I leave Ternuezen fortified by a full tank of gas, wafflenstroopen, chocomel and a good strong brew from the local coffee shop. Any sense of direction I had when I arrived has mysteriously vanished. Even with the vast North Sea guiding me, somehow I manage to take a turn that puts me on an exit-free path to the tunnel under the vast grey expanse orwater. This is particularly frightening since I can’t see any land where the end of the tunnel emerges. But what really mortifies me is the possibility that there might be a toll on the other side of the tunnel.
My mind races hysterically as I hurtle towards the tunnel entrance. I consider pulling over and waiting for the whole thing to blow over. Or maybe a helicopter rescue. Then next thing you know, I’m in the tunnel. The first thing I think of is Princess Diana and slow down. But there are no other cars in this tunnel and I’m in a hurry to get to Brugge, so I speed up. It feels like I’ve been in this tunnel for years. And frankly, the scenery sucks. And I see no indication this tunnel ends anytime soon. Dear God, what if this is some timewarp and I’ll end up back in 13th century England. Or another planet. Maybe I took a wrong turn and this is the Chunnel. Maybe I’m dead and the vast expanse of water I’m driving under or through is the River Styx? What if I’m the last person on earth? What if I never make it to Brugge? Who will take care of the kitties?
After what seems like an eternity, I spot the light at the end of the tunnel (or is it a mirage?). Once I hit daylight, all I want to know is how to get off this thing. And it looks like my only hope is the toll ahead. I stop and tell the woman in uniform my plight. I don’t want to be in Zeeland. I took a wrong turn. I want to go back (I point in the opposite direction my car is headed. And I don’t want to pay the toll. She takes my passport and tells me where to exit to get back on the highway. They will give me my passport back when I get to the toll going the other direction. It works and I’m back on the right side of the water again, looking for a sign that I’m heading in the right direction.
I cheer when I pass a sign that tells me I’m back in Belgium. My anticipation builds as the kilometers to Brugge displayed on the signs dwindle down to a sign that says “Brugge”, followed by long stretch of road flanked by beautiful, shady green trees. The scene beyond is golden fields dotted by little oasis of trees and cute homes. I wait for the sign “centrum” to guide my way. And wait. And wait. I start to pass little hotels. A parking area, that I assume is for tourists. But no centrum sign. I see a church looming and figure this must be centrum. Old European cities always have an old church at centrum. But as I grow closer to the church, it looks cute and quaint, but nothing like the pictures I’ve seen. Where are the canals?
I know by now that I must resist every instinct I have to stop, turn around, consult the map, so I keep driving. I’ll know when I hit the Bruges I’m looking for. But this is quite a build up. It’s near 6:15 and I’m getting panicky. I keep going, cursing the Belgians again. But this is the freaking suburbs. Where the heck is Bruges? All these signs say this is Bruges, but where the hell is the damn Bruges I’m looking for? Just as I’m about to weep, I look ahead and see several towering, ornate church spiers like a mirage in the distance. Buses pass me with routes displayed that indicate I’m actually heading towards centrum! Oh happy day!
The old city of Brugges (zentrum) is actually a surrounded by a river . Little cobbled bridges cross from new to old and I dare not cross them in a car, because even if cars are allowed in there, the streets will be very narrow and I don’t want to scrape my rent a car on some ancient building, so I find a place to park around the perimeter. I head towards the bridge that crosses over to the fairy towers.
I cross over and enter the enchanted kingdom. I stagger towards what I hope is the center of town, lightheaded with joy that I’ve finally arrived. As it turns out, the lightheadedness is hunger. I need food. NOW! And though I’m weak and feeble with hunger, I do know for sure that I want to eat somewhere outside so I won’t have to miss a precious moment of daylight in Bruges. That caveat doesn’t narrow the choices down much. Once again, the important decision of where to eat ids determined by which establishment I almost faint in front of.
I collapse at the nearest table and face another decision my hunger leaves me too frail to handle. What to order.. Even though I’ve been fantasizing about Belgian waffles with maybe some strawberries, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, my metabolism currently screams out for some sort of protein. And lots of really cold, fizzy, sparkling refreshing beverages. A beer would actually be good now, but if I have a beer I will definitely die if I try to drive back home afterwards.
I pathetically order a croque monsieur, frites, some fresh orange juice and soda water. The only word I can find that describes my dining experience is “hoover.” I wait for the protein and carbs to kick in. It was an act of desperation. So American of me.
