“We want to go to Damme.” The man behind the desk looks at me as if I have three heads. Clearly he has no idea where I am talking about, even though it is only a few miles away from Brugge. When I say “Damme” again I point this time to its location on the map we had been given upon checking in yesterday.
“Oh, Damme. Yes, yes I can show you how to bike there.” Feeling slightly stupid that there had been such a language barrier over what to my English speaking mind was a one syllable word but in the Flemish language was two, I just nod my head yes.
Drawing a route in pen on our little pocket map, it doesn’t seem like a bad bike ride at all, although I am worried we’ll have problems getting to the canal path, seeing as how windy and circuitous Brugge’s medieval streets are.
Always wanting to appear confident when traveling, never wanting to play the part of the unsure tourist, I thank the desk clerk for his help and proceed back outside where my husband Darryl waited with our two rented bikes. “So you got directions on how to go? You seemed to be in there an awfully long time.”
“Well, even though the Belgian people speak better English than most Americans, if you pronounce a word wrong, as in “not with a Flemish accent,” there’s a possibility you may be SOL.” As I lift up my bike’s kickstand and start to slowly peddle out of our hotel’s 19th century carriage driveway, I yell back over my shoulder, “I think it’s this way” and flash him a big grin as I gain momentum.
As we start to bike in the direction of what I hope is the canal path, I am happy to be away from the throngs of people in the Markt area. When we first arrived in Brugge I was amazed by the natives’ ability to effortlessly weave in and out of crowds on their bikes. I was also astounded when they never managed to take out any unsuspecting tourist who had paused momentarily to admire one of the city’s stunning medieval buildings.
Although we start out biking on the street along with the cars and other bikers, I soon grow tired of having to constantly stop whenever a car is coming. Brugge being the cute, little medieval city that it is, there is simply no room for a moving car, a biker, and a parked car to all fit through at the same time. I feel slightly guilty over biking on the sidewalks but it is a lot easier to keep the momentum you achieve from peddling going when you don’t have to stop every couple of hundred feet. The sidewalks are also much smoother and allow for easier peddling than many of the cobblestone streets.
“Having fun?”I ask Darryl as he catches up to where I am paused. “Wipe that grin off of your face. This isn’t Mexico,” he replies, referring to the last time we had biked together. On a day trip to Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun, we had gone on a biking expedition. Although I hadn’t ridden a bike in over three years, my rustiness didn’t show. I even became annoyed when we had to go single file on a road and I of course got stuck behind a slightly pump Brazilian woman who could barely peddle. (The largeness of her derrière was perhaps an acute testament to how out of shape she was.) Soon though, I was able to go around her and get to the front of the pack. Darryl on the other hand, who actually owned a fancy bike in the states, had “some” difficulty during the ride and arrived at the ending point a tad after me. Ever since then it’s been a big joke between us that I must have been secretly training for the Tour de France for having ridden so well.
Only having stopped once to ask an elderly couple if we were indeed going in the right direction (we were), we arrive at the canal path. “So, do you think that’s the bridge we have to cross?” pointing to the modern looking bridge that connects medieval Brugge to modern Brugge. It is still small enough to resemble something out of a fairy tale. I am dismayed to realize that the other side doesn’t appear to have a pedestrian/biking path. As in, we would be biking on a road that is a step below a highway with cars traveling at quite high speeds.
“What do you want to do?” Darryl asks. “ I’ll do what you want to do, but I’m just saying that the cars are going extremely fast over there.” Darryl, never being the pusher for anything, says this. Wanting to call him a sissy for copping out, I realize that this is not the time to be contrary, as I am honestly just as apprehensive about biking in that traffic as he is.
“Let’s just bike up the canal path for a bit, past the windmills and see from there,” I tell him. Along with climbing up the famed Belfort and eating fries (sans mayonnaise), biking to Damme was the other thing I had really looked forward to doing in Brugge. Touted as being a miniature version of Brugge, my guidebook had described the ride to Dame as a pleasant excursion. When it looked like we wouldn’t be going there after all, I sighed, knowing how often the best laid and most anticipated travel plans often go awry.
As a child, I had always loved riding my bike. Besides being the best form of transportation for an independent child (as I very much was), it was also a simple thing I liked to do. After moving to the suburbs in high school and then eventually attaining my driver’s license like most young people my age, my biking days had ceased almost entirely. A ride here and there was nice, but it wasn’t until that day on the canal path in Belgium that I was reminded just how much of a lovely thing it was, the feeling of the wind hitting your face, the sun hitting your back as you peddle furiously ahead.
When we stop to sit at one of the benches, I ask Darryl to take a picture of me. “Just take it of me and the bike” I tell him as he starts to focus the camera. For once not caring how my hair looks, I simply smile, happy to be recording such a memorable experience on our honeymoon.
Never realizing that windmills are also a Belgian thing as I always equated them with the Netherlands, (but then again Brugge is only 40 miles from the Dutch border), I was ecstatic to discover this on our cab ride from the train station to the hotel. As we arrive at the first one, I put down the kickstand on my bike and start to walk towards it.
“They’re really neat looking, don’t you think?” Darryl, in his usual nonchalant manner that is reserved for anything not technologically (as in sleek and silver) related, says “yes” and nothing more. Voicing a silent boo to him, I quickly walk towards the windmill, enchanted by its look, thrilled to actually see a real windmill in person and not the faux ones often found at miniature golf courses.
Taking my customary multitude of pictures, we continue down the path where we arrive at another bridge which presents another opportunity of attempting the whole purpose of renting the bikes in the first place. Momentarily contemplating once more the idea of putting all fears aside and braving the quite terrifying traffic across the way, I quickly come to my senses and put a kibosh on the whole idea for good. “Let’s head down this way; the street looks particularly enchanting.”
Having ridden away from the mobs of tourists, we are now in what appears to be the more residential side of Brugge. Gone are the tourists snapping pictures with their cameras and phones, and in place is a quiet and serene setting that could be straight out of a Van Eyck painting. The houses facing the canal are stunningly gorgeous, perhaps originally the homes of merchants and their families, back when Brugge was one of the biggest cities in the world due to its designation of being the middleman in the sea trade between Northern and Southern Europe.
Although there is much more to see and do in Brugge, including two notable art museums filled with paintings of the great Flemish masters, we are happy to step away from the duties of the traditional tourist and just enjoy our time riding (as well as getting our money’s worth with the bikes). We proceed to take the long way back to the bike rental place, almost making a circuitous route as we go. Neither of us minds for when do we ever get to bike by such stunning scenery and an ambience unmatched anywhere else in the world?
We pass by many other bikers as we ride. Some we know are locals judging by their death defying riding ways, and others are tourists like us, anxious to experience a more intimate and authentic side of Brugge. When we arrive back at the bike rental shop, I am sad to part with my bike, but my entire body screams out in pain that it is not.
While at dinner later that night, at an outdoor cafe in the Markt, I take my camera from my purse and scroll through the photos I had taken earlier in the day of our biking expedition. As Darryl catches me studying them, he asks, “Did you have fun?”
To which I respond, ” That was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you're interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!