By Lisa O’Brien
“In the film In Bruges, Colin Farrell calls my home town a shithole. It is not a shithole.”
A series of coincidences has lead the boy and I to be standing in Bruges’ historic Burg Square, listening to the monologue of our guide Steve at the start of a 2.5-hour bicycle tour of the so-pretty-it’s-either-a-Hollywood-set-or-I’ve-overdosed-on-chocolate-shells Belgian town. On a trip to the beach one year previously, we were so shattered after a day in the sun that it was just about all we could manage to pick up the remote control and select ‘In Bruge’s from the hotel’s in-room movie menu. When I returned to work, a colleague informed me that he in fact used to live in Bruges and his old flatmate now ran bicycle tours there. Alas, we had no European jaunts planned so this particular recommendation got filed away with a million other travel tips for the elusive ‘next time we’re in Europe’.
But mere weeks later, we received an excited 1am phone call from dear friends in the UK whose grasp of the 9-hour time difference had been momentarily lost because THEY WERE GETTING ENGAGED and WE ABSOLUTELY MUST COME TO THE WEDDING (there was a lot of animated shouting). This was a sign. Not only of our friends’ undying love for each other but also that we must go to Bruges, which is a handy 3-hour train ride from London. It was written.
Thus we found ourselves signing up to spend a brisk morning riding around the ‘Venice of the North’ with ten like-minded souls who had come from the UK, the US and elsewhere in Europe to relive their childhood on the back of a two-wheeler.
Filling out the online enquiry form on their website was easy. Name-dropping my colleague in the hope of a discount was too. But that’s because neither of these activities involved the various obstacles that we were to come across as we cycled around the World Heritage-listed city centre:
• Cars: those little matchbox-sized ones that Europeans are so fond of, which are great for the environment but nigh on invisible when all you’ve got to rely on is your peripheral vision because you’re busily navigating …
• Cobblestones: perfectly flat asphalt roads are few and far between in a city that dates back to the 12th century. And as if to take visitors back to its medieval past, there are also …
• Horses and carts: I know because I nearly got run over by one after a particularly wobbly turn out of Markt Square. You would think the clip-clop of the horseshoes would be enough warning of its approach, but this is not necessarily the case because you are also distracted by…
• Pedestrians: everywhere. On this Saturday in late August, Bruges was heaving with tourists, many of whom were more interested in their chocolate shells than watching out for the twenty-something Australian who was coming perilously close on the first bike she had ridden in 15 years.
Luckily, the tour ends with a well-deserved beer at one of the oldest cafes in Bruges, where you finally get a chance to chat with your fellow cyclists instead of just exchanging nervous smiles as you climb back onto your bikes after each stop of the tour.
Safe on the plastic outdoor setting of the beer garden, you can remark to each other about the majestic medieval buildings, the pretty canals and the charming chocolate shops of a town that is most definitely not a shithole.
Quasimundo Bike Tours run 2.5-hour bicycle tours of Bruges departing from Burg Square at 10am daily, as well as evening tours in July and August. As of February 2010, tours cost €24 (AU$36) per person. Click here http://www.quasimundo.com