The young girls at the next table are talking and blowing smoke in my face. Now, thanks to my experience shifting and driving at the same time, I have the coordination to hate the girls, and watch the floor show that is Bruges simultaneously. It’s like a dollhouse. Not like Amsterdam where there’s a gritty looking bum or two amongst the picture postcard scenery (or a fat naked pseudo-chick in a window). It’s just pure picture card scenery. Even the people are all pretty. And more stylishly yet tastefully dressed than what I’ve seen in Paris or New York. This would be a great place to be rich and slightly innocuous. Hmmm, maybe this is where I should search for my new love interest. Hell, I’ll marry anyone who can offer me a life of wealth and innocuousness.
I love Bruges but I don’t LOVE it. But I do wish I could spend the night. At over E300/night, it’s not even a consideration. It’s almost 8PM now, growing cloudy and I begin to worry how to find my car since I have no idea how I got here. Either I must find a husband immediately, or start thinking about heading south.
I pay the waitress the E16.00 for the grilled cheese sandwich, fries and juice and figure I’m entitled to enlist her help. I don’t know what language these people speak, but it sure as hell isn’t French. I describe the entrance I used to enter Bruges and she gives me a map and draws some circles. Luckily, words like “fairy castle” and “moat” bridge the lingual chasm.
I take one last stroll, noticing among other things that my second favorite cookies in the world (Jules Destrooper, cinnamon butter biscuits) that happen to be made in Bruges cost 15% more to buy in Bruges than they do in Auvers. What is wrong with these Belgians anyways? How can it cost more NOT to transport them? This place is really expensive. And E.30 every time you pee can really add up. Maybe that’s why it’s so pleasantly untouristed. Until now I just chalked it up to bad advertising. Or it could be a plan to keep the riff raff out. Which reminds me I have to leave.
At 9:30, I decide it’s time to head back in the direction the waitress and I believe the car is. I don’t want to drive when it’s dark, but am resigned to it. Miraculously, I find the car easily. Finding the right road back to Lille is another story. I’m halfway to Brussels before I realize I should have turned off at Belgian Gent. Obviously towns named Gent of any nationality town are a thorn in my side.
I head back towards Gent, cursing the Belgians yet again.
The rest of the ride back to Auvers is pretty uneventful. I drive towards a big storm which looks really cool with the cracks of lightening in the distance. But the actual stormed misses me by miles…no, kilometers. Trucks light my way. I piss off a woman at a rest stop for almost killing her children by mis-shifting (what a bitch!). I don’t get lost again and make it home by about one thirty in the morning. All in all, I think I drove about 6 hours longer than I had to, essentially doubling the road time. But I didn’t die. And I’m pretty sure the car is unscathed.
As a short side note, One difference in the three countries I visited could be seen clearly in my rear view mirror. The response to my driving mishaps and general slowness in France and Holland was generally tolerant amusement. In Belgium I could see a lot of inpatient finger tapping and “tsk”-ing going on. Occasionally a horn would burst forth. I reacted like any good American and flipped those drivers off. But I never once resort to headlight butting, at least not on purpose.
After a good night’s sleep, and some major dawdling, I return the car which has been a source of freedom, but also an incredible burden.
When the guy at Europcar finishes inspecting the car and tells me “c’est bien” I feel a burst of pride and accomplishment mingled with relief. It’s a heady combination. I leap up in the air, pump my fist a few times and shout “oui!, OUI.” The way I’m cheering, you’d think I just won the World Cup.
Tunnel notes: Turns out the tunnel I was trapped in is called the Westerschaldetunnel and at 6.6km (approx 4.1 miles). It only seemed like the longest tunnel in the world. The real longest tunnel in the world is the Laerdal Tunnel in Norway at 15.2 miles.
One last word of warning: Those passive aggressive Belgians have one final trick to get the rest of us totally lost in their country. Some of the highway signs indicate the old time dutch name for Lille (Rijsel), rather than “Lille”. Beware! Lille=Rijsel.
Filed under: Bruges, Brugge, culture, driving, driving in europe, europcar, fine dining, food, dining, fine dining, french cuisine, international diplomacy, maps, mileage, shopping, tourism, transportation, travel, travel humor Tagged: | belgian waffle, Bruges, Brugges, Canals, destroop cookies, fairy castle, Jules destrooper, lost in Europe, moat, Rijssel=Lille, Ternuezen, Westerschaldetunnel