25 September, 2009

NOT "In Bruges"

In preparation for my trip to Belgium, I inquired among my friends if anyone had actually been there, and if so, which part(s). Unsurprisingly, a few had visited the lovely medieval town of Bruges, extolled its beauty, and wholeheartedly recommended a visit. Being the skeptical sort who becomes instinctively wary of popular and overly hyped destinations, I consulted my guidebooks and was swayed by both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, who were unanimous that Bruges was a "must see". Oh-kay.

Most Americans have heard of Bruges, either from the travel "expert" Rick Steves (whose endorsement is akin to a town hitting the Megamillions jackpot), or from the movie "In Bruges" starring Colin Farrell which came out in 2008. (Disclaimer: I borrowed the DVD from my library, renewed it for another week, and yet never got around to watching it). The movie was actually shot in Bruges too, and not in some Hollywood studio. Not that Bruges needed any help from Tinseltown, as its reputation for being the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium, its picturesque canals, and magnificent architecture all but ensure a year-round influx of tourists, and busloads of day trippers.

On my journey, I also spent a few days in the university city of Ghent, and couldn't resist the inevitable comparisons with Bruges. Both were charming, medieval towns, and offered those ubiquitous canal boat rides, with the one in Ghent by far the more enjoyable. I climbed up the narrow circular steps leading to the top of the each town's belfry tower and give the edge to Bruges' (higher, thus more strenuous exercise as well as better views). Food-wise, restaurants, bars, cafes, and tempting chocolate shops were bountiful everywhere. Additional points are scored by Bruges for having a Tintin shop, though Ghent one-ups them with a McDonald's outlet.

Yet, looking back, I realized that while both places were fun and interesting, I enjoyed myself more immensely in Ghent. WHY?! The decisive factor was most likely the liveliness of Ghent in contrast to Bruges, which kinda empties out at night after the daytrippers return to their respective travel bases. Moreover, Ghent had a more authentic, "un-touristy" feel (though of course there are quite a number of tourists) vis-a-vis the Disneyland atmosphere that prevails in Bruges.This is verified by my wholly unscientific Tourist Trap Indicator - the number of Japanese tour groups being led around like sheep by a umbrella-wielding guide. No wonder that while Bruges is the most popular destination in Belgium, survey after survey of Belgian natives invariably result in Ghent being voted the top destination they would like to visit in their own country. Can't argue with that. Now I'll go and rent that darned video again, and make sure to actually watch it this time.

For more photos of Ghent (20 or so), check out this
slide show with hard-to-notice captions below each photo.

Check out more Belgium blog posts here.

Pictured above: (top pic) Ghent belfort tower, (bottom pic) Ghent's Gravensteen Castle (no castles in Bruges, ha!)


Pritam said...

May be you will change your view after watching the movie. Am sure it will better than your slidshow ;-)just kidding. The photgraphs are nice and weather seems great.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Antwerp and even though how much I love my own city and think it is worth visiting as well. I also think Gent is the belgian city to visit outside of Antwerp. And that I also like to visit from time to time. Even though I think both Gent and Antwerp are equally good in their own way. Bruges is indeed way to touristic. It's often called "venice of the north". And it is , and that makes it less enjoyable. Btw, if your looking for shops ,Antwerp might actually be your best shot because it is has a huge shopping street and a lot of shops that can't be found in Bruges or in Gent. Antwerp has for a example a nice tintin shop in the heart of the city ;). And it's not in a mcdonalds.