Today would be a new, exciting adventure -- taking a train! Our final destination is Bruges, Belgium, a quaint little tourist town (another Rick Steves recommendation). But we can't get there directly from Paris; first we take the high-speed Thalys line to Brussels, then change to a commuter-type train for the last leg of the trip.
We took a taxi to Gare du Nord, one of six train stations in Paris. Yes, you can get there on the RER, but I insisted on the taxi, thank you very much. I'd had enough of wrestling a hundred pounds of luggage through the streets.
The train station was as large as an airport, without the pat-downs -- it was quite refreshing to travel without undergoing an x-ray and a cavity search. On the downside, the place was as cold as a refrigerator, because the waiting area was not enclosed but just an open extension of the multiple train platforms. We were a bit early so I got to experience the chilly morning air for quite a while. I passed the time by observing the multi-national cast of travelers around me, all as bored and cold as I was. Finally the arrival board flipped its lid to indicate that our train had arrived, so we and our extended family of bags rumbled out onto the platform. We'd purchased advance tickets so we had a car assignment, but my goodness, this train was a MONSTER! I could have used another taxi just to get to the right car!
Mike got to boost our bags one at a time up the train steps and stow them at the end of the car; then we found and settled into our first-class seats, much more comfortable than your typical airline. The 85-minute trip to Brussels was a breeze, including service of a couple of nice desserts along the way. It was not a terribly interesting ride; think about where most railroad tracks are located, and you'll understand. Even when the rails go through pretty country, there's often something ugly built alongside, blocking the view.
When we got to Brussels, we stumbled around another giant, unfamiliar station. At least this one was enclosed from the weather. We found the ticket office and bought our tickets for Bruges from a very abrupt agent who practically snatched my euros away. This, I would later learn, was my introduction to the famous Belgian rudeness. And I would also later learn, it was a critical mis-step - more about that later. Then it was out to the platform, bags in tow, to wait for the local, load the bags, and choose some empty seats. Phew! We're almost there.
Well, almost. As we were clickity-clacking along, we noticed several people carrying their bags down the aisle, heading toward the back of the train even though there were plenty of empty seats around us. Then the conductor checked OUR tickets. We'd bought second-class tickets but we're in the first-class car. Oh, great. Thanks, Mr. Personality Agent, for asking which ones I wanted. We joined the walk of shame back to the cattle car, where Mike re-stowed the bags and we took two remaining empty, separate seats for the one-hour ride. Don't you love being an ignorant tourist?
It was a Friday, and the arrival station in Bruges was mobbed with weekend tourists boarding buses and taxis for the ride to town. We rode with a rather entertaining cab driver for the short-but-jolting trip through the narrow, twisty, cobblestone streets. The address of our rented apartment was on a quiet street only two blocks from the town square. We rang the bell, and our host let us in to the office to take care of business. Then it was back outside, because our apartment was actually behind this fortress door!
We entered a foyer and saw our next adversary: a narrow spiral staircase to our second-floor -- excuse me, FIRST floor -- lodging. Oboy. Here Mikey, got a job for ya. Four suitcases, one at a time. The apartment was large and well-appointed, with a few peculiarities like the separate water closet directly opposite the front door. Probably added when that new-fangled indoor plumbing came around; Bruges is over a thousand years old and this particular building dates back a couple of centuries.
After I called dibs on the more comfortable bed of the two available, we left the suitcases behind for a look around town. I saw this interesting van on the street; a doctor who still makes house calls?
Just a block from our apartment we first encountered the town canal, a picture-perfect waterway which winds through town and affords the tourists short but lovely boat rides.
Bruges has an enormous central town square, complete with medieval architecture, monuments, a tulip garden, hordes of tourists, and horse-drawn carriages to recreate the clip-clop of ages past. While snapping away, we spotted a hot-air balloon in the distance over the gothic spires!
After visiting the square, we nosed in a couple of shops, perused some restaurant menus, and returned to the apartment for a brief rest before dinner.
We found a small market just off the square and stocked up on a few groceries for the next few days, then it was back to the apartment with a better orientation of town.
Mike took a quick shower, quick because he was making a mess; the too-short glass partition on the tub wasn't keeping the water confined. Mike was pretty steamed -- pun intended -- when I stepped into the tub and nonchalantly pulled out the extension. Mr. Mechanical had to immortalize the moment for revenge.
We found a nearby restaurant with a menu that probably wouldn't kill me, where we were treated to the next dose of Bruges brusque. Our crime this time? We didn't have a reservation. Rolling his eyes and grumbling, the waiter somehow managed to find us a table. Fortunately the food was more hospitable than the employees. While we were eating, Mike took my camera and immortalized some local color at the nearby bar.