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Bruges makes for a fitting post-graduate family vacation

Medieval history rubs elbows with great beer in this Belgium jewel.

October 18, 2009|Alice Short

BRUGES, BELGIUM — On a cool Sunday morning, church bells summon the faithful in the medieval city of Bruges. It's not an unpleasant sound, as they conjure up visions of soaring architecture, choirs and Mass. Of course, those tolling bells also speak to another religious ritual: confession.

Perhaps some penance is in order. A slow state of wakefulness reminds me that a few Belgian beers were consumed in a bar the previous evening, and it seems that some members of our traveling party are taking a bit longer to embrace the day than others. Someone next to me mutters, "You are sleeping the morning away" and "That beer you were drinking was 11% alcohol." He announces that he's leaving on his own morning excursion. Then he departs, leaving me to contemplate my sins.

There's nothing like traveling with your loved ones.

We are in Belgium as part of a trip to acknowledge a great rite of passage: college graduation. We assume (and hope) that our newly minted graduate soon will be employed, which means little or no paid vacation. So we've arranged to spend a couple of weeks together before he's completely out of our grasp. My husband, Steve, shouts, 'We're the Griswolds!" The graduate and his younger sister -- Greg and Madeline -- roll their eyes at us. They are 21 and 17, and they are very wise.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 21, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
In Bruges: An article in the Sunday Travel section about a family traveling to Belgium for a graduation celebration incorrectly reported that the country is officially a bilingual nation whose official languages are French and Dutch; it is a trilingual country, and the third language is German. It also should be noted that Dutch is sometimes called Belgian Dutch and sometimes called Flemish, a form of Dutch spoken in West Flanders.

We arrive in Bruges, about 55 miles northwest of Brussels, on a Friday evening and check into our hotel in the city center. Hotel Acacia (a Best Western) is well located on Korte Zilverstraat, a five-minute walk from the Markt, or market square, that is a magnet for visitors. Our quarters are functional, with a small refrigerator and a couple of burners and a loft with two twin beds up a narrow flight of stairs.

The price includes breakfast in a sunny room with a big spread: coffee, tea and juice, plus a variety of cheeses, yogurts, cereals, eggs, bacon and ham. The folks behind the desk prove more than helpful (especially when we struggle with Internet issues), and a gray parrot in the lobby seems to speak English and French, which makes for a pleasant way to pass the time as we wait for one (or another) member of our party to finish reading, writing, showering, sleeping, dressing, shaving or swearing.

After we stow our bags, we seek -- and find -- sustenance around the corner at Restaurant Beethoven. The menu, like most menus in Bruges, lists its fare in English, French and Dutch. I proudly rely on my college French to order, reminding my children that Belgium is officially a bilingual country. The waitress responds in French, but seems confused when the three others order in English. She abandons French and speaks only English for the rest of the evening, which prompts smirks from my children.

I comfort myself with bites of tiny crustaceans intended as sort of an amuse bouche. Meanwhile, we order three scampi salads for the four of us; it turns out to be more than enough.

The restaurant is one of a series of outdoor cafes on Sint-Amandsstraat, which makes for a lively street scene on a mild evening. A mandolin player entertains from across the street. Visitors stroll by with babies, dogs and ice cream cones. We plunge into our first frites experience and conclude that mayonnaise as a dipping sauce is more than tolerable.

After dinner we make our way to the market square, which teems with visitors who are looking for a horse-and-buggy ride or are taking in the view of the colorful medieval houses that line the streets. We catch our first glimpse of the Belfort (or Belfry), the striking 13th century tower that played a major role in the 2008 film "In Bruges." We pledge to return during the day.

The next morning we take a self-guided walking tour of the city, which is traversed by winding streets and canals but is so compact that it's almost impossible to get lost. As I read from a guidebook, I try to explain to members of my family that Bruges is the capital of the Belgian province of West Flanders, and that, oh yeah, Dutch is the preferred language here. (The college graduate smiles and reminds me of my French-language experience of the previous night.)

The site that developed into Bruges grew over the centuries as various rulers and conquerors tried to fortify the area against pirates, Vikings and other invaders. It became a center for the cloth trade in the 12th and 13th centuries and continued to flourish throughout the Middle Ages. A series of beautiful homes, churches and civic buildings testify to the success of the cloth merchants and the city's good fortune to have avoided the bombings of both world wars.

We stop first at St. Salvator-Kathedraal, whose oldest surviving part dates from the 12th century and houses a set of Brussels tapestries that hang on its walls. The college graduate has proclaimed tapestries to be "large scarves," but I think I perceive modest signs of interest on his part.

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