there and we drank in all the picturesque farm country along the way; saying hello to the cows and sheep and “skunk ducks” (black ducks with a white stripe on their head & bill).
We continued on past Damme for another half hour, and then stopped in to check out the town hall with its sundial clock and the crumbling, ancient church. Once we returned to Bruges, we followed the ring road and did a loop around the city where we even encountered a few windmills. It’s worth noting that, like Brussels, Bruges has fabulous chocolates, but they are more reasonably priced. We decided this fact combined with our calorie-burning bike ride were reason enough to indulge, and we found a little confectionaire off the beaten path with what might be Elliott’s favorite truffle as well as the best prices.
On our last day in Bruges, we actually went inside a few sights including City hall on the Burg Square with its incredible “Gothic hall.” We also couldn’t resist checking out the Basilica of the Holy Blood which has on display a vial that allegedly contains some of Jesus’s actual blood. To be honest, the brown mass was a bit gory looking, but it didn’t spoil our fairytale city. Later that evening, we were sad to have to say goodbye to Never-Never Land.