Beautiful Bruges

Woke up this morning to find that the Arcadia was docked in Zeebrugge, Belgium.  Trevor and I worked out that it was nearly 10 years (December 2007) since we’d last visited this port, which is the gateway to the medieval city of Bruges.  On that day, it was bitterly cold with an icy wind blowing, but today it was crisp and bright and, thankfully, dry.

We ate our breakfasts sitting by the window in the Belvedere self-service restaurant.  Zeebrugge is one of the busiest ports in Europe, and we could see cargo ships and ferries, as well as a Navy frigate and some smaller boats busily going to and fro.  Zeebrugge actually means “Bruges by the sea” when roughly translated, and we’d decided today to make our own way into this picturesque city by train, rather than pay over the odds for a guided excursion.  We’d checked online beforehand and discovered that you could get a shuttle bus to the nearby town of Blankenberg, and from there a return train to Bruges only cost six Euros.

After a substantial breakfast, we wrapped up warmly (I wore my new cagoule), collected our money, cruise cards, camera etc from our cabin, then went down to Deck 2 to disembark the Arcadia.  We only had a short distance to walk before boarding one of the half-dozen or so waiting shuttle buses, and it only took about 10 minutes for them to drop us outside Blankenberg railway station.  A lot of people from the ship seemed to have the same idea as us; after all, there is a lot to see and do in Bruges and, to be honest, the exercise of walking around would certainly do no harm.

We had about 40 minutes to wait for the train, and the platform was fairly crowded with other passengers.  The train came in about 10 minutes before it was due to depart; it was a double-decker and we made our way upstairs for a better vantage point.  The train left bang on time, and we only had a short ride of about 15 minutes or so before arriving at Bruges.

Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium, in the northwest of the country. The area of the whole city amounts to more than 13,840 hectares, including 1,075 hectares off the coast, at Zeebrugge. The historic city centre is a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is famous for its production of chocolate, cheese, beer and, of course, Belgian lace.  Every other shop along its cobbled streets seemed to be selling these items.

We were a little early for the Christmas markets, but we could see the huts, stalls and festive lights and decorations, where they were getting ready to set them up.  There was not a lot of traffic (it’s probably restricted in the city centre) but we could hear the constant clip-clop of the many horse’s hooves as they pulled their carriages through the streets.  The horses all wore a sort of ‘sling’ underneath their tails, which consisted of a chute down into a receptacle at the bottom of the carriage; this caught all the horse muck and prevented it covering the streets.  I certainly didn’t envy the person who had to wash these containers out!  🙂

We were all wearing comfortable walking shoes as we strolled through the pretty narrow, cobbled streets on our way to the main square, window shopping as we did so.  The sun was out and it was quite warm on our backs, but when it went behind the clouds we noticed a brisk wind.  Around 11.00am we decided to find a beer-tasting place and we went into a lively bar/café along a “beer wall” – this was glass cases floor to ceiling with many different bottles of beer.  Outside there were high tables and stools, thoughtfully warmed up with patio heaters here and there.

We went inside and ordered a taster each of four strong beers which were between 8.5% and even 11% – almost wine strength!  Iris decided to have a hot chocolate instead.  With our 4 x 250ml glasses of beer was some small nibbles designed to compliment the flavour of the beers; there were some salami pieces, salted nuts and pretzels.  Iris got a couple of samples of gorgeous Belgian chocolate with her hot drink.  It was most enjoyable, but I’d imagine you would certainly know if you drank a pint of any of those beers!

Afterwards we wandered around the main square for a short while, looking in the shops and at the lovely architecture.  There were many leafy waterways on which small pleasure boats were gliding along with their sight-seeing passengers.  The savoury aromas from some nearby food-stalls caught our attention and Trevor and Iris decided to have some hot chips for lunch; I decided I’d skip them and have a good dinner later on instead.

Around one o’clock we decided we’d better make the 14:05 train back to the Arcadia; there were a lot of passengers (2,000) and we didn’t want to risk not getting on the shuttle bus or the train for the return journey, as we all had to be back on board by five o’clock at the latest.

We therefore went into another pub that had lots of character, and Trevor and I had a pint of beer each, before we used the loos and started to take a slow stroll back to the train station, after a very interesting morning.  As we’d predicted, we saw a lot of people at the station who had got the same train to Bruges as we had.

Back in Blankenberg we were pleased to see that there were half a dozen shuttle buses waiting, so it didn’t take too long.  Our pleasure was short-lived however; on arriving back at the Arcadia we were met with enormous queues as everyone had decided to return at once.  There were two gangways open, but we still had to queue for a full half-hour, in the cold wind, before we were able to board.  That is one of the problems with the bigger ships I suppose, although Arcadia is classed as ‘mid-sized’ by today’s standards.  It’s certainly another reason why I would never go on any of the mammoth ships that hold 4,000+ passengers.

Eventually we were all back on board after 4.00pm.  We returned to cabin A103 and I had a nice hot shower and washed and blow-dried my hair.  Then Trevor and I decided to go up to the Aquarius pool and bar where they were holding a Sailaway Party; we also had vouchers for a free glass of champagne each because we are members of the Peninsular Club, which is P&O’s loyalty programme.  Iris said she’d wait for us to come back.

Up on deck everyone was in a party mood; we were all given Union flags to wave and there were jugs of Pimms as well as the champagne on offer.  Dance music blared out of the speakers as everyone waved their flags and joined in with the singing and dancing.  At 5.30pm Arcadia slipped her moorings and we slowly started to make our way back out to sea, for the overnight crossing back to Southampton.

Once we’d finished our champagne (and because we were cold!) we went back to our cabin and joined Iris, before deciding to go to the Belvedere self-service restaurant tonight, rather than the Meridian, because they were serving an Asian buffet up there.  We enjoyed a sample of various Chinese and Thai cuisine, all washed down with some cold Tiger beer.

Then we returned to cabin A103 again where we reluctantly started doing some of our packing.  How the time had flown; tonight was our last night on the beautiful Arcadia; I could easily have spent a fortnight on board!

The show in the Palladium showlounge tonight was excellent; it was called “Reel to Reel” by the Headliners Theatre Company and consisted of lots of high-energy singing and dancing of excerpts from well-known musicals.  It was a great production accompanied by the superb live ship’s orchestra.  We’d seen it before on the Arcadia (and the Ventura) but it was obviously a first time for Iris and she enjoyed it very much.

Afterwards, Iris was tired after her full and busy day, so she excused herself around 9.30pm and headed back to our cabin.  Trevor and I thought we’d go to the Globe lounge where they were holding a quiz with a difference; it was called “Less is More” and was based on the TV gameshow Pointless.

There were not many people in the Globe; either everyone was away packing, or they’d decided to go elsewhere tonight.  One of the entertainment hosts came over and asked if Trevor and I wanted to participate in the gameshow and, because we always join in, we agreed.  She then went off to find three more victims… sorry… couples.  🙂

Once the game was ready to start (and there were a few more people filling up the Globe) we were called up to the stage area.  For those who don’t know, Pointless is a quiz with a difference, you have to accrue the fewest points, not the most.  There are questions which have several answers, and you have to come up with the least-common answer.  For example, if 100 people were asked to name a James Bond film, you have to guess which film fewest people would say (i.e. the lesser known ones).

The first question was about the books of Charles Dickens.  The first questions had to be answered by the ladies (no conferring!); one answered A Christmas Carol which scored 67 points, but one lady said Wuthering Heights (which wasn’t written by Dickens) and scored the top points of 100.  When it was my turn, I said Barnaby Rudge.  No-one else had suggested this, so I scored zero points – I’d found the pointless answer!  🙂

Thus the game continued, with the highest-scoring couples being eliminated after each round.  Trevor and I were booted out after round 2, which was based on Beatles songs (neither of which we know too much about).  But the losing couples still got a consolation prize – a nice little P&O branded USB flash drive.  🙂

We stayed to watch the rest of “Less is More”, then we made our way to the Rising Sun for tonight’s quiz, which was based on British TV comedies.  Not as easy as it sounded, however, as some of them went back to the 1950s on the old black and white televisions.  We only did the quiz in a half-hearted way and eventually gave up.  While we were there, we enjoyed a couple more drinks then returned to our cabin around 11.30pm, finished the packing, and put our cases outside the cabin door to be taken ashore in Southampton.

When we woke up the next morning, we were back where we started from.  Our cruise had ended, but our little holiday had not, as we were going to pop in to Yeovil to visit some friends we hadn’t seen in nearly 10 years, before continuing our journey back to Durham after an overnight stay.

All in all, it had been an enjoyable little trip, and I’m sure that P&O and the Arcadia will have gained some new fans afterwards.  🙂





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